Houston United Methodist church planter Eric Huffman here shares his remarkable journey from Protestant radicalism to creedal Christianity. He’s from a multigenerational Texas Methodist family and lost his traditional faith but still attended a United Methodist seminary and gained ordination. His early pastorate focused on social justice while avoiding sin and salvation. A trip to Israel, intended to promote critique of Israel, instead enlightened him about the early church’s faith in Jesus as divine and risen Redeemer. Huffman founded a new congregation in Houston called The Story that shares traditional Christian doctrine and ethics with urbanites typically believed to be adverse to orthodox religion. This conversation will encourage you!
MARK TOOLEY: I’m Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and today I have the pleasure of talking to a fellow Methodist and pastor, Eric Huffman, who is a founder of a church plant in Houston, Texas called The Story Houston and has himself a remarkable spiritual background, illustrating movement across the theological and political spectrum, about which he wrote in a column for Firebrand this week. So Eric, it’s wonderful to see you and to talk with you.
ERIC HUFFMAN: Thank you, Mark, it’s really good to be here, it’s an honor.
TOOLEY: Well I’ve briefly outlined your background but tell us a little bit about where you’re from. You grew up in a conservative Christian household as I understand, went off to a Methodist college in a Methodist seminary that shifted you in a very different direction, and then a later shift. So outline some of that if you would please.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, well actually I grew up in a conservative town in a conservative part of the country for sure, Bowie County. And East Texas is about as conservative as it gets but my family actually was fairly, for the context I guess, more liberal. The only Democratic family that I knew of in my town, and caught a lot of heat for it over the years. But you know East Texas Democrats back then were not the same as what you might think of in terms of the typical Democrat today. Things have changed dramatically and the increased polarization. So they were sort of old-school, pro-life Democrats and I guess that breed has kind of died out at this point. But generally very conservative, especially on social issues even if my family might have had some more progressive leaning, a pro-union kind of economic preferences. Yeah, pretty conservative upbringing. I’m a fourth generation Methodist pastor, Wesleyan thought and practice is truly just coursing through my veins. It is it’s just who I am and it’s always been that way. I grew up in a Methodist church singing Methodist hymns, Wesleyan hymns, and so it’s very much a part of who I am.
TOOLEY: And so you grew up with that background and then you went off to a United Methodist college?
HUFFMAN: Yes, I went to and graduated from Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana and I was a religious studies major with a psychology minor, and it was during those years that I decided I’m not, I wasn’t a Christian anymore. And I know it’s kind of a cliché thing and I don’t like overdramatizing that part of my life too much, other than just to say that deconversion from Christianity was real for me. But because of, I guess what a big tent United Methodism had become, I still found a place in United Methodist circles even as I renounced my, the sort of evangelical faith I was raised with because I claimed this new social justice kind of religion that allowed me to stay in the fold and even end up in a United Methodist seminary. I wanted to become the kind of professor that led me away from the faith. I idolized him and I wanted to become the next version of him. And so I thought seminary was the right next step. And so I still remained in orbit of United Methodism, without even believing in the basic principles of the faith. And then off to seminary you went. Yeah I went to Saint Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, now in Leawood, Kansas. It has jumped the state line into the Church of the Resurrection facility, I think, it’s still there. But when I went there it was on the Missouri side on its own campus.
TOOLEY: And once again your theological trajectory moved in a non-orthodox direction.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, I had no idea really what I was getting into, and had I known I still would have chosen it, because that was exactly what I thought Jesus came to be about. To me, Jesus was not necessarily divine. He didn’t need to have risen from the tomb, all that mattered was the movement, the social movement that he initiated in the Church, subsequently picked up. The movement that lifts up the poor, protects the vulnerable, and stands up for the rights of the oppressed. And that’s all that I was about, really. And so Saint Paul stands for those things and has always stood for those things, as in kind of a 60s radical kind of a way. And while I appreciate much of the experiences that I had at St. Paul and many of the professors, I did graduate, looking back I graduated having known more about the ins and outs of liberation theology and womanist theology and things like that. And then I knew about, you know, why the Bible’s trustworthy and true and how it can be shared in compelling ways to make disciples. And so just an interesting little observation as I look back.
TOOLEY: And when you graduated, could you have recited the Apostles Creed without crossing your fingers?
HUFFMAN: Without crossing my fingers? No, absolutely not. In fact, you know, I used to, I’ve always had a little bit of an edge, a little sense of humor about me. And I used to make a game of it in picking and choosing the lines that I wanted to say whenever it was recited, and then leaving out the ones that I didn’t agree with, and so there were several lines that I would just stay quiet during, while picking and choosing the ones that I liked.
