Previously named one of America’s fastest-growing churches, Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., is now embroiled in scandal and scrutiny. The nondenominational ministry’s North Georgia campus was shuttered on January 31, and now the church’s website appears to have been taken down.
Lead Pastor Tavner Smith, who founded Venue in 2013, has been on sabbatical following rumors of an alleged affair with a married church employee. Smith and other church leaders have repeatedly denied the rumors. But viral video and questionable incidents have led to the departure of numerous staff members, volunteers, and congregants—some of whom cite the pastor’s seeming “lack of remorse.”
Now Venue is trying to pick up the pieces and debunk charges including financial misconduct.
Tavner Smith, Venue Church Had Quick Rise, Scandalous Fall
Two years after Venue’s launch, it ranked number seven on Outreach Magazine’s 2015 list of fastest-growing U.S. churches. With almost 2,000 members, Venue offered six weekly worship services at two locations. Many people describe how the church helped them turn around their lives.
Then in 2020, about the same time the church went online during the pandemic, some staff members began expressing concerns about Tavner Smith’s leadership. Specifically, they questioned a possible inappropriate relationship. In January 2021, the pastor announced that he and his wife were splitting, and divorce proceedings began that May.
Last November, Smith made headlines internationally. When some Venue volunteers made a surprise visit to his house, they discovered him and the Venue employee (who’d become his personal assistant) wearing very little. According to one person who was present, Smith said they’d been cooking chili and spilled food on their clothes.
The next month, video went viral of Smith kissing that employee at a restaurant. Smith, 41, refused calls to step down, so eight staff members resigned mid-December. In early January, the pastor wrote on Instagram that he’s taking a sabbatical to “fill up, spend time with God, and get some counseling.”
Smith indicated he’d return in February, providing no specific date. Since announcing his sabbatical, Smith has appeared at worship via recordings, introducing various guest preachers. According to media reports, only a few dozen people now attend Venue weekly.
Former Staff, Church Members Question Tavner Smith’s Teachings and Lifestyle
People who’ve raised concerns about Tavner Smith and Venue Church point to the pastor’s prosperity-gospel messages, lavish lifestyle, and lack of accountability. Former staff member Colt Helton recounts Smith having “a new car every few weeks” and going on shopping sprees that “would blow your mind.” Former volunteer Noah Kimmel describes donating $200 one Christmas to help purchase Gucci slippers for Smith.
According to records from Smith’s divorce, finalized late last year, he earns almost $200,000 annually. Yet volunteers claim they are told to use their own equipment and materials. Former church members say they were called out if they weren’t donating enough money to the church. They also say they were pushed to volunteer, sometimes even being forced to quit their regular jobs to devote more hours to Venue.