Series: To Catch A Shooting Star, Part One
This is a story, told in parts. Each part will focus on an exceptional/infamous cult of personality and the man or teachings central to it.
This is a story about damage. In some instances, irreparable damage. I’m dismissing any potential threat to myself that this exposé presents. I’m going to mention people by name and in so doing, I’m going to share the fallout of their actions. Anything that I share here is a matter of public record. When appropriate or necessary, I’ll cite places where the information I’m sharing can be verified.
This story, which lived for the longest time in the darkest corners of my own heart and experiences, can be understood best in the following ways:
1) You - the reader - could reject every ounce of what I’ve written as nothing more than the angry flailing of a faithless man, madly throwing punches at the God, people, and institutions that “hurt” him. For you, this is simply a story, a diatribe, a rant, even drivel. Or…
2) You - the reader - could embrace the narrative and by so doing, “…let the truth set you free.”
In the bustling center of Broward County, Florida - just on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale - Calvary Chapel would inhale and exhale almost 15,000 people every weekend in contemporary Christian ecstasy.
This was the “hip” church - no dirge-like hymns, no formalwear required, a come-as-you-are-to-Jesus kind-of place. And why shouldn’t it be? Birthed out of the Jesus People USA movement of the late 60s and early 70s, Calvary Chapel reached a demographic previously untouchable by the church: hippies. It only makes sense that Calvary (as a non-denominational denomination) had its first roots in the surfer/stoner culture of Southern California, where the kids who had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out were looking for deeper satisfaction than what they were finding (and losing) in Age of Aquarius metaphysics and free love.
Even Chuck Smith, the founding pastor of Calvary Chapel, had experienced his own version of dissatisfaction. Smith wanted to teach the Bible in an “exegetical” format. Exegesis is the practice of interpreting Scripture in a book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse methodology.
Instead of pithy sermons that were topical in nature, and rarely outlived their shelf life, Smith desired to share a more intimate understanding of God through His Word. This was a turning point. It’s also become the model for many modern churches, in more ways than one.
Chuck Smith rankled the common sense structure of the elected board of elders that shaped and drove the direction of the congregation with his “new” teaching style. It was off-putting to the flock. If he wouldn’t go back to the way things were - the board informing him on what to preach, he’d be out of a job. This threat was to be the catalyst for one of the most central tenets of the Calvary Chapel movement - no pastor should be tamed by his elders. And with that, Smith left. He too wouldn’t be tamed.
Fast-forward. It’s 1999. I’m working for a joint ministry effort between Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale (henceforth shortened to “CCFL”) and CrossTV, which began as a Christian television broadcast network (serving a small cross-section of one Florida county) and eventually morphed into a faith-based television production company.
I was attending the satellite campus of Calvary Chapel Bible College which would reside on the 75-acre campus of CCFL. In the process of the construction of the first sanctuary on that campus, I painted walls, swept trash, helped create and then subsequently led a “parking lot ministry” that facilitated visitors coming onto and out of the church parking lots. I’m not even joking.
I went through the “Biblical Counseling” training course - twice. I joined a small group Bible study, led by one of my college professors. I devoured Calvary literature, listened to Jars of Clay, Jennifer Knapp, and D.C. Talk, wore snarky Christian t-shirts under my fashionable Old Navy short-sleeved button-down shirts (which were always unbuttoned so as to preserve the “casual dude” look), sported a ridiculous goatee, and ate as often as possible at the church’s onsite cafe where spinach and sausage frittatas with a large cappuccino were staples; I was a primer on what it looked like to be a rising star within the Calvary Chapel movement.
I was told by one of the more respected associate pastors at the church that I had been noticed, that my speaking and teaching gifts hadn’t avoided the watchful gaze of Calvary’s leadership, and if I could just finish Bible College, there was a pulpit waiting for me - somewhere - out there. I’m mentioning these more nuanced pieces of my puzzle so that I can build the context - or rather, frame - in which you’ll better see the complete picture.
It’s important to this portion of the story that you understand and acknowledge just how deeply I was invested and embedded in Calvary Chapel’s methodology of Christian practice and culture. I lived it. I allowed Calvary’s ingress into every facet of my daily life. There was not a moment that wasn’t spent in some study, some class, some fellowship, some service, some labor, some thing.
Were there others more devout? Of course. I had friends and acquaintances that would put my meager devotion to shame, but we were in “holy competition” with one another - a quintessential game of religious humblebrag.
But why was I here? What brought me to this particular place? I’d begun my Christian life at 14, having asked Jesus into my heart at the leading and pleading two sincere, devout, lovely people. I wasn’t a notch in their Bible Belt; they were genuine in their concern for my soul, my eternity, my here-and-now. I started attending the Lutheran church affiliated with my private high school. My Dad - by his own admission - was a “backslidden” believer, but he was familiar enough with the Church that his return to a house of worship was much like a homecoming of sorts.
