**Editor's note 1: These are the opinions of the author, alone, based upon material that is readily available and open to the scrutiny of the public; they do not necessarily reflect any affiliations the author has, and should be regarded as wholly separate from any person or entity which has not publicly stated their agreement.
**Editor's note 2: There has been incredible response to this article. People have written us stories detailing the intensely personal hurt that they are still recovering from after sitting under heretical teaching. If you have a story to share, you can always email the author at email@example.com or with the contact form on this site.
**Editor's note 3: Neither the author nor the staff here at the Coffee-Break Collective has been contacted in any form by Venue Church. The author has asked us to remind those who would like to disagree that his words are subject to the same scrutiny that those he scrutinizes are. Dissenters are encouraged to dissent; they are protected by rights afforded them by the First Amendment.
I've known of Venue Church for a while, but I've known of churches like Venue ever since I heard about how greatly God abhors people who blaspheme His name.
I've been to Venue once before, and it was for a special service. A prayer service, actually--I heard that they were going to be gathering to pray after the mass shootings in Chattanooga a little while ago. I tried to sit near the back, but their staff pushed me up further, closer to the front. I didn't complain, but an hour's worth of nebulous spiritual hype later, I left feeling more or less ambivalent. I went to go pay respects and write the families notes at memorials, instead.
I began hearing more about this place purely in passing. A friend whose friend was fired from the student ministry because he didn't talk about Venue enough from stage. Someone mentioning their ministry that goes in and connects flash drives loaded with sermons to the TVs in nursing homes in order to count the people staring idly at them viewership. A pastor friend who asked the frontman of this church, whom I will get to in a moment, point-blank whether what he was starting was a cult. "It's not a cult," he allegedly said. "It's a culture. Call it what you like."
I was able to brush most of this off because I hadn't directly experienced it. It was all hearsay--hearsay from sources I trusted, but hearsay nonetheless. And then I saw these blasted videos that I am about to discuss and I couldn't get them out of my head. I was concerned, to say the least.
I put the videos on Facebook and texted them to trusted spiritual authority figures. When their responses referenced the same looking-at-roadkill nausea as mine, my concern became a burden.
I have heard from separate people about their individual attempts to approach Tavner and the leadership of Venue about their blatant mishandling of Scripture and the heresy being mistaken for truth coming from within their walls. In each case they were callously dismissed.
Here's the deal: It's going to look like I'm putting Venue and its head Tavner Smith on blast, partly because I am. But this critique it is not just an attempt to rip them for the sake of needing someone to rip; it is to desperately plead to anyone who will listen that they need Jesus. Tavner and his flock will not find flattery here, but I have taken pains to ensure that all quotes from Pastor Smith are accurate, that my commentary on them is clearly distinguished from what is quoted, and that my responses are, while harsh, grounded both in Scripture and in the desire to really, really see them turn a corner. If Tavner thinks that he has started a movement (and he does), imagine what God could do with him.
There is also the possibility that I've only watched twentyish minutes of consecutive footage and have gotten merely the bad apples of his teaching. I think that you will see, however, that it is not unfair of me to take what I have seen and extrapolate it into something that is, deficient of a better term, dangerous.
From here out, I will explain the two lengthy sources I am referring to, explain why what we are seeing is so distressing, and follow that with an exhortation.
If Jesus were not real, I would be an Atheist. No doubt in my mind. The way I see it, there are only two things in this world that can make room for such a bitter skeptic as me: Atheism and the Jewish stone-mason born of impossible circumstances for an impossible task in an impossible world for the impossibly humble reason of bearing witness to the Truth (John 18:37). Either Truth resides in the breast of this crucified, risen Messiah or it is nowhere at all; only one of those options' existences are big enough to entirely negate the other.
Since I have come to this conclusion from which I cannot escape and have cast the future of my forever at the Feet of One Who would still be perfectly just if He did nothing but toss me scraps from His table and watch me bark delightedly for them gratitude, whenever the name of that One who saved such a wretch as me is ground to mince, my jimmies get a bit rustled.
