It's not uncommon these days for worship leader Ross Parsley to introduce himself as "The pastor of New Life Church—yes, that church." One of America's most prominent megachurches, New Life made international news in November 2006 when Senior Pastor Ted Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals, confessed to sexual immorality and buying drugs, and subsequently left the pastorate. The news staggered New Life's congregation, but the church has found strength and comfort in the gospel to take assessment of their own lives and press forward. We recently had a roundtable discussion with Parsley and fellow worship leaders Glenn Packiam, Jon Egan, and Jared Anderson (from the church's Desperation Band) to talk about how their church has found healing and renewal in the aftermath of a scandal.
Let's start with the initial reaction from the church. What was the general mood?
Ross Parsley [On the Sunday it was announced], there was simply a depth of sadness because it involved someone we loved so deeply. When you realize something has been tormenting your friend that destroys their working relationship [to the church], you're just struck with this deep sadness. Not necessarily anger or judgment, but pronounced weeping in the congregation that day and the following few weeks.
At the same time, there was a tremendous resolve to embrace the gospel message—that Jesus died for sinners, not perfect people or preachers. Worship that day was huge because people were grabbing on to what was unmovable. This guy had failed and we're tremendously sad about that, but we are not the kind of people who build on [one pastor]. That resolve was pretty obvious after that first service.
That's incredible that New Life built such resolve from essentially the first day.
Parsley Well, I don't think we built that in a day, but our church has always been about the truth of the gospel. We had a charismatic leader who helped promote the message of the gospel, but the truth is it's a group of people who are defined by the freedom they experienced. We've been singing Jon's song "I Am Free" for three or four years at our church, and it's a reflection of our congregation. There have been many people set free from sin and bondage, and that's where the sadness comes in. Here's the guy who led us through our hurts and then we learn, "What, you mean he's not free?" It's a commitment by our body of believers to embrace that ideal.
Was there similar resolve at New Life's first youth service?
Jon Egan One of the things I marvel at with our youth is that they love the community that they have with each other. When the news hit, I think all they wanted to do was be together as a family. We opened up our offices to our youth right after it happened, and it was flooded with people who were laughing, crying, playing games, and counseling each other in the corner. There was confusion, for sure, but there was great resolve too—in their commitment to each other and to this family.
Glenn Packiam The Friday night college service was our church's first public meeting before stuff began to break. [Haggard] told the media Thursday night that some of the allegations were true, and then Friday morning was a frenzy. That night I remember as we gathered together for worship that I had no idea what it was going to be like. But it felt like everybody more than ever was linking arms. People always say that a church is a community, but that's never tested unless you go through something like this.
Honestly, it felt like we'd experienced 9/11 again on a much smaller scale. Remember how the whole country stopped caring if you were Democrat or Republican? We were all Americans. In many ways, it was like that. Strength returned to the foundations of our faith in Christ, knowing that we're all in this together. There was also a sense of ownership for our church. Ted Haggard's not New Life Church—we are, and we leaned on each other because of it.
Were there temptations to label Pastor Haggard a hypocrite and feel adrift or abandoned?
Jared Anderson None of us knew [he was going through this], and that's part of what Ross was saying about the feeling of sadness. Here we were having this close friend warring with and going through things that none of us knew about. He couldn't master it and it got him. And he never reached out. We were never able to be there for him and that's a sad thing. Some felt that somebody had to know about this, but others were wondering if he could somehow be restored.
Packiam I think everyone felt some measure of shock and anger. Not questioning whether he was a hypocrite, but more like "What were you thinking?" and "Not this!"
Parsley I think that's one of the reasons it was so shocking to the church nationwide. He was affecting churches around the country, and New Life wasn't the place people expected this to happen. But all the stages of grief were there (denial, anger, etc.). I preached on them for the first few weeks because we all felt some of that—guilt, betrayal, all kinds of stuff. We had to coach people through it. You go back and listen to some of those Sunday morning services and I don't think they were brilliantly put together sermons. But they were reflective of a family working together to deal with the grief. They were from the heart, dealing with substantive heart issues that were difficult.
Packiam The other big lesson all of us walked through was the temptation to look for every media story and say, "Hey, did you guys know about this?" It's a little sensationalist, and we realized our role is not to try and uncover. The people who need to know are dealing with it. I'm not one of the people who need to know all the details. That keeps it honorable, while the right people make sure that justice is served. Sometimes when something like this happens, everybody wants to be the expert on all the details, but you shouldn't be. It poisons your own heart.
My Savior Lives was the first collaborative album featuring all of New Life's worship teams, uniting the church months before all this happened. Do you feel like the experience of recording that live album helped prepare you for the storm?
Parsley It's exactly the way we feel about that project and those songs. If you open up the newest copies of My Savior Lives, you'll find a little message on the inside tray card explaining this. These songs were meaningful to us before all this, but they took on new meaning after. "Here in your presence all things are new … I've found myself a hiding place … One thing I know that I have found through all the troubles that surround, You are the rock that never fails." Those lyrics mean something different to us now.
There was a sense this project was the connective tissue for us, because we needed those songs. They fed our souls by reminding us of scriptural truths. Worship is about reminding yourself through some sort of liturgy who God is and what he's done for you. That's why we come to the Lord's Table, why we share these songs, why we say creeds. It's all about reminding us who God really is in the midst of crisis or tragedy.
So in that sense, those songs take on more meaning than any song you might write in response to all this.
Egan Because God knows better than we do. That's the weird part to think about.
Packiam After it all happened, there were people worshipping to those songs like it was their first time hearing them. In that way you could tell God gave us these songs as a gift to us!
