About a year or two ago I started listening to Dr. Heiser’s podcast, the Naked Bible. I had discovered him while doing research for my Master’s program, and especially while doing my dissertation for my ThD program. During that time, Dr. Heiser left Washington State, as well as his job at Logos Bible Software (Faithlife), to head up a new “school” based out of a megachurch in Florida, Celebration Church.
I have to admit, I was a little surprised that Dr. Heiser had made such a move. I know he had expressed frustration in the past on his podcast concerning the lack of financial success or being able to garner a wider audience. But, from a cursory look, there was something off about Celebration Church, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So, I suspended bias and thought maybe he saw something in this odd church that I didn’t.
But, yesterday, I took a minute to look up Celebration Church again, and I’m not surprised at what I found.
Let’s dig into it and discuss…..
Heiser’s Move to Celebration
It was around 2019 when Dr. Heiser announced he was pulling up stakes in Washington, after having spent 15 odd years at Faithlife as Scholar in Residence. I stumbled onto him after several years of studying under Dr. Missler at the Koinonia Institute. It was his insights into the fallen angels and the “supernatural realms” that inadvertently led me to Heiser’s work on the Unseen Realm.
In his announcement, though, I saw some conflicting information. First, the abrupt suddenness of the move was a little suspicious, making conclude, either he had been let go from Faithlife, or the church in Florida had offerred him such an extravagant package that he simply couldn’t refuse.
But, as I dug into the new church, my suspicions grew that this was almost entirely a financial move. Apparently, “pastor” Weems of Celebration Church out of Florida began having “visions” concerning Jesus and how they were doing things at the church. Though his descriptions were quite enigmatic and disjointed and hard to follow, he stated that part of the vision was that they needed some kind of training program (at least, I think that’s what he was getting at). He subsequently inquired with his staff about who in the bible sphere would be a good pick for such a position, and Dr. Heiser’s name came up.
Now, Dr. Heiser is an academic. He went to a secular school for his PhD. He also has some peculiar beliefs about some things in the Bible (don’t we all?) like death existed before the fall, and none of the end-time scenarios are correct. But, his research into the supernatural realm and fallen angels is pretty much unmatched at this point in the Christian sphere. So, I was a little surprised when this church in Florida wanted someone like Dr. Heiser (he is a bit controversial), especially since Weem’s explanations as to what he was really trying to accomplish were so vague and incoherent.
But, off he went, packing up his life and family, leaving his job at Faithlife, and starting out new in Florida. At that time I was again futilely looking for a church fellowship and I thought, maybe Heiser new something about Celebration Church that I did not. So, based on his credibility alone, I reached out. Long story short, I did not have a very good experience. But, that’s really not the thrust of this blog post. It’s really about what I discovered a year or more later when I went online yesterday to see what Celebration Church was doing. That’s when I oddly found their website devoid of any pictures or information about their pastor and founder, Weems. It didn’t take long before I found this article and that’s when everything finally fit into place.
My Experience with Celebration
Back to when I stretched way beyond my comfort zone and reached out to Celebration Church, to see if God might be calling me to fellowship with them. This was during the beginning of the pandemic, when churches were going online, but not with the same fervency as they would be in 2020 and 2021. I watched some videos, read the content on their website, saw what Dr. Heiser by then was doing with his AWKNG School of Theology. I’m still not certain what drove him to make this move. He could have done the same thing on his own while staying at Faithlife. It makes me wonder if he wasn’t looking for a change, or if Weems just threw so much money at him that he had to take the risk. There is also the possibility that Heiser saw the potentially captive audience in the mega church which had satellite sites all over the US and throughout the world. Without more information there really is no way of knowing for certain. I’ve listened to a few more podcasts from Heiser’s Naked Bible and he seems quite tight lipped on anything that’s happening these days at Celebration.
I will say, I also found Heiser’s interactions with Weems to be awkward at best. Weems doesn’t appear to be very rooted with a firm grasp of the Bible. I watched a few of his sermons and they were basically a kaleidoscope of trigger phrases jumbled together, not really having a coherent thread throughout. I was just so shocked that Dr. Heiser would team up with someone like this.
