A California pastor made headlines this month when he announced that he will live like an atheist for a year to see what it’s like on the other side of belief. But Ryan Bell is actually just the latest “stunt pastor” to use unorthodox means to draw attention to his message.
In recent years, other church leaders have challenged congregants to have sex (with their spouse) for 30 days straight or have dressed like homeless people or lived in a tiny box or on a spacious roof in order to gin up attention, attendance, or funds.
This kind of reality-show piety has a history, of sorts, especially in Christianity: A fifth-century ascetic, Simeon Stylites, achieved great fame by living — subsisting, really – atop a pillar for some 37 years.
But the rise of the entertainment industry, combined with a focus on marketing techniques to preach the faith or build up a church, have sparked a penchant for ministry gimmicks that go well beyond the old dunk tank:
1. ‘Homeless’ bishops
Last Thanksgiving, David Musselman, a Mormon bishop in Utah, disguised himself as a homeless person and hung out around his church before the service. Several people asked him to leave, some gave him money, and most were indifferent. “Many actually went out of their way to purposefully ignore me, and they wouldn’t even make eye contact,” he said. Then he walked up to the pulpit, asked to deliver a message and revealed his true identity. Message received. Former Rhode Island Episcopal Bishop Geralyn Wolf did much the same thing a decade earlier, and for an entire month.
2. A month of sex — no ifs, ands, or buts
In 2008, Paul Wirth of Relevant Church in Ybor City, Fla., challenged couples in the congregation (married, of course) to have sex for 30 days in a row — just as he and his wife did. Wirth cited a study showing that 20 million married Americans had sex just 10 times a year — and he said churches should do something about that. Hence the “30-Day Sex Challenge.” The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. “It’s been great,” congregant Doug Webber told the Tampa Bay Times as he and his wife finished up their month of sex — despite being parents of a newborn and a toddler. “We’re definitely sleeping better, and it’s really brought us together as a couple. I’m surprised it worked as good as it did.” The church periodically renews the challenge.
3. A week of ‘congregational copulation’
Later in 2008, the Rev. Ed Young of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, urged couples in his 20,000-member megachurch to follow him and his wife in a “Seven Days of Sex” plan, a week of “congregational copulation,” as he called it. In a follow-up gimmick in 2012, Young and his wife, Lisa, set up a bed on the church roof and pledged to spend 24 hours there together in front of God and everybody. But he suffered a sunlight injury to his eyes and had to cut this sexperiment short.
4. Losing weight for the Lord
The Bible has been cited as a way to get rich as well as a way to heaven, but it’s increasingly being mined by a health-conscious nation as a way to lose weight. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Southern California is the latest to promote Scripture as a fitness fad: In 2011, he said he needed to lose 90 pounds, and he challenged his congregation to help him do it on something he called “The Daniel Plan,” a 40-day regimen based on the Book of Daniel. Some 12,000 people signed up and in the course of the year shed a collective 250,000 pounds. Last December, Warren published “The Daniel Plan” as a book.
5. Living on food stamps, making a point
On the other end of the health craze scale is the Food Stamp Challenge, in which participants can buy food using only the amount of money ($4.39 a day in 2012) that is allotted under the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. “Near the end of the week, because of the diet, I became irritable, my sleeping patterns became messed up, so the whole notion of what happens and the impact that the diet has on the individual, all were made very real to me,” the Rev. Sonnye Dixon, a Methodist pastor from Nashville, told United Methodist News Service after living on $21 worth of food for a week in 2007.
6. Send money — or else
One of the most famous, and controversial, church fundraising schemes was launched by the late, great prosperity preacher, Oral Roberts, who in January 1987 told his national television audience that he needed to collect $8 million by March to fund a hospital he was building — or else. “I’m asking you to help extend my life,” he said. “We’re at the point where God could call Oral Roberts home in March.” He eventually raised $9.1 million, but the medical center closed in 1989. Roberts died in 2009.
In 2009, pastor Ben Dailey promised to spend three days living in a 6-foot plexiglass cube atop his church in Irving, Texas, if more than 4,000 people came to services on Easter and on the following Sunday, when attendance usually dips sharply. The congregation met his challenge — by just six people — and Dailey went into the box. Not that he is a modern-day Simeon Stylites. Dailey had electricity, an air conditioner, books, a laptop, a television, an iPhone, a chair, and plenty of food.
8. Rooftop Reverends
The Rev. Corey Brooks pitched a tent on the roof of an abandoned Chicago hotel in late 2011 and vowed to stay there until he raised enough money — $450,000 — to buy and tear down the building, which the pastor said is a haven for drugs, prostitution, and violence. In February of 2012, actor Tyler Perry pledged $98,000 to put Brooks over the top, and he came down after 94 days. In London in 2006, a bold vicar camped out on the roof of his church to raise money for its repair — but came down after 10 days, well short of his fundraising goal. “I’m wet and I’m cold,” the Rev. Malcolm Hunter told The Telegraph.
9. If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it
Bishop Rudolph McKissick Jr. knew that lots of couples in his Jacksonville, Fla., congregation were living together without being married, just like couples who don’t go to church. But at a Sunday service last October he got fed up with it and challenged the cohabitants in the audience to make a stand, to come up to the altar and to pledge to tie the knot the next month. Nine couples got up, and nine couples got married last November.
10. Walking New York with a cross
Robert Wood walks the highways (literally) and byways of the New York region dressed in robes and wearing a beard, and carrying a backpack and a huge wooden cross. His goal is to get people to convert to Christianity. “It’s been 22 years,” he said in a 2012 interview. “I’m not stopping unless the Rapture comes and I die in the road.”
11. Living the Bible, writing the book
Why should pastors have all the fun? Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs typed up 72 pages of every arcane rule he could find in the Bible and spent a year trying to follow them all. No to shaving his beard, but yes to stoning an adulterer — though he used pebbles so they wouldn’t hurt much. The result: a 2007 book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Then there was Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans’ effort to commit to A Year of Biblical Womanhood — the title of her 2012 book, which tracked the effort of this “liberated” woman to take all of the biblical injunctions regarding women literally.
12. Don’t try this at home
Then there are the professional stunt ministries, like Real Encounter or the Kingdom Stunters, an “action sports outreach ministry” — a motorcycle stunt team “with a desire to reach the lost for Jesus Christ.” Founded in 2009, the team travels to church fairs around the country. One of the first and flashiest, however, is Georgia-based pastor and motorcyclist Aaron Ramsey, who was inspired by Evel Knievel. Ramsey runs the “Jumping for the King” ministry and jumps buses in church parking lots, sometimes through a wall of fire.
David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He is a national reporter for RNS and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI. Via RNS.