With Turning Point Faith, Pastors Use Politics as a Church-Growth Strategy - Word&Way

With Turning Point Faith, Pastors Use Politics as a Church-Growth Strategy

PHOENIX, Ariz. (RNS) — Trump rallies, replete as they are with prayer and passionate crowds, are said to have a tendency to turn into something resembling an evangelical Christian church service.

But at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, it’s the other way around.

Charlie Kirk, right, takes the stage during a Turning Point USA Faith “Freedom Night in America” event at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, in May 2023. Video screen grab

One evening in May, hundreds gathered at the cavernous megachurch to attend “Freedom Night in America,” co-organized by Dream City’s leaders and the conservative activist group Turning Point USA. Around those buzzing about the entryway were draped innumerable variations on the U.S. flag, from traditional red, white and blue to monochrome black-and-white versions of Old Glory blazoned with the word “freedom.” Hats read simply “45” — for Donald Trump, the 45th U.S. president — and shirts carried the slogan, “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.”

Inside, the service was heavy on praise and worship music, much of it led by a singer in an “Uncanceled” shirt. At the altar call, Brad Baker, one of Dream City’s pastors, told the crowd he dreamed of a U.S. “built on the principles of God.”

“We’re believing that God is going to turn Arizona into a Christian state, and we will be known as a Christian state around the world — that’s our goal,” Baker said to yelps and applause.

The main event, however, was the pulpit talk given by Charlie Kirk, the fresh-faced 29-year-old founder of Turning Point USA. He began with an impassioned defense of Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who had been fired days before, praising a video Carlson posted to Twitter after his show was canceled, in which he held forth the importance of truth in media.

“That is Christianity — that is the promise of Christ,” Kirk said.

Events like Dream City’s “Freedom Night” are becoming more regular at evangelical megachurches. A few weeks earlier, Kirk appeared at Awaken Church in San Marcos, California, where he listed the founding of the U.S. alongside Christ’s resurrection in a litany of the “most important events in history.” And a few weeks before that, he spoke at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, where he chastised Christians who have “gone along” with the “environmental agenda” because of “bad theology.”

His speeches satisfy the longstanding evangelical co-mingling of right-wing politics and Christian ministry, but TPUSA is also pitching a turn toward the culture war and what critics say is Christian nationalism as a way to fill the pews — and in places like Phoenix, it looks like it’s working.

Founded in 2012 and initially targeting young, college-age conservatives, TPUSA expanded its appeal to like-minded religious voters in 2019, when Kirk teamed up with Jerry Falwell Jr., then-president of Liberty University, to create the Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty. The center never really took off, and soon after Falwell resigned in August 2020 in the wake of multiple scandals, Kirk ended his affiliation.

The same day, he announced the launch of TPUSA Faith. Kirk has said the effort was an outgrowth of the pandemic: Other than a few churches that refused to close, “there really weren’t a lot of places for me to go and speak.”

His first stop was Godspeak Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks in California, headed by Pastor Rob McCoy, a former city council member and local mayor who had been a rising star in conservative evangelical circles during the early days of COVID-19. Under his leadership, Godspeak openly flouted California’s pandemic restrictions, holding in-person, maskless services that prompted a series of legal battles with county and state authorities.

According to McCoy, Kirk helped land the pastor on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to talk about his activism. As media attention grew, Godspeak’s attendance ballooned: far from dissuading churchgoers, COVID-related controversy only raised the church’s profile — and, according to multiple accounts, packed its pews.

“We experienced 400% growth,” McCoy told Religion News Service in a recent interview.

McCoy said he encouraged other pastors to host Kirk, who lionized congregations that refused to close as garrisons against “tyranny,” a talking point that still shows up in Kirk’s stump speeches. Eventually, McCoy became co-chair of TPUSA Faith; “We play offense with a sense of urgency to win America’s culture war,” reads a tagline on a pamphlet distributed at TPUSA events.

Matthew Boedy, a professor at the University of North Georgia who has researched TPUSA and been critical of its programs, said the organization’s pivot during the pandemic changed its orientation from “libertarian, economic, free speech” advocacy into a “Christian nationalist group,” a shift Boedy said played to Kirk’s strengths.

Currently, only a handful of churches openly affiliate with TPUSA on their websites, with a few more claiming “chapters” of Turning Point Faith or hosting a TPUSA-branded event. A related educational effort, Turning Point Academy, seeks to “offer both a classic, pro-American curriculum as well as a Christian educational programming option,” but its website cites fewer than 20 affiliated schools, including Dream City Christian, attached to Dream City Church. Roughly a third are homeschool support programs.

Even so, TPUSA Faith’s biggest success seems to be its conferences. “I said, ‘Charlie, I don’t think anybody can do a better pastors conference than you,’” McCoy recalled telling Kirk early in their partnership. They promptly began planning the TPUSA Faith Pastor’s Summit, which convened last summer in San Diego, California.

Pastors who associate with TPUSA often describe their embrace of Kirk’s style of activism as a spiritual cause, a perilous but necessary protest against creeping liberalism. But at the San Diego summit, passionate opposition to “wokeism” — a term pastors use to describe an array of liberal campaigns for racial justice and LGBTQ rights — was reframed as a church-growth strategy.

During a panel with McCoy, Kirk recounted the story of Godspeak’s success and insisted others could enjoy similar results.

“Some pastors will say, ‘If I speak out on this, I will lose attendance, I will lose tithes and offerings,’” Kirk said, according to video of the event. After initially shrugging off this prospect with a “So what?” Kirk doubled back, saying, “But that’s actually not true. Because I look around the room right now, (and) the pastors that I know that have taken the boldest stands over the last two years have actually seen their attendance grow. They need bigger buildings. Their tithes and offerings have increased.”

