When church goes wrong (and how we can fix it)

I’ll always remember the heart-thumping anxiety and acidic nausea which swirled in my guts late one Saturday night as I hastily typed out a text.

‘I’m really sorry but I can’t make it tomorrow. We’ve got a bit of a family situation going on and I really need to be here’.

I gulped, hit send and then anxiously waited for a response. For the next half hour, I saw the three dots appear as the person responding typed a message, stopped, typed a message, stopped. Eventually after repeatedly checking, checking and checking my phone, I received a simple one word reply, ‘Ok’.

My heart sank. That response meant I was in trouble. Serious trouble. Missing a service in our Christian community was simply not ok, not under any circumstances. Well, I mean, you could miss a meeting if you wanted to but you’d run the risk of being labelled ‘uncommitted’ or worse still, ‘not really part of the family’. In our circle at the time, that was pretty much a fate worse than death. Being labelled ‘not committed’ meant that while on the surface you’d be treated nicely, behind-the-scenes, you’d be quietly removed from responsibilities, find yourself uninvited to social events and slowly stripped of any kind of position. There were two tiers of people – those who towed the line and those who didn’t.

The rules were simple; Be at every service, sit in the front rows, look enthusiastic when the speaker preached (the occasional whoop or ‘Amen’ of encouragement would help), mingle afterwards, serve, serve, serve (even at the expense of your own family and life) and above all, never complain, never frown and absolutely never bring your problems to a meeting. If you followed the rules, submitted wholeheartedly to the authority above you, never questioned, understood the community always came first, you’d be ok! You’d get along just fine.

So you can imagine my fear that day as I tapped out a text, knowing that by putting a serious family situation above my attendance at a Sunday morning service, I was essentially relegating myself to the ranks of The Uncommitted.

I’ve been in church all my life. I’m a pastor’s kid and I’ve travelled the world both as a child and as an adult so I’ve been fortunate enough to visit churches all across the US, Canada and Europe, attend incredible Pentecostal services in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda right through to attending Requiem Masses and pretty much every different UK flavour of Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, free church and everything in between. My dad always taught me, ‘look for God’s people everywhere’ and he was right, I’ve found them in the unlikeliest of places. I know church and I love church and as I’m now training to be a minister, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. But over the years, I’ve seen many things that have made my heart ache.

Over the years I’ve found myself in situations where coercion and control were running rife, where God’s precious name was used to manipulate me into doing something that felt all wrong, where wrong behaviour was left unchallenged because well, that’s just how it’s done. And I’m sure many others will have gone through the same, experiencing initial ‘love-bombing’ followed by the gut churning anxiety as you knew something was wrong but couldn’t quite nail down what it was specifically.

On reflection, looking back at these encounters, I honestly can’t believe I fell into them that easily. But pretty soon, every time, without even realising it, I became a hollowed-out version of myself, a walking, talking ‘Stepford Wife’ who regurgitated propaganda. Yes, everything is fine. Yes I will give my time, my money, my whole self even at the expense of family relationships, because this community is my real family.

At the time, my (actual, real) family were concerned about me. When I talked about it, I could see the worry lines etched in their faces. ‘This isn’t normal‘, they’d say. Serving the Lord should be a joy, not an act of panic-driven fear. ‘Something is wrong’ they’d say but it took a lot of years before I was finally ready to hear it and accept that maybe they had a point.

Extricating yourself from situations like these can be incredibly emotionally painful. You might feel as though thick vines are criss-crossed round your heart and while you can’t see a future without your church, community, group (or whatever it is) you also can’t see a future with it. Sometimes devastating conversations will follow, harsh words and false accusations might fly around and when it’s all over, you might also find you lose many friends and become ‘persona non grata’. It’s a hard road to walk.

I write all this now because recent news reports about different global church networks (many of which are subject to ongoing investigations) brought me right back to this place. As I read a recent heartfelt statement from Matt Redman about his own experience and years of recovery, I thought ‘wow, I get it, I really do’.

