What happened at NewSpring Church this month is not unique among megachurches.
What happens next, after the departure of founding pastor Perry Noble, depends on several factors, experts said Monday. The most important factor, they said, is the congregation’s resilience.
“The congregation is no doubt experiencing shock and sorrow in response to the news of Perry Noble’s departure, but I do not predict defections on a massive scale,” said Warren Bird, research director for Leadership Network. The nonprofit helps fast-growing churches.
In the hours after Noble’s removal as senior pastor was announced Sunday, hundreds of NewSpring members took to social media to express support for him as he struggles to overcome what he described as an increased reliance on alcohol.
“We will get through this at NewSpring, because if Perry has taught us anything, it is that if God brought us to it, he will bring us through it,” Lynda Pimentel wrote on the church’s Facebook page. “Perry and his family will be in my prayers.”
Bridgett Collier Hargroves wrote that she felt she was in a bad dream.
“I just want this nightmare to end,” she said. “I want to wake up and go to church all over again and everything be OK.”
“Perry is my people,” she said, making reference to a “These Are My People” sermon series Noble started in June before his troubles were made public.
Other churches with thousands of members have experienced losses similar to NewSpring’s. After those losses, results have been mixed.
Less than five years ago, Seattle-based Mars Hill Church had one of the fastest-growing congregations in the United States, with more than a dozen campuses spread across at least five states.
In October 2014, church founder Mark Driscoll resigned after a church committee completed a review of accusations made against him about his conduct.
By January 2015, Mars Hill Church had dissolved.
Driscoll has relocated to Arizona and has started a new church. The Trinity Church had its first service in Scottsdale for Easter this year.
In contrast to Mars Hill, Summit Church was able to survive after the loss of its leader. The church in Central Florida has multiple campuses and thousands of members.
Summit Church’s former senior pastor, Isaac Hunter, committed suicide in December 2013. His death came one year after he resigned amid allegations of adultery, abuse and heavy drinking.
The two men who founded Summit Church with Hunter are still on its leadership team, according to the church’s website. John Parker now serves as the lead pastor, and Andy Simonds is worship pastor.
The staff at NewSpring is one of the factors that will be critical to its future, said Michael Duduit, founding dean of the College of Christian Studies and the Clamp Divinity School at Anderson University.
“With any church, the key to managing a dramatic transition is leadership and the foundation that has been built previously,” Duduit said.
The naming of Clayton King as NewSpring’s interim senior pastor “will help during the coming weeks,” Duduit said. King has frequently preached at NewSpring.
“Clayton is well-known to the NewSpring congregation; he is a close friend of Perry, so that is a strong link that builds trust with longtime NewSpring folks, and Clayton is also a gifted communicator,” Duduit said.
But Duduit also said it is not unusual for any church to experience some “attendance drift” after a change with the senior pastor.
“There is always a certain percentage of attenders who are drawn to a charismatic speaker, and if he is no longer there, they will move elsewhere,” he said.
Dave Travis, chief executive officer of the Leadership Network, said “churches that have ‘high debt’ ratios tend to be the ones that struggle in this situation.”
NewSpring launched a $90 million building campaign in 2013. The church, which is the biggest in South Carolina and one the nation’s largest, now has 17 campuses and soon will be opening new buildings in Powdersville and Clemson. Travis acknowledged that he has “no idea how much debt they carry and how they have it split up between campuses.”
Citing Noble’s reputation for sharing his struggles with anxiety, depression and other issues, Travis said NewSpring needs to find a way to continue telling the story that “we are a messed up people seeking God.”
Noble did not respond to a request for comment.
Noble addressed his problems with alcohol in his first book, “Unleash!”, which was published in 2012.
“On one particular occasion, I remember hugging the toilet and promising God that if He would sober me up and make the rock concert in my head go away, I would never drink again. In fact, I’d become a missionary in the Congo!” he wrote. “Just a few short weeks later, I was back to hitting the bottle.”
Last summer, Noble posted a video on his blog. In it, he talks about a new tattoo on his right wrist. The tattoo features the letters INAM.
“It is a testimony,” he said. “I want every time that I look at my right arm to be reminded that I am called to live a life that ‘it’s not about me.’”
In the coming months, what happens at NewSpring will determine whether Noble was right.
NewSpring Church timeline
- Fall 1998: Perry Noble begins holding a Wednesday evening Bible study at his apartment in Anderson.
- Jan. 16, 2000: NewSpring Church conducts its first service, with 115 people, at Anderson University’s Sullivan Building.
- August 2001: The church moves to Anderson University’s Rainey Fine Arts Center, a 1,100-seat auditorium.
- February 2006: The church moves to S.C. 81 North in Anderson with about 7,000 people attending the first services in the new location.
- July 2008: The church’s Greenville campus opens.
- January 2009: The church’s Florence campus opens.
- March 2009: The church opens KidSpring and Fuse, the children and youth ministry locations, also off S.C. 81 North in Anderson.
- September 2009: NewSpring opens its Columbia campus.
- September 2012: Senior Pastor Perry Noble publishes his first book, “Unleash!”
- September 2013: NewSpring launches $90 million building campaign with the goal of adding seven satellite campuses across the state. NewSpring is South Carolina’s largest church, as well as one of the nation’s fastest-growing.
- January 2014: Church launches new Boiling Springs campus.
- June 2014: Lexington campus opens.
- December 2014: Noble draws criticism for a Christmas Eve sermon in which he describes the Ten Commandments as “actually 10 promises that you can receive when you say yes to Jesus.”
- January 2015: Temporary campus opens at Powdersville High School.
- July 1, 2016: Noble is removed as NewSpring’s senior pastor for his “posture toward his marriage, increased reliance on alcohol and other behaviors.”
- Coming soon: Construction of campus buildings in Powdersville and Clemson should be completed later this year.