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Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family has long been a media magnet, for obvious reasons: Any organization willing to take on an enemy as wily as SpongeBob Squarepants is bound to receive attention. But lately, another Christian institution in the area -- New Life Church -- has joined Focus in the national spotlight. The sizable amount of coverage New Life has garnered to date will be supplemented by plenty more in the coming months, and thanks to a Springs-based blogger known as Non-Prophet, outside observers can learn how insiders have been preparing for the onslaught.
Founding pastor Ted Haggard, who's also the National Association of Evangelicals' current president, has become a semi-regular on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, and he's the focus of a cover story in the May 2005 Harper's that declares 12,000-member-strong New Life to be "America's most powerful megachurch." In addition, both ABC, in the person of Barbara Walters, and NBC, represented by anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw, are preparing major pieces apt to feature New Life.
No wonder that on May 10, Haggard, then in Israel for meetings with Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, sent his flock a heads-up e-mail about the impending assault. In the note, he welcomed the interest of Babs and Brokaw before offering a few presentational tips:
"1. If a camera is on you during a worship service, worship; don't dance, jump, etc. Secular people watching TV are touched with authentic worship, but jumping and dancing in church looks too bizarre for most to relate to.
"2. If reporters want to interview you, talk with them, but use words that make sense to them. Speak their language. Don't talk about the devil, demons, voices speaking to you, God giving you supernatural revelations, etc....
"3. Be friendly and open. For example, Barbara Walters is working on a story about heaven and will interview me and get some supporting shots from the church. She might not use any of it, but she wants to put together an interesting story. Since we believe in heaven, we are, in fact, a good source. So, if she talks with you, don't be spooky or weird. Don't switch into a glassy-eyed heavenly mode, just answer, 'Heaven is real....'"
Non-Prophet, an electrical engineer who, like many in the blogosphere, prefers anonymity, felt the subtext of Haggard's advice was telling. "I don't completely understand why they wouldn't want people to see a normal service," he says. "It seems to me that they would want the genuine article out there." So he posted the e-mail on his two-year-old blogspot, Nprophet.com, under the heading "Ted Haggard: Don't Be Weird," noting in his introduction that "this is a church that claims to never hide anything from the general public, so this attempt at faking what actually goes on is particularly relevant."
A great many web surfers agreed. On a typical day, Non-Prophet estimates that his blog attracts thirty readers -- but this wasn't a typical day. "Don't Be Weird" was linked on Wonkette.com, an ultra-trendy site that's regularly among the top twenty traffic-generating blogs on the Internet, and as a result, over 6,000 individuals dropped by the first day, with many more following in their wake.
This experience wasn't unique for Non-Prophet. In June 2004, he triggered a major visitation influx and made national news after revealing that a Focus on the Family e-mail had urged followers to express their displeasure with lefty filmmaker Michael Moore by contacting him at his New York condominium -- and the address was included. But because he's not a strictly ideological blogger (subsequent posts have dealt with miller moths and pastrami), he was overwhelmed by reactions from secularists and Christians alike. Even New Life associate pastor Rob Brendle weighed in with what some might consider to be a surprising response. "He graciously said, 'Congratulations,' and gave me a pat on the back," Non-Prophet reveals. "He didn't see it as a big problem."
Indeed, Brendle, 31, who hosts a Saturday-evening service that's specifically tailored for young believers, embraces 21st-century media rather than regarding it as a threat. His website, Saturdaynight.org, is loaded with music samples and sermons, not to mention a link to his "Roblog," where he doesn't shy away from potentially controversial topics such as Jesus's sexuality; Brendle believes Christ was a non-practicing heterosexual. Even more unexpected is his status as a regular columnist for The Toilet Paper, a Colorado Springs alternative newspaper filled with satire and the sort of content that more closed-minded religious leaders might deem blasphemous. Brendle describes his column, "Soul Search," in which he dialogues on subjects with people whose views oppose his, as "a discussion that might serve to lower guards and mitigate some of the demonizing that happens from one side of the sociopolitical chasm to the other. And we're finding that when we're done, invariably, inevitably, each side doesn't think the other side is as crazy as they might have thought before."
Unlike some of his brethren, Brendle doubts that most media members "have an ax to grind," and he salutes Walters and NBC crews that have been videotaping services on and off for several months. He's less complimentary about the Harper's article, which he feels had an unfortunate tone, as well as numerous errors. According to Brendle, New Lifers twice disputed a passage asserting that Haggard had sent teams of worshippers "to pray in front of the homes of supposed witches" only to see the contention turn up in print anyway. A Harper's rep points out that this anecdote is from 1995's Primary Purpose, which Haggard wrote -- but although the reference strongly implies approval, it doesn't expressly state that the pastor ordered the action.