As Christians who love Jesus, who love the Church (and the original intention of church), we want to see the church thrive. The hardest thing in the world is to publicly say ‘this is not ok. This is wrong’. For some of us who were raised in the church, we struggle too with the idea of airing our dirty laundry in public, of not wanting people to turn away from their faith or to turn their backs on Jesus as a result.

Thankfully having grown up in the church (in an emotionally healthy church I should add!), I was always taught that my relationship with God is separate from my relationship with the Church. Having a personal relationship with Jesus who died for me, who loves me, means that to a certain extent I’m able to separate what humans do from who God is. But not everyone is able to do that and when they find themselves in deeply unhealthy churches with pastors on a pedestal or within a culture which subtly controls, coerces and manipulates, the after effects can be devastating.

I genuinely believe that it’s time for wise Church leaders to speak out, to demonstrate there is a vast ocean of difference between who God is and the things that people who follow him do. There should be no place in church for a culture of coercion, control, manipulation or power play. If you have to do certain things in order to gain favour or ‘get ahead’, I’d suggest your church has become more like a business than a house of worship. I keep being drawn back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 where the people looked to build a tower to heaven so they could ‘make a name for themselves’. Maybe some of our churches have become like that? When the name or the brand is really more important than the biblical mission? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good brand (after all, I do work in Marketing!) but the brand is the least important part of what a Church is.

I know it’s been said a hundred times before but Acts 2 gives us such a clear picture of what Church was intended to be. It was a group of people from all walks of life who (gulp) sold everything but who also committed themselves to prayer, to meeting together with ‘glad and sincere hearts’. It was free-flowing, light on its feet and responded quickly to the needs around it. It certainly didn’t seem to be bogged down by multi-layers of hierarchy, golden altars or pastors on pedestals. Acts 2 shows that when church is a place of joy, unity, fellowship and has mission at the core of everything it does, it’s blessed beyond our wildest expectations.

For me personally, the Church is best when it’s a group of like-minded people who say ‘there’s always room for one more…whatever stage of the journey you’re on. You don’t have to look a certain way or wear ripped jeans, come as you are; old, young, uncool, fat, thin, addicted, single, married, divorced, disgraced or whatever stage of life you find yourself in.’

I often say that our lovely local church is ‘small but mighty’. We’re a small bunch of people from very different backgrounds but when you walk in on Sunday morning, there’s a genuine buzz and sense of expectation in the air. We are big on encouraging people to develop their gifts (and use them) and there’s also plenty of space and grace if people make mistakes. And if you miss a Sunday, don’t worry, there’s not an Uncommitted List.

For me, good, healthy church is place where you’re taught, fed, loved, where you have a voice and are encouraged to get out there and do something, to share, to tell others.

Healthy church leaders should be visible and accessible (not hidden away) and, giving (of time and money) really should be ‘from the heart’ and not under any kind of compulsion. Churches are at their absolute best when they act like greenhouses – we start from seed and we watch people grow, we support them as they bloom and then we release them into whatever is next (yep, even if that is another ministry or church). And oh, if they do move on to another church, it’s ok to still talk to them. It’s not a gang.

This picture of church has become a bit of a personal passion for me now. As I look around and see many institutions crumbling, I feel no joy, but I can’t shake the sense that God is rebuilding his Church. He’s starting over, he’s allowing Babel to topple, he’s dismantling man-made seats of power and he’s allowing the things that have been hidden in the dark, to be brought into the light.

It’s a refining process, shaking off the old and welcoming in the new. I watch what’s happening across the world with a lot of intrigue and I see how many people have been hurt and are now recovering from what was. But I also feel more than a smidge of excitement of what might be to come.

As a person who got stuck in a soul-destroying vortex of ‘church gone bad’, I want so badly to see it done well, with integrity, transparency and love – just the way Jesus intended.

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Writer & Blogger

  • Peter Cummings

    Extremely thought provoking and extremely well written!

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