Everything about their first visit to Mercy Culture’s pop-up church service felt right to Sam and Jane, a young married couple who asked that we conceal their identities to protect them from backlash. It was mid-2019, and a mutual friend had recommended attending the services at Paschal High School near TCU.
“It seemed like a normal church,” Sam recalled. “My wife and I went to a Bible college. One of my plans was to become a youth pastor. The Mercy members seemed to empower people.”
The pastor, Landon Schott, was accessible and free of the right-wing agendas that would later define his leadership, Sam said.
Then COVID hit. The couple stopped attending church to protect the health of Jane’s grandparents. By the time they returned to Mercy Culture services, Landon and wife Heather Schott, who is also a senior pastor, had renovated a large building on the North Side. With the new space came new leadership and a new vision, Sam alleges.
To serve on Mercy’s youth team like he wanted, Sam had to volunteer six hours every Sunday in Mercy’s child care area. Newly married and with a full-time job, Sam raised objections about the requirement.
“That’s when I started questioning things,” he said. “I started to see holes and flaws that I hadn’t noticed at the beginning. At first, they told me I should serve more. All the work was putting a strain on our marriage. I was told that serving more would help our marriage. Then they said I should ask my job for a day off since I didn’t have time off on Sunday. It was a complete change with the new leadership.”
The Schotts have ignored my repeated requests for comment on this and other stories.
Becoming a member of Mercy Culture Church, Sam alleges, is a form of indentured servitude.
The church’s low overhead may explain how the business affords the Schotts an upscale 3,000-square-foot home northwest of downtown. Sam and Jane stopped attending the church last year after Mercy leaders told congregants to vote for and support then-mayoral candidate Steve Penate, a far right-wing activist known for crusading against so-called “woke” books in public schools and other targets of Fox Nation’s culture wars.
Mercy Culture’s leaders exploit their members for financial gain, Sam alleges, by prophesying that churchgoers should buy property to “expand territory” but only through Realtors like Heather Schott, Steve Penate, and other church leaders who are active real estate agents. Admins in Mercy Culture’s private Facebook page would regularly refer Mercy members to church leaders who then earned commissions off sales or purchases of property, Sam alleges.
Members are expected to tithe 10% of their annual income, Sam continued, and church leaders emphasize that real giving only begins after that mark is met.
Sam and Jane aren’t the only Fort Worthians alleging that Mercy Culture Church leaders are grifting their followers. In April, the vast majority of Oakhurst neighborhood residents voted against Mercy Culture’s proposed temporary housing shelter for victims of human trafficking. Residents of the Northside neighborhood that abuts the church confided through Instagram messages that the proposed Justice Residences were not a credible solution to the issue of human trafficking that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimated targeted 200,000 minors a year in 2014 (the most recent year of official DOJ figures). Heather has long publicized a baseless claim that 30 million Americans are trafficked every year. The project appeared to be a scam, Oakhurst residents told me.
Through its active endorsements of Christian fundamentalists like county judge candidate Tim O’Hare and district attorney candidate Matt Krause, Mercy Culture pastors and worship leaders have positioned themselves as local leaders in a powerful and well-funded Christian Nationalist movement that seeks to domestically entangle church and state as a means of subjugating anyone who does not buy into the homophobic and fundamentalist beliefs of a minority of evangelical Americans.
“We declare that Fort Worth is yours, Jesus,” Mercy Culture Church recently posted. “We declare your justice and righteousness resound in every part of our city. We declare no other spirit but the holy spirit is seated on the throne of Fort Worth.”
Sam said little about the megachurch can be said to be Christian.
“Look at the Bible and what Jesus did,” Sam said. “This church does not embody any of this. You don’t see any example where Jesus said overthrow the government and put in a new regime. Every single time throughout history where there is a theocracy ruled by Christians, it ends in bloodshed and carnage. That’s why I’m scared for Fort Worth.”
Writing for Time in the months following the Jan. 6 insurrection, Andrew Whitehead said, “In order to understand what led to the deadly Capitol insurrection and the spate of proposed voting laws, we must account for the influence of Christian Nationalism, a political theology that fuses American identity with an ultra-conservative strain of Christianity.”
The Indiana University sociology professor cited polls that found 20% of Americans self-identify with the movement.
