Journalist Julie Roys said she’ll never forget the moments when she discovered stories of abuse and corruption in the Christian world. But she isn’t bitter when she talks about these experiences and the pressure she's faced from powerful evangelical leaders, and sometimes even friends, to cease her investigations.
In the past two years, Roys has led Christian investigative journalism in reporting on the sins of American church leaders. After reporting on financial mismanagement at Moody while working there, Moody fired Roys from her job as a radio host.
She then started her own investigative journalism site, The Roys Report, where she broke stories about allegations of financial malfeasance and bullying by James MacDonald at Harvest Bible Chapel, sexual misconduct allegations against Bill Hybels at Willow Creek, which he denied, and an alleged online sexual relationship involving the late Ravi Zacharias, along with other stories on leadership failures in church life.
“People honestly didn’t want to hear it,” Roys said about the stories she’s uncovered. “It’s like saying something bad about their grandmother. It may be true, but it’s too painful for them to hear it.”
When she talks, Roys chooses her words carefully, but as a writer does, not as a politician does. She wants to say things right.
Growing up as a missionary kid who spent her first years in Zimbabwe, Roys said she loved growing up in Africa. There, her parents taught her to put service above her own needs, she said.
“Part of that is very good, but sometimes the missionary dynamic can put personal needs on the back burner,” she said.
Roys’ first experience with investigative journalism was in a Wheaton College class, where journalism professor Paul Fromer said Luke was the first journalist. In his Gospel and in Acts, Luke interviewed witnesses to present a detailed and accurate account of Jesus' life on earth.
“He really engrained in us that journalism was the pursuit of truth,” Roys said. “That resonated with me as a noble calling.”
The class also gave her the first journalism experience she’d never forget. During a reporting project on the effectiveness of short-term missions, Roys said she asked for a publicly available budget from Wheaton’s Office of Christian Outreach. After staff evaded her questions and she continued asking, the director of the Office of Christian Outreach screamed at her until she walked away, shaking, she said.
“I think God has put a justice meter inside some of us, and once it gets tripped, we just can’t let it go," she said. “I realized, ‘there’s a story here.’”
When Roys dug into the office’s finances, she faced opposition from those who supported the leaders she investigated. Students would prank call her and socially ostracize her, she said. The experience isolated her.
It wouldn’t be the last time her investigations were met with hostility from other Christians. Roys’ stories often uncover scandals that devastate churches. Harvest Bible Chapel lost 2,000 people after her reporting on MacDonald, and Willow Creek lost 7,000 in weekly attendance in the years since her reporting on Hybels. Roys said her reporting often results in difficulties for churches, but they often also expose toxic leadership cultures that Christians must address.
She said the abuse bad leaders inflict on churches tends to be invisible and easy to ignore, like cancer. Sometimes the disease goes so deep a church has to fall apart, although Roys said she doesn’t hope for that result.
“Did the doctor just hurt the person by diagnosing cancer? The body was already sick. I just diagnose it,” Roys said. “The question is, can it be cured? In some cases, yes. But in a lot of cases, no. The Kingdom of God isn’t hurt when things that need to die, die.”
Roys isn’t quick to diagnose. Her work in reporting on scandals is marked by its fairness and willingness to let everyone have a say. Before she publishes accusations, she contacts the churches and leaders she writes about. Roys explained that she doesn't usually publish open letters — such as the one written by Brad and Lori Anne Thompson, who allege that Lori Anne had been manipulated by Zacharias to engage in an online sexual relationship — because they don’t provide the chance for her to research and confirm stories.
There were two reasons why Roys made an exception in the Thompsons' case: No. 1, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries had already released its side of the story, and No. 2, she had already researched the couple’s claims.
Sometimes saying a church is sick can be difficult. Roys said that when she was reporting on Harvest Bible Chapel, people told her they couldn’t speak and damage the church’s reputation. Doing so would hurt the ministry and undo the work God had been doing through the church. However, a sermon series by Roys’ pastor on Israel’s exile to Babylon provided her with a different perspective on what it meant to build God’s Kingdom.
“When God judged His own people and didn’t spare them and had them exiled and humiliated because His holiness mattered so much, why would He spare the evangelical enterprise from humiliation if we’re engaging in sin?” Roys asked. “I think the justice of God can be the most gracious thing for the church. Covering up our sins never saves the church.”
Roys said one reason why corrupt church leaders stay in power is because of the “Evangelical Industrial Complex,” a term coined by Pastor Skye Jethani. Megachurch leaders, Christian publishers, Christian colleges, and ministry groups promote each other's work and gain money from their promotional network. When a leader does something wrong, other Christian institutions will ignore it so they can continue receiving book deals, promotional events, and recommendations from the leader.
“At best, it’s a collegial kind of relationship where we’re all pulling for the same team and we hold each other accountable when something goes wrong. The way it’s working right now is that we’re all piggybacking off each other so we can enrich our own ministries and we all can look the other way when something bad happens,” Roys said.
For example, Roys said that Harvest Bible Chapel leaders had emailed Moody to warn that MacDonald was an abusive leader who they shouldn’t put on radio. But Moody didn’t listen. Roys said part of the reason why Moody didn’t act was financial and personal interest. MacDonald was a gambling buddy of Moody’s chairman of the board and Moody published MacDonald’s books. Christians who investigate moneymaking Christian leaders get pressure from their publishers to not look too closely, she said.
Roys said that although nearly all evangelical pastors do beautiful work, the Evangelical Industrial Complex is “rotten to the core” and needs to end for the American Church to heal.
Some people blame Roys and her reporting for destroying churches, she said. She has received hate mail, Christian institutions have canceled their invitations for her to speak, and she has even lost friends over her reporting. A journalist needs a thick skin, she said.
Sometimes, the opposition can work to her advantage. Once, MacDonald attempted to sue her and sent her a restraining order so she couldn’t report on Harvest. Roys said MacDonald quickly stopped his lawsuit when she used it to get documents from him for her reporting.
The most important problem in the evangelical church has little to do with leaders, Roys said. In her investigations, she has found that American Christians lack courage. Nine out of 10 Christians won’t take risks by telling the truth about their church's problems, she said. And most people she talks with think it’s obvious they should choose to keep their job over the truth.
She illustrates people’s willingness to value their jobs over justice with a story from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The character Frodo is given a magic ring before he values it, but when he decides the magic ring is “his precious,” it corrupts him.
My answer is, ‘Lose your job. I lost my job to speak the truth. Why don’t you?’” Roys said. “Courage is required to be a godly person. It’s a prayer I have for myself that I won’t lose courage. I think it’s dangerous to love your ministry and what you do.”
When she started investigating financial corruption at Moody Bible Institute, she knew it could be career suicide, Roys said in an open letter. She reported the story anyway because she felt no one else would do so. She lost her job, along with opportunities to promote her book. The stories she reports on can often be emotionally taxing too. Although hate mail doesn’t hurt her, she often cries about the problems she encounters in the church.
“It can be crushing at times,” Roys said. “Sometimes, you wonder if there are any righteous people out there. It can be easy to despair if we don’t look to see all the beauty in the church.”
For encouragement, Roys said she listens to worship music, looks at the beauty of God’s creation, reads C.S. Lewis, and depends on prayers from her friends.