UPDATE: Within an hour of publishing our story, Vocativ learned that Pastor Heath Mooneyham was arrested in Joplin for a DWI on Sept. 16. At no point during the writing and fact-checking of this article did Mooneyham or other leaders of Ignite church reveal the arrest, which occurred a few days after our reporter returned home from southwest Missouri.
Ignite announced on Sunday that Mooneyham will relinquish “direct leadership” for a “period of time” while he seeks counseling. “I have made an incredibly foolish and reckless mistake,” said Mooneyham in an apology now posted to YouTube. “It’s not just this one event, though, but rather a lifestyle of rebellion and unnecessary reckless behavior that has continually put the very mission I passionately love in real jeopardy.”
Pastor Heath Mooneyham takes a giant pull from his pint of Miller Lite and drops his dinner order on a buxom young bartender. “Get me some badass cheese fries,” he says, earning a few laughs from his buddies flanked beside him at the bar.
It’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday 20 miles outside of Joplin, Missouri, where Mooneyham helms a church for dudes by dudes called Ignite, with a core mission to win over men, ages 18 to 35. An hour earlier, the 36-year-old pastor had wrapped up his spiritual work for the evening by leading a group prayer—set to heart-thumping Christian rock riffs—in Ignite’s blackened auditorium. With his big Sunday sermon tomorrow morning, Mooneyham is taking the edge off at the Indigo Sky Casino, a weekly ritual that consists of pounding beers with his bros in Christ and—at least tonight—hitting on waitresses.
“What the hell is this supposed to be?” Mooneyham asks the young woman, pretending to be puzzled by the pile of food now in front of him. “This is potatoes with alien sperm.”
It’s the same two-fisted style that’s part of Mooneyham’s growing appeal among young men, who make up a majority of his congregation, and also what makes him repellant to so many others.
“There are a lot of people who love me in Joplin,” he told me earlier, explaining why we had to drive to a casino 20 miles from town to have a drink. “And there are plenty of people who hate my stinkin’ guts.”
After a few more pints, the pastor starts in on a second female bartender. “Are you coming?” he asks, taking a long pause to let the sexual innuendo set in. “I mean tomorrow. To church.” The men all laugh.
The uncomfortable employee sizes up the hulking man in front of her with the mohawk and tattoos in a football jersey and says no, she doesn’t plan on going to church.
“What’s the matter? Do you have freakin’ daddy issues?” he persists. Actually, her father is a Baptist minister. The pastor has struck out, but Brad Blankenship, Mooneyham’s friend and cousin, offers a more aspirational interpretation. “That’s a real chick at a real job that’s been ruined by religion,” he says. “That’s the type of person who needs to hear Heath’s message.”
As the red-blooded spiritual leader of Ignite’s rapidly growing 800-strong congregation, Heath Mooneyham has grand ambitions to get his message out, and he doesn’t care who he alienates in the process. Earlier this summer, the husband and father of four earned Ignite some national exposure when he raffled off a pair of assault rifles for Father’s Day services, hoping to lure a few more lost male souls through his doors. To promote the giveaway, Pastor Heath cut a YouTube video in which he proclaimed that the day’s grand prize, a Black Rain AR-15, would allow one “lucky dude” to “double-tap a zombie in style.” Then he goaded his target audience into showing up to church on time.
“You’re a big boy. You got big balls between your legs. You’re a dad, right? Get up, set your alarm, don’t be a wuss.”
Highlight Reel: Watch Pastor Heath’s “Shock and Awe” Bro-Bible Beatdowns
It didn’t take long for a photo of the two lucky dads, smiling and clutching their brand-new assault rifles, to go wide on the Internet. There were headlines across the spectrum from Breitbart to ThinkProgress to the New York Daily News, prompting a chorus of riled readers to pile on. Commenters called Mooneyham and Ignite everything from “fake Christians” to “fucking retards” and “money whores.”
Mooneyham was characteristically unapologetic. “If we get people in the door, we get to preach the gospel,” he told the Joplin Globe. “If we can get more people to follow Jesus, I’ll give away 1,000 guns. I don’t care.”
Instead of responding to critics with the kind of gun-nut vitriol East Coast liberals might expect, Pastor Heath lampooned himself in a spoof video based on Jimmy Kimmel’s popular “mean tweets” segment.