“As a political theology that co-opts Christian narratives and symbolism, Christian Nationalism has its own version of the ‘elect,’ those chosen by God,” Whitehead writes. “They are ‘people like us,’ meaning conservative Christian but also white, natural-born citizens. Moreover, in a prosperous nation, only the ‘elect’ should control the political process while others must be closely scrutinized, discouraged, or even denied access. This ideology is fundamentally a threat to a pluralistic, democratic society.”
Since Congress’ passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, the United States has remained a secular Democracy even as political movements in the ensuing decades and centuries threatened that tradition. Supreme Court rulings and constitutional amendments have only further provided legal protections to citizens of all faiths and the nonreligious, but a concerted effort by fundamentalist Christians and so-called charismatic Christians that began in the 1970s is now positioned to upend America’s pluralistic way of life.
Journalists and scholars point to the rise of Christian Dominionism in the 1970s as the genesis for modern Christian Nationalism. The term refers to the belief that Christians should take over the government. Critics of Christian Dominionism note that New Testament teachings emphasize preparing for the heavenly kingdom — not transforming government. Christian Nationalism evolved again when the New Apostolic Reformation movement was formalized in the mid-1990s. The term describes nondenominational churches that adhered to unbiblical beliefs that Jesus appoints apostles and prophets to this day.
Like many charismatic church leaders, the Schotts believe in the “seven mountain” prophecy that calls for Christians to gain influence in seven pillars of American society: religion, family, business, government/military, education, entertainment, and media.
There are few articles on the Schotts’ rise to influence within the charismatic Christian movement. One 2009 article by The Spokesman-Review, based in Washington, described a television show that starred a “youthful and attractive” Landon and Heather Schott.
“This television show was put in my heart,” Landon told the reporter. “This is a show for young people that doesn’t have the typical Hollywood message of live life and have fun without considering the consequences. We want to prevent lives from being destroyed, so we tell stories about people whose lives have been put back together through the Lord.”
Based on the article, Landon grew up in Seattle, and his father is a longtime minister.
“The family traveled all over the world, planting churches in Mexico, Australia, and other countries,” the article reads. “Landon was 14 when he preached his first sermon in India. He started preaching full time when he was 16 and became ordained at 18.”
The ordination age of 18 suggests that Landon does not have a four-year degree in theology. Mercy Culture’s website does not describe any formal education on Landon’s bio page.
“I think Biblical literacy is extremely low at Mercy Culture,” Jane said. “Landon would take an Old Testament story, and he would take it out of its context and say this is how we are supposed to act now. When you know good Biblical exegesis, you know everything needs to be read in context. You can’t just cherry-pick a Bible verse and say, ‘Listen to this.’ Landon did a lot of that. If you are doing an expository sermon, you are taking a section of scripture and analyzing it: ‘Here is what the Bible is saying, and here is how you can apply it to your life.’ Landon starts with what he wants to tell [the congregation], and then he cherry-picks his verses to support his points. If you listen to the way Mercy Culture members speak, they aren’t quoting Bible verses. They are quoting catchphrases from Landon.”
Our open records request with the city’s zoning commission was returned with copies of Mercy Culture Church’s founding documents. Based on the Secretary of State’s office, the church was incorporated on Nov. 11, 2017, and the founding members are listed as living outside of North Texas: Landon and Heather Schott (Cedar Park, Texas), Steve Penate (Peoria, Arizona), and Matthew Saville (Stafford, Virginia). The church’s articles of incorporation forbid political activity by church leaders.
“No substantial part of the activities of the corporation shall be the carrying on of propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation,” Mercy Culture’s founding documents read. “The corporation shall not participate in or intervene in (including the publishing of distribution of statements) any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for political office.”
Over the past two months, several people have sent me screenshots of Landon’s Tuesday Q&A sessions in which he posts Instagram stories intended to guide Mercy Culture followers’ behaviors and choices.
“Is participating in declaring your pronouns accepting the LGBTQ agenda?” he asked his followers. “Yes!”
In the sessions, he frequently focuses on bashing gay and queer people. In one post, he advises Christians to not attend same-sex weddings: “FYI, you’re not hateful, mean, judgmental, intolerant, or bigoted because you choose to honor God’s word. You are obedient!”
To the Schotts, demonic spirits are real. Landon frequently preaches about witchcraft, and several people who closely follow Mercy Culture allege that Landon uses accusations of witchcraft to silence critics in his church. Several years ago, Landon published a book, Jezebel: The Witch Is Back, in which he describes how a “Jezebel” spirit can supposedly inhabit women.
