Disclaimer: To protect my family and myself, I am not using names and I’m purposefully obscuring certain details. I cannot confirm them privately, either. These are well-known people in Christian circles who I still believe are doing helpful things, despite the terror behind closed doors. I must be careful here, because 1) they would absolutely crucify me if they saw this post, and 2) they could also deny having ever met me, despite email correspondences and recorded conversations. But I have to speak up.
I want to tell you about my most horrifying church experience ever, because it began so ordinary and subtle, and I want to protect you from the nightmare I eventually woke up to.
I know there must be so many more terrible experiences at church and mine is not nearly the worst, yet I hope you’ll know that not every horror story about church happens in a cult of backwood druids sacrificing goats to chanting. It can happen in the most mundane sort of atmosphere with a slowly tightening chokehold, until it’s too late.
Years ago, I befriended the lead pastor of a church ministry that was doing amazing things in the community and we first became friends over the phone. The pastor explained that every church in America was doing it wrong. This really appealed to my discontent about the church culture, and our phone calls were filled with tons of encouragement and positive affirmation over my “gifts, talent, treasures, insights, and abilities given by God.” Whenever I spoke bad about my own church, the lead pastor agreed as loudly as possible.
In the first few months, he offered me a position at his ministry, but I was obligated to my current church. However, I was still able to visit. I was completely seduced by the way he and his team did ministry. Their preaching was fun, their services were boisterous, their praise team was incredible, and they knew every single family by name. They were well-respected by the community and they were funded completely by other churches and individuals from all over the world. All the while, they were saying, “We do it better than the other guys” and their website sold tons of church curriculum. I even bought some.
One thing I noticed right away is that these guys constantly agreed with one another about everything, both in public and private. They never, ever disagreed on theology, ministry, or even their preferences.
I found this a little strange since even the best of friends disagree sometimes, so I anonymously messaged their blog, “What happens when your staff disagrees or when you guys get it wrong?” A few weeks later, one of their team members answered, “We never disagree and we never get it wrong.” I was a bit puzzled, but I put this behind me quickly.
I was also a little troubled by their constant disregard for other ministries, especially mega-churches and Christian authors. The lead pastor spoke a lot about grace in his sermons, but behind closed doors, he was constantly saying “Those mega-churches don’t care about the poor and won’t give me money” and “Those bestsellers you like are all s__t.” Once they invited a mega-church praise team into their own church, and when the mega-church wouldn’t buy some of the curriculum, one of the church staff said, “What is wrong with them? They like their Starbucks more than Jesus.”
I attended a few Bible Studies and the lead pastor would read something he wrote, and then ask, “What do you think about that?” His staff would answer quickly and the lead pastor would light them up with compliments. No one ever disagreed. Soon when it came to my turn, I found myself answering in a way that would please the lead pastor. I was afraid to say something stupid or misaligned with their theology. I remember sweating and shaking while I answered their questions.
The crazy thing is, the lead pastor would affirm my answers and I felt great, like I had suddenly unlocked Christianity and the thousands of years of church history were all wrong. It felt so amazing to have the Secret-Sauce that no one else had. I was intoxicated with being on the inside, of having the keys to the club, bumping chests with the boys. Finally, I had made it to the inner-ring.
I stayed oblivious. I really loved these guys, and I still do.
About a year later, I was highly involved with the ministry. But those little things I was able to ignore couldn’t remain silent. I felt increasingly anxious around them, like I always had to say the right things according to their view of church, or else I was an idiot. So I wrote the lead pastor about a minor disagreement I had with him. I made sure to show the letter to both my mom and to two friends, to see if I was being fair and gracious. I re-worded it several times to ensure I was making a suggestion, not a rebuke.
That night at 3am, I woke up to a phone call. For the next 42 minutes, the lead pastor yelled and cursed and demanded my apology. I hardly spoke. He dropped the f-bomb at me about ten times. He also started cussing out other pastors and his own staff and then saying, “I’m telling you this because I love you, man,” and then back to cussing. I don’t have a problem with curse words: but they were directed at others, namely me. I offered to write a letter that recanted all I said, and he said, “Yeah you damn well better,” and after the phone call, I contacted the entire staff to apologize.
Some of the staff tried to contact me, but the lead pastor refused any more dialogue. In a six-page letter, the lead pastor told me why I was no longer fit for his ministry, that I would immediately withdraw from any of his activities, why my fiance was incompetent, and why I was just a “nobody pastor from a nobody town who didn’t know nothing.” Also, this was on my birthday. I was absolutely devastated. I apologized again and I made zero excuses. He said, “We’ll work together one day when this all clears.”
I never heard from him or his staff again.
