FORT WORTH — The pastor was already pacing when he gave the first signal. Then he gave another, and another, until a giant video screen behind him was lit up with an enormous colored map of Fort Worth divided into four quadrants.
It was an hour and a half into the 11 a.m. service of a church that represents a rapidly growing kind of Christianity in the United States, one whose goal includes bringing under the authority of a biblical God every facet of life, from schools to city halls to Washington, where the pastor had traveled a month after the Jan. 6 insurrection and filmed himself in front of the U.S. Capitol saying quietly, “Father, we declare America is yours.”
Now he stood in front of the glowing map, a 38-year-old White man in skinny jeans telling a congregation of some 1,500 people what he said the Lord had told him: that Fort Worth was in thrall to four “high-ranking demonic forces.” That all of America was in the grip of “an anti-Christ spirit.” That the Lord had told him that 2021 was going to be the “Year of the Supernatural,” a time when believers would rise up and wage “spiritual warfare” to advance God’s Kingdom, which was one reason for the bright-red T-shirt he was wearing. It bore the name of a church elder who was running for mayor of Fort Worth. And when the pastor cued the band, the candidate, a Guatemalan American businessman, stood along with the rest of the congregation as spotlights flashed on faces that were young and old, rich and poor, White and various shades of Brown — a church that had grown so large since its founding in 2019 that there were now three services every Sunday totaling some 4,500 people, a growing Saturday service in Spanish and plans for expansion to other parts of the country.
“Say, ‘Cleanse me,’ ” the pastor continued as drums began pounding and the people repeated his words. “Say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.’ ”
The church is called Mercy Culture, and it is part of a growing Christian movement that is nondenominational, openly political and has become an engine of former president Donald Trump’s Republican Party. It includes some of the largest congregations in the nation, housed in the husks of old Baptist churches, former big-box stores and sprawling multimillion-dollar buildings with private security to direct traffic on Sundays. Its most successful leaders are considered apostles and prophets, including some with followings in the hundreds of thousands, publishing empires, TV shows, vast prayer networks, podcasts, spiritual academies, and branding in the form of T-shirts, bumper stickers and even flags. It is a world in which demons are real, miracles are real, and the ultimate mission is not just transforming individual lives but also turning civilization itself into their version of God’s Kingdom: one with two genders, no abortion, a free-market economy, Bible-based education, church-based social programs and laws such as the ones curtailing LGBTQ rights now moving through statehouses around the country.
This is the world of Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White and many more lesser-known but influential religious leaders who prophesied that Trump would win the election and helped organize nationwide prayer rallies in the days before the Jan. 6 insurrection, speaking of an imminent “heavenly strike” and “a Christian populist uprising,” leading many who stormed the Capitol to believe they were taking back the country for God.
Even as mainline Protestant and evangelical denominations continue an overall decline in numbers in a changing America, nondenominational congregations have surged from being virtually nonexistent in the 1980s to accounting for roughly 1 in 10 Americans in 2020, according to long-term academic surveys of religious affiliation. Church leaders tend to attribute the growth to the power of an uncompromised Christianity. Experts seeking a more historical understanding point to a relatively recent development called the New Apostolic Reformation, or NAR.
A California-based theologian coined the phrase in the 1990s to describe what he said he had seen as a missionary in Latin America — vast church growth, miracles, and modern-day prophets and apostles endowed with special powers to fight demonic forces. He and others promoted new church models using sociological principles to attract members. They also began advancing a set of beliefs called dominionism, which holds that God commands Christians to assert authority over the “seven mountains” of life — family, religion, education, economy, arts, media and government — after which time Jesus Christ will return and God will reign for eternity.
None of which is new, exactly. Strains of this thinking formed the basis of the Christian right in the 1970s and have fueled the GOP for decades.
What is new is the degree to which Trump elevated a fresh network of NAR-style leaders who in turn elevated him as God’s chosen president, a fusion that has secured the movement as a grass-roots force within the GOP just as the old Christian right is waning. Increasingly, this is the world that the term “evangelical voter” refers to — not white-haired Southern Baptists in wooden pews but the comparatively younger, more diverse, more extreme world of millions drawn to leaders who believe they are igniting a new Great Awakening in America, one whose epicenter is Texas.
That is where the pastor wearing the bright-red T-shirt, Landon Schott, had been on the third day of a 40-day fast when he said the Lord told him something he found especially interesting.