My Mom was raised by my agnostic-on-a-good-day, atheist-on-a-bad-day grandparents. This Lutheran church was her first religious experience of note, and was the place where she first encountered Christ and His salvation. No hellfire or brimstone propelled my Mom to the Sinner’s Prayer - for her it was more about the order of the universe falling into place. Everything made more sense with Jesus.
My entire family volunteered, got involved, went through membership classes, and ascended the spiritual ranks of our congregation as though we were lashed to religious rockets. Dad was soon a deacon, and then an elder, then president of the congregation. Mom taught Sunday school, started and ran the church bookstore, led women’s Bible studies, and worked in the church office and the attached preschool.
I went from a kid who knew the lyrics to every Black Sabbath song, with jeans ripped, hair in a state of constant tussle, smoking and drinking with my friends to the young man with pleasantly conservative coiffed hair who wore dress shirts and ties and fancy leather shoes every Sunday, toting my Bible full of handwritten notes from the last TV preacher’s sermon I watched.
I’d eventually become “president” of my youth group during my junior year of high school. Even still, I was incredibly frustrated. I just couldn’t get the rest of my peers - those impressionable teenage friends of mine - to go deep enough with me.
And it wasn’t just the kids! In my mind, the adults were just as apathetic and complicit. So I would write scathing missives to our group, begging them to get serious about God or to get out. Nothing worked.
After my one year term as president was over, I left the youth group I had come to know and love and hate and started looking for the greener pastures of other places to worship. I was enrolled in a different Christian school during my sophomore through senior years and at this school, a cornucopia of faith existed. There were Pentecostals, there were Messianic Jews, there were Christian Reformed - literally a buffet of denominations on which to feast. And I did.
A small number of my classmates and friends raved about this new thing happening just around the corner from our school. This “new thing” was the blossoming Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. In 1992, CCFL held its services in a converted warehouse, where about 2000 people could crush into the building at each service. You’d find every socioeconomic and racial demographic at Calvary.
I looked ridiculous in my dress shirts, ties, and fancy shoes. Everyone around me wore jeans, and t-shirts, and sneakers. Dudes had long hair. I saw lots of tattoos. I saw skaters and surfers and other people that might be classified at my parent’s church as “riffraff”. This was definitely not the church of my Mom and Dad.
My inner rebellious heavy metal kid who loved Jesus found a church home where distorted guitars and smashing drums played “contemporary” praise and worship music. I was stunned. Enthralled even. All the while, the music was simply the bait.
The hook was Bob Coy.
It’s 1985. Private persona aside, Bob Coy’s public face was gentle, loving, charismatic, charming, and just rough enough around the edges to lend credence to that “I know all about sin” twinkle in his eye. Bob had been a A&R dude for Capitol Records. He’d managed a strip club in Vegas. In his own words, Bob wove the gruesome tales of smoking, snorting, bedding, and conniving everything. He left no immoral stone unturned.
Had it not been for his brother Jim sharing the Gospel with him, Bob would have bled his soul dry. Instead he had a collision with Christ. With this new lease on spiritual life, Bob got clean. It wasn’t far too long after his Christ encounter that Bob was metamorphosed from the guy who spent his days coked out of his mind ogling naked women for a living, to a husband and pastor.
The same charisma that caused his successes (and drove his debauchery) at Capitol Records and nightclub management was now channeled into ministry. Bob devoured the Bible, listening and reading and learning from every approved source that he could. And he could turn it around.
Bob didn’t preach - he implored. His affectations neatly rested on emotion - when talking about “the lost”, his voice would quaver. There was always an undercurrent of unquenchable concern. Bob didn’t want anyone in hell - a place both present and future. According to his worldview, Jesus wanted to help you through 12 Steps, fix your marriage, kick your smoking habit, be your accountant, rescue your kids from secularism, and make you the better version of yourself to which God always intended.
Jesus was also around to make sure that the hell awaiting the uninformed, unsaved, and unrepentant wasn’t go to be YOUR fate. There were altar calls at every service. Unsuspecting new sheep to the flock were ushered behind the curtain and into a room to receive free Bibles and hugs and encouragement to join the New Believers Class.
On the surface, Bob seemed legit. On the surface, Bob’s tales of donated suits, and free services (like braces to resolve his signature crooked teeth) seemed like stories about the body of Calvary blessing their beloved pastor. He drove a black Ford Mustang, blaring loud Christian rock music as he tore through the church parking lot. When asked about the flashy vehicle, he merely shrugged - or worse, got angrily defensive - and repeated the oft-told tale of how it was used, how he got it at a steal, how his brothers and sisters shouldn’t judge him, and how he deserved to drive a car he liked. It all seemed a little askew. People continued to flock to Calvary and would verbally chastise anyone that spoke out against Bob, as though he yielded papal authority.
