Carlton Pearson

Houston's Unity Church hosts the former megachurch preacher who wrote, "God Is Not a Christian"

"I said, 'God, how could you call yourself a loving, sovereign God and just let them suffer like that and suck them into hell?' And that's when I thought I heard a voice say, 'Is that what you think we're doing?' I said, 'That's what I've been taught. You're sucking them into hell.'"

"The voice said, 'What would change that?' and I said, 'Well, they need to get saved. Somebody needs to preach the gospel to them.' And that voice said, 'Can't you see they're already there? That's hell. You created that.'"

It dawned on Pearson that if Jesus had died for mankind's sins, then everyone was saved. Hell was on earth, not in the afterlife. "You look at what Ted Haggard's going through right now. He was off doing drugs with another man. That's hell." This epiphany led him back to Scripture, to 1 Timothy, which says, "We have put our trust in the Living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially those who believe."

Meanwhile, his associate pastors and congregation were starting to get worried. As he introduced elements of his Gospel of Inclusion, some thought he was going too far. In a faith where demons and devils swirl around everyday life, some of the congregants thought Pearson had been possessed by Satan. Others thought his newfound acceptance of gays meant he was secretly homosexual.

Rumors led to negative press in Charisma, the most important Pentecostal publication. And as other preachers urged him to recant and apologize for overstepping his bounds, Pearson worked on his theology. He went back to the original Greek and Hebrew to defend his new beliefs. He stood firm. He started work on a book called God Is Not a Christian, which he self-published this summer.

By 2005, his 5,000-member congregation had dwindled to a few hundred. Former friends such as T.D. Jakes and Oral Roberts refused to speak up on his behalf. On New Year's Day 2006, the bank foreclosed on the Higher Dimensions building. It looked like the life of a preacher was over for him.

In his darkest hour, however, he started to make new friends. A pastor from a local Unitarian church called to offer his support. An Episcopal church downtown gave him space on Sunday afternoons. Then, there were people like Carroll, a Rice University Religious Studies professor who had grown up Pentecostal but had moved beyond fundamentalism.

Carroll went to Oral Roberts University in the 1980s and attended Higher Dimensions in the early days. "I attended Carlton's church when it was first starting in Tulsa. I've loved him for a long time — he's a great preacher, singer, theologian," she says. "He's slick, but he's not a fake."

"When I learned of this transition on his part — I had lost touch with his ministry — and then heard through the grapevine that he'd had this new revelation and had changed his theology, my heart just broke for him. I know what it means to pull your own theological rug out from under yourself."

Now Carroll is inaugurating a lecture series through the Boniuk Center called "Bridge Builders." The idea, she says, is to bring people to Houston "who in some way stand between two camps of people, two schools of thought, or who have played concrete roles in bridging a gap between conflicting entities."

Pearson, for his part, is excited about moving toward a Universalist doctrine. "I see Christianity these days as a cult following. When Jesus said, 'Take up your cross and follow me,' he was talking to 12 people. He didn't want the crowds. But they made him into a god because it was a good business."

While Unity Church has thrown open its doors to Pearson's Gospel of Inclusion, it's not clear if it will be a perfect fit. Church member Lydia Smith is excited to hear Pearson, but says that "there's a bit of a concern that he'll bring his Pentecostal stuff to the service." Unity practices silent meditation, and Pearson still shouts, sings and even speaks in tongues.

Senior pastor the Rev. Howard Caesar says that Unity has a hard time attracting people in the "backyard" of Lakewood Church, but agrees with Pearson's message. Even though they have two different approaches to church, both Caesar and Pearson are seeking a spiritual path in a world where fundamentalism only seems to be growing stronger.

"I'm frustrated," Caesar says. "People want to hear something new or different. You have to be a salesman but you don't have a product. What you have is an idea."

Unity is a Christian church, but it's still grappling with what it means to be Christian. When the church moved into a new building in 2004, Caesar wasn't sure if the wooden statue of Jesus in the old building should make the move. It's a unique statue. Jesus hovers above the congregation with his arms outstretched in a welcoming gesture, free of suffering.

For Caesar, it didn't look quite right in the new building. Lydia Smith says that, ultimately, the church decided that "they didn't want anything permanent that just represented Christianity because we're all-inclusive. Still, a lot of the traditional people were like, 'Hey, where's Jesus?'"

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