“Don’t tell her anything,” the pastor writes. “Whatever you tell Jezebel, she will use against you. She will take things you tell her in confidence and use them to try and discredit you publicly. She will constantly seek information she can use to sound and appear to be intuitive, spiritual, and factual. She will make provoking statements that ask questions like: ‘Why don’t you tell me what is really going on?’ ”
Iris, who spent a few years attending Gateway Church, Mercy Culture’s parent church, and who asked that we conceal her last name to protect her privacy, never attended Mercy Culture but said Landon’s blatant homophobic and transphobic rhetoric can be accounted for by Gateway’s policies that bar homosexuals from holding leadership positions.
Gateway Church, which has several large campuses across the country but largely in North Texas, is headed by Robert Morris, a former “spiritual advisor” to disgraced one-term president Donald Trump.
“These churches expect you to adhere to a certain standard,” she said. “That’s how they weed out the gays. If you want to volunteer at children’s ministry or elsewhere, you have to take a membership class and sign a waiver that you uphold a Biblical life.”
Iris said female church members were expected to abstain from premarital sex, drinking alcohol in public, and wearing revealing clothing. The rules were much more rigid for women than men, she said. She left Gateway in 2020 after the church hosted Trump during his visit to Dallas.
In 2020, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s rise to power can largely be attributed to support from evangelical church leaders.
The Post continues, “Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White and many more lesser-known but influential religious leaders prophesied that Trump would win the 2020 election and helped organize nationwide prayer rallies in the days before the Jan. 6 insurrection, speaking of an imminent ‘heavenly strike’ and ‘a Christian populist uprising,’ leading many who stormed the Capitol to believe they were taking back the country for God.”
Evangelical churches continue to see growth in membership even as mainstream church attendance continues to decline. Based on data by the Pew Research Center, self-identified Christians made up 63% of the U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade ago. The very group that Schott regularly singles out for living “sinful” lives, LGBTQ+ folks, is growing as a proportion of this country’s overall population. Around 20% of Gen Z — older teens and younger twentysomethings — identify as LGBTQ+, according to a recent Gallup poll.
With each knock, Chanin Scanlon greeted her fellow Oakhurst residents by name and directed them toward a petition.
“Is this the petition against the shelter?” one elderly man asked Scanlon, who is finishing out her third term as Neighborhood Association president.
When Scanlon replied yes, the man let out a hearty praise as he signed the sheet.
“Thank you, Jesus,” he said as he scribbled his name down.
Scanlon told me she is taking no chances when it comes to stopping Mercy Culture’s plans to build a 100-bed shelter near Oakhurst for victims of human trafficking. The staunch opposition by area residents, she said, is not a critique on the fervent religiosity of Mercy Culture members or a rebuke of the idea of helping trafficking victims. The Schotts have continually dodged NA questions and tried to force through a poorly planned and potentially dangerous project, she alleges, adding that the community will not let the church power its vision through.
The leadership at Calvary Cathedral, the previous owners of Mercy Church’s building, were accessible and welcoming, Scanlon claims, adding that Mercy’s leadership has been considerably more secretive and condescending in their interaction with area residents.
It was during last year’s mayoral race that Mercy elder Penate, who was running for the city’s top elected seat, mentioned the Justice Residences during a public forum. Scanlon said that was the first time she heard about the project. In January, she said one of the proposed project’s engineers asked the Oakhurst NA board for preapproval of the shelter project. Scanlon saw the move as an attempt to avoid a public meeting about the plan. In late March, Heather and Landon called a church-led meeting and invited Oakhurst residents to attend.
“It felt like a sermon,” Scanlon recalled.
Oakhurst resident Natalie, who asked that we not use her last name to protect her privacy, said the Schotts were allegedly very “preachy” in their interactions with Oakhurst residents.
“They were very pushy and not accepting of other views,” she said.
Two days later and in early April, 170 Oakhurst members voted against the proposed shelter while six voted for it.
“That’s not just a no,” Scanlon said. “That’s a hell no. If this facility fails, what are the plans for this building? It’s right next to a truck stop. There’s a hotel across the highway. I-35 is known as a corridor for trafficking. The highway is loud. There is a train track that is loud. … [Justice Residences are] a bad location for those victims.”
