A Make-believe Christian Infiltrates Thomas Road Baptist Church

Gina Welch is Jewish and an atheist. In her new book, In the Land of Believers, she chronicles her two-year sojourn among the members of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“I wanted to know what my evangelical neighbors were like as people, unfiltered and off the record, not as the subjects of interviews conducted by the ‘liberal media.’ I wanted to try to take them on their own terms. Who, exactly, did they think they were? Why were they so determined to convert non-Christian America? And how were they going about it?”

So begins her great subterfuge. She argues that the only way to get an authentic look at evangelicals was to make them believe that she was one of them. So she fakes a religious conversion and joins them. She writes, “They needed to know the microphone was off. I’d do whatever it took to get the story.”

I find her deception and manipulation of the people of Thomas Road to be unconscionable, and reviewers have already taken her to task on that point. Nevertheless, there’s still some compelling stuff in this book. She goes into this project believing that evangelicals are retrograde, unthinking throw-backs to a bygone age of religious superstition—people who barely deserve to be recognized as serious in an enlightened, secular society. In short, she views evangelicals like any coastal elitist would. But by the end of it, she actually comes to believe that evangelicals are people too.

I daresay that if you start this book, you won’t be able to put it down. If you do decide to read it, pray for the author. The Lord’s arm is not too short to save (Isaiah 59:1).


The author appeared on “Morning Joe” this morning, and you can watch the interview below.


  • Renae

    What is it with people “going undercover,” deceiving Christians jst so they can get published? For all their motives, they need to show us some respect. Lying to get to truth…There is such a thing as asking…as talking as getting to know people without decieving.

  • Frank

    Kevin Roose infiltrated Liberty and Thomas Road in his book “The Unlikely Disciple.” I could not put this book down either.

  • Lauren

    Well, while it was wrong for her to go undercover, we can use this as inspiration to grow in God. That way, when we are “off the microphone” we can be seen not only as the people that Christ wants us to be, but also as genuinely nice people. 🙂

  • Donald Johnson

    No one really knows what is in another’s heart, whether they have met the Lord or not. All we can do is accept their claim, until actions possibly disprove it. This is one advantage to persecution, few who do not believe will go thru that.

    TED has a talk that claims most people divide into 2 types, one has 5 things they listen to and the other group, only 2. The 2-types tend to be liberal (and the 5-types are conservative), since they do not really listen to the other 3 ways of knowing. That is, there really is something that means liberals just do not “get” some things that conservatives get and vice versa.

  • Nathan

    Nice try, Renae. You assume that those at Thomas Road Baptist Church would have interacted with the author in way that did not depend on her “salvation status.”

    I’ve experienced it a million times. I get treated differently before and after people find out that I’m gay. It doesn’t matter how long the time period is before they find out. It could be seconds, days or years, but after they learn about me, suddenly, I have nothing worth listening to. I can find very little common ground. I can say the sky is blue and people would find a way to disagree with me.

    The description of what the author did is not unconscionable. If the results of her undercover research didn’t bring up anything that she couldn’t find out in the open, there wouldn’t have been material for a book, right?

    I could see a moral problem if people at that church put in significant money, emotion and time with the undercover author, though…

  • Tim

    So let me get this straight. The man who is admittedly engaged in willing, unrepentant sin doesn’t see anything wrong with what this author did? Wow, imagine that.

  • Scott


    Well I can see a heck of a lot wrong with what you just did and said. That kind of sarcasm is completely out of place. I don’t care how much you may disagree with Nathan. Try treating him like a person – it’s a great place to start if you truly care about a person “lost in sin.”

  • Chris

    Of course lying is wrong, but since she is an unbeliever, I’m not surprised that she felt it was okay to go undercover to see for herself how Christians really live.

    We can pray that the seeds of the Gospel that were planted while she was in the church will grow.

  • Bobby


    I could see this as becoming commonplace in the future as churches are infiltrated not for books but to look for evidence of “hate speech” in order to silence or intimidate pastors.

  • Tim

    Silly me, I always thought “a great place to start” was the Word of God which calls sin sin and says that our only hope is to turn to Christ in repentance. If you’ll notice I did treat him like a person, a person engaged in willing unrepentant sin, which is how he’d be described by, you know, that one thing, the Bible. But, I mean, if you want to take your cues for morality from him and continue to “affirm” him be my guest. Eventually, someone has to tell him the truth because really caring about someone involves telling the truth and not allowing them to spread their skewed view on morality to the masses.

