I expressed my love for God’s people in the first post of this series:
I love the church. I love God and I love His people. My point in telling our story is not to cause division or call out any one church or organization, though it may do that. I think what’s happening at Giant Church Inc is symptomatic of a larger problem within the entire American church. My prayer is that we wake up to what is happening in the church, that our hearts are broken over it, and we get back to our first love: Jesus Christ.
My love is even deeper now. My sadness about the church is as well. I’ve heard story after story of experiences like the ones I’ve shared in this series; local ones, some from Georgia, Minnesota, California, Michigan, and others from unknown places. And just this week three different articles in Christianity Today and an investigative report in USA Today tell stories of abusive church leaders and the trail of damaged lives they’ve left behind.
Jesus is heartbroken over the church. I hope we are too.
How did our passion to tell others the good news of Jesus turn into what we read about in our social media feeds or hear on the news? How does a leader with a vision to make disciples and bless the community turn into an abusive bully controlling his congregation with manipulative messages?
From Above or Below
Jamie Goggin and Kyle Strobel, along with several others I’ve read and listened to lately, agree: power is the issue. In their book, The Way of the Dragon or The Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It, Goggin and Strobel highlight the difference between worldly power and Christian power, the way from below and the way from above. They ask some thought provoking questions. What happens if the church rejects the power of Christ? What happens when Christians embody a worldly approach to power and try to use that to advance Christ’s kingdom?
We know what happens. We read about it in our headlines or blogs like this one, and experience it in too many of our churches and Christian organizations.
They write: “In every facet of its mission, the church is called to strip us bare of our deep-seated desire to self-fulfill, to call us to repentance, and to invite us to die so that we may have eternal life in Christ alone. Sadly, rather than calling us to walk the way from above, the church has affirmed and even propagated the way from below.
In a culture drunk on power and in need of an intervention, the church has too often become an enabler. In many places, churches openly affirm the way from below. Instead of being told how desperately I am in need of God, I am repeatedly told how much God needs me. Instead of being exhorted to pick up my cross and follow Christ, I am told that Jesus wants to be my partner in the plan I have to rid my life of all struggles and challenges. We hear gospels of moralism, centering on my power to become a better person, and we hear sermons offering up God as merely another resource along my journey for successful and happy living. Sermons become pep talks amid a quest for power and significance. Instead of hearing God’s vision of redeeming all things in Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit, we hear of the pastor’s vision to grow an even bigger church that does bigger things so that he can be powerful and we can be powerful with him.”
This is a familiar description of many of our churches.
Why are we okay with this? Why are we okay with pastors who bully and live luxurious lives? Why won’t we question when we see high staff or lay leader turnover? Why are we so easily misled with false teaching? Aren’t we, the church, partly responsible for allowing these things in our local bodies? Yes, we are. It would be easy to say that “those churches” must be full of “seekers” or new Christians who don’t know better. I don’t believe that. I wasn’t a new Christian when it happened to me. And I have friends who attend Giant Church Inc. They’re mature believers who love Jesus. They’re on the inside and in lay leadership. They see a lot of what’s happening. How has church leadership convinced these Jesus followers that what they’re seeing is okay?
God, help us not be okay with it.
One way we enable toxic environments and abuse is silence. I don’t want to be part of the problem any longer, therefore, I am learning about these issues and will share what I learn with those who will read and listen. More importantly, I’m asking God to help me walk in the way of Jesus…….and I will tell my story.
It was finally the day. The one they made us dread from the beginning. The one they said would make us or break us. The one they said would take all the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual strength we had to endure.
If we worked out as we were told, we’d be prepared. If not, we’d suffer.
We took our final exams on Systematic Theology and the other lessons in our leadership class in between one mile runs, weighted bar squats, and dunking ourselves in one of the baptismal tanks full of iced water over and over again. We wrote out test answers while shivering in the cold and keeping a perfect squat like we were sitting in a chair. I spent hours studying for the test, but it didn’t matter. Our test papers were soaked and ineligible; our names written at the top faded away as the water forced the ink to the edges.
They screamed at us to run faster, squat deeper, hold the weight bar higher. They yelled out our weaknesses. Parts of our personal lives pastors should hold in confidence. They demanded a few students recite the mission statement and core values while spraying water in their faces. They reminded us we chose this and it was for our own good. It would help us in the long run to be mentally tough and ready for ministry. “Remember,” they yelled, “we love you and want to make you better.”
I knew it was ridiculous, and I recall thinking to myself: this has nothing to do with following Jesus or making me better for ministry. This is foolish and I can make it through this anyway.
After it was over, at the debriefing, they said we had greatness in us then called us shit sandwiches.
I signed up for the leadership class to study Systematic Theology, and I didn’t mind the diet and exercise. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge, and that’s how I felt about that part. It was something new and an opportunity to grow. I enjoyed adding some intensity to my regular fitness routine to help prepare me for the “test.” They expected us to adhere to a strict Paleo diet and I did mostly, but I listened to my body. I ate grains, dairy, or chocolate when I needed them.
It didn’t take long for me to notice, though, that others in the class were taking the diet and exercise regimen to an extreme. Weeks into the diet, our teacher asked if anyone had cheated. A fellow classmate raised her hand to “confess” she ate cheese on her salad. Her punishment was 25 push-ups in front of the class. Another classmate struggled to keep up with the workouts and the diet and was convinced she offended God and the leaders. When she apologized to the class, the pastor praised her honest confession of failure.
What disturbed me most was the response of the leaders. Not one of them corrected my classmates’ assessments of their failure as “sin.” Not one encouraged us to use wisdom concerning the diet and exercise. Instead, the leadership at Giant Church Inc seemed to relish the power of doling out consequences to the offenders. They enjoyed reminding us how special we were because they were willing to invest their time in us.
The pastors worked hard to cause us to disengage from discernment and reason. When we reasoned and used our discernment it was called a religious spirit. This caused doubt and confusion, accomplishing what they wanted all along: a fear, or at least a hesitation to stand up for the truth and question them. I now believe the purpose of the leadership class was to weed out the “rebels” and train the most loyal followers of Giant Church Inc.
More and more, the pastors and their closest leaders separated themselves from those they are there to serve. The security team guarded them from certain people and escorted them to the comfort of their offices. The pastors and staff watched from the sound booth as we worked hours and hours creating the perfect atmosphere for events at the church.
They demand praise when stepping on stage, honor and respect at all times, and expect the same to be shown to all special guests. Instead of following the example and instructions of Jesus, they take the first seat, the place of honor, and ask others to grant them privileges.
That’s not the power of love, but the love of power.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28 NIV
Not so with us, Lord. Not so with us.