Calvary’s (and by proxy, Bob’s) reputation in South Florida - where the second largest population of Jewish people in the world live - garnered a speaking engagement from Benjamin Netanyahu. There was a halfway house, a feeding program, a youth-at-risk mission, an adoption agency, a Bible college; all facets of which Calvary began. This church was firing on every spiritual cylinder. Bob and Calvary Chapel seemed unstoppable. However, for Bob the shining achievements that he and Jesus envisioned for South Florida were about to come to an end.
It’s April, 2014. At the pinnacle of Christian and earthly success, Bob resigned from his post as senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. Just like his own brother Jim had done a handful of years earlier, Bob Coy had been caught with his hand in the adultery jar. Unlike his brother Jim - who was made to face the congregation next to his wife and children as church discipline was imposed, and where he was subsequently defrocked - Bob simply vanished.
To this day, no one knows - or out of some bizarre sense of loyalty, has vocalized - just how many women with whom Bob had affairs. The rumor mill is rife with stories of multiple marriages that his dalliances up-ended. His own marriage came crashing to its natural conclusion two years after his resignation.
A black undertow of worse accusations followed Bob after his resignation - a young woman (a minor whose identity is speculated at best and who will not be named here) walked into the Coral Springs Police Department with a story of child molestation that Bob reputedly initiated when she was four years old. The alleged abuse continued for a decade. Bob publicly denied the abuse, and has stated that the results of a polygraph test vindicate him.
It’s November 2017. Washed out of ministry onto the shores of pragmatism, Bob landed a consulting gig at The Funky Biscuit - a nightclub in the heart of Boca Raton’s elite Mizner Park. His agreement with the club didn’t last long; upon learning of the child molestation allegations, the management at The Funky Biscuit terminated their relationship with Bob.
In a region where he helped create a unique spiritual landscape, Bob became persona non grata. When the allegations recently surfaced, “#bobcoy” trended on Twitter as his defenders and detractors rabidly tweeted their support or vitriol.
And it’s now. Bob has once again disappeared into the ether. I don’t care to conjecture if he still resides in South Florida or has sought friendlier pastures elsewhere. No matter where he is, Bob remains an object lesson for the church-at-large.
In the months to follow, you’ll see a familiar thread pulled from an equally familiar tapestry. Bob Coy didn’t exist in a bubble, and a casual reading of the news is chock full of stories similar to his. For now, I’d ask you to consider the following: If you call yourself a Christian and continue to attend church services, you should thoroughly examine the person in the pulpit. The lectern from where they preach shouldn’t be a cloak to shield the eyes of the congregation from untowardly behaviors.
Oftentimes, the catalyst of a pastor’s moral failure is a congregation who will blindly follow, forgive, and forget his or her misdeeds. What I’m talking about is accountability. If you’ll rewind just a bit to the beginning of this article, accountability is something with which Calvary struggled (struggles?). Calvary is deeply rooted in the notion of pastoral autonomy. The movement is mentioned on one church abuse website after another, and in many cases it’s that same autonomy which is squarely responsible for an avalanche of allegations.
To be clear, Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale was no stranger to inappropriate relationships between the staff and congregants. You’ll recall from earlier that Bob’s brother admitted to an affair. One of the music ministers admitted to the same. A youth pastor was accused of child molestation. These are the stories that are known.
In almost every case, these men were publicly disciplined and yet back in their ministerial positions within a year or less. Clearly there is something amiss. We are not so far removed from the stories of abuse within the Catholic Church (a la “Spotlight”) that we shouldn’t see the correlation between that religious entity and any other.
The priesthood enjoys the same level of autonomy as do many modern pastors, whose only accountability is to a team of elders that are often sycophants and hero worshippers. You have to be willing to ask tough questions.
If you attend a church whose size makes that difficult or impossible, or if you attend a church whose pastor seems distant to the congregation or who seems protected by an army of elders or deacons or veneer or red tape - you need to strongly consider finding an exit. The larger the congregation, the more removed the pastoral staff is to the dirt and detritus of the flock. Once this removal occurs, most of the grit that makes people authentic becomes a footnote.
In contrast, the further a pastor is from money and fame, the more likely it is that he or she hasn’t lost touch with the reality of their congregation. Pursue a church whose pastoral staff are in the thick of service just as much as they are in sermons, where a willingness to roll up sleeves and get dirty isn’t satiated by arrogance or condescension. You just might find a genuine, accountable human.