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How Christians Are Rebuilding a Relationship with Colorado Springs

Six weeks after Stu Davis left his job as pastor at one of Colorado Springs’s largest churches in 2013, most of his kitchen appliances broke. Then his car broke. When his employee health insurance ran out, all three of his children had to make separate visits to the hospital.

“There were definitely times when I was angry at the Lord,” Davis said. “It was just a super, super hard season.”

Those trials made Davis think differently about the role of the church in his city. He had helped build a large youth program at Woodmen Valley Chapel, an ambitious multiyear missions project to Swaziland, and, if he was being honest, a big platform for himself. But he hadn’t really focused on the problems of people struggling in Colorado Springs.

The experience changed him. He says the trials “dislodged” him. Now, Davis serves as the executive director of COSILoveYou, a Christian nonprofit that connects nearly 100 local churches to address suffering and promote flourishing in Colorado Springs.

In some ways, Davis’s story is the story of evangelicalism in Colorado Springs, the city of 464,000 that celebrates its 150th birthday this July. Evangelicals were really successful in the city starting in the 1980s, earning it the title of the “evangelical Vatican” as Colorado Springs became a platform for high-profile Christian leaders. Then there were some broken appliances—some dislodging—and the city’s evangelicals rediscovered the importance of caring for their local community.

“The majority of local churches that would describe themselves as evangelical churches have started to step back or dial back,” Davis said, “and focused a lot more on either gospel-centered issues or locally centered issues.”

Deb Walker, the former executive director of Citizens Project, an advocacy group that originally formed to oppose politically active evangelicals in the city, doesn’t know what to make of the change. But she definitely noticed.

“They changed their focus, their outward focus, to other things, so we didn’t have anything to explicitly oppose,” she said about her time at Citizens Project from 2014 to 2020.

Three decades ago, Colorado Springs became an evangelical seat of power. The city’s business leaders recruited dozens of parachurch organizations to pull the city out of economic hardship, offering the ministries cheap land, low taxes, and a city eager to have them.

When Focus on the Family opened its $30 million headquarters in 1993, founder James Dobson was given the keys to the building by a team of Air Force Academy skydivers while the mayor and a US senator applauded. By 1994, there were more than 60 ministries in the Springs. Today, they have a combined annual revenue of more than $1.7 billion, according to local journalist Steve Rabey.

The list includes Focus on the Family, Compassion International, The Navigators, Young Life, Promise Keepers, Association of Christian Schools International, and Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society).

With all the active evangelical Christians moving to the city, a number of local churches grew in prominence, including New Life Church, First Presbyterian Church, and Woodmen Valley.

With the help of new evangelicals in the area, there was an effort to change the state at the ballot box. The most famous example is Amendment 2, amending Colorado’s constitution to prohibit the recognition of gay, lesbian, or bisexual people as a protected class.

The measure was supported and promoted by Focus on the Family and other evangelical groups, and people saw it as a declaration of a Christian agenda.

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Dobson was the most prominent politically active evangelical in the Springs in the 1990s. He seemed continually frustrated in his attempts to rally opposition to Bill Clinton and America’s moral decline, writing in 1998 that he was driven to despair by Americans’ willingness to wave off questions of character if the economy was doing well. While he didn’t stop Clinton, he did succeed in polarizing the local community.

“One of the things that makes Colorado Springs and gives it its reputation is not because there are so many evangelicals there, but because there are so many people who are not evangelical,” said Will Schultz, historian at the University of Chicago Divinity School and author of the forthcoming book Jesus Springs. “In terms of local power, in terms of being able to shape local politics, the 1990s are mostly a decade of frustration.”

The next decade, the city served as a platform to elevate megachurch pastor Ted Haggard to prominence. As the founder and pastor of the rapidly growing New Life, he became the president of the National Association of Evangelicals in 2003.

Haggard was less engaged in culture war than some of his peers. He did, however, eagerly support George W. Bush and celebrate evangelical access to the White House.

Haggard’s very public scandal, involving accusations of meth use and sex with a male prostitute in 2006, marked a turning point in Colorado Springs, locals say. It certainly started a transformation at New Life.

“Our reputation was soiled and broken when I came here because of the scandal,” said Brady Boyd, the senior pastor who succeeded Haggard.

To rebuild the trust, Boyd started asking what the community needed. He was surprised when he realized that the church didn’t know.

“It was stunning to us, startling to us, quite honestly, that our church had ignored the cries of the poor right here in our own city,” he said. “It’s one thing to promise the city that you’re here for their good; it’s another thing to show the city that you’re here for their good.”

That realization motivated New Life to build an apartment complex for 800 single mothers experiencing homelessness, which opened in 2015, and after that, a medical clinic for women.

Others didn’t go through scandal but similarly felt a need for change. Dobson left Focus on the Family in 2010, and the organization stopped spending time on locally controversial cultural issues.

“They decided to get out of politics, which was good for them,” said Dorian Wenzel, a local lesbian author who has written about the culture wars in the area. “I was surprised Focus on the Family mellowed down, and I think they lost a lot of revenue, a lot of support.”

Public tax records show that total revenues, which had been trending upward, dropped $21 million in 2010 and another $14 million in 2011.

Leaders of First Pres, the home congregation for many working in Christian ministries, felt the church had turned inward and grown quarrelsome because of the culture wars. Pastor Tim McConnell said there was “a season of resentment and anger and bitterness.”

The church decided that the answer was to turn outward and find ways to stretch their hands out to the city. In 2014, First Pres leaders and members teamed up with other area churches to organize CityServe Day, an event featuring worship and community service. It was so successful, they did it again the next year.

There are still plenty of conservative Christians active on the national stage from Colorado Springs, including Dobson and television evangelist Andrew Wommack. Evangelicals and other conservative voters still make the city and El Paso County a Republican stronghold.

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In many churches and ministries, though, the focus has shifted. Where evangelicals once seemed like they were polarizing the city, now they’re looking for common ground and practical ways to serve their neighbors.

“Our city sees us differently,” McConnell said. “We are showing up in places of need—and when we show up, people who disagree with us on any number of issues are glad we’re there.”

COSILoveYou recently held its COSILoveSchools Day, when 26 churches volunteered at 30 schools. At Monterrey Elementary School, members of one evangelical church wrote letters to encourage teachers. At Mark Twain Elementary, volunteers from another church did landscaping work and reorganized the library. The day wasn’t for evangelizing, just helping, Davis said.

The COSILoveYou director says that through the initiative, evangelicals and nonevangelicals in the city “are starting to migrate a little more towards the middle” and see each other as neighbors.

Davis’s own journey is a testament of that, as he went from sitting with other prominent pastors in the state and country at Woodmen Valley to sitting with elementary school principals in a teacher’s lounge, asking them about what their schools need.

“If the Lord had not dislodged me from a very comfortable, effective youth ministry role that I was in, that I had been dreaming about for a long time,” Davis said, “if he had not dislodged me from that, there’s no way I would be doing what I am doing now.”

Liam Adams is a reporter in Colorado.

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