Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Cult of the Pastor-god

When the church is at its healthiest, many people contribute to the life of the body with gifts they’ve been given.  One of those gifts is “pastoring”, or care-taking.  Mixed with all the other gifts in the body, the whole community is healthy, alive, free, and an expression of God’s love in the world that is obvious and undeniable.

But this is very rare among church gatherings.

Much more often, the group is dominated and defined by the personality of one person: the Pastor-god. 

The Pastor-god is not merely a contributor within the body; he is the voice, the face, and the authority in the church.  He is the boss, the CEO, the example, the teacher, the father-figure.

In the Cult of the Pastor-god, they are called “God’s anointed”.  They are the one who communicates God’s word to the followers.  They are the mouth, while the church is the ears.  Their part is to provide care and discipline to the people; the people’s part is to listen, honor, and follow.

And in many churches, this model works flawlessly.  People really want someone to lead and protect them—without it they feel vulnerable and lost.  And of course there are no shortage of people willing to assume this role of the Pastor-god.

The Pastor-god claims to not want adulation and adoration from the people, but inwardly they crave it.  The people claim they don’t believe their pastor is a god, but they treat him like he is.  When the pastor makes them proud, they heap accolades.  When the pastor does not live up to his god-like standard, they look for ways to take him down.

When the Pastor-god is there, the people feel safe.  When the Pastor-god goes away, the people are devastated. 

Of course this is nothing new—people are afraid to be leaderless, as was the nation of Israel when they demanded a leader:
But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” (I Samuel 8:19-20)
God reluctantly gave them their leader, an outstanding young man named Saul.  Their craving for a leader was satisfied, but it was wrong; what resulted was anxiety, strife, war, madness, and death.

One of the reasons churches suck today is because they are much less like the body of Christ and much more like the Cult of the Pastor-god—or "the cult of personality."  More and more within the church are recognizing this disturbing reality:
“...evangelicalism is not so much a religion as a series of fast-moving personality cults.” ― Frank Schaeffer 
Thinking about this, I could not get the image of an old Star Trek episode out of my mind.  It’s called Who Mourns for Adonais and it’s about the Enterprise crew coming face to face with Apollo, one of the gods from earth’s ancient culture. 

Remember this one?

As the episode goes, back when the gods (turns out they were actually aliens) came to earth, the primitive people saw their power and naturally fell down to worship them.  Under their authority, people felt cared for--and the gods were happy to have the attention.  It was a comfortable, but immature and ultimately dysfunctional relationship.  The gods’ part was to provide care and discipline to the people; the people’s part was to listen, honor, and follow…

…just like in the Cult of the Pastor-god.

In those days, to defy the gods was a fearful thing—as Captain Kirk discovered when he dared to defy Apollo’s authority:
Kirk: “Apollo, we’re willing to talk, but you’ll find we don’t bow to every creature who happens to have a bag of tricks.”

Apollo: “Agamemnon was one such as you, and Hercules--pride and arrogance.  They defied me, until they felt my wrath.”
Have you ever been called “proud” or “arrogant” by a pastor-god when you questioned their authority? If you have, you have come face-to-face with the Cult of the Pastor-god.

Apollo expected these people to fall down and honor him just like people did in the ancient days.  But Kirk, recognizing the dysfunction of such an authoritarian relationship, continued to defy—and the conflict escalates:
Apollo: “I could sweep you out of existence with a wave of my hand, and bring you back again. I can give life or death. What else does mankind demand of its gods?”

Kirk: “Mankind has no need for gods. We find the one quite adequate.”
Apollo: “We shall not debate, mortal.  I offer you eternal rest and happiness according to the ancient ways. I ask little in return. But what I ask for I insist upon.”
The one thing he cannot handle outright defiance; he can only insist on its authority, and promise judgment upon the one who dares defy them.  If you do decide you need to escape the cult, understand one thing:

There is no gentle way to get out of the cult of the Pastor-god. 

If you are struggling to get free from a pastor-god cult, please re-read that last sentence a couple more times. This will be a battle of wills.

Eventually, Kirk and his crew had use force to disable Apollo’s source of power.  Apollo was reduced to his true, powerless nature.  

 In the end, Apollo lost everything and is reduced to tears:
Apollo: “I would have cherished you, cared for you. I would have loved you like a father loves his children. Did I ask so much?”

