The conservative website Protestia calls Smith’s theology “a jumbled mess of prosperity preaching, wretched theology, charismatic mumbo jumbo, vision casting, the pursuit of ‘impossible dreams,’ an insatiable ask for money and seed-sowing, and constantly positioning himself as hearing directly from God and being the conduit to the heavens.” It adds, “With no elders or guardrails, the structure was created to allow him to indulge in his baser passions without anyone being able to call him out on it, until it was too late.”
When Venue launched, it belonged to ARC, the Association of Related Churches. That church-planting group has at times faced its own headline-generating problems.
Loyalty Pledge, Honor Codes & Watch Lists
Other former employees and congregants tell the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Venue’s culture felt controlling and even cult-like. Worshipers reportedly had to stand when Smith entered the sanctuary, and their commitment to the pastor was often questioned.
Volunteers say they had to sign various “honor codes,” promising not to swear, use drugs, pursue “dishonest gain,” or be sexually immoral. The names of any critics of Venue or Smith went onto “watch lists,” say people formerly associated with the church.
On Facebook, almost 500 people follow a site titled “The Venue is NO Church.” It asks anyone who had to sign an NDA at Venue to send details about their experience, promising anonymity. One post states: “WAKE UP CHATTANOOGA!! It’s important for all the kool-aid drinkers here to fully understand… [Venue] is NOT an actual church!” It adds, “Read the handbook called THE BIBLE for more information!”
According to a Daily Beast article, Smith’s sermons “are heavy on [his] personal life, usually consisting of tales of how he overcame insurmountable odds and how you can do it, too, if you accept Jesus Christ as your savior—and donate 10 percent of your income to Venue.” Smith, it adds, says “heaven moves” when he speaks.
In one sermon, Smith reportedly claimed God made time zones so people’s prayers would be spaced out. A former volunteer recounts how local residents say, “Don’t drink the orange Kool-Aid,’” referencing Venue’s bright orange logo.
A 16-week sermon series titled “Dirty Destinies” was reportedly the “final straw” for some Venue worshipers. They describe Smith preaching about biblical figures who recovered from past failures.
What Does the Future Hold for Venue Church?
On January 23, guest preacher Ron Phillips Sr., told worshipers not to believe everything posted on social media. Phillips, a member of Venue’s board, said he’s supported the ministry for years because he saw God at work. “And the Lord made [Smith] a covenant partner for me to pray for,” he added, “because I knew that the enemy was gonna try to take this church down. But the church is not a man, not a woman. It’s a community.”
So far, the only response from Venue has been to a Times Free Press reporter, who writes: “A member of the ministry’s operations team referenced Galatians 6:1—’If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness (ESV)’—before ending the call.”
The phone mailbox at Venue’s Chattanooga location is full. ChurchLeaders has emailed the church and will update this article with any response.