TOOLEY: And so you went into ordained ministry and worked in a church, I believe in Kansas City, and I suppose your mission was simply to create a better world to social and political action.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, you know I don’t want to demonize that life I was living too much because so much of it and the people around me at the time, was good, you know? It was well-intentioned, well-meaning, but just missing the most important piece. And it didn’t occur to us back then, it didn’t occur to me back then, why we were doing so much good work but we weren’t drawing any people to us. And we constantly were in a cycle of burnout and restart, burnout and restart. And constantly hitting the wall and you know, I, looking back it’s so clear, is because we were missing the most important part. We were missing a foundational faith in Jesus and his sufficiency, and we were trying to work out our own sufficiency by doing everything we were doing for the homeless population of Kansas City, and urban youth in Kansas City, and undocumented immigrants. We were doing some good stuff, and yet we constantly felt as though we were spinning our wheels. And that’s because no hearts were being transformed, no sin was being called out. There was no repentance, there was no going on toward perfection, it was just social change. How good can you be today? How much good can you do today? You know, and “woke” wasn’t really a thing back then but now we call it “woke.” Just how “woke” can you be today? And how can you one-up yourself from what you were yesterday? That kind of thing. And it just obviously will wear you out.
TOOLEY: So you were subscribing to this gospel of intersectionality, as we would call it now, but someone invited you on a trip to Israel whose agenda I take it was a political critique of modern Israel, but that was not the impact it had on you.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, it’s funny how God works, in looking back. My friend that made it possible for me to go to Israel, to the Holy Land, actually her words would be “I made it possible for you to go to Palestine.” She wanted me to see the Palestinian plight, she wanted me to see how the Zionists were destroying Palestine and Palestinians, and so even the organization that she chose to send me over with, that’s kind of their deal, too. And so that was the intent was to expose me as a potential mouthpiece for this anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian kind of platform, and for me to come back home with, you know, just on fire for this issue. And I came back home on fire but just for something completely different.
TOOLEY: And so you visited an archaeological site where there were some findings illustrating belief in Christ’s deity were far earlier than you had imagined.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, the whole trip was mind-blowing. The guide just so happened to be not this organization’s main guy, it was someone else that they contracted with for my trip because of some scheduling problems and again I just look at, I see God’s hand in this. This guy is, he has an evangelical heart, but he’s also an academic and an intellectual. He has a passion for archaeology, he’s licensed in some way as an archaeologist and he took us around the Holy Land but not to the traditional sites. He didn’t take us to the tourist traps. And had we gone to the tourist traps in our in our tourism stuff over there, I would have seen right through it. It would have fed right into my narrative at the time, but instead he would point over to the long lines of tourists and go, “Look at all those schools over there they’re getting duped by the industry and I’m going to tell you what really happened and where it really happened. The crucifixion didn’t happen on a hill far away. This is where Rome crucified people, right outside the city gate, right on this busy road. And look here in the Bible this is where it says people were walking by.
Anyway, all of these things just came crashing together, the biggest of which was in Capernaum which was kind of Jesus’s headquarters, and throughout his ministry Peter’s home was there, and so much of what Jesus did was centered around Capernaum. And in the aftermath of Jesus’s death, and at that time I would have said “supposed resurrection,” Capernaum was the headquarters of the early Church. And there’s that house, anyone that’s been in Capernaum knows what I’m talking about, there is an ancient house from the first century that now has this spaceship looking church on top of it. And what not everyone knows is what is actually inside of that house. And because of this guy I was with and his credentials we were able to get as close as anyone’s able to get to the interior of that house and see the inscriptions on the walls of that house, these etchings that the first century Christians left on the walls. And these, actually first thing he said was “You know what they say?” and he translated them for us and these etchings said things like “Lord Jesus Christ, worship the Lord God Jesus Christ” and things like that.And that wasn’t a big deal to me because I knew Christians have always said Jesus is their God, whatever. But then he said, “These are dated to the first half of the first century.” And Iknow it may not be a big deal for everybody but for me this was huge, because I had been told in programs in college and seminary to believe that the divinity of Jesus was a later invention. That no one who knew him truly thought he was God, that that was written into the story later. And here we have evidence from outside of the Bible, which I had been told was messed with through translation or opportunistic political maneuverings. Outside of that we had this archaeological evidence of people who knew Jesus in his day, his friends and family, calling him God and Lord posthumously, after his death.
And so all of these things came crashing down. First of all it’s people that knew Jesus personally, it wasn’t Constantine’s Edict of Milan. It wasn’t anything later, it was absolutely in real time and they called him God and they were Jews. So there was so much happening there that I could spend 30 minutes going into, but for me the question of whether people believed Jesus was divine in his time was settled. Then you have to answer the question “why?” Why do they believe he was divine? What could compel faithful Jewish people to call a man God? And so I had to grapple with the resurrection and all of my sort of ontological preconceptions began to crumble.
TOOLEY: And so did this have an immediate impact on your ministry once you got home?
