“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Since returning from a men’s breakfast at the church, Johnny paced from the living room out to the porch. Back and forth. Over and over again. I ignored it for as long as I could and finally pressed him to tell me.
“Come here,” he said and motioned for me to follow him onto the porch. The porch is for conversations we don’t want the kids to hear. He sat in his chair, lit his cigarette, and took a long draw.
Johnny told me what happened that morning at the church. Our pastor belittled and intimidated the men he speculated had a problem with his recent trip. The pastor used the term “poverty mind-set” to describe the thinking of any men who questioned or envied the spontaneous week-long motorcycle trip he and his wife enjoyed with another pastor couple through Nevada, California, and Oregon. The term “poverty mind-set” was a new one to Johnny. After the verbal barrage from the pastor, the men ate their meat and eggs over small talk.
Different emotions came over me as Johnny voiced more concerns. Above all, I was relieved. For more than two years, I ignored, stuffed, disregarded, neglected, then tried to pray away the red flags. After Johnny finished, I gave voice to what I held in for too long. We talked back and forth for a while. About what we saw. About what we felt but never said before. About what we didn’t want to believe. Then we sat in silence together. Grieved and confused.
“Johnny, what are we going to do?”
“We can’t leave, Marie.
It Was Clear
We couldn’t imagine leaving then, but seven months after our conversation on the porch, my family and I left the church we loved and served for eight years. We met with the pastors the first week of March 2017 and told them our decision. It felt strange sitting there across from the pastors, our friends, that way. We communicated our gratefulness to the church, the reasons for our decision, and our sorrow for having to leave.
My family and I were part of what I call, Giant Church Incorporated. We were highly involved in the church. Served regularly. Gave faithfully. Led teams. Did small groups. Youth camps. Campus launches. Freedom conference. Community service. Prayer team. Leadership program. Internship.
Eventually, I was on staff for nine months in 2014.
Our decision to leave didn’t come in a flash. We prayed and sought wise counsel from family and long-time friends who attended other churches. This is discouraged at Giant Church Inc, but we knew it was wise, healthy, and necessary to seek wisdom from outside our church. We prayed for our church leaders; we attended and served faithfully while we sought direction and counsel, and we continued to see what we refused to acknowledge before.
It was clear to us. We could no longer be part of Giant Church Inc.
Below is an excerpt of our letter to the pastors. We gave the same letter to a few close friends in leadership. We hoped our anguish over leaving was undoubted.
____Church has been a refuge for our wearied souls….a safe haven for our broken hearts. Our eyes were opened there, our hearts healed there, and we were forever changed there.
That’s why we’ve been in anguish over this decision which has been months in the making. After much prayer and lots of tears we have decided to leave ____Church. We are concerned that many of the recent teachings of ____Church are not biblical and Gospel-centered, but instead have been heavily influenced by a “prosperity gospel” which we do not believe and cannot support. We hoped that the teachings were one-time occurrences, only a phase, or misunderstandings on our part. But the teachings have become more pervasive. We are concerned about other teachings that have become an integral part of ____such as poverty mind-set, legacy thinking, and Jezebel and Ahab spirits.
We delayed leaving because Marie was part of __LI and Brady was interning but we now realize that to stay and complete the programs would imply that we wholeheartedly agree with all the teachings of ____ Church.
Our decision to leave doesn’t minimize the work of God in our lives through ____Church nor the love we have for the people there. We love you and the people of ____Church.
Megachurch or Not
Some called my Giant Church Inc a megachurch. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, a megachurch is generally defined as any Protestant Christian congregation with a sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more in its worship services.
I’m not sure ours ever reached the sustained attendance marker of a megachurch, but that was the goal. The leaders consistently cast the vision of 12,000 attending numerous campuses all over the Southeastern states and further by 2020.
Hartford Institute makes it clear that attendance is not the sole indicator of a megachurch. “It is a host of characteristics that create a distinctive worship style and congregational dynamic.” Most megachurches have small groups (typically in homes), require intense personal commitment from its members, and are led by a charismatic senior pastor with an authoritative style of preaching and administration.
My Giant Church Inc had some megachurch characteristics listed by the Hartford Institute, but Giant Church Inc is a distinct kind of organization.
While there are some overlapping features, I want to be clear: all megachurches aren’t Giant Church Incs and all Giant Church Incs aren’t megachurches. There are Small Church Incs as well.
I’m telling my Giant Church Inc story in a series of blog posts.
Why tell the story? If Giant Church Inc is doing good and making a positive difference in their city, if hundreds are baptized each year, if the seats are filled and the people are singing worship songs and listening to teaching they understand, then why does it matter?
Because thousands of people attend Giant Church Inc. The way they think about God, Jesus, others, the Bible, and their worldview is shaped by it. If Giant Church is not telling the truth about who God is, who Jesus is……if they aren’t preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then thousands of people live from lies instead of the truth.
But there’s another important reason I’m telling this story.
In our meeting with the pastors, and in our formal letter, we named false teaching as the reason we were leaving. While that is true, there were other reasons. Toxic leadership. Bullying. Lack of transparency. No accountability in financial or leadership matters. Fierce loyalty to the institution of Giant Church Inc and its brand.
Those are a few of a long list of reasons we left Giant Church Inc, and each one separately is cause for concern in any organization. They all seemed to be connected by an underlying motive; we just didn’t know what to call it.
For months after we left the church, a swirl of conflicting emotions overwhelmed us. We felt sorrow, relief, anger, elation, anxiety, shame, and confusion. Slowly, we began coming out of the dark. It’s the only way I know how to describe it.
You’re Not the Only One
Months later we realized what we experienced at Giant Church Inc. There is a name for it.
It’s called spiritual abuse.
In a podcast interview with Julie Roys on September 28, 2019, Dr. Wade Mullen, director of the M.Div. program at Capital Seminary and Graduate School, describes spiritual abuse as “an attempt by a person [group or organization] to use all that encompasses another person’s spiritual life – their beliefs, their faith, their experiences, and their hopes, to coerce or manipulate that other person into serving the abuser’s agenda.”
This happened to me and my family at Giant Church Incorporated.
Still, 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.
I’m not an authority on what caused the problems and I don’t have the answers. I know we were part of the problem, and you may be part of the problem. I’m telling our story so we won’t be part of the problem any longer and to let others know they’re not alone.
One more thing: if your church leaders discourage you from reading this series, you need to read this series.
Next time, I’ll describe Giant Church Inc fully and tell more of our story. Look for it soon.
For now, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite words of Jesus:
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”Matthew 11:28-30 CSB