Netflix’s ‘Come Sunday’: Why the Church Needs to Rethink Doubt and Faith
Writer, Speaker + Podcast Host
C arlton Pearson’s story isn’t one I was familiar with. It’s also one I know well. Pearson’s story is the real-life journey of a black megachurch pastor in Tulsa who stops believing in hell, loses his church, and drifts from the evangelical faith. I’m a white, evangelical-identifying journalist living in Colorado, but I felt intimately, deeply, uncomfortably connected to Pearson while watching Netflix’s Come Sunday, a movie about his life.
Because this isn’t a movie about Pearson, it’s a movie about evangelicalism in America, and about doubt, and about whether there’s something broken in the culture fundamentalist theology creates.
Come Sunday is a Netflix original film that tells the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson (played by the always excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor), a superstar evangelist and protege of Oral Roberts, who pastored the racially diverse, 6000-member Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Pearson feels a burden - one might argue an unhealthy, unscriptural burden - to “save people” for Christ, even if this means serving the church at the expense of his family.
One night Pearson sees footage of children dying of starvation in Africa, and his rock-solid conviction that hell exists for anyone who isn’t a Christian falters. He wonders what sort of God would condemn a child to hell for not accepting a God they never knew. We see Pearson crying out to God in a scene reminiscent of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, enduring a dark night of the soul, and at that moment, Pearson believes he hears the voice of God clearer than he ever has, telling him those children in Africa will go to heaven. They are already saved, he believes.
When Pearson preaches this to his church and refuses to back down, he loses his congregation, his leadership team, and the evangelical community as a whole. His ministry partner and friend Henry (Jason Segel) tells Pearson he is quitting to form another church in the community. He watches as his church’s possessions are auctioned off, one at a time, as the church he helped build shuts its doors.
Pearson is left only with a family he barely knows, and the sense that both God and God’s church have abandoned him. The last 30 minutes of the movie are Pearson slowly rebuilding a new faith centered around a Unitarian message he calls “the gospel of inclusion.”
The movie handles this story with grace. There are no mustache-twirling evangelical villains, and it’s to the movie’s credit that even Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen), an easy target for a skeptic’s derision, is seen sympathetically. Roberts is a man honor-bound never to doubt because to doubt is to deny God.
Henry is also treated with kindness, a true believer in Pearson’s message who is ripped to shreds by what he feels is an obligation to leave Higher Dimensions to start his church. The scene of him telling Pearson he is leaving is moving, with both sides pleading for the other “not to go.”
This isn’t the liberal Hollywood rebuttal to the God’s Not Dead franchise
In other words, this isn’t the liberal Hollywood rebuttal to the God’s Not Dead franchise. It’s not some anti-evangelical screed that demonizes a strawman enemy. It’s a story full of compassion, empathy, and understanding, that while certainly on Pearson’s side, understands why many disagreed with him. Since Come Sunday is Pearson’s story, it will undoubtedly aggravate an evangelical audience looking for a more compelling argument from a theologically conservative voice. There were moments where I wanted to “yeah but” theological statements Pearson made. But because of this Come Sunday is an essential watch.
I have lived in the south, the Midwest, and the west coast, attended megachurches and small churches and Baptist churches and non-denominational churches, I’ve been in city churches and suburb churches and rural churches. In my experience, most evangelical cultures fear doubt and dissenting voices. It’s as though The Truth is hanging by a thread and if someone questions aspects of The Truth they must be expelled from the community lest the church come a-crumblin’ down. The history of the church, after all, is a history of heresy and corruption. The Truth must be guarded from enemies within and without at all costs.
Except, what about when we’re wrong? A quick look through church history shows that the staunchest guardians of orthodoxy were on the wrong side of the Crusades, heliocentrism, women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement. The problem with being the bastion of “correct faith” is that when you’re wrong, you won’t see it, because those accusing you
This is hardly confined to our history. Today, LGBT issues have become so politicized that evangelicalism has largely taken a cut-and-dried “you’re with us, or you’re against us” stance, forcing anyone who identifies as LGBT to find a spiritual home outside of the evangelical faith. In some places believing in evolution or climate change is real makes you a liberal — which in much of evangelicalism is the worst slur shy of ‘heretic’ at one’s disposal. All this is in addition to major evangelical voices going on television and defending our current president’s indefensible behavior, then turning around and condemning the immorality of those they disagree with.
There is a sickness in evangelicalism
There is a sickness in evangelicalism, an inability to open our ears to disagreement, an unwillingness to live in the tension doubt creates, and in turn a pharisaical impulse toward excommunicating those who dissent a la John Piper’s infamous “Farewell, Rob Bell” tweet. The evangelical church often makes it clear that to believe is to believe correctly, in all things. And if you don’t then, well, there’s the door.
I am surrounded by friends who have either walked out this door altogether or hold to a version of Christianity I can barely recognize. I wish so badly many of them were allowed to wrestle with doubt within the church instead of being pushed out of it. Somehow the church of a Savior who looked with compassion on Thomas, and the woman caught in adultery, and John the Baptist when he said “are you the Messiah, or should we look for another?” has become the church that tells Thomas to pray harder, and the woman that she needs to repent before she’ll be accepted, and John the Baptist that he’s a heretic.
I’m not saying evangelicals shouldn’t believe in Hell or should change their theology of sexual identity, or throw out the Bible and replace it with Oprah’s book of the month. I’m saying if we don’t figure out how to listen to dissenting voices, to create cultures that allow for debate, and create genuine space for doubt to be okay, then we’re in trouble. I wish we were less afraid of heresy and more afraid of how our fear causes a rigidity that leads us to ostracize the people I expect Jesus would have the most compassion for.
Come Sunday is a vital watch for any evangelical Christian, because Pearson is America right now, and if we don’t give people space to wrestle with doubt with us, they’ll go on without us. At which point we’ll be faced with what the old guard moral majority warriors fear most: irrelevance.
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