Shaun King: Courageous Church, Atlanta
Known by some as "The Facebook Pastor," Shaun King has leveraged social media to multiply the impact his smaller church, Courageous Church, has had worldwide.
Shaun King is the founder and lead pastor of Courageous Church in Atlanta, which also started A Home in Haiti to provide shelter and support in the aftermath of the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake there, and Twitchange, a Twitter-based celebrity auction to raise money for a variety of charities worldwide.
CONNECTION TO OUTREACH MAGAZINE: Courageous Church, was highlighted in the article “Service in Atlanta’s Inner-City” that was part of “The New Small Church” feature in the July/August 2009 issue. Courageous Church’s ministry A Home in Haiti was featured in the July/August 2010 issue in the article “A Place to Call Home.” And The Outreach Interview in the July/August 2011 issue features a wide-ranging discussion with King. More from that interview appears here.
Me valuing social media is central to our success with it, but if it was only me, it would never work. One of the reasons our church has had so much success with social media is we’ve taken time out to show our members how to use social media. The best thing that you could do—and this is what our church has done—is to find ways to empower every person in the church to be a part of the social media strategy. People from all age groups, all economic backgrounds really are already using it, and if they aren’t, they can learn very quickly. So, instead of having one person doing your social media strategy, even if you’re a small church of 50 or 100 people, if you have 15 people doing your social media, you already probably have 10 more than the largest churches in the country.
When did you become a Christian?
When I was in elementary and middle school, I was the kid that everybody invited to vacation Bible school. For me, it was just like arts and crafts time. It may have had an impact on me that I don’t even know to this day, but we never really attended church. From childhood all the way through my teenager years, my family were very nice people, but they really were not churchgoing people. It really wasn’t until something very brutal happened in my life that I even started having an awareness that I needed God.
When I was 15—I remember the date, it was March 8, 1995—I was assaulted very badly. I grew up in a very racist small town in Kentucky, and I had been harassed for my freshman and sophomore year. I was badly beaten by a group of guys. I had three spinal surgeries. I missed the rest of my sophomore year and my junior year recovering. I had fractures in my face, my ribs. I had a very bad spinal injury. Emotionally, it was a low point. I was not like Job. I had very little awareness of God or faith. And I was even suicidal. I never attempted suicide, but I thought about it. I just didn’t want to be anymore.
Physically it was painful. Emotionally it was brutal. I had a spinal surgery that failed. And the spinal surgery I had actually made my injuries worse. I had to have another spinal surgery like four days later. For that four days, I was just in torturous pain. Even now, I can remember it. I didn’t have a great context of who God was, but I knew that God existed, and I remember asking God to help get me through it.
A man started visiting me. I just knew him as my best friend’s dad, but he was a pastor of a local church. He came over and he visited me a few times, and he wasn’t real deep. He may have prayed with me, but I don’t even remember that. But I grew up without a father and when he came to visit me, it just had a big impact. He was one of the few men that came to check on me. I remember I wasn’t thinking I wanted to be a Christian. I just wanted to be like him. And I remember thinking, I really respect this guy. And his son, who is one of my best friends to this day and attends our church in Atlanta, they invited me to start coming to church. It took me a long time to recover from my injuries, but I started attending that church as a teenager, and I was eventually baptized there in that church. As a new Christian, I moved to Atlanta to go to college. I was just kind of brand-new in the faith, and my friend’s father, his name is Willis Polk, had such a big impact on me. He was a pastor, so I wanted to be a pastor. And I had been so beaten emotionally and physically, but that first church I was a part of, they just wrapped their arms around me and loved me. I went 16 years of my life having gone to church only a few times, never seeing myself as part of a church community, to loving it. And it became a central part of my life.
What are some of the advantages and challenges of being an urban church?
Christian culture, Christian language, churches are at the center of suburban life. The church is not at the center of the city. And things that immediately make a church appealing in the suburbs just may not work in the city. In the suburbs, people have said for years, “if you build it, they will come.” In the city, that’s just not the case. You are competing with far more voices and not only that, but the things that churches in the suburbs have come to value are not that valued in the city. In a lot of churches I speak in, marriage is promoted very heavily in suburban churches. People are not only encouraged to be married, but you’ll have a lot of marriage workshops and guest speakers to talk about it. In the city, people don’t value marriage like that. We have many couples in our church that live together and they’re not married, and they never plan on getting married. They’re not like a workshop away or a good marriage seminar away from getting married. And so, all of the things that often work in the suburbs may not translate to the city.
Our church is in what is probably the gayest area of Atlanta, one of the gayest zip codes of the entire country. In the suburbs, if you’re gay, you keep it a secret, particularly if you attend a church, whereas in the city of Atlanta, we have openly gay pastors. And regularly, we have people who attend our church who are openly gay, and they are not a sermon away from becoming heterosexual. In the suburbs, you can assume that most of the people attending your church are Christian or closely connected or maybe grew up in the church. The city is very different.