Kirk: “We’ve outgrown you. You asked for something we can no longer give.” 
And there’s the thing.  Even people who have been raised life-long in a pastor-god cult are realizing they can no longer give outright honor and obedience to a religious authority figure.  And they shouldn’t.  Our leader is Christ, not the one up front with the loud voice and the big platform.
More and more people in the body of Christ are finding true “body life” outside of the Cult of the Pastor-god--but it hasn’t come without a price.  The emotional turmoil that comes from separating from an old authority figure can be intense, even devastating. 

I’ll repeat: There is no gentle way to get out of the cult of the Pastor-god. 

I have my war story of leaving the Cult of the Pastor-god, and I know many of you do too.  If you want to share your story in the comments, please feel free.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Church, Inc.: The Lust for More

I finally got around to watching Food, Inc., a movie describing how the "bigger-faster-more profitable" mindset of food mega-corporations has compromised and poisoned the food we eat, from the farm to the factory to the drive-up window.

I found it interesting that although this is really a scandalous and destructive story of our world right now, I didn’t find it shocking, sensationalist or unrealistic. This is indeed the sad state of how most of us eat, day after day, from cradle to the grave. Most of us don’t give this a thought, many are aware but don’t care, some of us recognize it and are angry but feel powerless to do anything about it, and fewer still are working against the system to bring about something better.

I say this, not with an speck of judgementalism against any of us, whether producer or consumer, because I have been just as much a participant as anyone else. But I do see it for what it is--a large-scale sickness that has taken over an entire culture.

The good news of the movie is that there is growing awareness of this phenomenon, along with a growing movement of people that are doing something about it--people that know a better way, where natural processes are allowed to flourish and where people can live happier and healthier lives.

I’m not sure I can think of a better analogy for the condition of the church today.

Now that I think of it, it may not even be an analogy; it may actually be the same problem.

For as long as I have been a believer, I have known, felt, believed from my core and taught that the church is an organism, not a human institution. I take very seriously those verses about the “body” of Christ being made up of individual believers as “members”, who, in all their human diversity, find Christ as their center and as such become capable of creating communities around the world who function in love, grace, and generosity both toward one another and toward the world. I think much of my whole journey as a believer has been a quest to see and experience the body of Christ functioning in this way, and seeing in many cases that the body of Christ has been co-opted by dead corporate mechanisms.

Despite church marketing's claim to be living “the body of Christ”, what we find instead is a corporation that consumes resources to keep itself alive; that craves economic “efficiency” at the expense of individuals; that uses multimedia, imagery, and public relations to attract and keep their followers--imagery that is proven to be false advertising once a person is “on the inside”; and that instead of helping people heal and get stronger, makes them more dependent and sick.

You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. (Mattew 23:27)

As with the food industry, many people are not aware of this, others don’t care, or they feel powerless to change anything about it, but a small but growing number of people are very inspired and intentional to do something about this.

The similarities between the food industry and the church institution are so strong it begs me to ask, what makes this happen? How does the original bring life, and the counterfeit bring death? How did we get to the dark side of religion, perhaps even with good intentions?

The best answer I have for now is, the lust for more.

"The leech has two daughters. 'Give! Give!' they cry. "There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, 'Enough!': the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, 'Enough!' (Proverbs 30:15-16)

Farmers that are sold out to the mega-corporation didn’t always start that way. Many started for the love of farming, but financial pressure and the desire to succeed pulled them into the system. In the same way, pastors that are sold out to the church institution didn’t always start that way. Many started for the love of people, but financial pressure and the need to keep their job, along with the bar of “success” being set by larger, more attractive churches pulled them into the system.

Apparently there is a point at which a God-given desire for growth and fruitfulness (a good thing) mutates into a compulsion over finances and popularity (not a good thing). It seems there comes a point when you WILL sacrifice individuals for the sake of your success as a corporate entity.

