Covenant Life Church

Media critics wonder about Josh Harris, the no-dating avatar, who's recanting his stance

Media critics wonder about Josh Harris, the no-dating avatar, who's recanting his stance

I had only been living inside the Beltway for about a year when “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” a book by Josh Harris, a 23-year-old pastoral intern at Covenant Life, a local megachurch in the Maryland suburbs.

I had just turned 40, so knew enough about the dating world to know that much of what he was advising –- such as not kissing your mate until the day you get married –- was pure bosh and unworkable in any healthy Christian or secular relationship. But –- darn –- if that book didn’t become a bestseller pretty quickly, sparking all sorts of angst among Christian 20-somethings who wanted to meet their intended the right way.

Harris’ book sold more than a million copies and he followed up with a few other books; none as successful as the first, which hit the zeitgeist just right. He was a quick learner and he hopscotched over several men older than he to become senior pastor in 2004. The guy definitely knew how to work the system, plus he was a protégé of one of the founding pastors, C. J. Mahaney.

Years later, he resigned from the megachurch and moved to Vancouver, B.C. to attend Regent College. Covenant Life underwent wrenching changes, as described in this Washingtonian investigation.

His family liked Canada so much, they’ve applied to become permanent residents. Harris, who seems to have left the professional religious world for good in that he’s started a marketing and strategy business, is also doing a mea culpa about his once-best-selling book.

The story has been been trickling out for some time now and I’m surprised more religion reporters haven’t jumped on it. He got mentioned yesterday in a Religion News Service column by Cathleen Falsani about the purity movement.

Among (its detractors) is Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Romance and Relationships,” the 1997 book that became the de facto bible of the purity movement. Last month, Harris apologized for the harm the book had caused and asked his publisher to cease printing it.

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Washingtonian lands boffo take on sex abuse in an evangelical Protestant empire

Washingtonian lands boffo take on sex abuse in an evangelical Protestant empire

The piece I’m about to describe is a news feature that I very much wanted to write once, earlier in my religion-beat career.

In the mid 1970s, I attended charismatic prayer meetings at the Assemblies of God congregation called Christ Church, located on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., where 2,000 of us packed the sanctuary. The two preachers were two gifted young men named Larry Tomczak and C.J. Mahaney. I was a college student at the time and their sermons were electric. I heard later that the meetings had morphed into a church.

Twenty years later, I moved back to the area as a reporter for The Washington Times and I learned the congregation was now known as Covenant Life Church and was located in Gaithersburg, a DC suburb in Maryland. It was quite successful. Then I heard rumors that Tomczak had been forced out. In late 2003, I did a large piece on Covenant Life for the Times (they had just finished a new sanctuary) and it was then that I contacted Larry and got his side of the story. I also interviewed Mahaney and visited the huge church. I had the uneasiest feeling about the place -- and Mahaney himself -- and couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

So I wasn’t too surprised to hear a few years later that major rifts had developed there. I began reading blogs about the place. Then Mahaney quit in 2011, which is when I pitched an idea to a magazine for a major piece on his rise and fall. It was turned down because it seemed like too much inside baseball to the editors.

Five years later, this piece appeared Feb. 14 in the Washingtonian magazine:

Pam Palmer was at a barbecue when she heard the news.
It was 2011, five years after her family had left Covenant Life Church. But the Gaithersburg congregation and its founder, C.J. Mahaney, remained on her mind. Now one of her relatives was telling her that amid controversy Mahaney had surrendered the top post at the organization he had built into an international empire. “Literally,” Pam says, “that moment changed my life.”

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