Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Christianity, Part 2

A Growing Number Of People Are Seeking God Not In Traditional Churches But In Modern Venues That Feature Rock Bands, Video Screens—And The Message That Scripture Should Be Taken Literally

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Bishop Courtney McBath, Calvary Revival Church, Norfolk, Christianity
Bishop Courtney McBath

Many evangelical church leaders today, however, take the same approach, as I learned when I sat down with Bishop Courtney McBath, founder of Calvary Revival Church, one of the largest nondenominational mega-churches in Virginia. Located on Poplar Hall Drive, near Military Circle, the nearly 100,000-square-foot facility routinely attracts between 3,500 and 4,500 people per week.

I’d met McBath by chance because he happened to be the guest speaker at The Rising on the Sunday that I attended a service there.

A few weeks later, I sat down with him in his spacious, wood-paneled office for a lengthy and wide-ranging conversation. In spite of the differences in our beliefs, I found him to be one of the most thoughtful and authentic people I’ve ever met.

“I grew up in a small town in East Tennessee,” he told me, “and attended the Church of God, a small, conservative evangelical church. When I was 8 years old, I gave my heart to Christ. I wasn’t going through any kind of crisis—I was a kid. I just felt the Holy Spirit.

Two years later, he felt that his calling was to become a pastor.

Initially he planned to go on to a Bible college. But after getting high scores on his PSAT at 16, he began receiving letters of interest from some of the top schools in the nation, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he enrolled the following year. It was there, at the age of 17, that he began ministering at a Church of God in Boston. It was also there that he met the woman whom he would soon marry.

McBath continued his ministry in Boston for a few years after graduation, then moved with his wife back to Tennessee. Norfolk hadn’t been on his radar at all. But in 1989, he was invited here to preach at a youth revival.

“I didn’t know anyone here, other than a sister who lived in Hampton,” he recalled. “But when I landed in Norfolk I felt in my heart that I was supposed to come here and start a church. I went home and prayed about it, and a year later we moved here to start Calvary Revival.”

Its beginnings were humble, to say the least. “We started out at the Sheraton in downtown Norfolk with about 20 people,” he recalled.

After a series of moves to several other temporary locations, the church settled at a facility on Little Creek Road. When they moved in they had a congregation averaging 300 people or so. Seven years later, the membership had grown to more than 2,000. The explosive growth spurred the move, in 1998, to the Poplar Hall Drive facility, which now includes a separate office building, as well as the main facility, which has 28 classrooms for kids of all ages, multiple meeting halls, a music rehearsal room with recording technology, a room with a baptismal pool the size of a Jacuzzi tub and, of course, a massive sanctuary equipped with video screens and other amenities.

In spite of the church’s modern appearance, McBath’s theological beliefs are quite conservative. This struck me as odd, given his training as a scientist, but it was his experience at MIT that actually strengthened his faith in God, he said. He recalls, in particular, being in physics class and learning about the structure of atoms. When he asked his professor why atoms don’t fly apart, given that protons are all positively charged, his professor responded that they are held together by something called Van der Waals forces, named for the man who discovered them. The vague explanation didn’t satisfy McBath. “Based on science,” he said, “atoms shouldn’t hold together.” To him, it confirmed that there had to be another explanation. “The Bible says that Christ created everything, and by Him all things are held together, and I firmly believe that.”

Like Davis, McBath also rejects both the Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution.

“I absolutely do not believe that Man evolved from some other species,” he said. “As a scientist I know that creation has evolved in that it has morphed and changed and some things that couldn’t survive didn’t survive, and some things changed so that they could survive. But the idea that man evolved from something other than man, I absolutely reject that notion. I believe literally that God came down and created Man out of the dirt.”

Unlike some fundamentalists, however, McBath acknowledges that the earth isn’t a mere 5,000 years old.

“God’s time and our time are so different,” he said. “God could have created Adam and Eve millions of years ago.”

On the matter of homosexuality as well, McBath’s beliefs are aligned with Davis’ and many others in the evangelical community. He believes it is a sin, but that it is our role to love unconditionally, not to impose one’s judgment on others.

This belief extends as well to his feelings about people of other faiths—a topic on which he was especially reflective.

“I’ve thought a lot about this because I have some very close friends like the late Imam Fareed, who just passed away a few weeks ago. That card is from his wife,” he said, gesturing to a thank-you note she’d sent after he’d participated in the funeral service along with Rabbi Michael Panitz. “I’m very close to those guys and have a great deal of respect for them.”

As for the question of what happens when non-Christians die, McBath said he continues to wrestle with it.

“The closer I get to folks of other faiths the more I wrestle with it. So my goal with my Muslim friends or my Jewish friends or my Hindu friends is to really represent the love of Jesus, so that in me they see something authentic—and even if they don’t believe in Jesus, my life and my love for them makes Jesus valid to them. But it’s a tough question. If the ultra conservative stand on that question is correct [i.e., only Christians can go to heaven] I’ll be heartbroken.”

That was an especially powerful moment for me. When I began my research for this article, I did so with prejudice. I’ll freely admit that. Like most liberals, I had tended to think of evangelical Christians as people who are diametrically opposed to my understanding of the spirit of Christianity.

And yet, sitting here before me was a man who treated me with the utmost respect and never once tried to persuade me that I was wrong. Moreover, I felt not even a shred of doubt about his authenticity, his willingness to examine the shortcomings of the church, and, above all, his love for humankind. Indeed, while McBath and others with whom I talked did not change my own views of Christianity, they renewed my faith in humanity and my belief that now more than ever we have the potential to heal our wounds if we are willing to encounter each other with more love and less judgment. 


Read more about religion in Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims, Christianity Part 1, Judaism, Buddhism and Transcending Religion.

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