  • Scott


    There’s a very big difference between telling someone the truth and making a sarcastic remark on a message board.

    You didn’t address Nathan at all. Stop trying to use Scripture as a prop to justify your behavior. There’s no excuse to be a jerk. If you truly care about the sin you perceive in someone’s life, then learn how to do something about it the right way.

    And, he’s not spreading his “skewed view of morality” on the masses. He made a comparison that you unwittingly verified 100%.

  • Scott


    I don’t think it was unconscionable. I think it walked a very fine line, the very same line we see whenever journalists on Nightline and 20/20 do undercover stories. What makes this different is that she injects herself into the plot of the book (as one reviewer points out). There’s not a hint of objectivity involved.

  • Charlie Fugate

    There are two views on this. The first is that Thomas Road Baptist Church has been on the national radar for many, many years. Dr. Falwell’s passionate views on the public arena quite honestly opened the church to a wide and varied amount of scrutiny from the “secular” establishment. He realized this and believed the church could withstand such scrutiny.

    Second, while it is our responsibility to be cordial and friendly as church members, we also have the responsibility as a corporate body of believers to be in affirmation with the Holy Word of God and with the preaching of His Word. In other words, in as much as it is possible, we are to be truthful AND gracious.

    As Scott says, it does walk a very fine line.

  • David Vinzant

    Unconscionable? Give me a break. What she did is no different than what others have done who pretended to be homeless to find out what life on the streets was like. She caused no serious harm to anyone.

    Here’s something that’s unconscionable: telling children that they will burn in hell forever if they don’t believe the right things.

  • Brian Krieger


    Yah, that brings an interesting question to mind. A while back, there was a girl championed for going into a clinic posing as a pregnant 15 year old, exposing the atrocities of PP, etc. (I don’t think any here did, mind you). I do have a pause with these. On the one hand, I have to say that I applaud exposing frauds for what they are (PP or professing but non believing/living-it-out Christians). But the deception is something that churns me. It’s like so much else that we do. We try to rely on our own strength, wisdom and savvy and try to leave God out of it. I.e. in the end, I, too find it sinful as it is.

    I can understand if a Christian brother or sister sees a problem with this, but why anyone outside of the church? That’s completely subjective.

  • Brian Krieger

    Actually, David, while we will disagree on it, I would say it unfathomable to hide from someone what would destroy them. In a physical sense, I tell my children that if you don’t learn how to tread water, you will die. In a spiritual sense, it should be no different.

    As far as the homeless example, it might be. Living among a group can be done without active deception, I suppose. But yes, you’re right, it could be the same.

  • Mark

    David Vinzant,

    I think telling your children to know the Lord and believe the truth so that they will avoid the wrath of God is the most loving thing to do. This act is much more loving than physically feeding them, clothing them, and buying them toys.

  • David Vinzant


    Or if you really believe that your children are “safe” before they reach the “age of accountability,” wouldn’t the most loving thing be to kill them before they reach that age? Sure, you would sacrifice your own salvation (unless you repented afterwards – then you’re ok), but you are ensuring that they go to heaven and “avoid the wrath of God.”

  • Tim

    “There’s no excuse to be a jerk. If you truly care about the sin you perceive in someone’s life, then learn how to do something about it the right way.”

    Now, I can see a heck of a lot wrong with that. It’s just plain mean and frankly hurt my feelings. You should really learn to treat me like a person, not just some “jerk” on the internet.

    Let me see if I have this right, you think I did something wrong and you decided to tell me in a confrontational way with total disregard for my feelings. Interesting…

  • Adam

    I have not read all the comments here, but it seems to me that going undercover is somewhat common for reporting/investigative purposes. In such cases, the issue is whether or not something sinister is going on that warrants the deception involved: think Donnie Brasko. So to me, the issue is whether or not she was right in her suspicion that there was an element of wrong which justified the lesser wrong of deception. I take it that is the ethical approach involved with going undercover. Good post Denny!

  • Adam

    After more thought, and even though this discussion seems over , I wonder if the issue is that one generally doesn’t mind if an undercover op is aimed at a group one finds objectionable, but one does mind if an undercover op is aimed at a group one does not find objectionable. So either you (a) oppose all undercover ops, (b) lay out some standard on which you oppose this book’s use of undercover ops, or (c) approve of all undercover ops. I think most people would go with (b), but what are those standards? I cannot think of one in which this lady’s tactic is objectionable, but I’m open.