It was around that time that I first reached out to Mooneyham, and he explained his mission to me in the kind of blunt terms that has won him so many tried-and-true followers. “We’re just a bunch of dudes with beards and beer guts and hot wives,” he said. “We love our God. We love our country. We love our trucks. And we love our guns.”
Founded in 2008, Ignite isn’t the first evangelical operation to drum up a passionate following with a call to manliness. Mark Driscoll‘s Mars Hill megachurch reached more than 15,000 people on 15 campuses before his sexist, homophobic rabble-rousing recently caused what appears to be the church’s implosion. Mooneyham and his message stop short of Driscoll’s toxic rhetoric, but the pastor’s alpha male persona and appetite for controversy make him an obvious heir apparent. While Ignite currently attracts a comparatively modest 800 attendees each week, it is by all accounts poised to explode. Dozens of men already come to Joplin from as far away as Arkansas and Oklahoma to hear the pastor speak on Sundays. And Ignite is set to open a second church next month in Neosho, Missouri. With its lively, well-produced videos on YouTube, Ignite is already reaching thousands more online.
The church draws its base from Joplin and the surrounding foothills of the rural Ozarks, deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, best known as the setting for the film Winter’s Bone. There are no fewer than 300 churches for the town’s 50,000 population, and the conservative Christian hold over broad swaths of the community is powerful. It’s a region where spiritual Baptists shun drinking and dancing, Pentecostals still speak in tongues and Church of Christers don’t allow instruments.
Joplin made headlines in May 2011 when a catastrophic tornado ripped through the middle of town, killing 161 people and causing nearly $3 billion in damage. A few months earlier, Mooneyham and Ignite had caused their own havoc with a series of provocative billboards challenging Christians about sex.
“Before the tornado hit, we were known around these parts as the sex church,” he says as we ride through Joplin in his white Ford F-150. (There’s a handgun attached to the driver’s side door and a pile of loose bullets on the dashboard.) The billboards, meant to promote a series of talks he had prepared on sex, featured a man and woman entwined next to the tag “God is pro sex. It should be exciting.” A website in large font, “MySexLifeSucks.org,” redirected to Ignite.
Mooneyham argues that God created sex and married Christians should be having as much of it as possible. “It’s a gift and it’s beautiful and it’s pleasurable, but we’ve demonized it,” he says. Many spouses find themselves unsatisfied as a result, which tempts them toward adultery, pornography or other carnal sins.
He knew the billboards would get attention. And predictably, they did not go over well with the people of Joplin, who accused him of “porno-fying the church” and exposing their kids to sex in front of the Sonic drive-thru. Mooneyham argued that the people featured in the sexual poses were married. Like the gun giveaways, the story eventually went national. It was Ignite’s first taste of notoriety and a defining moment for the church, which had remained relatively obscure since Mooneyham founded it three years earlier, after God spoke to him while he was urinating on a wall.
“We create most of our controversy,” he admits. “My favorite response to critics when they’re ripping us a new asshole is ‘You’re probably right.’ That usually shuts them up.”
But sex sells, even in church. The first week the billboards went up, 53 initiates gave their life to Christ at Ignite.
When the tornado hit, Ignite was spared from the wreckage, and its members sprung into action, housing and feeding people and driving them to and from the hospital. They spent eight weeks holding church services in a tent outside. According to Mooneyham, Ignite logged over 250,000 volunteer hours and distributed more than two million pounds of supplies. As life started to return to normal, people stuck around, and then more started showing up.
For anyone who spent their lives hating church, avoiding church or simply not going at all, the appeal is immediate. Mooneyham doesn’t spend much time harping on homosexuals, breathing hellfire and brimstone or wading into partisan politics. He doesn’t care how you showed up to church on Sunday, as long as you were wearing clothes. Nor does he throw a stink about drinking, smoking or chewing. He promises that church would only last an hour, start and end on time, and never be boring.
“He cuts through all of the crap,” says Craig Roberts, 26, who wandered away from his Baptist upbringing and ended up at Ignite four years ago. “Church is supposed to be about Jesus.”