I don't particularly care if someone says that He doesn't exist. I'll gladly discuss the issue, but it is as I said, if it weren't for my King and the Truth that was, is, and will be, atheism would be the only logical option. It is Jesus or nothing at all. I get atheism (honest atheism. Not this New Atheism nonsense. But that's a different thought process) because I can see where it's coming from, however wrong it is. What I do get particularly upset about is when a snake dons a man-suit and starts splathering his blasphemy into a microphone in the name of that King of mine. When that snake starts willfully defaming His character, intentionally tracking mud into His pristine courts, taunting Him by His very precious name, and becoming something of a posterchild for Christianity in the process, I don't really know how to be quiet about it. It's as I said, I do not get riled up easily. I have a pretty strong stomach, but what you are about to witness made me physically nauseous.
These videos did worse than prove that what I'd heard was true: they proved that what I'd heard was not even the start.
Exhibits A and B
I will link to both of the videos I am about to discuss at the end of this post, because I do not want to waste your time up front with them unless you willfully give it. For now, take me at my word that what I am reporting to you is either a direct quote or a faithfully-rendered paraphrase (which you can check if you so desire by viewing the source material) of the poison that Pastor Tavner Smith actively drips into his enthusiastic congregation's ears. I have hand-transcribed every quote you are about to read by pausing each video and recording Tavner's words in a journal.
My intent in exposing false teaching is not to bring down a man; rather, the teaching from his mouth. Because this is some dangerous, dangerous stuff.
Man > God
"Don't get me preaching up in this place, because I'm going to give you the Bible."
"I'm preaching up in Venue Church right now," Tavner begins by shouting to a chorus of cheers. "The Heavens are His (God's), but the Earth He gave to men." "He set a decree in place that [said]: 'I am God and I rule the Heavens, but I have created a place [called] Earth that cannot be ruled by Me; it can only be ruled by something with a body.'"
Rule number one in Tavner's theology: God has no authority on the Earth He created. He doesn't just leave that thought out there naked, though. "Let me prove it to you," he says. "Because God doesn't have legal authority to operate in the Earth without a body, He needs men to accomplish His work." (Editor's note: the staff here at the Coffee-Break Collective has not found Scriptural basis for God's limp uselessness as Tavner describes it.)
Rule number two in Tavner's theology: God is powerless without men.
He continues: "From the beginning, God said, 'I'm going to make you, Adam, like Me--you're a spirit in a body and I'm going to give you dominion over the earth. I'm not going to interfere. I'm going to stay out here and if you want me to interfere, then you have to allow me to use you through your words and through your prayers and through your actions so that I can legally enter the Earth and do what I need to do.'"
Rule number three in Tavner's theology: Whenever we want God to "interfere," we have to invite Him to come down and interfere. Otherwise He just lets us be. An uncommitted Deism. A Lazy Great Watchmaker. A slothful version of the god of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams.
"That's why we pray!" He says, answering the age-old question of 'why pray?' "Why else would we have to pray? Because the Bible says He knows what we need before we ask Him. We pray to give Him legal authority to do something in our lives."
He emphasizes it with an exclamation point: "Man, I'm preaching!"
Coming up: rule #4. "That's why God made our earth rotate like it does, [so that] there are different time zones. Because He understood that He had to [make sure] there's always somebody awake somewhere in the world giving Him legal authority to come into the world to do something." Get it? That's why the Earth rotates. So there's always a human awake somewhere in the world to open the door for God to come down and do His work.
You may wonder why you've never heard this before. Don't worry; Tavner offers an explanation: "I know Billy-Bob backwoods preacher that you grew up with didn't tell you this, but that's because he was spouting off religious theology that didn't tell you the truth. They leave pages out of the Bible. But here, we don't rip it out of the Bible, we preach the truth even if it shakes us up a little bit."
He answers the howls of approval with another emphatic, "MAN I'm preaching!"
Man as savior
Tavner continues. "'I'm going to flood the Earth,'" he says that God says, I suppose despite God's utter inability to do anything on the Earth without man doing it for him. You know, that whole God Has no legal authority to do anything on earth; He needs man to do it bit. "'But if humanity is going to be saved, an ark has to be built, animals have to be gathered, and the Kingdom has to be preached. But I can't come down there and build it myself.'" That person saying "I can't" in Tavner's words, remember, is God.