The world of “church” is experiencing a seismic and systematic shift; many have checked out of the church system completely, while others are working to rebuild their local assemblies on a better foundation of Christ alone, minus the Churchianity. Questioning the church institution has been typically dismissed as “heresy” and “fringe”, but that’s changing and even affecting the mainstream commentators. A recent article in Christianity Today, discussing the condition of today’s church leaders, said that:

“...the state of the modern American pastorate has been shaped so that these sins—especially pride and hypocrisy—are impossible to escape.” (emphasis mine)

The question raised by this statement is, if a church is functioning in a healthy way, how can it possibly make pride and hypocrisy inescapable? Doesn't this mean we should revisit the system instead of simply giving the platitude answer that "we just need to pray more for the pastors"? For more discussion on this matter, I recommend a recent podcast conversation with Wayne Jacobson.

How does a sick institution try to solve its problems? With institutionalized solutions that always create new sets of problems. For example, health problems created by slaughterhouses coated in manure are “fixed” by injecting antibiotics into the food, rather than revisiting a process that covers animals, people, and machinery in manure. An example in the church world is that emotional and spiritual problems created by judgementalism and shame are “fixed” by counseling methods that pick apart the psyche and apply “scripture” to unearth every evil motive, rather than revisiting a system that reinforces judgementalism and shame every Sunday. Or as Darin Hufford once said to me in a personal conversation, "the church is busy trying to solve problems they have themselves created."

So what do we do about this? Can we do anything about this?

I have been accused of focusing on problems, not solutions. In general, that’s true (actually, it's a "duh"; you noticed the name of the blog, right?). However, that does not mean I don’t have ideas about the solutions; it’s just not what I talk about here. Other people are doing a great job with that.

That being said, I think there is a real solution for this, as there is in the food industry. I've experienced this in person, and so have many others: The hope is in believers recognizing and renouncing their institutional ways and embracing the simple, yet highly inefficient life in the body of Christ.

As it is, the machinery of Church Inc. will continue its path of spiritual wreckage, getting only worse, if people like you and I don’t do something different. So, at the risk of getting “preachy”, I offer this closing challenge:

If you participate in a local church, especially if you are a leader, ask yourself: When you consider your church, what do you crave for it? Are you constantly pining away for fuller church services, more money to work with, more success for the organization (and by extension, success for you)? If we’d be honest, many of us do. This is, I believe, the lust for more, and the primary pull toward the dark side of Church, Inc. If you really care about the work of Christ in this world, look again at your strikingly un-corporate Jesus, look your people in the eyes, and do what you need to do to live out "the body of Christ" and reject the lust for more.

If you are among those who have checked out to detoxify from Church, Inc. (a very necessary process in many cases), ask yourself: Are you re-connecting with believers and re-participating in the face-to-face, hands-on life in the body of Christ? Have you perhaps exchanged in-person fellowship for online discussions about the evils of institutional church? If you really want to experience Jesus in the “pure” sense, it will involve connection, not isolation.

We can do something about this.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Nasty New Taste of Funda-gelicalism.

In the world of candy, Reese’s is known as “two great tastes that taste great together.” In the church world, Funda-gelicalism is sort of the opposite—a toxic combination of two flavors of Christianity that not only taste terrible together, but that inevitably infect and sicken the ones who consume it. Watch out—this new flavor has become available at all church denominations, and may already be being served up at a church near you.

Here’s the recipe:

Part one: Evangelicalism. Before you panic, let me begin by saying this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Evangelicalism says you should be born again, or personally converted to faith in Christ; you should actively communicate the power of the cross and gospel of Jesus to those who haven’t heard it; and the Bible is God’s word. In American history, Evangelicalism has served as a middle ground between the right wing of Fundamentalism and the left wing of Liberal Christianity. Plus it generally identifies with the positive changes made during the reformation. Not bad.

This is the ideal that sounds Biblical and looks good in textbooks. But when you start to actually live in the Evangelical world, you may discover that these ideals have mutated into something much less noble.

