Churches emerge and die all the time, but rarely do you see a church expand so quickly… only to implode even faster. This collapse involves an affair, a secret video, abuse, drugs, money, allegations of bad Christianity, and so much more, most involving Pastor Tavner Smith.
All of this occurred at Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. According to Outreach Magazine (a publication with a Christian readership), Venue was one of the fastest growing churches (by percentage) in the country in 2015, 2016, and 2018.
A lot of that success had to do with its founder and lead pastor, Tavner Smith, who quickly became one of those stereotypical hipster preachers with fashionable clothes, expensive sneakers, and an overabundance of energy no matter the situation.
Smith’s posse also came to include “a special team of armed bodyguards,” in addition to the church’s own security personnel.
Was it all necessary? I find that hard to believe. But all of it fed into the belief that Smith had it all figured out and was a Christian role model for the people in the church.
As the church grew more popular, however, Tavner Smith began distancing himself from his own colleagues. Listen to what former employee Colt Helton told reporter Wyatt Massey of the Chattanooga Times Free Press:
“As the church kept getting bigger and bigger, there got to be more and more warning signs with the fact that the culture changed real quick,” Helton told the Times Free Press. “The lead pastor, you could not talk to him anymore. If he walked in the room, you had to stand up. You couldn’t talk to him unless he talked to you in that room. And then you would be seated when he told you to be seated.”
Even the pope doesn’t take himself that seriously. As another former employee described it, Smith made it seem like “people were either with Venue Church or they were part of the devil’s move against it.”
That kind of arrogance, however, wasn’t just the result of Tavner Smith being the leader of this huge enterprise. He really seemed to believe his relationship with God gave him more authority than everyone else there. For example, he shifted the church’s teachings—or at least the focus of his sermons—from more conservative Calvinism to Joel Osteen-style prosperity. (Why tell people they’re Hell-bound without Jesus when you can preach about how everyone is destined for greatness… especially if they’re willing to invest in the church?)
It’s worked out pretty well for him:
Smith and his wife own two homes valued at nearly $950,000 combined, and the Venue Church property on Lee Highway is valued at $4.9 million, according to Hamilton County property records.
When other church leaders tried to bring Smith back to the more conservative theology, he wasn’t having any of it. This was his church, dammit, and whatever he said was final.
Last Sunday, Helton went nuclear when he posted his grievances about Venue Church on Facebook, explaining to people why he finally left.
Among his reasons for leaving? No accountability, shady finances, and witnessing physical and mental abuse from Smith. That physical abuse bit is just jaw-dropping because Helton says he saw Smith “slam his wife against a wall in the green room prior to going on stage” and scream at her to “submit” to him.
Helton wrote that post shortly after eight current staffers and volunteers at the church quit—all at once—after confronting Smith about an affair he was allegedly having with a worship leader at the church. The rumors had apparently been circulating for a while but now there was video evidence of their relationship:
For what it’s worth, even though that video doesn’t show much, it’s enough to confirm people’s suspicions. Also, while Smith began divorce proceedings in May, it’s not clear if he’s technically single yet. Nor is it clear if members of his church knew their pastor was getting divorced. Even if he is single now, none of this amounts to what Smith himself would consider a biblical lifestyle. You would think a pastor who preaches abstinence before marriage would have a lot of strong opinions about divorce and temptation.
Maybe you’d argue none of this is anyone else’s business… but Smith is also the sort of preacher who denounces LGBTQ people while delivering sermons on the importance of fidelity. As one former staffer explained:
Smith gave a sermon on “sexual immorality” last year during a seminar on biblical marriage, in which Smith said any sexual contact beyond sex between a married man and woman amounted to raping God…
So Smith condemns loving, loyal, same-sex couples—and denounces all sexual activity outside of marriage—yet has no problem engaging in an “immoral” act himself. The hypocrisy is off the charts. That statement I just quoted, by the way, came from a former security staff member who wasn’t allowed to work in youth ministry or join the church’s leadership team because she’s in a same-sex marriage. (I’d be pissed off, too).
The church is now in total chaos. No one working with Smith is commenting on the situation. His Facebook page has been all but deleted. And the church’s three Christmas weekend services—likely the most popular ones all year—have now become one online service instead.
Maybe Smith and his security team don’t want to be seen in public right now.
I could care less about this guy’s personal life. But when he allegedly abuses his partner backstage, and when he refuses to respect people who dedicate their lives to this church, and when his own actions don’t match the nonsense he’s preaching on stage, it’s long past time for the congregation to stop putting up with it.
Calling Smith a fallen Christian in need of redemption won’t hurt him one bit.
What’ll actually make a difference is taking their money to a new church while the former staffers air their dirty laundry in public. Sure, I’ll enjoy the hell out of it, but even the Christians who want this church to succeed should welcome that move.
It’s better for everyone in the long run if a broken system is dismantled and rebuilt—with new leadership.