"Any man can be used," he continues, "If you'll give [Him] your body to be used. He can't do it without us."
And he comes to the crux of the first video with the triumphant finale. Tavner "quoting" God here: "'I gotta get into the Earth. I can't save it from heaven [...] I gotta have a body to get my body through.' And so He visited a little girl named Mary. He had to use a little girl in order to get the Word of God into this place." And his triumphant end: "That's why, when people have issues with women preachers, I always take them back to Mary and say, 'If He picked a 14-year-old girl to carry the Word for the first time, why can't another woman get up and carry the Word?"
"Don't get me preaching up in this place," he says, "because I'm going to give you the Bible."
He touches the Bible for the second time since I started watching and he started quoting God. He hasn't read from it yet.
Man as End
"When I speak, things can break. When I speak, heaven moves. When I speak, the weight of God's glory moves.
Tavner interrupts an intoxicated worship set to tell his congregants, "The Bible tells us that what the enemy has stolen from you, God will make Him pay it back seven times." (Editor's note: The staff here at the Coffee-Break Collective assumes he's referring to Proverbs 6:31, in which Solomon is talking about the penalty for stealing in contrast to the penalty for Adultery)
He then picks some verses out of the 23rd Psalm to tell us what happens next: "But we will fear no evil. Why? Because God will prepare a table before us in the presence of the enemy. Because of the hell the enemy has put you through, he is going to have to put it back on your table sevenfold and watch you eat it." Make no mistake: Salvation, to Tavner, is entirely about you. You come to Jesus so that you can get what's coming to you (which, in Tavnerland, is not death and destruction [Eph. 2] but unending wealth and prosperity. You are the purpose. You are the end).
He explains where he gets this authority on this subject: "The enemy tried to take me out, but I made it. And I'M leading a move of God that is going to change this earth."
"God is going to make the Devil," he asserts, "sit at your feet and watch your cancer disappear."
I'll let that one sink in. Maybe embroider it on a pillow and give it to my friend who just found a tumor on his brain. Make it into a card, perhaps, and give it to my dad, who watched ovarian cancer eat his God-fearing mother alive. Show it to my friends whose two boys with Cystic Fibrosis are in the hospital every holiday, whose father works nigh constantly to pay their medical bills.
"I'm preachin' way better than you're sayin' 'Amen' right now," he says directly after this. A chorus of Amens. "Anybody crazy enough to pretend they can change the world," he adds of himself, "just might do it."
Tavner, it turns out, has quite a view of himself. First of all, up until this point in this particular service, he has explained that the only thing that keeps us from chasing God is the weight of our coats. Borrowing from the beggar casting off his coat to come follow Jesus, Tavner uses "coats" liberally: they can be anything keeping you from following God. Perhaps it is a persistent negative voice from a bad experience in your life. Perhaps it is a persistent, consistent sin. But the only thing weighing us down is that coat. We have but to cast it off. Our salvation is in our hands. Sort of. Let me get to it.
He continues to explain that he is the voice of authority of Venue church: "I am not just your pastor, I am a spiritual voice of authority over your life. [When] you come to this church, it is much more important who you're under than who you're over." Gracious Tavner wants to "put you on [his] shoulders and catapult you."
And, according to his particular theology, only he is able to do this. In fact, you need him, because, as he says, "When I speak, things can break. When I speak, heaven moves. When I speak, the weight of God's glory moves. When I speak, angels pay attention. When I speak, things happen." We need him to "declare freedom over" us, for his congregation is full of lowly churchgoers and he "just understand[s his] authority."
He waits for the crowd to begin swaying, murmuring, rising beneath the swelling music. He proclaims, "I am going to break this coat off of you with my words of authority, but you are gonna shed it the rest of the way."
There is no place in Tavner's sanctuary for Jesus; we do not need Him when we have His Lord Tavner to break our chains for us, and when we have our own will power to shed them the rest of the way off, so that we can run, unhindered, after God.
