The city of Birmingham, Alabama, has been buzzing in recent weeks over the second arrest of the city's most well-known youth evangelist. Matt Pitt, founder of The Basement, first ran afoul of the law in the early 2012 when he was arrested for impersonating a police officer while flashing blue lights at cars on the interstate. Pitt pled guilty and continued to lead his large ministry, which had as many as 7,000 in attendance at monthly gatherings, until a warrant was issued for his arrest two weeks ago. He was arrested again last week and now sits in jail for violating his probation. Why was he booked this time? He impersonated a police officer a second time, though in this case he flashed his honorary sheriff's badge at a concerned resident while telling him that he was police officer.
Until last year, the press for Matt Pitt, 30, had been overwhelmingly positive. His testimony began when he left college in 2004 because of a drug overdose. At the end of his rope, he cried out to God while lying on the floor of his parents' basement. Pitt says he is not exactly sure what happened in that moment, but he wanted his friends to experience the same thing. He met with a few friends in the basement of his parent's home for prayer and Bible study. Within a year, more than 100 cars lined the street as crowds worshiped in the basement of the Pitt's home. They later moved from church to church, only to find that they outgrew every venue.
The Basement attracts teenagers with high-energy music, stirring dramas, and Pitt's rapid-fire style of preaching. He has described himself as "an ADD kid trying to reach an ADD generation." The crowds made him famous. He has been featured on CBN and TBN. The Basement moved to monthly meetings to accommodate Pitt's busy outside speaking schedule, and the crowd began meeting at one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the United States, Church of the Highlands. They left that location in 2011 to meet in large civic venues in downtown Birmingham. So in a short period of time Matt Pitt went from praying with some guys in his basement to one of the nation's most prominent youth evangelists and then to being arrested twice in 18 months.
How Did This Happen?
As a pastor in the Birmingham suburbs, I have been drawn to this story. But my fascination has little to do with his arrests or the bizzare 12-minute local news station interview where he compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and accused the police of targeting him when he started reaching "black kids." Nor am I mostly intrigued by the drama of that same TV station reporting his parole violation to the police, who chased him down after he jumped off a 45-foot cliff. Instead, I want to know how we got here. How did this happen?
Southern church culture, including Birmingham, celebrates nearly anyone who claims to reach teenagers. We often assume the inherent goodness of any ministry that draws large numbers. And we idolize reaching the next generation to the point that we largely ignore what we are winning them with and what we are winning them to. Despite warning signs, youth pastors continued to take busloads of teenagers to The Basement and Christian radio relentlessly promoted Pitt's meetings.
All the while The Basement's theology was largely ignored. Viewing the videos on The Basement's website reveals an exciting atmosphere that lacks substantial understanding of God as revealed in his Word. Pitt's sermons might have been "in your face," but they did not point teens to the Bible and the gospel message revealed in it. Much of the public also ignored the Bible's teaching about character in leaders because Pitt claimed to have a "calling" from God to lead this ministry. And who could question his results?
But internal calling is only part of what it means to be a gospel minister. The apostle Paul insisted that a man who would lead must not be a new convert. He knew young leaders can become puffed up with conceit and fall into the snare of the Devil. Unfortunately this concern seems to have been valid in the case of Pitt, as members of his board said he refused accountability as more mature men sought to mentor him.
Southern churches rightly desire to reach teenagers, as we should want to see every person in our region come to Christ. But this aim will not be accomplished with a more exciting atmosphere, louder music, and a central charismatic figure who can rouse teens. Churches would better reach the next generation if they emphasized compelling biblical preaching and intergenerational discipleship, and if they empowered parents to teach the gospel to their own children.
Our teenagers do not need someone who can put on a great show so much as they need people to love them, teach them, and model the Christian life for them. Such faithfulness would do more to grab the hearts of our teenagers than a large, loud event ever could.
Editors' note: Learn more about the kind of churches we need in the American South when you attend Engage the South, an Acts 29 conference hosted in Birmingham by Beeson Divinity School and co-sponsored by The Gospel Coalition. This one-day event on September 24 features talks from Matt Chandler, David Platt, Bryan Loritts, Kevin Smith, and Ray Ortlund.