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Church Culture

Alabama Pastor Highlights Challenges of Social Media, “Cancel Culture,” for Ministry Leaders

An Alabama pastor has come under fire in recent days after “liking” some hot-button issue statements on Facebook that some have contended were not “culturally sensitive.”

While Chris Hodges, pastor of Church of Highlands in Birmingham, has since issued an apology, the local school board and housing authority have cut ties with the church – decisions that have cost the church two locations where they hold services and ends an outreach effort where the church helped serve its community. The controversy has also stirred up debate on whether a few clicks of support on social media should warrant such a response.

Hodges leads the multi-site, multi-ethnic church, which is reportedly one of the largest and most diverse congregation in the state, drawing about 50,000 people each Sunday.

The pastor specifically came under fire after liking some tweets posted by Charlie Kirk, president of the conservative non-profit Turning Point USA. Kirk is reportedly known for being an outspoken supporter of President Trump and has taken some controversial stances related to politics, COVID-19, and while noting that racism is wrong, he contends white privilege is a myth.

Jasmine Faith Clisby, an English teacher at George W. Carver High School, took issue with Hodges affirming Kirk’s political opinions on Facebook and took her complaints to the media.

“I do not attend Church of the Highlands,” said Clisby, who told AL.com she “can’t see into Pastor Chris [Hodges’] heart.” But Clisby added that she found his support of Kirk’s posts as “culturally insensitive” and “troubling.

“I would be upset if it comes off as me judging him,” she said.It’s not that. I’m not saying he’s a racist. I’m saying he likes someone who post[s] things that do not seem culturally sensitive to me.”

In response to the criticism – and despite a public apology for his actions – the Birmingham Board of Education voted June 9 to no longer allow the church to hold services at two local high schools. The day before, the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District (HABD) voted to no longer let church volunteers and clinic workers from the church’s Christ Health Center carry out their ministry work at public housing communities.

“Commissioners agreed that Pastor Hodges’ views do not reflect those of HABD and its residents,” HABD said in a statement reported by AL.com, and Hodges’ values are not in line with those of HABD residents.

In response, the pastor said the church will continue efforts to serve all people in their community and maintain its financial support of the school system and encourage others to do the same.

As a pastor and, more importantly, as a follower of Jesus, I work to consider every action carefully, weigh every word, and be respectful of every person and opinion, as Christ taught,” said Hodges in a June 2 statement. “I realize that I have hurt people that I love deeply because I liked multiple insensitive social media posts. Each one was a mistake. I own it. I’m sorry.

He noted, “Over the last 20 years, our church and I have fought for the disenfranchised, marginalized, and hurting of ALL races in our community,” he said. But this week, I’ve learned that even with 20 years of loving and serving people, it’s still possible to have a blind spot that you just didn’t know was there.

Since then, some Christian leaders have weighed in on the controversy.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Resource Council, said the actions taken against the pastor and church will unfortunately have a negative impact on the community.

“Starting immediately, the church is banned from the city’s public housing communities,” he wrote on the organization’s website. “That means no more free COVID testing, no more free mentoring, health, or social service ministry – all because Pastor Chris dared to do what millions of Americans do every day: engage on social media.”

While disagreeing with the pastors’ actions on social media, Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today called the decisions made by the school board and public housing authority the wrong answer and a result of today’s “cancel culture.”

“Simply put, the cancel culture refers to the practice of withdrawing support for those in the public after they say or do something considered offensive by a certain group,” he wrote for Christianity Today’s website. “That’s what the Birmingham schools and housing authority just did.”

“Perhaps a better way is to take the time to look at the larger picture of a person or organization,” wrote Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and a dean at the college. “Each of us have said or done something at some point that deserves conversation or perhaps even confrontation. That is undeniable. But does every instance require a public shaming and, in this instance, a cessation of ties that has offered so much good to so many? We need a better way.”

Shawn Hendricks

Shawn is a writer, editor and communications strategist living in the Nashville area. He has covered faith-based news for more than 20 years. Among his most recent roles, Shawn directed the daily operations for Baptist Press as its editor. Hendricks accepted the position of Baptist Press managing editor in 2013 after serving two years in the same role for the Biblical Recorder, newsjournal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Before that, he served for nearly 10 years as a staff writer -- and later senior writer -- at the International Mission Board.