And apparently Jesus loves entertainment. Ignite entices members to keep showing up with weekly events like dodgeball tournaments and sisterhood shootouts, which it promotes in irreverent videos (the former features a congregant taking a shot to the groin). Their live rock band rips, shreds and tears through worship services. And a dynamic display of video and other multimedia enhance Mooneyham’s presentations, which members can follow on two giant screens or with an Ignite smart phone app.
Week after week, Mooneyham uses the gospel to punch back against what he perceives to be a rising tide of emasculation. He’s delivered a series of Sunday talks called “Grow a Pair” and “Band of Brothers,” and the church offers male leadership courses with titles like “Spartan” and “Fight Club.” He’s performed baptisms at Ignite-sponsored tailgate parties and instructed married couples to go home and have sex every day for a week. And there’s rarely a Sunday where Mooneyham doesn’t praise a big truck, a big gun or a pair of big balls in the same breath that praises Christ.
The church itself is located just off Route 66, which runs through Joplin and is lined with fast-food chains, pawn shops and check-cashing outfits. It’s housed in an old grocery store with a modern face-lift, and from the outside, there’s no obvious way to tell it’s a church. The only iconography on the exterior is Ignite’s logo, a stylized flame symbol that resembles the one used by Black Label skateboards.
Inside, every detail is the result of a deliberate branding decision made with the target demo in mind. That means there are no prissy pastels, flowers or potpourri. The color scheme is a mix of black, gray and what church leaders call “zombie green,” and there’s a vintage Atari arcade game in the men’s bathroom. It feels more like a Jet Ski dealership than a house of worship, with its core values depicted in images of grenades, mustaches and fist-pumping DJs.
“If you’re a guy standing for Jesus, you don’t have to line up to be castrated,” Mooneyham says.
Pastor Heath isn’t shy about admitting that the intense messaging is all part of the plan. “Churches should lead the way in creativity, marketing and branding,” he says. “Strip clubs do a better job at getting people through their doors.”
To that end, he’s borrowing from the playbook perfected by Joel Osteen and other megachurch pastors who built their empires by deploying corporate-style growth strategies. Attracting men to churches has become a major preoccupation for many Christian leaders in the last decade, and few have cracked the code. There are books like Why Men Hate Going to Church and articles on Christian websites that ask “Where are the real men?” Congregations—from 121 Community Church in Grapevine, Texas, to Arizona’s Christ’s Church of the Valley—have tailored their religious experience to be more appealing to men, who are outnumbered by women in attendance in every major Christian denomination and are 25 percent less likely to attend weekly services, according to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey.
Ignite dials in the chest-thumping evangelism while tapping a potent vein in the shared belief that American virility has taken a crippling blow to the balls. “I think this world needs a lot more masculinity in it,” Mooneyham recently told a room of Ignite members. “I think it’s really passive and feminine and sissy, and I’m sorry if that offends you, but it’s just the truth.”
Ignite’s crucial pivot is that real manhood exists only in a life devoted to Christ. “We’re saying God gave you certain parts, man,” Mooneyham told his church in August. “Act like it.”
About 45 minutes south of Joplin, at the end of a steep and winding dirt road, Mooneyham’s 5,300-square-foot mega-cabin is a temple to a particular kind of manliness. Built atop a hill on 2,000 acres, the compound has its own barbecue trailer for giant cookouts and a floor-to-ceiling television for watching football. The kitchen stove ducts have custom vents traced from .50-caliber Browning machine gun cartridges, and there’s a mounted buck’s head in his office. He’s halfway through building his own bar on the first floor. “I bet you don’t see a lot of pastors with a pub in their house,” Mooneyham beams. Notably absent are crucifixes, inspirational proverbs or any other Christian iconography you might expect to see in the home of a spiritual leader. I didn’t even see a Bible.
“I don’t need a bunch of shit on my walls to tell you that I love Jesus,” Mooneyham says.
He takes me down to a secret room on the lower level and flips a switch to reveal an arsenal of assault rifles, shotguns and ammunition. His most cherished weapon is a .50 BMG sniper’s rifle, which can tear through a target more than a mile away. Church members chipped in $3,800 to buy it for him in celebration of Ignite’s fifth anniversary last year.