So, this would be something new for me (and apparently everyone else involved). Connecting with a local fellowship has proven unsustainable over the last 30+ years. Mostly because local leaderships seem content with keeping congregations swimming in the shallow end of the theological pool, never growing past infancy in Christ. And, it also doesn’t help that I’m naturally introverted and quite uncomfortable in large groups of people, or just being around people for any real length of time. The idea of participating in fellowship with other Christians online was fascinating. This would be my first actual attempt.
So, I sent my contact information in via email asking about membership and the introductory meetings they held online. I was immediately scheduled for one of the meetings on Zoom and I attended under a great deal of personal anxiety and nervousness. When the day came, I logged in and was introduced to a half dozen people, plus the assistant “pastor” (an unbiblical term that gets thrown around and used for all sorts of things – this was certainly not Weems), and we spent an hour or so following their script, talking about the pastor’s background, and going around the virtual room introducing ourselves.
Almost immediately, I sensed a Messianic Movement vibe among most of the people gathered together. Not completely, but the pastor kept talking about priesthood and one couple was definitely entrenched in some kind of works-based, Israelite ideology. At the end of the meeting, I was encouraged to fill out a card and they would get back to everyone about what meetings were next and how we could all get involved in classes or the weekly service.
I filled out the card, but their priesthood question I categorically rejected. Since this was the program being pushed from the top down, I never did hear back from anyone at Celebration Church. I did receive text message alerts for about two months, but even those eventually stopped altogether.
The Challenge with Mega Churches
I went about my business over the next year, not really thinking much about any of this at all. It was clear they were caught up in creating entertainment on Sunday’s, had little theological moorings, and would accept just about anyone and from any theological persuasion as long as they were willing to “connect” (which is translated: conform). This is typical of modern churches in my experience. I’m not certain if this is driven primarily by money, fame, or the ability to cater to the masses, creating passive entertainment programs so people will give money in exchange for outsourcing their faith to the professional clergy operating behind the scenes.
What is clear is that it is not biblical. No where do we see the church model in the New Testament with thousands upon thousands gathering together for a music concert, with speakers linking together platitudes and empty words, all in the name of promoting a program and enriching the founders.
And that’s when we get to the article I listed above. It appears a few months ago, financial irregularities surfaced that implicated Stovall Weems and his wife in mishandling millions of dollars. It is unclear exactly what happen since, in modern Christian style, Weems has filed a lawsuit against the church and the church has in turn either fired a large number of staff or they quit in protest (it is he said, she said at this point). It seems that there were several corporations created under the Celebration Church umbrella (typical), and the AWKNG corporation has apparently collapsed. How Dr. Heiser escaped the implosion is unclear. His school appears to still be operating under Celebration. He seems to have a new title, as Executive Director of the School of Ministry, which apparently means he has a website on their subdomain that hosts a half dozen online, on-demand, and live courses focusing almost entirely on Dr. Heiser’s research into the supernatural realm.
It still remains utterly baffling what Weems expected from hiring Heiser (if he expected anything at all), or what Dr. Heiser thought he could do from Celebration that he could not do in Washington State. He did mention a project with Johnna McKinnon about Live In Context, which is a small-group resource for the supernatural realm content. Oddly (and quite surprisingly) the resource (a website with 10 videos and extensive PDF discussion questions) appears to be free. This could stand alone as a course framework accompanied by Dr. Heiser’s book, Unseen Realm, an alternative to the way overpriced courses at Heiser’s School of Theology.
At this point, Weems and his wife have stepped down from the Church leadership and have filed suit. They claim they were being maligned by someone else in the organization who was spreading lies about them to cover up their own misdeeds. There are many online discussing the situation and it does appear that Celebration Church was anything but healthy.