In another panel discussion, Tim Thompson, a California pastor who made headlines after he was detained while protesting against pandemic restrictions in May 2020, testified that since the protests and clashes with school boards fighting what he calls “the indoctrination of our children,” he has seen “500%” growth at his church. “God’s definitely blessed it, for sure,” Thompson said.

Other TPUSA partners have merged anti-liberal rhetoric with political defiance. Freedom Life Church in Christiana, Pennsylvania, has hosted multiple TPUSA-branded events, including a “Worldview Weekend” in April. During the gathering, senior pastor Sam Masteller asked local school board candidates to join him on stage, then urged the audience to support them — a move he suggested defied the IRS’ rule prohibiting nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing candidates.

“You say, ‘Sam, you can’t do this!’ I can,” Masteller said, after railing against transgender rights. “1-800-IRS — go ahead, call. Put it all in. I don’t care. We’re celebrating godly people. We’re promoting godly people.”

A TPUSA Faith initiative called the “Kingdom to the Capitol” tour is led by Sean Feucht, a Christian musician who earned a following during the pandemic by hosting maskless praise music concerts. The new tour stages concerts at state capitols, where Feucht makes the case for a Christian America.

“We want believers in this building writing the laws of this land,” he said at a concert in Austin, outside the Texas State Capitol.

McCoy has cozied up to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who has begun describing herself as a Christian nationalist. In an interview with the congresswoman last August, McCoy grew visibly emotional as he lauded Greene, asking God to make her president and declaring that “God is a nationalist.”

Their support for forms of Christian nationalism, even if it is a way to put people in the seats, can sometimes intertwine with extremism. Among those who flocked to McCoy’s Godspeak during the pandemic was John Strand, a former underwear model who helped organize anti-lockdown “freedom rally” protests in California and served as communications director for America’s Frontline Doctors, an organization long accused of purveying COVID-19 misinformation.

In a since-deleted video recorded in December 2020 for Godspeak’s YouTube channel, Strand and Simone Gold, head of AFLDS, appeared alongside the church’s co-senior pastor for a “fireside chat.” As Strand insisted in the video that Joe Biden wasn’t rightfully elected as president, the pastor encouraged viewers to see worship at Godspeak as a “freedom rally.”

A few weeks later, Strand and Gold were captured on video entering the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, rushing past rioters who had thrown officers to the ground moments before. Both were arrested and charged later that month. McCoy threw his support behind both, even going so far as to host an interview with Strand that ended up being used by prosecutors during his trial.

Ahead of Strand’s sentencing hearing in June of this year, McCoy stood before his church and condemned the trial as a “miscarriage of justice.” The insurrection, he said, was actually a “fed-surrection” — implying, without evidence, that federal agents were to blame for the attack on the U.S. Capitol instead of hundreds of Trump supporters.

A few weeks later, McCoy was in the courtroom in Washington as Strand was sentenced to 32 months in prison.

“It was devastating,” McCoy said.

At a TPUSA Faith pastors conference in Nashville last month, Kirk told the audience of about 1,100, most of them pastors, “I would love to be so successful we could work ourselves into retirement.” He said he dreamed of a future where “every church wakes up bold and courageous, and wokeism gets kicked out.”

Kirk followed up by saying that TPUSA could connect them with speakers for their church gatherings such as the Rev. John Amanchukwu, a young adult pastor at Upper Room Church of God in Christ in North Carolina and outspoken opponent of abortion who has emerged as a conservative Black evangelical voice. Amanchukwu told RNS that as he and his senior pastor grew more visible since 2020, attendance at their church “exploded,” taking in people who “transitioned from other ministries that went woke.”

At Dream City, which has hosted campaign events for Trump and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, many people leaving Freedom Night told RNS they weren’t members. But all said they had donated during the offering, and one local resident said the gatherings were enough to get her to commit to the congregation.

“I didn’t identify as a Christian until this year, and it’s because of events like this,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “I came for the political and the entertainment, and I ended up being able to recognize I’m a Christian.”

The effect of Dream City’s now monthly TPUSA events is felt at nearby churches such as Desert Springs Bible Church, where the Rev. Caleb Campbell serves as pastor. At the beginning of the pandemic, Campbell said, his church drew around 700 people on a Sunday. But when Desert Springs suspended in-person worship during lockdown and Campbell began preaching about racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, people began leaving — with many citing political reasons for their exit.

Some of his congregants, Campbell said, ended up at Dream City. By the time the church opened up again, attendance dipped to as low as 100.

“2020 hits and then it’s a deluge — it’s hundreds of people leaving and making sure that I knew about it,” he said. “The ones that haunt me are the ones that I just never heard from again.”

Campbell said he had attended the first TPUSA pastors summit but came to believe that what TPUSA pastors see as church growth may actually be realignment. Indeed, though McCoy and Amanchukwu insisted they’ve seen net expansion at their churches, they also acknowledge many have left along the way.

Campbell has begun to prioritize these spiritual refugees for his ministry, founding a group called Disarming Leviathan and reimagining himself as a “missionary to Christian nationalists.” As a result, Desert Springs recently pushed past 300 on a Sunday. “A lot of the folks who are at Desert Springs now, for one reason or another, felt like they were no longer welcome inside the evangelical church in Phoenix,” Campbell said, noting some of his newcomers were Dream City expats.

But down the road, TPUSA is quickly cementing its influence with a growing constituency. As cars began to clear out from Dream City’s parking lot after the Freedom Night event, a pair of women walked into the night, chatting excitedly about what they had seen. One leaned in close to the other, her voice shaking as she took on a somber tone.

“Let’s pray for Tucker,” she said.