“You pull that trigger and it makes your pecker hard,” he says.
Pastor Heath tells me that dozens of Ignite’s faithful turned out each weekend over the last year to help him complete the construction of his home, donating their labor, trade skills and materials to the cause.
Heather Talley, the 30-year-old lead singer of Ignite’s rock band, hand-stained most of the cedar inside the home. She’s visiting with Tim Talley, 26, her husband and Mooneyham’s right-hand man, along with several other members of the church’s inner circle. She and Tim attended a Pentecostal church for years, where her platinum blond hair, nose ring and Marvel comics T-shirts didn’t go over so well. They found a home in Ignite. “It was life-changing to walk through those doors,” she says. “I was given a freedom that I never had before. A freedom from religion. A freedom to grow in Christ.”
Mooneyham ducks off into another room and resurfaces with a Black Rain assault rifle. His eldest son, Elijah, 9, turns to me and asks: “You bring your AR?” Everyone laughs. Apparently, a pack of feral pigs has recently arrived on the Mooneyham property from God knows where, and we have to hunt them down. With huge guns in hand, we try for two hours. But after walking miles around the property, it turns out there are no pigs, only gobs of sweat and ticks. When we pass some box turtles copulating, Mooneyham stops dead in his tracks. “Look at them bang!” he crows. “Don’t touch them, Elijah!”
Later that night, we take turns filling plastic cups of Coors and Miller Lite from the kegerator in Mooneyham’s pub while the pastor works a stack of burgers and brats on the grill. No prayers are spoken at the dinner table. There’s no proselytizing or Jesus talk. Instead, Mooneyham raps about college football and his favorite band, Metallica.
“Heath is real,” Tim Talley tells me on the ride home. “He’s not going to bullshit you.”
Mooneyham didn’t grow up religious, and he describes his own conversion, at age 27, as a violent collision with Christ. He got out of rural Missouri at age 18 by joining the Army. But instead of shaping up, he says he nearly burned out. “Within the year, it was nonstop cocaine, nonstop booze, nonstop women,” he says. “I’m an addict by nature.” He lasted three years in the military before winding up back home. Then he started getting arrested, doing a 30-day stretch at one point for being the driver in a robbery.
Mooneyham tried to clean up his act. He married his wife, Kensey, who dragged him to church, even if he was drunk or hungover. After a couple of years, he gave his life to Christ. In 2006, on a break from work at his pressure-washing business, Mooneyham says he was taking a leak on a building when God called on him to sell everything and join the ministry. “It was the strangest piss of my life,” he says. He tried out a few gigs as a youth pastor, but he found the churches spiritually stifling. “I hated the person I had to become,” he says. “I was this full-blown religious asshole. It wasn’t me.”
He bristled at what he thought were a bunch of bullshit rules he was asked to follow. “Bro, it was the boringest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” he says. And he resented what he perceived as hypocrisy among the practitioners, who would don their best Sunday faces but act differently throughout the week.
He started Ignite in his living room with four people in October 2008. Since then, he’s delivered the message of Christ without having to dress or act the part.
To watch Mooneyham pace up and down the aisles of his church in track pants and a Notre Dame football jersey—and go apeshit as the Fighting Irish crush Michigan on two giant 12-foot screens—is to see how well the environment he created in his own image suits the mission. Friends joke that Mooneyham’s Notre Dame fandom is almost scary, “like a sickness.” But it also offers a glimpse of Mooneyham’s self-described “guerrilla-style” preaching, which he says relies on the shock and awe of the Bible’s undisputed truth.
“I only get 30 minutes a week to kick you in the nuts and stomp on your toes,” he says. “You’re not going to like it.”
Mooneyham spends most of his time ripping into dudes, whom he hopes to build into righteous Christian men. But he can have equally aggressive words for women. With unwavering conviction, he insists that wives must submit to their husbands and that husbands should lead their wives. “Your husband is not your puppet to where you use sex to manipulate him to get what you want,” he told his church this summer. “A lot of you women do that. And it’s deadly wrong.”
Applause and hoots bursted from the audience when Mooneyham asked: “What do we have around here for the ladies? Hopefully a good godly man with a pair between his legs to take care of you one of these days.”