But, this is systemic with most large churches like this – mega churches. And as I stated already, the greatest issue that all the other problems stem from is the amassing of money (this comes from the wedding together of capitalism and Christianity), and pride. Erecting an individual or a small group of individuals to popular positions, where they become the focal point of the congregation is not good for the congregation or the man being lifted up. Having these individuals derive their sole means of support from the church is likewise an unhealthy practice. Amassing congregations in the thousands (I would argue even in the hundreds) serves no beneficial purpose to the body of Christ. It only serves the one who profits off of it financially.
But, this is the way of modern evangelical Christianity. There is no stopping it. There is no reasoning with them. Likewise, the congregants’ hands are not in any way clean. There would be no mega churches if there were not people willing and excited to fill them. People tend to be spiritually lazy, unwilling to read the Bible for themselves, unwilling to sacrificially serve the body of Christ, but love the idea of paying an individual to be a proverbial scapegoat, transferring all their responsibilities to the “pastor” so they can shirk what would otherwise be their responsibilities. This subterfuge has resulted in generational changes in what we identify as the local church. It means something completely different than it did in the first century. Sadly, the spiritual health of the body reflects this change.
Status of Heiser’s School of Theology
As I said before, I don’t know how Dr. Heiser was able to escape the gravitational pull of the collapse of the AWKGS corporation. I don’t know how it was organized. He seems to be doing just fine occupationally, though with his recent cancer diagnosis and preoccupation with treatment, this might be one reason why he received some kind of reprieve. Celebration Church seems to have retained all of their locations and there is a link in the menu on the main page where they do address the investigation. It gives a small paragraph of description, plus 7 steps the church was instructed to follow by its attorneys. The link to the official report that would otherwise provide detailed information about the abuses is a dead link (not surprising).
As for Dr. Heiser, he seems to be doing fine and has not mentioned any of this on his podcast to date. Celebration Church has a new “pastor” couple and they are business as usual catering to as large and diverse group of people as they possibly can to continue to promote the program. I guess the more things change, the more they remain the same.
I’m thankful that I could spot something off with Celebration before I ever really got involved. It makes me leary to invest in a local or even an at a distance congregation for fear that once I do invest, news will break that the pastor or someone else in leadership has stolen money, abused children, or has carried on with an illicit affair. The single takeaway that I get from all this and the SBC scandals and the…well…seemingly every organization that claims to be Christian…God is not found here.
Until my next post……
Excerpt from The Light Aurora:
The door’s lock released and Dr. Lewis looked around at each of them.
“Stay close, and be ready for anything. I’m not sure if they’re all in the Command Center or if they are trying to secure Level 4. Hell, they could all be evacuating.”
He stared at Scott as he came up onto the landing.
“Let’s go,” Scott said.
Dr. Lewis pushed the door open and walked out into the hall, followed by the others – in ones and twos. Level 2 was similar to the other level, with a long corridor, doors on either side, all with security displays recessed into the wall next to them.
But, as they entered the corridor, Scott’s breath caught in his throat. As he stood there with the others, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In front of them, probably no more than a few yards away, were three bodies lying on the floor. One was sitting up against the wall, the side of his face melted, exposing his right eyeball and a good portion of his right skull. Another one was laying face down, his entire back opened up at the spine, as if his spinal cord had been ripped out of him from behind. The last one was a few more feet away from the others, on his back, his eyes seared from his head, black, burnt flesh where his eyes used to be.
The intercom came back to crackling life.
“Professor?” Derrick said over the intercom.
“Don’t worry. You can answer,” he said. “I can hear you.”
Scott looked up, then fixed his gaze on the security camera at the end of the corridor.
“Yes?” Scott finally asked.
There was a pause, static.
“What are you doing, Derrick?” he asked. “Did you do this?”
“Indeed,” Derrick said, coming back on.
“They refused to help me.”
“What are you trying to do, Derrick?” Scott asked.
There was another pause.
“I want to go home, Professor,” the boy said.
“Yes,” Derrick said, his tone soaked with some other-worldly confidence that did not belong in an innocent, ten year old boy.
“I want to go home, Professor,” he said again. “Would you be interested in coming home with me?”
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