The exterior scene was much like any other summer Sunday morning at NewSpring Church in Anderson, where about 2,000 members made the warm walk from the parking lot to the dark, air-conditioned auditorium.
Inside, the message was harsh, and one the members had heard before: Perry Noble had been removed as senior pastor.
Most were braced for the news as they entered at 11 a.m. Sunday, two hours after Executive Pastor Shane Duffey had stunned the congregation at the first worship service of the day.
“It’s still my church. I’ll keep coming, and I’ll keep praying for Perry and the church,” said a woman who appeared to be in her 20s and said she joined the state’s largest and richest church three years ago.
The woman declined to provide her name.
For Justin and Emily, who preferred not to use their last names, it was a jolt that could change their church routine.
“We’ve only been here four times, but I’d say that losing Perry will have a significant impact,” Justin said. “He’s a great motivational speaker.”
“I think it will impact the church quite a bit,” said Emily, his wife. “He (Noble) does most of the preaching.”
Early in both worship sessions Sunday morning, Duffey revealed the well-kept secret that Noble had been fired at least nine days earlier.
Few of those on the near-filled lower level of the auditorium showed any visible reaction to the news. Most quietly directed their attention to Duffey.
The NewSpring Board of Directors, Duffey said, made “a difficult and painful decision” to remove Noble, adding that the founder was “no longer qualified to serve as pastor” at the state’s largest and richest church.
Duffey said the termination came after Noble “had made unfortunate choices and decisions that have caused much concern” among board members, who had confronted Noble more than once about his use of alcohol and his “posture toward marriage.”
Noble, 45, did not appear to be at the church Sunday morning. Duffey read a statement in which Noble expressed remorse and a plan to “immediately seek spiritual guidance.”
Noble said he “will no longer be pastor on July 1,” indicating his statement had been written at least 10 days earlier.
“I wish this were a joke, and part of a sermon illustration,” Noble said in the statement regarding his termination, “but it is true.”
The revelation came as the megachurch, which boasts more than 30,000 members in 17 cities in South Carolina, including three in the Midlands, is in the final stage of two more expansions.
In the statement, Noble said he “never claimed to be a perfect pastor and never claimed to be a perfect Christian” and confirmed that in the past year, he had “allowed myself to slide into an overuse of alcohol.”
He also noted that the job had “created a strain on his marriage.”
In the statement, Noble said had recently “come to depend on alcohol instead of Jesus.” He said there was no infidelity nor abuse in his marriage.
“No one is more disappointed in me than I am in myself,” said Noble, the only senior pastor in the history of the church on Anderson’s affluent north side.
Noble also manages a personal blog/website (perrynoble.com) that he used to convey frequent messages about his personal life and Christian topics.
The blog has grown quiet in recent months. Noble made 51 posts in the first three months of 2016 but made only nine in April, six in May, and none in June or July.
Duffey said Noble’s wife, Lucretia, was “100 percent behind this decision” to fire Noble.
Clayton King, a NewSpring member, has been hired to serve as interim senior pastor “for the next season of time,” Duffey said Sunday. He had a speaking engagement in North Carolina Sunday, and is expected to deliver the message at NewSpring next week.
Brad Cooper, the executive pastor of ministries, delivered the primary message Sunday morning after Duffey had opened the worship service with the major news.
Cooper and Duffey are among four executive staff members of the church, along with Executive Pastor of Campuses Howard Frist and Executive Pastor of Operations Michael Millikin. A full-time pastor also serves in each of the 17 cities.
Facilities are expected to be complete in the next three months that would add expansions in Powdersville and Clemson, Duffey said.
NewSpring unofficially began in 1998 when Noble, an Anderson native, began holding a Wednesday Bible study at his apartment in Anderson. Within six weeks, the crowd had grown to 150.
On Jan. 16, 2000, 115 people came to the first official Sunday service in the Sullivan Building at Anderson University.
By 2004, NewSpring was building a campus near Concord Road and S.C. 81 North in Anderson. The 2,460-seat auditorium was completed in 2006, and membership soon doubled to 8,000 people.
In 2015, NewSpring’s income was more than $64 million, according to an annual report posted the church’s website.
NewSpring is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but leaders of the organization have criticized Noble over the church’s use of secular music. Noble’s messages have also been controversial at times — including one last year in which he stated that the Ten Commandments were not commandments.
A similar controversy erupted in 2009, when the NewSpring house band opened the Easter service with the rock song “Highway to Hell.”