Mooneyham’s views on women are slightly less controversial than Mark Driscoll’s of Mars Hill, who has called wives “penis homes” and has argued that feminism and single mothers have contributed to making the U.S. a “pussified nation.” But he’s astutely aware that the two are playing on the same field.
“Naturally, I have gotten compared to him,” Mooneyham says, choosing his words carefully. “I’m trying to be a bit more cautious and self-aware. I have nothing but respect for that man.”
“I’ve read all those comments. I believe those comments were wrong,” he continues. “But I think the real enemy is the people who have hardened and unforgiving hearts. I think Mark Driscoll is a positive voice for a generation of little boys that need to grow up. I think he’s moved on from those cowboy renegade days. My prayer is that I move on from that soon.”
Lauren Gilbreth, a Joplin resident whose mother and two half-siblings attend Ignite, is one of a great many in the area who find the church’s teachings disturbing. “It freaks me out,” she says. “I don’t want my sisters to think that’s OK.” She’s also wary of Mooneyham’s craving for publicity. “I think they just get crazier with the things they do,” she says. “I wouldn’t send my dead dog there.”
Still, this is the Bible Belt, and there are plenty of women who are perfectly happy to attend Ignite. The church claims they make up 46 percent of the congregation. One of them is Wendy Henady, 47, a single mother of two who says her previous church made her feel terrible for being divorced. “Ignite forgave me,” she says. “There’s no judgment here. Besides, the men are good role models.”
In fact, at a bar stop during my visit, Mooneyham—who has a habit of accosting strangers at bars—even found a female supporter at random. Without an introduction, he asked a middle-aged woman at a table point-blank: “What church do you think is doing good work in Joplin?” After some initial apprehension, the woman paused, thought for a moment, and then replied, “Ignite.” Mooneyham smiled, extended his hand, and with a slight slur announced, “I’m Heath Mooneyham, lead pastor at Ignite church.”
An hour before church on Sunday, a steady stream of Fords, Dodges and Chevrolets are already rolling into Ignite’s parking lot. Greeters and valets welcome each new arrival as the Dropkick Murphy’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” blasts from a set of loudspeakers outside. Husbands and wives, most of them young, filter through the doors with toddlers in tow. They could easily be mistaken for tailgaters, with a majority of the men dressed in their Sunday’s best football jerseys, shorts and baseball hats. The wives rock wedge heels, T-shirts and bedazzled jeans. And there are more than a few Duck Dynasty beards on display.
Mooneyham is standing in the middle of the lobby in a pair of worn jeans and Chuck Taylors, looking a little uncomfortable. “I still get nervous doing this,” he tells me. The Ignite rock band has already taken the stage, warming up the auditorium with a Coldplay cover as a crowd of hundreds files in. Before long, the giant screens behind the band light up with a vertigo-inducing teaser video backed by heavy metal jams. The audience is instructed to rise to their feet, and the band starts in on a medley of fuzz-laden spirituals as a sea of hands drift into the air.
After a moment for hugs and fellowship, the room goes dark and Pastor Heath takes the green-lit stage. He’s got some lessons to unload this morning, and he immediately brings the temperature of the room down several degrees.
“Undoubtedly, there’s going to be some tension here today,” he says, launching the first salvo in a sermon about the people in our lives we need to “unfriend.”
His voice and confidence build steadily on stage until he reaches a state of righteous passion. “Who do you need to stop running with?” Mooneyham asks. “Listen to me. Don’t John Wayne this thing. Don’t cowboy this life.”
The audience listens. And Pastor Heath hits his stride. He is pacing and shouting and puffing up his chest, then he’s telling jokes about mother-in-laws and everyone’s laughing. Before you know it, his 30 minutes are up and he’s tied it all together with a mix of proverbs and readings from Genesis and Matthew. By the end of the service, 13 new guests have decided to give their life to Christ.
After the crowds have filed out, I notice Todd Ebbinghaus in the lobby, mostly because he has a beard that extends to his chest and a baseball cap with “redneck” written across it. “This place truly takes down any barrier that could prevent you from hearing God,” says the 40-year-old beer-maker, who also happens to be a software engineer. “I keep telling my friends there’s a lot of hot chicks here,” he says. “And they’re looking for dudes with big balls.”