Human traffickers see their victims as property, she said, adding that Oakhurst residents view the proposed shelter as a magnet for violent criminals who may stop at nothing to retrieve their “property.” Scanlon believes Oakhurst residents will be in particular danger because the Schotts regularly publicize the address of the proposed Justice Residences.
Through social media posts, Landon dismissed the vote as the work of a handful of activists while characterizing Oakhurst residents as the spawn of Satan.
“If anyone resists helping the most abused victims in our community, it’s only because they are EVIL!” he wrote on Instagram. “They hate that we challenge their wicked agenda so they resist and attack us. This is a handful of wicked activists that HATE our biblical stance on marriage.”
A recent report by the Institute for Shelter Care, a faith-based nonprofit that rehabilitates human trafficking victims, advises against the type of massive shelter that the Schotts are pushing for.
The opening of the report reads, “There are those who are new to the work who entertain grandiose dreams of a large, all-inclusive campus of care with ‘100-plus beds’ to eradicate trafficking in their community.”
In the study, the institute examined 218 shelters across the country and found that most have a bed capacity of around nine. On average, most shelters for human trafficking victims run at half capacity due to low demand for bed space and because most shelter operators find that they are better able to help clients when their shelters aren’t maxed out. The report’s summary contradicts Heather’s public statements that Fort Worth needs a massive human trafficking shelter.
“There is harmony around an average of 8-9 beds per facility,” the report reads, “as found across the 218 programs nationwide and as supported by comments from these respondents. Still, it should not be concluded that large facilities are in err. What was learned was that larger facilities demand so much in terms of staffing, administration, operations, and finance. Shelter leaders and funders should ensure that these provisions have been considered and secured for the years ahead.”
The Schotts recently pulled their request to change the zoning from a planned development district that can be only used for religious purposes to a designation that would allow for home construction.
Scanlon believes the move was intended to avoid an embarrassing no vote by the zoning commission. Several Oakhurst residents and folks who follow Mercy Culture told me that the Schotts will resubmit their plans and possibly appeal the matter to Fort Worth City Council if needed because the project is so central to the Schotts’ ambitions.
Before leaving Mercy Culture, Sam said he would question church leaders on why they were using church resources to endorse political candidates. Mercy Culture members would reply that the violations of federal laws were protected by free speech, Sam said.
“Mercy Culture should have its tax-exempt status taken away,” Sam continued. “Welcome to being political activists because you are not a church anymore.”
“The ban on political campaign activity by charities and churches was created by Congress more than a half-century ago,” the IRS website reads.
“In 1954, Congress approved an amendment by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity,” the IRS says. “To the extent Congress has revisited the ban over the years, it has in fact strengthened the ban. The most recent change came in 1987 when Congress amended the language to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.”
Sam said his experience at Mercy Culture shook his faith. He had to return to the core Christian teachings that inspired him to become a youth pastor and away from the rhetoric that defines religious life at Mercy Culture.
I asked Sam and Jane what they thought about Mercy Culture’s prospects for growth in the coming years. Despite opposition to the Justice Residences and growing awareness among Fort Worthians that the church was a staunch supporter of O’Hare’s misinformation campaign against Betsy Price — an effort that has already driven influential local Republicans like Mayor Mattie Parker away from Tarrant County’s Republican Party — Sam and Jane said that Landon will simply “get louder.”
Mercy Culture recently purchased Calvary Christian Academy in the Oakhurst neighborhood. One Oakhurst resident who watches the school closely said the private school run by Penate’s wife, Esther Penate, is preparing to rebrand as Mercy Prep. One Calvary Christian Academy parent messaged the Weekly on Instagram and said the school has changed drastically under Mercy’s leadership. Attendance at Mercy church services is all but mandatory, the mother told us.
Mercy Culture’s new, second location in Waco is headed by lead pastors Les and Nikki Cody, who state on the church’s website that they “love the House of God and have a heart to see people experience the tangible presence of The Lord that changes lives in an instant.”
Listed below the Cody family is a photo of Landon and Heather Schott with a note that they currently teach from the Fort Worth campus.
“If there was any mosque or temple seeking to overthrow the government, Mercy Culture would be calling for that building to be torn down,” Sam said. “The Kingdom of God is not a human kingdom. The fact that [Mercy Culture Church leaders] are trying to put America onto this godly pedestal is concerning. Christians tend to not appreciate this country’s melting pot.”