It was 2017, and he was walking the streets of downtown Fort Worth asking God to make him a “spiritual father” of the city when he heard God say no. What he needed was “spiritual authority,” he remembered God telling him, and the way to get that was to seek the blessing of a pastor named Robert Morris, an evangelical adviser to Trump, and the founder of one of the largest church networks in the nation, called Gateway, with nine branches and weekly attendance in the tens of thousands, including some of the wealthiest businessmen in Texas.
Morris blessed him. Not long after that, a bank blessed him with the funds to purchase an aging church called Calvary Cathedral International, a polygonal structure with a tall white steeple visible from Interstate 35. Soon, the old red carpet was being ripped up. The old wooden pews were being hauled out. The cross on the stage was removed, and in came a huge screen, black and white paint, speakers, lights and modern chandeliers as the new church called Mercy Culture was born.
“Mercy” for undeserved grace.
“Culture” for the world they wanted to create.
That world is most visible on Sundays, beginning at sunrise, when the worship team arrives to set up for services.
In the lobby, they place straw baskets filled with earplugs.
In the sanctuary, they put boxes of tissues at the end of each row of chairs.
On the stage one recent Sunday, the band was doing its usual run-through — two guitar players, a bass player, a keyboardist and two singers, one of whom was saying through her mic to the earpiece of the drummer: “When we start, I want you to wait to build it — then I want you to do those drum rolls as we’re building it.” He nodded, and as they went over song transitions, the rest of the worship team filtered in for the pre-service prayer.
The sound technician prayed over the board controlling stacks of D&B Audiotechnik professional speakers. The lighting technician asked the Lord to guide the 24 professional-grade spotlights with colors named “good green” and “good red.” Pacing up and down the aisles were the ushers, the parking attendants, the security guards, the greeters, the camera operators, the dancers, the intercessors, all of them praying, whispering, speaking in tongues, inviting into the room what they believed to be the Holy Spirit — not in any metaphorical sense, and not in some vague sense of oneness with an incomprehensible universe. Theirs was the spirit of a knowable Christian God, a tangible force they believed could be drawn in through the brown roof, through the cement walls, along the gray-carpeted hallways and in through the double doors of the sanctuary where they could literally breathe it into their bodies. Some people spoke of tasting it. Others said they felt it — a sensation of warm hands pressing, or of knowing that someone has entered the room even when your eyes are closed. Others claimed to see it — golden auras or gold dust or feathers of angels drifting down.
That was the intent of all this, and now the first 1,500 people of the day seeking out those feelings began arriving, pulling in past fluttering white flags stamped with a small black cross over a black “MC,” in through an entrance where the words “Fear Go” were painted in huge block letters above doors that had remained open for much of the pandemic. Inside, the church smelled like fresh coffee.
“Welcome to Mercy,” the greeters said to people who could tell stories of how what happened to them here had delivered them from drug addiction, alcoholism, psychological traumas, PTSD, depression, infidelities, or what the pastor told them was the “sexual confusion” of being gay, queer or transgender. They lingered awhile in a communal area, sipping coffee on modern leather couches, taking selfies in front of a wall with a pink neon “Mercy” sign, or browsing a narrow selection of books about demonic spirits. On a wall, a large clock counted down the final five minutes as they headed into the windowless sanctuary.
Inside, the lights were dim, and the walls were bare. No paintings of parables. No stained glass, crosses, or images of Jesus. Nothing but the stage and the enormous, glowing screen where another clock was spinning down the last seconds as cymbals began playing, and people began standing and lifting their arms because they knew what was about to happen. Cameras 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 were in position. The live stream was on standby. In the front row, the 85-year-old retired pastor of the church this used to be secured his earplugs.
What happened next was 40 nonstop minutes of swelling, blasting, drum-pounding music at times so loud that chairs and walls seemed to vibrate. The huge screen became a video of swirling clouds, then a black galaxy of spinning stars. The spotlights went from blue to amber to gold to white. A camera slid back and forth on a dolly. Fog spilled onto the stage. Modern dancers raced around waving shiny flags. One song melded into the next, rising and falling and rising again into extended, mantralike choruses about surrender while people in the congregation began kneeling and bowing.
A few rows back, the pastor stood with one hand raised and the other holding a coffee cup. And when the last song faded, a worship team member walked onstage to explain what was happening in case anyone was new.
“The Holy Spirit is in this room,” he said.
