My friend was sitting in the corner chair when I walked into Panera Bread. She texted me days before to ask if we could meet soon. She had something to tell me and it couldn’t wait until our next workout with the group.
She stood when she saw me walking towards her. We hugged each other, then sat down. She forced a smile and went right into what she had to say. It wasn’t easy for her to tell me Giant Church Inc had changed the rules. Those who did not attend the church could no longer be part of small groups, and since we’d left four months earlier, my daughters and I would not be allowed to workout with the ladies’ Spartan group of Giant Church Inc.
She tried to explain the reason for the change, but struggled to make it clear. Something about the danger of conflicting beliefs. The only thing she knew; the leaders said it had to be this way. I held back my tears, until I saw hers. We hugged each other again and she said we’d talk soon.
I sat in my car, composed myself, and wiped the mascara from under my eyes. How do I tell my fifteen year old daughter she can no longer run in the park with the ladies from Giant Church Inc? How will this make sense to her? It didn’t make sense to me.
It Didn’t Matter
Later that evening, I talked to one of the leaders of the small group. Another close friend. I’m certain she tried to explain the rule change, but I don’t remember. I was hurt and confused and told her so. The only other part of the conversation I remember is when she told me not to make it all about me. Whether she meant to or not, she shamed me into silence. My feelings about it didn’t matter.
Giant Church Inc said we no longer belonged. The church we served faithfully for eight years, the people we shared life with and loved, those who mentored Blake to lead a youth small group, and trusted Brady with their children, who trusted Johnny to serve on security, and trusted me to teach and lead women in the church. We weren’t welcome.
Within a week, my friends, the same ones who gave me the news of the rule change, started a group not associated with Giant Church Inc, so I and others could continue to train and workout with them. It meant a lot to me, but Blake and Brady only showed up for one or two more workouts after the change.
The rest of us worked out together regularly and a lot of us went on to earn our Spartan Trifecta in 2017 and a few of us again in 2018. We met for lunch or dinner when we could, and talked about our lives. Our families and work. Our struggles and triumphs. What God was teaching us and how He was changing us. Giant Church Inc wasn’t discussed often, but when they did, I listened quietly.
I thank God for my friends and the time they invested in our relationship.
Months later I saw Facebook posts from friends at Giant Church Inc promoting the new season of small groups. “Everyone is welcome. Come join us as we do life together.”
How Do We Do This
We could never have known what leaving Giant Church Inc would mean. We witnessed what others endured before us, but because no one talked about it and we never asked, there was no guidance, no pathway, no advice on how to walk it out.
I was unprepared for the intensity of my emotions. The pain of leaving our church, the heartbreak over the abrupt end to so many friendships, and coming to terms with the spiritual abuse, overwhelmed me at times.
Part of the reason it’s hard to leave Giant Church Inc is the sense of belonging it creates. It hits on an essential part of being human. We need relationships, because God made us that way. Drew Hunter, a pastor in Indiana, in an article for Desiring God said this: “Most foundationally, you need friendship because you are inescapably communal. You are made in God’s image, and God is not solitary — he eternally exists as a triune fellowship of love. This is why “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Our triune God made us to reflect him, and one beautiful implication is that we are wired for lives of relational fullness with other people.”
Unfortunately, the sense of belonging created by Giant Church Inc is a false one. The belonging is conditional and only on their terms. People become commodities in the goals of growth, success, image, and achievement. We were part of them, but only when we agreed, and behaved the way they wanted. Only when we were adding to their success and image.
Assets and Liabilities
We realized a majority of our friendships at Giant Church Inc were merely transactional. We were assets if we submitted, served, gave, and never questioned. We are liabilities when we think for ourselves, ask questions, call for accountability, and speak out against wrongdoing. It is an agonizing experience, made even more so when you see your children enduring the same.
Giant Church Inc demonstrates what is called collective or group narcissism. When we’re children we take part in collective narcissism when we think our group is better than other groups. Remember the “boys drool, and girls rule” chant on the playground at school. Collective narcissism is natural to children. As we mature, we grow out of it, hopefully. We participate in it when cheering for our favorite sports team, but it’s done in the name of fun.
Collective narcissism can take on a darker tone. The dark side of it is characterized by the members of a group holding an inflated view of the group and requiring external validation. Organizations who exhibit this behavior typically try to protect their identities through rewarding group-building behavior, and might react aggressively when the image of the group is in jeopardy, or when the group is collectively called out.
In an informative podcast conversation between Dr. Dan Allender, PhD and Rachel Clinton, MDiv, they have this to say about it:
“It’s a system that is more than hierarchical. The top dog does control, manipulate, have power over everyone else, and there is an immense amount of shame and fear that goes on in that organization. Spiritually abusive systems are often rigidly dogmatic, with an in-house language and a very rigid sense of who is “in” and who is “out.” In spiritually abusive situations, truth is perverted in order to bind people and keep them under control. The reality of brokenness in the world is amplified into a distrust of anyone on the outside, and community members are led to believe that questioning or challenging their leaders is a form of betrayal. This has deep and crucial intersections with the category of narcissism”
This is Giant Church Inc. Within the larger collectively narcissistic group of Giant Church Inc, there are the smaller groups, the various teams or those on higher “levels” who exhibit the same types of behavior; then there are even smaller groups of insiders and staff.
Loyalty to Giant Church Inc is demanded, and its most loyal followers are the most proud to belong to it.
Jesus Is There
Giant Church Inc or not, we must not confuse a sense of belonging to the church community with our faith in Jesus Christ. Our love for community, for being accepted, and the love we feel for the people there can replace love for Jesus. We need to learn that “Jesus is better than the community of Jesus. Jesus will be there when the community of Jesus lets you down.”
Just like He was there for the young man kicked out of the synagogue. Jesus looked for him and found him. Do you know this story? The story is told in the Gospel of John chapter 9. Whether you know it or not, I encourage you to read it for yourself. Ask God to open your heart and let the story sit there.
Jesus heard that they had thrown the man out, and when he found him, he asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
“Who is he, Sir, that I may believe in him?” he asked.
Jesus answered, “You have seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
“I believe, Lord!” he said, and he worshiped him. John 9:35-38 CSB
Photo by David Werbrouck at Unsplash