On any given Sunday, hundreds of hip 20- and 30-somethings flock to Vintage church in Raleigh, swaying to Christian-rock music, their hands raised in worship.
The church describes itself as a "beautiful mix of downtown Raleigh-ites, families, college students, and empty nesters." With 800 to 1,000 people attending its services each week, the church has outgrown its current downtown location on West Street.
In December, the church purchased the 30,000-square-foot historic Long View Center across from Moore Square—in exchange for 7.8 acres on New Bern Avenue— for $2.2 million, cash. Of that, $400,000 came from congregants. The church plans to move to the Long View Center in July.
But contrary to the youthful, inclusive image that Vintage presents, its rigid theological views most closely resemble those of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. Vintage belongs to the Acts 29 Network, a vast evangelical church-planting endeavor founded by conservative Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll. Raleigh, in particular, has become a hotspot for Acts 29 churches. There are 16 Acts 29 churches in North Carolina, with five in Raleigh alone.
The name Acts 29 references Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament, which contains 28 chapters. Acts 29 envisions itself as the next chapter for the church. Until last year, Vintage founder and lead pastor Tyler Jones was the regional director of Acts 29 and served on the board of directors.
According to the church's communications director, Vintage's 2014 operating budget is nearly $2 million. A former staff member, who worked at Vintage until 2009 and had access to the church's financial information, said Jones and the other lead pastors "were making over $100K, with pastoral housing allowances and everything."
Jones refused repeated requests for an in-person interview.
"I'd call Acts 29 'hip fundamentalism,'" said Thomas Frank, a professor of American religious history at Wake Forest University. "It's an interpretation of the Bible that is rooted in Christian fundamentalist principles as articulated 100 years ago."
A former Vintage member named Laura agreed.
"They're fundamentalists in hipsters' clothing."
Sarah McCoy left Vintage in 2010. Now an associate pastor at Love Wins ministries, she couldn't accept Vintage's views on women.
"It became clear to me they did not honor my personhood in the same way they honored the male leadership," she said. "The work we do [at Love Wins] is all about people being equal in the eyes of the world and of God. I believe we are all fundamentally the same, no matter the gender."
Vintage and Acts 29 churches are unusual in that they are contemporary in liturgical practices but hold fast to outdated tenets such as a patriarchal church leadership.
Acts 29 churches are guided by five "doctrinal distinctives." One of these is "deep commitment to the fundamental spiritual and moral equality of male and female, as well as the principle of male headship in the church and home."
Women can be staff members in Acts 29 churches, but they cannot serve in teaching or leadership positions. Though Catholicism and other orthodox denominations don't allow the ordination of women, many Protestant denominations permit it. Progressive Episcopal churches allow the ordination of openly gay clergy.
Strangely, the Acts 29 organizations are not up front about this aspect of their structure. There is nothing about Vintage's refusal to ordain women on the church's website.
Amy Laura Hall, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University and elder at United Methodist Church, said that the Southern Baptist Convention recently tightened the reins on women in leadership, and that "there is a similar kind of discipline going on in the Acts 29 network."
"Their most consistent messaging to men is that they are re-masculinizing the church," Hall said. "It's been feminized and we need to re-masculinize Christianity. If young people stay a part of those churches, we will have a significant segment of that generation being very gender conservative on the natural hierarchy between men and women."
"It was communicated to us in sermons," Laura, a former Vintage member, said. "Pastors would talk about women, almost on it being a level of sin for a mother to work outside the home and it was a sin on the husband's part because he wasn't providing for the family."
McCoy said she also experienced "single-shaming" for being unmarried.
"It's one thing to say we as humans are meant for relationships," McCoy said, "but when you're made to feel like you're doing something wrong by being single, that's taking it to another extreme."
Another former congregant who asked not to be named, remembered a sermon in which Pastor Jones said the most important thing a woman can do is be a wife and mother.
"A lot of women in the congregation were really hurt by that," the former congregant said. "Many were single or divorced. That's a pretty strong statement."