For the next few months, I checked out their Bible Study materials online and they were all reactionary statements to the things I had said in my letter. One of them was even, “How NOT To Talk To Your Leaders.” I wish I could say I brushed this off, but it hurt like fire.
You see: This particular church ministry wasn’t the typical “bad church” or full of “that kind of Christian.” They drove normal cars, didn’t preach anything too wild, were married with kids, and wore skinny jeans like every other church staff.
On the surface, they were an amazing church with flashy sermons and great music and lovable people. I still believe they’re doing a wonderful work. But behind closed doors, there was an insidious incipient strain of insider legalism that demanded you fall in line, or else. I was holding my breath half the time around them. At the same time, I became smug over other churches and I criticized other sermons and methods of ministry that weren’t like “ours.”
This church was also huge on “grace” and hardly ever talked about God’s discipline and justice. They trashed any other church who didn’t center on “God’s love.” I understand this, because grace is often the first thing that leaves a church: but by being against churches that didn’t have grace, I wasn’t having grace for churches that lacked grace. I still fell for an “Us Versus Them” mentality, which is exactly what this church said they were against. By being against legalism, they formed their own legalism. This is so much more dangerous than a typical moralistic church.
So often we think of “bad churches” as fire-and-brimstone picketers or the TV preachers with gold-toed diamond shoes, but usually, those who abuse authority are charming personalities that are blind to their own hubris and ego. They don’t always see themselves as the abuser, and they’ll laugh off victims by pointing to more extreme cases or saying it was just a “disgruntled attention-seeker.” And it’s these type of institutions, that are neither extreme nor obvious, which do the most harm, because they will hardly examine their own procedures.
This was all several years ago, and I’m still recovering. A part of me wishes I could expose them all. I still have the screenshot on my phone of the 42 minute phone call. I still have the six-page email that essentially called me worthless. I still have the communication where the staff tried to contact me, and couldn’t.
The sad part is, even if I did all that, they would still find a way to spin the whole thing to their advantage and they would publicly destroy me. Even writing this blog post is risky (I’m expecting at least an angry email, at worst a threatening phone call or press release, but hopefully nothing). From their point of view, I’m the bad guy, I’m the one who “needs prayer.” They’re too powerful. Their ministry could bear the exposure of truth; I would be ruined by the lies they tell about me.
Yet assuming I could safely expose them, I still would not. I don’t want to be one more guy who says “Look out for those Christians.” Because as much as I was hurt, I still have hope for them. I still pray for them. As much as I’m devastated and angry, I still love those guys. At least one or two of them were so much better than the ministry they were a part of; I could see them eventually breaking away to do greater things. And if they’re truly not following Jesus, then my response can’t be to gloat, but to get on my knees in prayer and weep for them.
I don’t say that to look holy or better; I say that because naturally I’m a selfish person and I would love nothing more than to see them shrivel and fail. But it’s Christ in me who wants the best for them, who wants to see them repent and restored and reconciled.
A couple good things did come out of this. One was that I learned not to be too impressed by celebrity pastors. They need grace like we all do, and that’s exactly why we can’t idolize them. While I was saddened by the entire debacle with Mark Driscoll, I wasn’t surprised either; maybe it was the best thing to ever happen to him. And I learned to be as transparent as possible, to keep my hands open. I welcome disagreement whenever I can. I constantly assume I’m not the smartest person in the room. If there’s an opportunity to be vulnerable, I jump in the deep end first, because I don’t ever want to pretend I’m better than I really am. Again, I say that not to look better than anyone else, but exactly because I’m not.
I also tell you this because I want you to be careful. I want you to be in a church where you are safe to disagree, to ask questions, to have dissent, and to speak up against the leaders.
I don’t mean to be contrary for the sake of being anti-institutional. I don’t mean to stir discontent where there is none. Anyone can do that, and it’s too easy. There are still many good pastors out there who deserve your trust. But even the good pastors need accountability and hard questions and self-examination.
If your church is full of Yes-Men who “never get it wrong” — then they’re definitely not in the right, either. If your church is strangely in unison with the lead pastor every dang time, I don’t want to say cult, but we’re getting into a bizarre mindless idolatry of a seductive personality.
I’ve seen too many churches like this, and it absolutely breaks my heart. Jesus himself was so open to questions and challenges and dialogue. In the early church, Paul and Peter were confronted all the time. It probably became ugly to be so honest and truthful, but that’s why honesty requires grace. Honesty requires the hope that you won’t be ridiculed for being ugly and wrong. If you’re afraid of feeling wrong in church, that church isn’t a church and it’s not for you.
I love you, dear friends. Find a safe place where you can be honest and you’re met with grace. In the meantime, I grieve for those who have been burned by the church and I pray for healing, for us to trust again.