Now everyone sat down and watched the glowing screen. Another video began playing — this one futuristic, techno music over flash-cut images of a nuclear blast, a spinning planet, advancing soldiers, and when it was over, the pastor was standing on the stage to deliver his sermon, the essence of which was repeated in these kinds of churches all over the nation:
America is in the midst of a great battle between the forces of God and Satan, and the forces of Satan roughly resemble the liberal, progressive agenda. Beware of the “seductive, political, demonic, power-hungry spirit that uses witchcraft to control God’s people.” Beware of “freedom that is actually just rebellion against God.” Beware of confusion. Beware of “rogue leaders.” Beware of a world that “preaches toleration of things God does not tolerate,” and on it went for a full hour, a man with a microphone in a spotlight, pacing, sweating, whispering about evil forces until he cued the band and gave instructions for eternal salvation.
“Just say, ‘Holy Spirit, would you teach me how to choose to obey you,’ ” he said, asking people to close their eyes, or kneel, or bow, and as the drums began pounding again, the reaction was the same as it was every Sunday.
People closed their eyes. They knelt. They bowed. They believed, and as they did, people with cameras roamed the congregation capturing peak moments for videos that would be posted to the church’s website and social media accounts: a man with tattooed arms crying; a whole row of people on their knees bowing; a blond woman in a flower-print dress lying all the way down on the floor, forehead to carpet.
When it was over, people streamed outside, squinting into the bright Fort Worth morning as the next 1,500 people pulled in past the fluttering white flags.
“Welcome to Mercy,” the greeters said again.
By late afternoon Sunday, the parking lot was empty and the rest of the work of kingdom-building could begin.
One day, this meant a meeting of the Distinct Business Ministry, whose goal was “raising up an army of influential leaders” across Fort Worth.
Another day, it meant the church hosting a meeting of a group called the Freedom Shield Foundation, a dozen or so men huddled over laptops organizing what one participant described as clandestine “operations” around Fort Worth to rescue people they said were victims of sex trafficking. This was a core issue for the church. Members were raising money to build housing for alleged victims. There were always prayer nights for the cause, including one where church members laid hands on Fort Worth’s sheriff, who sat with a Bible in his lap and said that the problem was “the demonic battle of our lifetime” and told those gathered that “you are the warriors in that battle.”
Another day, it meant the steady stream of cars inching toward the church food bank, one team loading boxes into trunks and another fanning out along the idling line offering prayers.
A man in a dented green sedan requested one for his clogged arteries.
A man trying to feed a family of seven asked in Spanish, “Please, just bless my life.”
A stone-faced woman said her mother had died of covid, then her sister, and now a volunteer reached inside and touched her shoulder: “Jesus, wrap your arms around Jasmine,” she said, and when she moved on to others who tried to politely decline, the volunteer, a young woman, gave them personal messages she said she had received from the Lord.
“God wants to tell you that you’re so beautiful,” she said into one window.
“I feel God is saying that you’ve done a good job for your family,” she said into another.
“I feel God is saying, if anything, He is proud of you,” she said in Spanish to a woman gripping the steering wheel, her elderly mother in the passenger seat. “When God sees you, He is so pleased, He is so proud,” she continued as the woman stared straight ahead. “I feel you are carrying so much regret, maybe? And pain?” she persisted, and now the woman began nodding. “And I think God wants to release you from the past. Say, ‘Jesus, I give you my shame.’ Say, ‘Jesus, I give you my regret,’ ” the volunteer said, and the woman repeated the words. “ ‘You know I tried my best, Jesus. I receive your acceptance. I receive your love,’ ” the volunteer continued, and now the woman was crying, and the food was being loaded into the back seat, and a volunteer was taking her name, saying, “Welcome to the family.”
Another day, the Kingdom looked like rows of white tents where a woman in a white dress was playing a harp as more than a thousand mostly young women were arriving for something called Marked Women’s Night.
“I feel the Lord is going to be implanting something in us tonight,” a 27-year-old named Autumn said to her friend, their silver eye shadow glowing in the setting sun.
“Every time I come here the Lord always speaks to me,” her friend said.
“Yeah, that happens to me all the time, too,” said Autumn, who described how the Lord had told her to move from Ohio to Texas, and then to attend Gateway Church, and then to enroll in a Gateway-approved school called Lifestyle Christianity University, where she said the Lord sent a stranger to pay her tuition. Not long after that, the Lord sent her into an Aldi supermarket, where she met a woman who told her about Mercy Culture, which is how she ended up sitting here on the grass on a summer evening, believing that the Lord was preparing her to go to Montana to “prophesy over the land” in anticipation of a revival.