  • Dan DeWitt


    Thanks for your post and the link to the video. I’ve read “The Unlikely Disciple” by Kevin Roose. He did the same thing by attending Liberty and pretending to be an Evangelical. This is one more interesting story of a non believer who sought to see conservative Christianity from inside.

    I’ll look forward to skimming through this at some point over a cup of Seattle’s Best at my favorite Borders bookstore. I’m not intrigued enough to purchase the book. It’s kind of an overused technique. I find straight forward dialogue to be much more interesting than the incognito approach.

  • Denny Burk


    I didn’t read the Roose book, but I have been fascinated by Welch’s outsider’s view on things really common to us. It took her quite some time, for instance, to master evangelical idioms: personal relationship with God, God told me, etc.

    Also, her remarks about the emerging church are illuminating, and she means this as a compliment to those who are emerging:

    “The emerging church is actually a broad category of formulas designed for inclusiveness… The emerging church was the future for born-agains, as it acknowledged that Christians needed to mold to the shape of the world–not the other way around” (pp. 107, 118).

    Ironically, I think she has sized-up the emerging church pretty well.

    Thanks for the comment.


  • David Vinzant

    You have to admit, Denny, that Christian churches – especially Protestant chuches in America – have been molding themselves to the shape of the world for a long, long time. Indeed, the success of Christianity in America as opposed to Europe has much to do with religious capitalism and adapting itself to the market. Ironically, religious conservatives are far better than liberals at evolving rapidly to ensure their own survival.

    The “emerging church” is easy to pick on because they are simply in the front of the pack, but think about all the changes that other evangelical churches have made to adapt to the world. Perhaps the most significant is becoming comfortable with wealth so that you can explain away those texts about having no treasures on earth and giving away everything to the poor.

    Here’s an experiment I’d like to see a Baptist megachurch undergo. Rip out the padded paws, donate your heating & AC system to the poor, fire all ministers and staff whose primary function is to serve/entertain members and give that money to the poor (that’s 90% of the budget in most churches).

    For your worship services – get rid of the preacher and have a rotation of ordinary members who will simply read the Bible for the sermon portion. Get rid of the projection system, worship minister, praise team and band. Instead of 1 hour services, have services that last at least 3-4 hours. Stop singing all contemporary songs (written after AD 1500). This church would be dead in six months.

  • Nate


    It seems that your problem is with Christians, period. You seem to be much like the Jews to whom Jesus said, If someone would rise from the dead, you still would not believe. It appears that even if a church did these things you speak of you would still find something that you could poke at.

    It is easy to judge others, but if you have read the New Testament, you should understand that the bible (the Word of God) will judge you at your death, not these churches you so readily condemn.

    And there have been many through the ages that believed they could kill the church or that the church would die because of all the hypocrites.

    While the church in America may or may not pass into the night, the Lord is always bringing a people to Himself until the consummation of all things.

  • Chris


    Caricatures of Christian belief and worn out strawman? Is that the best you can levy against Christians? And considering your ignorance (which I am guessing is willful) of Christian thought you are in absolutely no position to preach on the proper way to interpret giving to the poor.

    Study up, then come back to class.

  • David Vinzant

    “One of the most common non-rational appeals is an argumentum ad hominem–or, as the Latin phrase suggests, an “argument against the person” (and not against the ideas he or she is presenting). Our decisions should be based on a rational evaluation of the arguments with which we are presented, not on an emotional reaction to the person or persons making that argument. But because we often react more strongly to personalities than to the sometimes abstract and complex arguments they are making, ad hominem appeals are often very effective with someone who is not thinking critically.”


  • Nathan

    David’s question is legitimate — can a church sustain itself if the membership wasn’t the recipient of the majority of the funds spent?


    Tim #9. You assume a lot about me from one little phrase. In doing so, I think you make a big mistake. Good Christians do NOT have a corner on truth — someone that is an unbeliever or someone that is backslidden can have important things to say about any subject. Brushing people off because they fail your litmus test is a mistake. I think it is much more important to judge WHAT people say than WHO is saying them.

    You would do better to explain, from the Bible, what someone is saying is true or false rather than just perpetuating the idea that someone’s position in life taints everything about them.

  • Darius

    Except, Nathan, that an unbeliever is spiritually blind. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible for them to have something good to add, but it makes it pretty difficult, particularly when it comes to matters of faith and orthodoxy.

    Regarding David’s question… no, it’s not legitimate because it’s a red herring. The Bible indicates that each community is supposed to take care of itself first, and the surrounding community second. Of course, plenty of churches may spend their money on trivial things, but I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that heat or A/C would be considered trivial.

