BY DUNCAN OSBORNE
An evangelical ministry that was dedicated to supporting church groups that have the eradication of homosexuality as part of their mission shut down on December 31 after operating for roughly a decade.
“It’s time to say goodbye to Redemption Group Network, the non-profit organization founded to support the training and development of Redemption Groups,” Mike Wilkerson, the founder and executive director of the network, wrote in a November 26 email. “We’ll be closing down by December 31st, 2019 and discontinuing all activities, including hosting the content on redem
ption group s.com and any training or licensing for Redemption Groups.”
Wilkerson developed the structure for redemption groups in 2007 and 2008 when he was a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, a mega-church that was founded by Mark Driscoll, a now-disgraced pastor who was known for his right-wing views on theology and social matters. The theory that underpinned redemption groups was that the doctrine used in any church group had to conform to the doctrine that was preached from the church’s pulpit.
In 2011, Wilkerson published “Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry,” which was the textbook for redemption groups. The book treats eating disorders, alcohol and drug addiction, and other known mental illnesses as sins or forms of suffering that are best addressed with religious doctrine and practice. Same-sex attraction, which is not a mental illness according to every major mental health organization in North America, is another sin or form of suffering that can be ameliorated by participating in a redemption group, the book argues. It also addresses behaviors, such as using pornography, that is not a mental illness, but maybe disturbing for an evangelical.
Wilkerson’s book uses the Book of Exodus, an Old Testament book, as the model for freeing participants from sin. Exodus tells the story of the Israelites winning freedom from slavery under the Egyptians. Wilkerson devotes an entire chapter to telling the story of Ben who “spent years living in the bondage of a homosexual lifestyle.” In another chapter, the book mentions a man named Steve who struggled with his attraction for older men. The book has a blurb by Nate, who “spent a decade in habitual sin and idol worship, including lust and homosexual prostitution.” This view is consistent with Driscoll’s preaching.
In a 2005 sermon on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Driscoll said, “This society is so gross that not only are the men perverted, but they pervert their boys and their boys beat them to the orgy… I want you to just feel the sickness that’s in this town... Every man eats dinner and runs to the homosexual rape orgy, and the boys are keeping pace with the men.”
The Sodom myth tells the story of two angels who visit Lot in Sodom. All the males in the town gather outside Lot’s home and ask to have sex with the angels.
In 2014, Driscoll was fired from Mars Hill, which had grown to 15 locations drawing an estimated 15,000 worshippers on Sundays, after disclosures that he had plagiarized other authors in his books, hired a private agency to make bulk purchases of his books to boost their rankings on bestseller lists and run Mars Hill in an authoritarian fashion. He is now the pastor at The Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. Mars Hill shut down.
Searches for “redemption groups” suggest that these groups are currently operating at churches across the country through the numbers appear to be small. A number of churches that are part of the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting group that Driscoll co-founded in 1998, appear to use the curriculum.
The Sojourn Network, another church-planting organization, also appears to have churches, including one in New York City, that use or have used the redemption group model and Wilkerson’s book. The Apostles Church Network, which has churches in Manhattan and Brooklyn, operated redemption groups and recommended Wilkerson’s book as recently as 2016. Apostles are part of the Sojourn Network.
The rankings on Amazon in “Christian spiritual growth” and “Christian pastoral counseling” suggest that the book sells, but not particularly well. The Redemption Group Network was a 501(c)(3) and its Forms 990 show that it raised just under $40,000 in 2016, just under $20,000 in 2017, and just over $11,000 in 2018.
“I’m no longer the person to provide leadership for Redemption Group Network, both because of my need to pursue financially viable work and also because I’m changing theologically such that it’s no longer a good fit for me to write, teach, and train in support of Redemption Groups,” Wilkerson wrote on the group’s website. “Both developments — vocational and spiritual — have occurred organically over the past few years, as those of you with whom I’ve stayed in touch know well.”
Wilkerson would not speak on the record and The Apostles Church Network did not respond to an email seeking comment.