HUFFMAN: Yeah, it was tough because I had to come home basically on the one hand repenting of the things I had said and done, just my general posture. I had been such a smart aleck, so cynical, and snide. I had been so insulting toward conservative Christians, and the things that I’d said about just white suburban Christians. And just so much hate and vitriol in my heart. I had to come back and recant from all of that, and I still find myself a little bit ashamed of the ways that I spoke then and things that I said, ways I misled people. So on the one hand I had to repent, on the other hand I had to try and re-teach as much as possible the people who were in my sphere of influence, in my churches, in my nonprofit organizations I was helping lead. To say, “Look, I know this is kind of what I’ve been saying but this is what this means, for me that Jesus was more than just a man, that he more than just start a social movement he was God, he is God.” And so if he is God, and he spoke of the Bible this way, I need to go back and figure out how I’m going to look at scripture and decide how seriously to take the Bible. If I take Jesus seriously, I must take the Bible seriously. And so that changes everything in terms of your ethics, right? In terms of what you teach, in your posture while teaching, you have to take on a certain humility. Sin becomes a bigger deal, and not just the social sins of white western Christianity or whatever. Like, my sin and yours becomes a bigger deal and so I lost a lot of friends that I have yet to regain, unfortunately. During that time it was very painful, and yet I know it’s exactly what God, this is exactly where God wants me to be. It still didn’t come without its share of pain.
TOOLEY: And so you founded this new church in Houston called the story which sounds very unique and esoteric. So tell us about that.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, it’s actually a part of a larger church in Houston, a big steeple, established church, St Luke’s United Methodist. I’m actually on staff with St Luke’s as an associate, technically, and my only role is to plant and lead this new community called The Story. And the reason why I chose to call this new thing The Story is I feel like the Bible is the biggest stumbling block for young, non-religious, agnostic people who choose not to engage with God or with Jesus. It’s not so much who Jesus is, it’s mostly about scripture, that’s where we hit the wall. And so I really wanted to talk about the Bible as the perfect story of God, and how there is no better story to tell, there is no better story to live than the one the Gospel presents to us. So it’s been five years now and you know, I don’t know how big or small our church is at this point. In this pandemic, we might be a mega church by now, or we might be back to me and 12 disciples. I’m not real sure, I’ll get back to you on that, for meeting in person again.
TOOLEY: Now we are commonly told that effective ministry among millennials, particularly your urban people in general, is to cater to their social and political preferences. But I take it you’re not exactly doing that, and yet your ministry seems to have thrived, so tell us about that.
HUFFMAN: Yeah, it’s really fascinating. Every time I preach a sermon and I think this is going to tick everybody off and people are going to leave, more people come. So every time I’m honest about sin and our need to repent, every time I get in people’s faces about things that they know are wrong but no one ever tells them it’s wrong. It’s amazing how much people crave that and hunger for that kind of accountability and honesty. I remember in the first six months of the story’s life I talked about pornography, and the struggles that I had during my days ofdarkness with pornography, and I confessed to my congregation. And I just said, “Look, this is why our doors need to be wide open to folks who are struggling with sin and at the same time we need to call people out and call people toward holiness.” I had young men come to me after that sermon men who grew up in mainline Methodist churches saying to me, “no one’s ever told me it’s bad for me to watch porn, no one’s ever told me it’s wrong. Mom and Dad always said it’s better to watch porn than it is to go sleep with girls.” And my mind is blown by this, but at the same time is it really surprising? Like, we’re living in a time now where, you know, people’s self-esteem and their feelings are preeminent and important. And so you can’t offend, you can’t tell people the truth about sin. And so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising when people say “I’ve never been told this is wrong, I’ve never been told this.” But they weren’t telling me that on their way out the door, they were telling me that on the way to membership class, you know? They’re joining up and telling their friends. And so I think people, there is still a deep hunger and longing for the Gospel truth and not just the grace that is often presented in big steeple mainline churches.
TOOLEY: Now when I first met you, seems like a century ago but it was in early march before the pandemic at a meeting discussing global Methodism as it may appear after the denomination divides. Of course overseas Methodism is growing, declining in America, are you hopeful that once we sort out this division that there can be growth and vitality for Methodism in America again?
HUFFMAN: I hope so. You know, sometimes it feels like there’s just one more obstacle after another. And yet I know too many stories of new churches and established churches that that find their way again and remake themselves and start preaching the gospel and doing it in a Wesleyan way, that they’re seeing growth. And so yes, I’m hopeful I am cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead for Methodism, specifically United Methodism in America. And you know it kind of makes me anxious to the point of paralysis to sit around thinking about when the next General Conference will be and what will happen, and so I just keep my head down and I just keep trying to make more disciples every day, and praying that the Holy Spirit will lead us forward. Here’s what I know: I know the hunger is there in culture and the further outside of just sanity that our culture gets, and the further away from any kind of defining principles that our culture drifts, the greater and deeper that hunger will become. And so we have to be ready, and I just pray for a day when the Methodist movement in America finds its roots again in Wesleyan thought and practice, but also in the discipline of church planting and giving ourselves away to make more new disciples for Jesus.
TOOLEY: Eric Huffman, pastor of The Story in Houston, Texas, thank you so much for an encouraging conversation.
HUFFMAN: Absolutely, Mark. Thank you for having me.