  • David Vinzant

    Which question is a red herring, Darius?

    I think you know that the New Testament speaks of caring for the poor within the community, not members spending money to make themselves comfortable. How exactly did you determine that heating and air conditioning isn’t trivial? Somehow, churches and everyone else survived without for about 1,950 years. In fact, I’ve heard that in some parts of the world today (places where temperatures get very high) churches still don’t have air conditioning. In some of these same places, your fellow believers are dying due to lack of clean water and basic medical care. If every church gave up their utility bill, that would more than pay for clean water and basic immunizations for everyone in the world. Is that trivial?

  • Darius

    Somehow, I doubt that the early church didn’t burn some wood to heat their house church. Your argument would be pathetic if it weren’t so dishonest. You’re already made it clear that you don’t care about the poor or anyone for that matter, so why are you holding the Church to a standard you yourself to follow?

  • Kelly

    Tim, unwittingly, your words are an example of why so many people DO think all Christians are cruel and unkind people. I doubt you will understand why, but, such is the case. Well…it only helps the progressive/inclusive cause when people sound like you, so, I guess I should not complain.

    As per her going undrecover, it is an understandable action. A good scientist/researcher will tell you that the very act of observing changes the actions of the people/event being observed, and attempting to ‘fit in’ as she did was just her attempt at getting good data. Can anyone here say people would have acted/spoken the same if she had announced her intentions to come and observe? It’t like people coming over for dinner; you always bring out the good china and crystal. Everyone wants to be seen in a good light, and most Baptists I know are fully aware that a lot of what they believe is no longer seen as good manners/decent behavior, so I have no doubt they would have “toned it down” from time to time.

    In any case, it seems she did not do a ‘hatchet job’…so, whats the problem really? Nathans experiences back up why she needed to do it as she did, and Tims words and tone in these posts explain why the non evangelical majority of Americas have a (fear laced) fascination with Evangelicals in the first place.

  • David Vinzant

    Darius writes “You’re already made it clear that you don’t care about the poor or anyone for that matter”

    Where did you get that idea?

    “so why are you holding the Church to a standard you yourself to follow?”

    You do realize that this is a form of ad hominem argument, don’t you? I’ll assume it is an attempt at humor.

  • Darius

    I’ve already shot down your standard as unbiblical, now I’m questioning your motives.

    I get the idea that you don’t care for the poor or anyone else because you have stated that you think it’s wrong to tell people the good news about Jesus and the salvation He offers. If you can’t get the most basic good right, then I kinda doubt that you care a tiddlywink for doing other forms of good.

  • Nathan

    I’m not recommending that people get their spiritual advice from anyone. I think it is a mistake to take everything that one person (like Charles Spurgeon) says as truth, and consider everything that someone says is a lie, if they fit in a certain category (like gay).

    The only definitive source of truth is the Bible — compare everything against that, and accept / acknowledge truth where ever you find it.

  • Ben

    Darius (#35) stated:
    “The Bible indicates that each community is supposed to take care of itself first, and the surrounding community second.”

    Assuming by “community” you mean local christian community and by “surrounding community” you mean local non-christian community, I’m not sure I read the Bible this way. Paul seems to be concerned that the local churches definitely take care of themselves, but also take care of the churches in other communities. 1 John 3:16-17 indicate we are somehow lacking in the love of God if we have material possessions and don’t take care of our (christian?) brothers in need. I don’t read a hint of locality in 1 John 3.

    My point (condensed, since this is a blog comment) is that I’m not sure the view is unanimous on the fact that the Bible indicates a local community focus. I read it as if it casts the net broadly to all our family worldwide. This is why I get upset when a local church (e.g., my church) decides to fund a $2M building project, and allocates a few tens of thousands to help all the struggling brothers worldwide. Simply put, how can the love of God be in us?

  • Darius

    Ben, your comments are good and I wasn’t meaning the local Christian community. I was responding to David’s comment that church’s should give everything away to the poor. I completely agree that a local church should do what it can to provide for the global Church… the Macedonian church was praised for this very thing.

  • Tim

    Kelly, unwittingly, your words are an example of why so many people DO think all you people are cruel and unkind people. I doubt you will understand why, but, such is the case. Well…it only helps the view I ascribe to when people sound like you, so, I guess I should not complain.

