A version of this article appeared in The Christian Courier the beginning of January 2022.
Bruxy Cavey is the long-haired hippie pastor of Oakville’s The Meeting House megachurch, with some 5000 attendees spread over 20 different sites. One of Canada’s most well-known evangelical pastors, he is facing allegations of sexual misconduct, as his chair of overseers publicly announced early in the week of Dec. 6th 2021. He has been placed on a leave of absence while an independent third-party investigation takes place. We haven’t heard any updates yet on the results of that process.
If it turns up evidence that convicts him of shameful activity, this is certainly something deserving public criticism. Religion News and The Washington Post have run reports on the sad news. Jumbotron preachers with their thousands of parishioners have greater influence than the average pastor, and they should be held to a higher standard and stricter measures of accountability. Vast public acclaim comes with the risk of vast public shame.
I wrote a book on Bruxy Cavey and his irreligious evangelical charisma published by McGill-Queens Press in 2019 called The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch. I interviewed him multiple times, and he came across as a gracious, intelligent, and in many ways modest person with a healthy sense of humour. I also interviewed 82 attendees and ex-attendees about him, and basically thought about him, his persona, and his message for about 4 years. I am not going to speculate about what has happened, as I haven’t slipped back into any Meeting House venues for over 7 years, but I can provide some context.
First of all, it’s remarkable what is at stake here. Cavey was no Mark Driscoll, the hyper-masculinist and fraudulent bully of Mars Hill megachurch, Seattle, who left a wake of crushed souls behind him a few years back. In fact, the focus of my research was Cavey’s charisma, which boils down to this: his entire vision and it’s sprawling institutional network were built precisely on the promise that Cavey was not “one of those types” of (right-wing politically motivated command and control patriarchal) pastors. He was subversively “irreligious”—meaning he promoted himself as an opponent of religion (his bestseller was entitled The End of Religion: The Subversive Spirituality of Jesus 2007). He was the long-haired and hip beta-male pacifist preacher, the megachurch pastor for people who are not into megachurch pastors. Champion of the Anabaptist tradition, he didn’t talk politics, and summarized his counter-cultural mission in three words: relationship not religion. He plugged a gentler, kinder Jesus. If the allegations prove substantial, the hypocritical factor here is doubled, set up by his own religious rebel persona and branding.
I just noticed in a November teaching video, Cavey calls Christianity a “repentance movement.” It seems prescient. This tragedy could prove to be a sobering opportunity. But we don’t know yet for whom.
Secondly, as in any case of disgraced heroes, while media might focus on the alleged perpetrator, and #Me-Too advocates might alert concern for the victim, there is a third party that is often overlooked—the fans, the audiences, and in this case, the congregation. Some Meeting House members have invested more than 25 years of their life in the ironic vision of Cavey. They have formed deep emotional bonds with him that this news may disrupt into confusion, anger, denial, and depression. This core of devotees includes thousands of people, some who will credit their coming to faith or renewal in faith to Cavey. They are not dupes, but a mix of educated professionals and creatives who saw something with promise in Cavey’s vision.
I have received a few emails from deeply concerned members of the church, quite defensive of Cavey, even though the facts are not out yet. There is a desire to protect him. The podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill goes deep into the lives of parishioners invested in a megachurch and its central charismatic figure. The Meeting House is not Mars Hill, but the roller coaster ride of explosive church growth and public success have similarities. It would be worth a listen for Meeting Housers, even if Cavey is exonerated in the end. Megachurches are large churches, and matters of scale suggest similarities. When one personality is so dominant to a church’s life and vision, it can also become a small place balanced on a precarious and fallible fulcrum.
1800 Megachurch Pastors
Finally, let’s note that news stories like this feed into the powerful stereotype of the manipulative, fraudulent, and predatory preacher, as old as Sinclair Lewis’ controversial novel Elmer Gantry (1926), and perpetuated in movies like Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith (1992). We can knowingly roll our eyes at the news of another fallen angel, as if it was inevitable. Perhaps Cavey will indeed tragically fall into this old caricature. Glen Starks’ book Sexual Misconduct and the Future of Mega-Churches: How Large Religious Organizations Go Astray seems like common sense. But the book gives no statistical evidence for its central premise: that megachurch pastors are more prone to sexual sin. It is presumed.
The fact is, however, that there are about 1800 megachurches in North America today, and we have only heard about the comparatively few scandalized ones. This is the media sorting what makes the news. The extensive study High on God by James Wellman and Katie Corcoran, after gathering data on a dozen megachurches, critiques the soft patriarchalism of such churches but concludes, on the whole, megachurches are “wells of goodness, satisfaction, generosity, and inspiration.” This was not some arm chair assessment, but came after years of research visiting these kinds of churches.
There are no statistics that show megachurch pastors are more likely to commit sexual improprieties than small church pastors; or that conservative pastors are more likely abusive than liberal ones. It’s not just pastors, either. Consider movie directors, medical doctors, coaches, or CBC personalities: sexual predation is a democracy of the depraved. Power and manipulation happen in the privacy of homes and in the halls of massive corporations.
Sexual misconduct is not a religious problem, it’s a human problem. That it happens in a religious context that champions love, care, and compassion makes it more devastating, no doubt, but clergy no longer can use the cloth as a shield against suspicion. We are already wary of religious types in secularized Canada. We’re heard the bad news about the church and its leaders. Cavey’s charisma was built on this cultural sensibility.
It’s tempting to invoke the fraudulent clergy trope. I noticed this Canadian story of a potential fall from grace is already published in a paper in The Netherlands. Perhaps it confirms something for Europeans. Cynicism can travel fast as the internet.
Some humanity always remains. The Meeting House has offered professional counselling to the person who came forward with allegations and they have ready funds to do the same for any of its distraught membership. I don’t know how many have taken advantage of this. It’s not over yet.
If you will, pray to the God of your own understanding that accountability will be swift and just for all involved and that harm will be minimized and met with responsible care. It’s one antidote to the toxic religion that Cavey has given his career to denounce.