I’m very familiar with the subject of David Trotter’s documentary, Set Free Posse. For thirty years, I considered myself a pretty staunch Evangelical and living in Orange County, California, I certainly knew about Set Free Church and its controversial leader, Phil Aguilar. I always thought it was a cool church because its members were mostly bikers gang members, and no one ever wore a suit during Sunday service. I also remember vague stories of the church’s downfall.
Aguilar’s path to ministry is a familiar one for many newborn Christians in the 1980s and 90s. He was a high school dropout, drug user and dealer, and in jail by thirty. While in prison, he became a born-again Christian and dedicated his life to the Lord’s work by starting Set Free Church in Anaheim, CA. His church served the surrounding Latino community, biker gangs, and struggling drug addicts. He established group homes for drug rehabilitation, and his ministry would be considered a cult by the Evangelical church and the city of Anaheim. But was it all true? Was Aguilar being set up by more sinister forces?
One of the issues I had with Set Free Posse is how, quite frankly, it appears to lack balance as most of the interviews are from the pastor and Set Free Church’s perspective. His critics’ points come mostly from news footage, TBN appearances, and the retelling of historical accounts from Aguilar and his supporters. This doesn’t mean the subjects are lying, but it does mean one doesn’t get the full picture. That said, from my personal experience with the church, actual cults, and drug rehab centers, Aguilar’s story feels true.
In Aguilar’s defense, the second half of the documentary is hardly a puff piece. If you believe in a devil, when a leader like Aguilar stands on top of a huge ministry, evil attacks from without and within. For the unbelievers, it can be seen as dysfunction. Set Free Church came under attack from prominent Evangelical church leaders with accusations that his group homes were essentially cults. Strict searches of personal belongings, limited communication with the outside world, and controlling what they ate and did during leisure time were all part and parcel of being in one of Set Free Church’s shelters. The issue is where the line crosses between reasonable drug rehabilitation practices and cultlike mind control and brainwashing. I suppose it depends on what side of the line you stand.
“…established group homes for drug rehabilitation, and his ministry would be considered a cult…”
With unrelenting attacks from the church, the city of Anaheim, and the press, Aguilar’s psyche began to deteriorate. His marriage was falling apart, his family fell apart, and his mental well-being began to collapse, and we’re only at the halfway mark of the two-hour documentary.
After watching Set Free Posse, I have a great deal of sympathy for Phil Aguilar and Set Free Church. It parallels many of my experiences as an Evangelical, though much less destructive. Though I embraced plenty of Evangelicalism’s positives, there are still elements of privilege, thought and behavior control, and cancel-culture that I experienced starting in the 80s. Set Free Church was always seen as different by the upper-middle-class WASPs that comprised a large percentage of the church.
I’ve seen many Christian films and documentaries like Set Free Posse. I appreciate director Trotter’s film because he tells Aguilar’s entire story warts and all, and many of the warts show up well after his conversion to Christ. Aguilar reached incredible heights with Set Free Church. The true test of one’s character comes once you’ve been knocked down. Do you fight and claw your way back to the top or learn the vital lessons of humility and look to where God will send you next?
For these reasons, Set Free Posse is definitely worth watching. If you’re going to sit through a religious story, it’s best to be open about one’s faults. Aguilar’s life is a testimony that there is hope for the hopeless, and it’s also testimony that the church still has a long way to go if it’s genuinely going to embody the Great Commission.
"…he tells Aguilar's entire story warts and all...many of the warts show up well after his conversion..."