    As per her going undrecover, it is an understandable action. A good liar will tell you that the very act of lying and manipulating people in order to ‘fit in’ and write a book for money as she did was just her attempt at well ummmm… lying and manipulating in order to write a book for money. Can anyone here say people would have acted/spoken the same if she had announced that she hated the Christian God and refused to submit to Him and she was writing a book about the fact that she hated the Christian God and refused to submit to Him. It’s like people coming over for dinner; If they previously declared their hatred for everything you believe in don’t you bring out the good china and crystal? Hopefully you get the sarcasm. Everyone wants to be seen in a good light and bla bla bla something bad about Baptists bla bla bla and I have no doubt that based on my experience/opinion bla bla.

    In any case, it seems she did do a ‘hatchet job’…so, that’s the problem really. Nathan’s experiences back up why she did, and Tim’s words and tone in these posts explain why the evangelical majority of Americas have a biblical view in the first place.

    You see, I can say the same thing and say absolutely nothing at all at the same time.

  • Nathan

    Tim?! Are you posing as a Christian to make Christians look really bad? You’re doing a good job of it.

    Who cares if an outsider used subterfuge to find out the “real deal.” If she hates God explicitly or implicitly, did the conclusion of her book say that everyone should hate God also because of what she found? Or at least not follow such a brand of Christianity? The conclusions are more important than her method.

    Get a grip.

  • Nate

    Who says she found out the “real deal.” Someone who lies and pretends to be something puts their own preconceptions on their findings. People are sinful and Christians don’t live perfectly.

    Nathan: Your preconceptions about “certain Christians” taint almost every post you have made, but ultimately it all comes back to you as it does for all of us.

    Living in a family is tough. Living in a church family is arguably more difficult. Imposters don’t love the family. In fact, they have no concept of what it is all about.

  • Nathan

    If people say that the author’s actions were unconscionable toward HERSELF, I would understand, but it seems people are offended by what she did to the church. I don’t know if she found the “real deal” (meaning honest & true Christian interaction, rather than just a performance people put on for outsiders) or not, but I do think that the author’s lies affect her way more than they affect the people at that church.

    A book like this gives some specific insight about what outsiders think about the church. The church can be offended and brush off her viewpoint or take it for what it’s worth. For example, she noticed coarse joking about gay people — perhaps the members of the church should realize that gay jokes within groups of any mixture of insiders and outsiders aren’t a good testimony and stiff-arms a group of people. It’s part of the trap for me — being afraid to admit to sin and find the help that I need because the people have already told me how they REALLY feel about me. I’d be light years ahead of where I am now if they indicated that they truly wanted to help people like me rather than make fun of us.

    Nate, I would like to know what you mean when you referred to my preconceptions of “certain Christians.” I think that you’ve assumed some things about me.

  • Nate

    Nathan, you have on multiple occassions posted that “christians” treated you poorly about your homosexuality (or homosexual tendencies). While I don’t condone rude behavior I don’t necessarily buy into the “one bad apple spoils the lot” when it comes to those in the church. There are people of various levels of christian maturity, some who may not be saved, and all flavors in between in a church. The author here would have only had access to a small portion of a congregation and certainly went looking for opportunties to slam people. You also have (in my opinion) shown a consistency in your postings to bash christians who didn’t treat you the way you wanted. I don’t know all your circumstances, nor the people you interacted with, but being a part of a family, especially a church family, means we have to deal with some family members who aren’t everything they should be. If churches were perfect then Christ would have already returned.

  • Nathan

    Well, the reason for me harping on the point is not to get some kind of vindication for myself, but to let people know that their attitudes and actions have huge implications on those around them. I like to think that someone may make it a point to help someone in my position. I basically get arguments in response to my posts because I can only assume that they don’t want to take advice from someone like me.

  • Nate

    I didn’t perceive you looking for vindication for yourself. And, I think you are probably reading too much into your assumptions. Having said that, your posts tend to almost always reflect your disdain for the way you were treated.

    Again, I don’t know all the circumstances, but just because you have a hammer doesn’t mean everything you see is a nail. Sorry if I am reading more into it than I should.

  • Nathan

    Well, the author of the book has a whole chapter on homophobia. She said she saw it at the church and gave her evidence for it. I have a background that applies directly to this area, so I thought I would bring it up. For this thread, it’s not a stretch to bring up homosexuality, but I can see where I might bring it up more often than others because I am sensitive to the issue.

    I don’t have disdain towards the church, but I am thoroughly frustrated.

  • Nathan

    Steve, I thought the same thing. I was like, um, should I read this, um, book. Maybe she was like nervous or something about, um, talking with those people on that show…

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