“I don’t understand it; I just know it’s God,” Autumn said.
“So many miracles,” said her friend, and soon the drums were pounding.
They joined the crowd heading inside for another thunderous concert followed by a sermon by the pastor’s wife, during which she referred to the women as “vessels” and described “the Kingdom of Heaven growing and taking authority over our nation.”
Another day — Election Day in Fort Worth — hundreds of church members gathered at a downtown event space to find out whether their very own church elder, Steve Penate, would become the next mayor, and the sense in the room was that of a miracle unfolding.
“Supernatural,” said Penate, a first-time candidate, looking at the crowd of volunteers who’d knocked on thousands of doors around the city.
A candidate for the 2022 governor’s race stopped by. A wealthy businessman who helped lead the Republican National Hispanic Assembly drove over from Dallas. The pastor came by to declare that “this is the beginning of a righteous movement.”
“We are not just going after the mayorship — we’re going after every seat,” he said as the first batch of votes came in showing Penate in sixth place out of 10 candidates, and then fifth place, and then fourth, which was where he stayed as the last votes came in and he huddled with his campaign team to pray.
“Jesus, you just put a dent in the kingdom of darkness,” his campaign adviser said. “We stand up to the darkness. We stand up to the establishment. God, this is only the beginning.”
Another day, 100 or so young people crowded into a church conference room singing, “God, I’ll go anywhere; God, I’ll do anything,” hands raised, eyes closed, kneeling, bowing, crying, hugging. At the front of the room, a man with blond hair and a beard was talking about love.
“Everyone says they have the definition for what love is, but the Bible says, ‘By this we know love,’ ” he said. “Jesus laid down his life for us, and we are to lay down our lives for others.”
He dimmed the lights and continued in this vein for another hour, the music playing, the young people rocking back and forth mouthing, “Jesus, Jesus,” trancelike, until the blond man said, “It’s about that time.”
He turned the lights back on and soon, he sent them out on missions into the four demonic quadrants of Fort Worth.
One group headed east into Competition, a swath of the city that included the mirrored skyscrapers of downtown and struggling neighborhoods such as one called Stop 6, where the young people had claimed two salvations in a park the day before.
Another team headed west toward the green lawns and sprawling mansions of Greed.
Another rolled south toward Lust, where it was normal these days to see rainbow flags on bungalow porches and cafe windows including the one where a barista named Ryan Winters was behind the counter, eyeing the door.
It wasn’t the evangelicals he was worried about but the young customers who came in and were sometimes vulnerable.
“Maybe someone is struggling with their identity,” Ryan said.
He was not struggling. He was 27, a lapsed Methodist who counted himself lucky that he had never heard the voice of a God that would deem him unholy for being who he was, the pansexual lead singer of a psychedelic punk band called Alice Void.
“I never had a time when I was uncomfortable or ashamed of myself,” he said. “We all take care of each other, right, Tom?”
“Oh, yeah,” said a man with long gray hair, Tom Brunen, a Baptist turned Buddhist artist who was 62 and had witnessed the transformation of the neighborhood from a dangerous, castoff district that was a refuge for people he called “misfits” into a place that represented what much of America was becoming: more accepting, more inclined to see churches in terms of the people they had forsaken.
“It’s all mythology and fear and guilt that keeps the plutocracy and the greed in line above everybody else,” Tom said. “That’s what the universe showed me. If you want to call it God, fine. The creative force, whatever. Jesus tried to teach people that it’s all one thing. He tried and got killed for it. Christianity killed Jesus. The end. That’s my testimony.”
That was what the kingdom-builders were up against, and in the late afternoon, Nick Davenport, 24, braced himself as he arrived at his demonic battlefield, Rebellion, a noisy, crowded tourist zone of bars, souvenir shops and cobblestone streets in the north part of the city. He began walking around, searching out faces.
“The sheep will know the shepherd’s voice,” he repeated to himself to calm his nerves.
“Hey, Jesus loves y’all,” he said tentatively to a blond woman walking by.
“He does, he does,” the woman said, and he pressed on.
“Is anything bothering you?” he said to a man holding a shopping bag.
“No, I’m good,” the man said, and Nick continued down the sidewalk.