Egan There are some significant moments from that night of worship on the DVD too. Like the ten-minute stretch of "Here In Your Presence" where Ross gives some ministry time, and he said, "God is launching us. It's a new season. He's preparing us for the next thing." I felt strongly after watching it that the Lord was healing up some things, covering up wounds to prepare us for this time.
Parsley Actually one of the statements that I made in that prayer time was, "God doesn't want to give you a shot in the arm. He wants to give you an overhaul." And that was somehow prophetic to what was coming. Our church has had an overhaul.
Is there one specific song from that album that has been instrumental in the healing process? An anthem for New Life?
Egan I think our church has gravitated towards "Here In Your Presence."
Glen The verse mentions "crowns no longer on display," and that's become so meaningful for us at New Life because when you're a part of things that appear to be successful on earth, it's very easy to let that define you and make you feel a sense of stability and security. Obviously when you go through something like our church has, that's all gone. But that's a gift from God. The beauty of that line to me is how church has felt like we've come before God and nothing else matters. All we want is [his] presence—to see Jesus and become like Jesus.
Are there new songs that are being inspired as a result of all this?
Parsley I think it's all reflected in some of the writing that these guys are doing, but we haven't recorded anything yet because we've been busy surviving. It's a great time to write songs, not necessarily a great time to record them. But now we're in a place where we've had this on the calendar and it's time to do some of that. I think the young people are going to benefit from the cathartic process—having songs written about our experience.
Egan What I find funny is the songs we wrote before the scandal are a little more introspective about our troubles and needs. Then this thing happened and we found great strength in them. Afterward, I don't find that we're writing so much about our needs. I think we've been writing about how great God is, our truth and convictions—"we know this and we stand on this."
Anderson I find myself wanting my writing to be less like poems and more like prophecies. I want to speak the words of God, to get to the real core. I want to make the kingdom of God advance and I want my songs to be confessions.
Egan The world has watched New Life over the years for many different reasons, and now they're watching us for other reasons. We have an incredible opportunity to show the world what a Christian is. To me it's time to really do ministry and meet people's needs, not just put words on paper.
Parsley It's funny, because I don't think you ever did that. Nobody writes a worship song and goes, "I'm just going to put words on paper." Hindsight is really a gift, being able to look back with a whole different filter or lens and find ways to change.
We talked a bit about how our church was in the early days. We felt better before, but we actually are better now. Though we feel worse, we're healthier in our substance and core—more vulnerable, transparent, humble, and broken. I've heard Ted say the same thing. He doesn't feel better about where he is, but he is better. There's something hopeful about that. It's like the gospel message.
Packiam And you don't mean that he's better as in fixed, but that he's at a better place.
Is Haggard still around at all? Are you still in contact with him?
Parsley We're not really commenting on Ted too much because he's in a process that we're not in charge of right now. I have communicated with him a bit and he's moving to Phoenix to be in Tommy Barnett's church. Tommy is one of the members of our restoration team, so that's going to be a place where [Ted] can be a part of a body of believers. Tommy and Ted will work through the next phase of the restoration process, and that's really all I know about that.
Many Christians wonder, "How do I view Pastor Ted Haggard now?"
Parsley I believe Ted is the same guy he's always been. It's just that I know something additional about him now. I think we need to look at him like this: he's a sinful man who taught some really good things in the life of this church, and somewhere along the way he stopped following some of his own recommendations. One of the reasons Ted is undergoing this process is that he was a massive, influential leader. Leaders get held to a higher standard, so that's what part of the pain is that people have had to deal with.
But the bottom line is we're all sinners. Every Christian I know understands how to counsel another in dealing with sin, but they have a harder time following it themselves. That's a common experience, so I don't think we should see Ted that differently. He's still the same charismatic guy—still the guy we love. But I believe God is going to work in him in a major way. And if we encourage that, participate in it to whatever degree we should, and continue to love him, we won't get any of the baggage of judgment, bitterness, or betrayal.
Has this experience led to the church becoming more real and accountable with one another?
Anderson It's been "clean house" with our youth especially. We've just undergone the ultimate sermon illustration, so we've been encouraging actual accountability as a result. It's not just "Are you good?" but "How are you really?" It's been a reminder to all of us that we live in a broken world and that we're broken people. We're all sinners, but it's that lifelong maintenance that will determine how we will make it out of this thing.
Egan: It's made us want to deal with the little stuff so that it never becomes [bigger]. You want to love your friends enough so that when day-to-day you see this little stuff in them, you'll be honest enough to tell them, "Bro, enough."
Parsley: We have a healthy sense of humility these days that we didn't have before. It's not like we were arrogant. It's just a healthy dose of this fear of the Lord—recognition of the fragility of humanity and the greatness of God to deal with us in a way that's merciful and loving. We've got small groups all over our church and all over our city, and in the aftermath we've had a lot of cleaning house. Lots of confessions from people saying, "Here's my junk, let's deal with it."
Again, it's back to being better rather than feeling better. We're ripping our insides out, but man, you find such grace, joy, freedom, and confidence accompanying this death. In part, that's the big story of our church. Embracing the suffering as something that we will own rather than put if off on something else. The embracing of the cross is a renewed emphasis in our church. The cross is an instrument of death, hard work, and painful, yet in the midst of it, we embrace it and we find some resurrection of our lives in this community of believers. It sounds very first century New Testament to me and I think that's what we're experiencing.
Click here to read our review of New Life Worship's My Savior Lives CD. You can also read our take on the DVD from the same night of worship in this feature. Visit Christianbook.com to listen to sound clips and purchase the music.
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