She added that Vintage experienced a mass exodus in 2007 after it made its position on women clear. This was when the church began to move in a more fundamentalist direction.
"Vintage is an all-in community," she said. "It's a self-obsessed institution. It's obsessed with being Vintage."
The shaming at Vintage has not been reserved exclusively for women.
Another former church member, a man, said, "[The pastors] would bring people into the office. If a guy and a girl were sleeping together, they would bring the guy in and yell at him and kick him out of the church and tell people not to talk to him."
Jared Kaelin, a Vintage congregant, told me the church was "all about accepting people and showing your heart to the city."
Young people are drawn to Vintage because of the modern, upbeat services, centered on the experience of living downtown in a metropolitan area.
"Many attend for the sense of community," Amy Laura Hall explained. "They'll present with a guy's guy who talks about sex and is OK with drinking, which is a big thing for kids who grew up Southern Baptist," she said. "If their pastor doesn't hate on them for smoking and drinking, it seems cool. But there's also this language in urban areas about loving the city, being in the heart of the city."
Vintage even has a gallery space for Raleigh artists and musicians, which is open for First Friday. The church provides mentoring programs for middle schoolers and community services such as sexual abuse counseling.
A former member, Matt Moorman, said he was initially attracted to Vintage for its purported commitment to the city of Raleigh and its "outward focus, on things like social justice and feeding the poor."
But over time, Moorman said, "It seemed like the theological focus changed in ways I was increasingly uncomfortable with."
Win Bassett, a long-time Triangle resident, is now studying at Yale Divinity School. He said that people attracted to Acts 29 churches "identify politically with the more right side of the spectrum, but in liturgical practices they are not as orthodox."
Bassett suggested that the Triangle's proximity to Southeastern Baptist Seminary may contribute to Acts 29's popularity in the area.
Danny Akin, the seminary's president, confirmed that some of his graduates have been involved with Acts 29 evangelism. He said many of his students attend Vintage while studying at the seminary.
Mark Driscoll and Tyler Jones from Vintage have given talks at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on multiple occasions.
While Akin has spoken at Vintage and at Acts 29 bootcamps—training for pastors and potential church planters—he reiterated that no formal relationship exists between the seminary and Acts 29.
Akin said he admires the thorough vetting process of potential pastors and church planting candidates.
"It's rigorous, you go through an intense evaluation process," Akin said. "Southern Baptists and our Mission Board have picked up on things Acts 29 has done and learned from them."
Becoming a member of Vintage requires a level of devotion and accountability that extends significantly beyond that of a casual attendee.
The phrase "followers, doubters and seekers" is thrown around by Vintage people to describe the kinds of people they want to attract; while the church's official mission is to plant more churches and spread Christianity around the world, Vintage welcomes casual attendees, but has no time for members who aren't pulling their weight.
A document from 2010, no longer available on the Vintage website, describes the ideal composition for its congregation.
"Between one third and one half of a healthy, growing church's total weekly attendance should be church members," the document states. "If that number becomes too small, then the leadership pipeline is drying up, the church is not growing or new people are somehow not becoming members of the church family ... Conversely if that number becomes too large, there could be a lot of dead weight in the church and the leaders need to have a regenerative membership in place to remove members who do not participate, worship, give or serve."
This is not necessarily unusual; in Vintage's case there is a good reason for it. Professor Frank said Acts 29 churches need some level of exclusivity to survive.
"They are positioning themselves in opposition to the surrounding society," he said.
"If you teach that women are subservient to men and can't have leadership in the church, while meanwhile we live in a society where women hold leadership positions in all the industries and professions, and in Protestant churches, you're by nature in a defensive position. And that is part of the attraction. We don't believe the same things as everybody else and we know you don't either, come join us."
Professor Hall sees the rise of Vintage and Acts 29 as profoundly troubling.
"They tell young men that their problem is the rise of female power. They blame "'feminized'" men and dominant women."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fundamentalism in cool clothes."