It was hot, and he passed bars and restaurants and gusts of sour-smelling air. A cacophony of music drifted out of open doors. A jacked-up truck roared by.
He moved on through the crowds, scanning the faces of people sitting at some outdoor tables. He zeroed in on a man eating a burger, a red scar visible at the top of his chest.
“Do you talk to God?” Nick asked him.
“Every day — I died twice,” the man said, explaining he had survived a car accident.
“What happened when you died?” Nick asked.
“Didn’t see any white lights,” the man said. “Nothing.”
“Well, Jesus loves you,” Nick said, and kept walking until he felt God pulling him toward a young man in plaid shorts standing outside a bar. He seemed to be alone. He was drinking a beer, his eyes red.
“Hi, I’m Nick, and I wanted to know, how are you doing?”
“Kind of you to ask,” the man said. “My uncle killed himself yesterday.”
“Oh,” said Nick, pausing for a moment. “I’m sorry. You know, God is close to the brokenhearted. I know it doesn’t feel like it all the time.”
He began telling him his own story of a troubled home life and a childhood of bullying, and how he had been close to suicide himself when he was 18 years old, and how, on a whim, he went with a friend to a massive Christian youth conference in Nashville of the sort that is increasingly common these days. A worship band called Planet Shakers was playing, he said, and deep into one of their songs, he heard what he believed to be the voice of God for the first time.
“The singer said if you’re struggling, let it go, and I halfheartedly said, ‘Okay, God, I guess I give it to you,’ and all of the sudden I felt shaky. I fell to the ground. I felt like a hand on my chest. Like, ‘I have you.’ I heard God say, ‘I love you. I made you for a purpose.’ When I heard that, I bawled like a baby. That was when I knew what I was created for. For Jesus.”
The man with red eyes listened.
“Thanks for saying that,” he said, and Nick continued walking the sidewalks into the early evening, his confidence bolstered, feeling more certain than ever that he would soon be leaving his roofing job to do something else for the Lord, something big. He had been preparing, absorbing the lessons of a church that taught him his cause was righteous, and that in the great spiritual battle for America, the time was coming when he might be called upon to face the ultimate test.
“If I have any choice, I want to die like the disciples,” said Nick. “John the Baptist was beheaded. One or two were boiled alive. Peter, I believe he was crucified upside down. If it goes that way? I’m ready. If people want to stone me, shoot me, cut my fingers off — it doesn’t matter what you do to me. We will give anything for the gospel. We are open. We are ready.”
Ready for what, though, is the lingering question.
Those inside the movement have heard all the criticisms. That their churches are cults that prey on human frailties. That what their churches are preaching about LGTBQ people is a lie that is costing lives in the form of suicides. That the language of spiritual warfare, demonic forces, good and evil is creating exactly the sort of radical worldview that could turn politics into holy war. That the U.S. Constitution does not allow laws privileging a religion. That America does not exist to advance some Christian Kingdom of God or to usher in the second coming of Jesus.
To which Penate, the former mayoral candidate, said, “There’s a big misconception when it comes to separation of church and state. It never meant that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics. It’s just loving the city. Being engaged. Our children are in public schools. Our cars are on public streets. The reality is that people who don’t align with the church have hijacked everything. If I ever get elected, my only allegiance will be to the Lord.”
Or as a member of Mercy Culture who campaigned for Penate said: “Can you imagine if every church took a more active role in society? If teachers were preachers? If church took a more active role in health? In business? If every church took ownership over their communities? There would be no homeless. No widows. No orphans. It would look like a society that has a value system. A Christian value system.”
That was the American Kingdom they were working to advance, and as another Sunday arrived, thousands of believers streamed past the fluttering white flags and into the sanctuary to bathe in the Holy Spirit for the righteous battles and glories to come.
The drums began pounding. The screen began spinning. The band began blasting, and when it was time, the pastor stood on the stage to introduce a topic he knew was controversial, and to deliver a very specific word. He leaned in.
“Submission,” he said.
“We’ve been taught obedience to man instead of obedience to God,” he continued.
“God makes an army out of people who will learn to submit themselves,” he continued.
“When you submit, God fights for you,” he concluded.
He cued the band. The drums began to pound again, and he told people to “breathe in the presence of God,” and they breathed. He told them to close their eyes, and they closed their eyes. He gave them words to repeat, and the people repeated them.
“I declare beautiful, supernatural submission,” they said.