This video is considerably longer and more troubling, but I think that you are probably getting the picture.
Wolves In The Henhouse
The enemy will not come at us with missiles or suicide bombers; he will come at us with a Bible and a promise that everything we want is ours if we ask for it. But be assured that "Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."
That Satan character is interesting. He's called the Son of the Morning (Is. 14:12). The god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4). The Accuser--the chief among those who complain about people who believe in God (Rev. 12:10). He has said, "I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas" (Ez. 28:2).
Let's compare this mentality with some of the things Tavner has said of himself. He's distinguished himself from "Billy Bob backwoods preacher" who was "spouting off religious theology," a baseless accusation of who should be a brother in Christ. He has made an extensive case for mankind's ownership of the world, which Scripture reveals belongs to Satan. He has attributed his voice to the works of God: moving angels, shaking heaven, directing God's glory. He has given himself the authority to loose the chains and shackles binding his congregation and prohibiting them from pursuing God, a power which Paul attributes solely to Jesus (Romans 8:2, for instance). He has stated blatantly that God has no power on Earth, no authority to do anything at all unless men allow Him to do it, despite Paul's 2,000 year-old mic drop: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
You are beginning to see the trend. It is not a stretch to say that Tavner has elevated himself high into the morning sky so that he can best catch the light of the Son and be worshipped for how brightly he shines.
What is sorely lacking in anything that comes from the pulpit of Venue Church is the humility that Christ demands: the willingness to say, "Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." The willingness to admit that I am nothing; a dead man enslaved by my body and my temporality and my complete inability to do anything righteous on my own. My best efforts to cast off that coat under my own--or under Tavner's--power just coat it further in a word for feces that I won't write here.
What makes this so dire is that people are flocking to this man and to his congregation. Outreach Magazine ranked Venue #7 on its list of fastest-growing congregations in the country. Its purpose is not to help people see Jesus; Venue declares its purpose on their website: "So that people can live their fullest lives."
When Tavner was asked about why his church (and it is his church) is growing so fast, he praised his own efforts: it is his focus on "reaching the unchurched, especially those who hold a negative view toward Christians, as well as [Venue's] commitment to being active in the community and finding creative ways to invite people to church." (See linked article above for this quote)
The Church is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). Venue Church is the body of Tavner Smith, and any of the comments on their Facebook page will back this up.
Beware of false prophets, Matthew warns us, who come at you in sheep's clothing but inside are ravenous wolves. Be careful following anybody who says he's preaching the Bible without so much as touching it.
I should not be surprised that churches like this exist, but it just burdens me that it's going on in my home town, and that enormous numbers of people are simply rushing to it. 2 Timothy 4:3 tells us that this will happen: "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions."
I have not approached anybody at the church with these words, but not out of trepidation or fear of rejection. Based on the testimony of those who HAVE approached the church, whom I've talked to personally and whom I know to have gentle hearts and sound theology, I know that doing such a thing would be to cast my pearls before swine. Venue has a track record of rejecting Scriptural authority; Tavner has replaced it with his own authority, as proven by the words from his own pulpit.
My only agenda here has two forks: to exhort you, whether you attend Venue or you do not, to know what God has spoken so that you may identify false teaching when you see it, and to exhort you to follow only One person at a time who says, "Follow Me." A preacher of God's Word will never tell his congregation to take his words at face value, but will plead that they take the teaching home, study it, and examine it for error. Anything that is said with the intention of drawing you closer to God must not be self-serving or self-glorifying, but must point squarely to only One: the One Who explicitly states that He is the Way to the Father.
Whether this will reach Pastor Smith I have no idea. It is likely that if it does, I will be strongly rebuked by him and his flock not because I have truth from Scripture with all of the humility I can muster, but for speaking against their leader. That is okay with me, because their leader has spoken against mine.
Everything that I say is open to criticism. Always. These are my words, not the words of God; I am capable of accepting when I am wrong, though I have tried very hard to write not from a place of emotionality, but with measured language from a place of as much humility as I know how to have. Just don't get me preaching up in this place, because I'll start preaching Christ crucified, risen, and ruling still.