McAfee alumnus challenges traditional theology — and feel free to call him a heretic

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Kristian Smith smokes a cigar in front of a bar
On his podcast, "Holy Smokes: Cigars and Spirituality," Mercer University alumnus Kristian Smith is known as "The Heretic." Photo courtesy Kristian Smith

Mercer University alumnus Kristian Smith was about 12 years old when something happened that would deeply impact the development of his future ministry.

Smith, a self-described “fat kid,” was at a church retreat when an older child decided to make Smith the butt of his jokes.

“He just unleashes a barrage of insults and is just going in on me, and all the other kids are laughing,” Smith recalled. “And the worst was that the people who were supposed to be my friends all sat there and watched it happen.”

Smith ran away, crying and embarrassed. One of his friends found him. He rubbed Smith’s back and said he was so sorry about what happened. Smith was indignant.

“I said, ‘No, don’t tell me you’re sorry when you watched it happen and did nothing in the moment. Because I needed you in that moment to advocate for me. I needed you to stand up for me, and you watched it happen, so you don’t get to come and try to console me now,’” he recalled.

Today, Smith is pastor of The Faith Community, an Atlanta-based church that he started in 2015, and advocacy and allyship are recurring themes in his ministry.

“I always needed somebody to advocate for me, and since I had so many experiences where I didn’t see anybody advocate for me, I wanted to make sure if there was ever a time somebody was in my presence and they needed an advocate and I was in a position to do so, I wouldn’t let them feel the way that I felt,” Smith said.

Kristian Smith wears a preacher's robe and stands behind a lecturn
Mercer University alumnus Kristian Smith is pastor of The Faith Community in Atlanta.

Smith is a fifth-generation Baptist preacher. But at the time of the church retreat, being a pastor wasn’t even on his mind. It wasn’t until after he completed his undergraduate degree and was studying for his Master of Business Administration at Alabama A&M University that he got the call to preach.

“I was totally on track to operate in corporate America and some type of organizational leadership. I had aspirations of being a C-level executive in a Fortune 500 company, and then ministry came calling,” Smith said.

Smith became an itinerant preacher, traveling around to different churches, while starting his banking career in Huntsville, Alabama. He moved to Atlanta for family reasons but didn’t find work easily. He worked as a baggage handler at Delta for six months before he finally landed a job with Delta Community Credit Union. After being passed up for a promotion, he decided to explore seminary.

He received a scholarship to McAfee School of Theology and enrolled in 2013. The decision “changed the trajectory of my entire ministerial career,” he said.

Smith’s father taught him to think critically, but he was never invited to use that critical thinking as it pertained to his theology and faith.

“I was just handed my theology and told to abide by it without really exploring it and critiquing it,” he said. “So, I got to McAfee, and the faculty there said, ‘We want you to explore, and we’re going to equip you with the tools for that exploration.’

“It really opened up my eyes and allowed me to ask questions that I had never been invited to ask.”

Through his studies, Smith said he realized his theology was bullying people in the ways that it marginalized women and the LGBTQ community; and white evangelical theology suppressed Black people. Recalling his own experiences of being bullied, he vowed never to perpetuate that.

Pamela Merritt and Kristian Smith stand on a bridge.
Mercer University alumnus Kristian Smith and his wife, Pamela Merritt. Photo courtesy Kristian Smith

“I said, ‘I can’t continue that, and if I’m going to have a career in ministry, I’m going to have to figure out how to be true to myself and do what I really feel called to do,’ which is how this central thrust of advocacy and allyship became the theme of my ministry,” he said.

The Faith Community started as a six-session adult Bible study that Smith led in his apartment for a class assignment. He made it into a public ministry at the urging of a fellow McAfee alumnus and with the support of the small group participants.

Today, the church represents different generations, races, genders, economic classes, sexualities and cultures. It is heavily influenced by Black celebratory tradition and worship, and it values dialogue among congregants over a single person preaching to the congregation (though that does happen once a month).

Each person who attends The Faith Community is allowed to show up as their authentic self, Smith said.

“They don’t have to try to act like they are pious or any more pious than what they are,” he said. “They don’t have to act like they don’t cuss. … We don’t try to act like we don’t smoke cigars or enjoy an adult beverage.”

In fact, one of The Faith Community’s leading drivers to the church is a group called Holy Smokes: Cigars and Spirituality, which meets in a cigar lounge in Atlanta. McAfee Dean Dr. Greg DeLoach lent his support by participating in the endeavor.

The group was so popular that Smith turned it into a podcast to give the discussions a wider audience.

Each September, The Faith Community has Therapy and Theology Month, which explores the connection between spiritual and emotional health. Smith’s wife, Pamela Merritt, a therapist who specializes in religious trauma and gay affirmative therapy, came up with the idea and leads the program.

Smith, who graduated from McAfee in 2016 with a Master of Divinity, also has written a book called “Breaking All the Rules: An Ancient Framework for Modern Faith.” In it, he introduces what he calls “Greatest Commandment Theology,” which gives people a solid foundation by which they are empowered to make their own decisions.

“‘The Greatest Commandment’ is that we should love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, and that we should love our neighbors as ourselves,” Smith said. “These are the words of Jesus, and he says everything in the law hinges on these two. So, you can’t take one without the other.”

In addition to leading The Faith Community, Smith runs P-Squared, his family-owned custom clothing and wardrobe consulting business. He started the business to make money after he quit his job to attend McAfee full time. He started out selling pocket squares (his favorite fashion accessory), pocket rounds, lapel pins, bow ties and neck ties. Today, the company creates custom clothing “from the neck to the ground,” he said.

Kristian Smith, owner of P-Squared, adjusts the pocket square of man's suit.
Mercer University alumnus Kristian Smith owns P-Squared, a custom clothing and wardrobe consulting business. Photo courtesy Kristian Smith

Smith doesn’t shy away from hard questions about faith, and he knows that many find his views controversial and disruptive of Christian norms. But it’s something he has embraced. On his podcast, he’s known as “The Heretic,” a moniker he adopted after being called a heretic for his views.

“If you remove the church connotation, at its core, the definition of heretic is one who holds views or opinions that are contrary to what is widely accepted,” Smith said. “That’s definitely me. I hold a lot of views and opinions that are contrary to what is widely accepted in my faith tradition.

“So yes, I am the heretic. I will now take the power out of that insult that you’re trying to hurl at me, and I’m gonna name myself ‘The Heretic.’ I’m gonna embrace the name ‘The Heretic’ because you gave it to me to tear me down, but I’m gonna use it to build people up.”

In fall 2021, The McAfee School of Theology celebrated the 25th anniversary of its founding on Mercer’s Atlanta campus. The Den is sharing alumni profiles throughout the academic year to mark this milestone anniversary.

 

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Jennifer Falk is a digital content specialist at Mercer University. She creates and maintains written and multimedia content for primary University web pages. She collaborates with various schools and departments to ensure timely and consistent web page content is maintained. She also examines web data and analytics to drive content creation decisions.