NASHVILLE: “Great content. World class content!” So says Gene Appel describing the program for the 2023 Spire Conference. It just completed its fifth year. Considering that LGBTQ+ affirming Podcaster Danielle J. Strickland was prominently featured and the rest were either outside the Restoration Movement “tribe,” employees of Spire, or sinecures from the board of The Solomon Foundation – “world class content” does not exactly make the heart race.


Which is the fundamental problem with Spire. What precisely is it about? Why was it started in the first place? 

Rick Rusaw doesn’t seem to know. Every year he “pivots” into something new, apparently suffering from shiny object syndrome. Initially, Spire was all about leaders – meaning paid staff.  Gone the longstanding egalitarian empowerment of all Christians by the North American Christian Convention. What our movement really needed, apparently, was an enlightened aristocracy. Next we are told social platforms and online campuses are absolutely essential elements for contemporary ministry. Those who fail to heed the warning, according to Rusaw’s ameliorative pragmatism, does so at their own peril. Spire even attempted to launch its own social media site – we all know how that went. In fact, it would take an inordinate amount of time to taxonomize each and every bungled initiative, misleading quote, false doctrine, blasphemous book, or just outright lies into a single blog post. 

The Spire Conference for all its hype is nothing more than what historian Daniel Boorstin called a “pseudo-event.” It’s part trade show, part infomercial, part convention for the various organizational consultants, book hawkers, and money-changers that have attached themselves to our movement. It’s a bit like a religious Comic-Con with marginally less cosplayers. Those who attend go to be part of the show, precious few still go to fellowship. 

Shepherd of the Hills‘ Executive Pastor Tim Winters appearing in one of Spire’s social media posts had this to say, “I love the connection and I love the community . . . I’m not going to say I love all the programming, I don’t come for necessarily that. . . ” he then immediately rolled back his comments with an apology. One wonders if this was a Freudian slip or something more significant indicating the fissures of internal division? 

It’s curious why Salvation Army Major Danielle Strickland was absent from the conference’s printed program. (Her first inauspicious appearance on the Spire stage came in 2017) I don’t remember her being listed  in any of the pre-conference publicity either. And why is it that when I tried to purchase this year’s content on their virtual platform – advertised for $300 and featured access to all main session speakers – I was told it wouldn’t be ready for two weeks? But two weeks later I was turned away once again – no explanation given. 

Consider this quote from an interview Gene Appel gave to Paul J. Pastor published by Outreach Magazine in October, 2017. 

“I had to wrestle in fresh ways during those years—with what it meant to love my neighbor as myself. In the town I’d grown up in that was much easier, because my neighbors were so much like me. I never had to confront my feelings about . . . people in the LGBTQ community, because if I knew them, it wouldn’t have been safe for them to come out where I grew up.”

Don’t get me wrong, discrimination and violence against anyone based on sexual attraction, gender, race, or ethnicity is an abhorrent evil. The issue is in how Appel suggests that Christians – once aware of a person’s sexual preference – would put that person in jeopardy. This is a counterfactual claim and reveals more about Appel’s disposition than it does about the thoughts and feelings of the denizens of his hometown. Always ready to share his afflatus about what the Restoration Movement needs, it’s as if he fancies himself the modern architect of our Christian brotherhood. Indeed, Appel is even heralded as a “legend” when greeted by one of his dutiful supplicants in a video recently posted by Spire. The clip ends with Appel making some self-congratulatory observation about the change in Spire’s demographics, even as he tearfully contemplates his own greatness. 

To the extent that Spire is an infomercial for what the organizers want to sell as today’s Restoration Movement, it is also a rally of superhero’s where a handful of megachurch pastors gather, each casting himself as a Man of Steele bestriding the narrow world like a colossus. 

Dave Stone, Rick Rusaw, Ben Cachiaras, Tim Harlow, Mike Breaux, Gene Appel, Mike Baker, Dave Dummitt, Doug Crozier, Todd Clark, and Jerry Harris make up the majority of these blinkered celebrity-wannabe’s and pseudo-experts. Men who sanctimoniously forced the convention down the path of evangelical populism, falsely promising to lead us to the sunny uplands of the future. 

In the end, even the most credulous have to ask: Is that all there is? 

Five years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, for all the talk of unity and the banal “we need each other” rhetorical devices,  the Independent Christian Churches are less connected, less supported, and more divided than before any of this began. As it turns out not only did these guys fail to deliver, but they inadvertently poked a hole in the underlying conceit of Spire’s brand.  Namely, that the growth and success of their respective congregations have more to do with a providence they don’t understand and fail to appreciate than it ever did with their own supposed genius. 

As for the chaos in the culture, the folks at Spire are in see-no-evil denial. After countless sermons, references to hard truths and sound doctrine are few, far between, and highly defensive. Anyone who disagrees with their pragmatism is labeled a divisive fundamentalist. It’s a very common form of argument, right? (Well, it’s not actually an argument, it’s a placeholder for an argument. After all, what can the leaders of Spire say? They made it clear from the beginning their calling card is utilitarianism.) And yet as Spire’s directors, they have left a trail of failures from Indianapolis to Anaheim, from the tribal reset welcoming false teachers onto the stage,  to the bowdlerization of orthodox theology. 

Interestingly, Spire, like the international Conference On Missions, still enjoys many of the RM’s built-in advantages, however the ICOM quietly outperforms Spire year-after-year – a tribute to the mature and insightful stewardship of the ICOM board. What’s more, as recent events demonstrate, the Brains Trust populating Spire’s C-Suite remain highly vulnerable to outside events, internal revelations, and unanticipated (but perhaps unsurprising) acts of God. Another compromise, another biblical plague – and everything changes. 

By Terry Sweany

Terry Sweany has served as senior minister of Playa Christian Church since 2006. His education includes a MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from Hope International University and a BA from Cincinnati Christian University. He is author of the book Life In Ministry and his greatest joy is helping people deepen their relationship with God. Terry lives in Westchester, California and is a member of the LAPD Pacific Division Clergy Council. He and his wife, Patty, have been married 38 years and have a daughter and granddaughter.

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