This is the arena-rock wannabe stage presentation of the Ignite Church, the conservative Evangelical church in Williston that’s a key player in efforts to build a right-wing Christian movement in Vermont. No crosses, no evidence of religion at all, just a big attention-grabbing display with slick lighting, a band, and a dudebro minister preaching the Word.
Ignite is the hub of conservative Evangelicalism in Chittenden County. It hosted far-right poster boy Charlie Kirk’s 2021 appearance in Burlington. It sponsored a talk by Eric Metaxas, a prominent Evangelical who believes the 2020 election was stolen and getting the Covid-19 vaccine is a bad idea. Last January, Ignite hosted an event called “Faith, Hope, Health COVID Summit,” which featured a number of Covid denialists. This coming Sunday, they’ll welcome Christian “influencer” Lily Kate, an associate of Kirk’s in his Turning Point USA organization. She’ll be talking about “reclaiming Biblical masculinity and femininity.” In a brief video promo on the big screen, she talked of how “Christian circles have been bought out by radical feminism.”
Now, I have no idea who Lily Kate is, but she’s a celebrity in the shadow world of Evangelical culture. I say “shadow world” because it’s pretty much invisible outside the conservative Christian orbit.
But we need to be aware of this world because it wields a tremendous amount of weight in conservative circles. And it’s not content with saving souls — tit wants to remake America in its image.
Not all Evangelicals are in this camp. There are many thoughtful Evangelicals who think the Christian flirtation with fringe politics is not just a bad idea, it’s actively counter to the essence of the faith. But the fringies have the numbers and they’re causing the trouble.
To get an idea of what Ignite is peddling, I watched its almost two-hour service from Sunday, November 13, archived on YouTube. What I saw was an attempt to bring all the bells and whistles of the 21st Century megachurch movement to the Burlington suburbs. The service consisted almost entirely of contemporary, middle-of-the-road worship music and the constant presence of senior pastor Todd Callahan. The cameras never showed more than a sliver of the seating area, so it was hard to gauge how big the room is and how many people were in attendance.
November 13, you may remember, was the first Sunday after Election Day, which was a huge disappointment for the Christian right generally and in Vermont especially. They did, after all, get mollywhopped on the reproductive rights amendment, and most of their candidates were losers. (Ignite staffer Rohan St. Marthe finished in last place in his bid for state Senate.)
Callahan casts himself in the mold of megachurch leaders like the disgraced Mark Driscoll. He was casually dressed in a blue jean hoodie and black T-shirt. His hair was cut short and he had the requisite manly close-cropped beard. He employed the full range of Evangelical preaching, from soft-spoken and personal to over-the-top bombastic. As he spoke, he often flipped through pages of notes in a notebook with an American flag on the cover.
Before things got underway, the band and a choir performed worship songs for almost an hour. After that, it was pretty much all Callahan. He gave about ten minutes’ worth of opening remarks, he led a prayer which was basically a solicitation for donations, followed by his sermon, which lasted about 40 minutes. The proceedings ended with a protracted altar call of sorts — but instead of asking people to accept Christ as their savior, he asked people to come forward, confess their addictions and forswear their vices on the spot. More on that later.
Callahan spoke almost continuously for the entire service. It was, in every sense, a performance, more like a stage play than an occasion for communal worship. But that’s the successful formula of the megachurch movement.
Callahan didn’t address Proposal 5 in his opening remarks, but he said plenty about the evils of abortion and, for that matter, contraception. “We have to fight the ungodliness that seeks to kill babies in the womb,” he said, and called abortion “an option of convenience.” He decried the distribution of contraceptives at colleges and universities “so women can kill their babies and go out and have sex wherever, whenever, however they want to.”
He then indulged in a bit of election denialism, talking about “some funky stuff going on” in Arizona, where ballot counting took several days. “Give me a break,” he said, “give me a break. Call a spade a spade.”
Next, a call for those present to “stand up for truth and righteousness,” but to do so with gentleness even though the ungodly have an “evil, nasty, vile spirit.” Gentle, he hastened to add, did not mean quiet. “We cannot allow their voice to be louder because they scream, they yell, they bicker, they holler,” he said of the teeming hordes of the ungodly.
But scream and holler gently, my friends.
Early on in the sermon, Callahan focused on his key demo. “I’ve been reading about the amount of Gen Z’ers going through therapy,” he said. “They’ve been raised in all of the gender confusion that has been raised, and fatherless families and motherless families… you’ve got a generation that has not experienced the powerful move of God.”
Radical feminsm was on Callahan’s mind as well as Lily Kate’s. “Radical feminism had killed masculinity,” he said. “That movement wasn’t to empower women, it was to destroy men.” He continued:
We have got to shape this next generation in the ways that God intends that a man and a woman to develop and eventually get married so that that home can be led by the ways and wisdom of Heaven.
Callahan’s sermon concluded with an altar call, but it was a variation on that old theme. He wasn’t asking people to declare Christ as lord and savior. Instead, he called on people to confess their addictions and forswear them on the spot. Addictions included drugs, painkillers, alcohol, cigarettes, porn, sex, but curiously, not marijuana. Maybe that was just assumed under “drugs.”
The altar call got off to a slow start, with barely a trickle of people coming forward in spite of Callahan’s vociferous encouragement and the skillful backing of the band.
Things took a turn about halfway through. After a handful came forward to confess their own faillings, people started confessing the sins of others This isn’t what an altar call is supposed to be, but Callahan accepted it as “standing in proxy” for a wayward relative. He prayed over these people, asking God to empower them as witnesses to their families.
To put it another way, encouraging them to be totally annoying to loved ones. Just in time for Thanksgiving dinner!
One woman, Callahan said, “stands in proxy for this individual who’s walking in a sinful, in the sinful nature of homosexuality. Break that off of their life. Of every homosexual, of every transgender, of every person who’s confused in their mind and in their body.”
The best moment was when a woman (almost all the confessors were women) expressed concern about her grandchildren being indoctrinated in the Burlington schools. Callahan grabbed the occasion to call for big trouble.
We come against every spirit of demonic influence in the Burlington School District and we speak over this region, over that city right now, that those walls will come down. …We rebuke the ungodly influence of the teachers who are trying to confuse them intentionally, push a demonic agenda on these children and on this culture.
That ought to liven up those parent-teacher conferences.
Callahan not only wanted parents to be troublemakers, he also prayed that God would inspire the children to be “firestarters who will not be afraid to light their classroom on fire with the power of God.” So, disobey their teachers? I guess so, if the teachers are doing the devil’s work.
This curious turn in the altar call was of a piece with the entire service, in that it focused on sins outside the church and not at all on the shortcomings of believers. It’s a purely political reversal of what living in Christ is supposed to be about — not attacking others, but working on your own relationship with God. I seem to recall Jesus saying something about not attending to the speck in your brother’s eye. And Paul’s epistles are full of admonitions to the early church to focus on their own spiritual lives.
But that stuff is uncomfortable for people to hear. Far better, strategically, to turn their attention to the fallen world outside and turn believers into God’s Perfection Police. As if the almighty God of their faith needed their help.
Enough of my own sermonizing. Point is, Ignite and its like-minded churches operate with a bunker mentality, seeing the world as full of enemies and turning believers into weapons to be deployed against their families, friends, schools, and elected officials.
Fortunately for us, these churches are nowhere near a critical mass in Vermont. They can’t drive policy. They can’t win elections. But they can sure cause trouble, and they’re doing everything they can to grow their numbers. We need to pay attention if we want to understand why conservative politics are the way they are.