With that said, one of the things that’s really beautiful about being in the city is the diversity. The city is diverse economically. People may be homeless or on the verge of being homeless, but the richest people in our country also live in cities as well. So at our church on Sunday morning, you very literally may see a doctor and a lawyer and a chronically homeless man lifting their hands at the same time, praising God for three very different reasons. Even suburban churches that have ethnic diversity often have less economic diversity. But in the city, you see it all, and it’s exciting. Pastoring a church in the city is an adventure. People in the church are very skeptical. When I speak at a suburban church or a conference in the suburbs, I can almost guarantee you that everybody there is just going to accept what I say because you believe what pastors say. In the city, it’s just not that way. They want to know, ”Why am I supposed to believe you?” and that makes it difficult. You have to be very well-prepared. We do things like Q-and-A sometimes to give people a chance to really follow up with questions and it’s unique for sure.
How do you balance wanting to have somebody who’s gay or a couple living together be in church and listening to what you’re talking about and what the Bible says, but at the same time not wanting to come across like you’re embracing that what they’re doing is OK?
It’s probably been one of the biggest struggles of our church in the city. When our church whittled down to 55 people, it was not 55 people whose lives were together. It was several gay men, several people that had live-in boyfriends or common law marriages. I had this tough spot where I was thinking, If I start telling people that have a particular lifestyle that they can’t be an usher or they can’t volunteer, we won’t have anybody left. I had to say, “Wow, if you’re gay and can’t serve in our church, I’m going to be in trouble.” I never thought I would face this. I just wasn’t prepared for it. I am clear on what I believe the Bible says on issues of sexuality, marriage, and in spite of me speaking on these things, these wonderful people still love our church. I never thought open homosexuals would attend our church because there are churches that have openly gay pastors, but they love our songs, they love the message, they love the community, and so, what I’ve tried to focus on is loving people. The mission of our church is “Love God. Love People. Prove It.” When I talk about homosexuality or marriage, I share Scriptures and in these Scriptures, it’s so powerful, they’re always listed in a list of sins. And the truth is, homosexuality may be listed in the same chapter as lying. But what we do is we lift up one sin and magnify it over all the others. At the point at which people that lie can’t be an usher or people that have other problems dealing with living a life that’s holy and honors God, they can’t serve, I have to become the sin police, and I just don’t have time to do that. So what we do is we teach people what God’s Word says. We love them, and we know that particularly when you deal with issues of sexuality, that it’s way more complicated than churches have ever admitted. There is a way to publicly embrace something, and that’s very different than publicly embracing a person. Publicly embracing a gay man is different than saying, “I support any type of sexuality.”
How did you end up getting connected with Eva Longoria for A Home in Haiti and Twitchange? A lot of celebrities have gotten involved.
Eva Longoria has been central to the success of our campaigns for the past year, but before she was ever on board, A Home in Haiti had already provided probably about half a million dollars worth of tents, and our momentum had really started to die down. Literally, out of the blue, I get a phone call. I didn’t answer it. I didn’t recognize the number. It was a phone call from Eva Longoria. She left me a message. I wondered if it was really her. She told me that someone had told her about our project, and she wanted to be a part of it. So I called her right back—as anybody that gets a voice mail from Eva Longoria would— and it was her.
She had several close friends that just went to Haiti, and they came back and told her that the biggest need was shelter. She made the decision that she wanted to start a project to provide shelter to Haiti. She was part of like a community board at Microsoft. She called her friends at Microsoft and asked if they would help her build a project to provide tents and shelter to Haiti. In a few days, they told her that she should work with us. I guess they gave it the green light and saw that it was legit. We’d gotten some good press coverage already. I never asked her how she got my number. But somebody gave it to her and she called. I’ve told her this and I’ve said it publicly: I was really skeptical that having her on board would have a big impact. I thought it would help a little. But when she got on board, she was legitimately committed. She gave her own money; she encouraged her own friends to give real money to the cause. And then she started asking her friends to join the A Home in Haiti campaign. She asked them to tweet about it. If she had friends that had talk shows, she asked them if they would allow her to come and talk about it. So she was on Ellen. She was on George Lopez show. She was on E! talking about this. And after pushing that with her for several months, we went from having $500,000 of tents sent to three times that.
Before the earthquake in Haiti happened, I had this idea to have fans bid to have celebrities mention or follow or retweet them, and all the money can go to charity. I pitched the idea, no joke, to about 40 people, and only three people liked it. One of them was my wife. Let me tell you, my wife hates most of my ideas. When she liked it, I was like, “It must be legit.” We pitched it to several celebrities. (I hadn’t met Eva Longoria at that point.) None of them liked it. We even pitched it to several nonprofits, and they didn’t like it. But after the earthquake, after forming this relationship with Eva Longoria, we had some of the pieces in place that we didn’t have [before]. She liked the idea. She asked about 20 of her celebrity friends to get on board, and most of them said yes—like Ryan Seacrest, Kim Kardashian. We built out a website for it and started asking more and more celebrities to get on board. And for our first campaign, about 150 celebrities got on board from the first 20, and we were able to raise close to half a million dollars from that campaign, and that money went to charity. With that success, we just said, “Let’s try it again.” We did an auction with Troy Polamalu from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and all of those funds went to a charity for military troops and their families. We raised close to $150,000. We’re doing a new campaign with the organization CARE, and Eva Longoria is still our spokesperson for that campaign, and all of those funds go to provide education to girls in some of the toughest places on earth like Afghanistan and places where very few churches have any influence at all. CARE is doing amazing work, so all of the funds go to that cause.
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