Some examples:

  • · Since you can’t really KNOW for sure if someone is really “born again”, you have to “judge” if they are, based on the evidence they show. This “evidence” varies from camp to camp—it might be speaking in tongues, verbally confessing Jesus as Savior, getting baptized, quitting a drug habit, signing up for a small group, or trading in your Buck Cherry T-shirt for a nice suit (or whatever other clothing is fashionable in your church). Whatever the case, you are now being judged as “in” or “out”, based on the behavior you display.
  • · To a large degree, Evangelicalism has been defined by its preachers (Edwards, Finney, Moody, etc.), who in their passion to see people “born again” have used every method (“Methodist”, anyone?) under the sun to convince people to follow Jesus, like tent meetings, revivals, street preaching, music concerts, theatrical productions, scare tactics (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), mass marketing, coffee houses, scare tactics (“Left Behind”), cool music, cool clothes, nice buildings, rockin’ sound systems, apologetics, missions trips, demonstrations of compassion (“look how much our church LOVES people”), scare tactics (“Obama is the Antichrist”), hip videos, etc. Whether slick, silly, or scary, all these methods are designed to compel people to “follow Jesus”…or, put more realistically, to make our church bigger. The fact is, churches are really businesses, and they need money for operations. So unfortunately, what’s called “preaching Christ” has in many cases morphed into good-old-fashioned American marketing and sales (i.e. manipulation).

Now let’s bring our second element into the recipe:

Part two: Fundamentalism. In a nutshell, fundamentalism takes the Bible and yells out the angry-sounding parts. It’s as much, or even more,about attitude as it is about doctrine. Fundamentalism is pissed off at the world, all other religions, all philosophies, and especially Christians who are not Fundamentalists. It was established in the early 20th century in America with a document called The Fundamentals. It has attempted, with varying degrees of success and failure, to take over Christian denominations and American politics. In general, society doesn’t like fundamentalism, which is fine; because fundamentalism doesn’t like society either.

To fundamentalism, “love” is defined as scolding someone until they are bullied into doing the right thing—in this case, following Jesus. It’s much the same kind of “love” that you see coming from abusive, alcoholic dads and authority figures (so it's not surprising that many Fundamentalists were raised in alcoholic or abusive environments). It’s always about intimidation and fear, with the real goal being domination. Other people are not to be coddled, they are to be frightened into submission. Independent thinking is discouraged with lines like “If you’re too open minded your brains will fall out.” It is all about absolute, unquestioning submission to “God’s Word” (incidentally, so is Islam).

This is, in fact, not the God of the Bible at all; but Fundamentalism claims that it is. They have recast God as the ultimate violent abuser.

Now, none of this is new; in fact, for these very reasons, there was initially a split between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Basically, Evangelicals want the church to get bigger, and they realized that you generally don’t do that by scolding people. So the two groups parted ways, with the Fundamentalists continuing their rant against the world, and the Evangelicals taking a deep breath, dressing better, and getting on TV.

But as it turns out, Evangelicalism’s success in America started to create its own set of problems—mostly, that it became “cool.” All of a sudden, everybody was an Evangelical—presidents, Catholics, mainline Protestants, celebrities, football coaches (and teams!), musicians, authors, CEOs. Why? It started making money, big-time. And by following the money, it also followed the economic bubble that inflated into the 2000’s and popped somewhere around the end of 2007. Because the movement had so closely aligned with the American economy, it also sank with it.

Then something fascinating happened. The once-moderate Evangelicals took a hard turn to the right.

How did that happen? Well, the pastors had to explain to their churches why they were having trouble paying for the big building they just built. They turned against their immediate past, and explained it was because the church had gotten so commercialized (because of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels), and lost its heritage. So then, they started to look toward their “roots” to maintain credibility to their congregation, who had become pretty upset that their offerings had been splurged on multimedia equipment, more property, and splashy conferences for their pastors. The “worship teams” that had been built up to a grandiose Hillsongs-like status through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, all of a sudden seemed ego-driven and Hollywood-like (i.e. “worldy”). People didn’t want to hear about “bigger” and “better” any more. They wanted to go back to their roots—their Fundamentalist roots, that is.

At the same time, a growing number of people were taking a different approach with their frustration—that is, upon discovering how much of their church was an institutional fa├žade vs. how little of it was a functional expression of the Body of Christ, simply left. And when they left, they took their money with them, making budget and morale even more problematic. This effectively left the new Funda-gelicals in charge.

And so, many well-salaried pastors were fired and replaced with cheaper, more conservative counterparts. Worship teams were stripped back, turning off their sound systems and singing “I’m going back to the heart of worship”. “Humility, not stardom; more of You, less of me” became a popular theme in messages and music—acoustic guitars and ardent, guilt-driven artists became more popular. The piles of "Purpose-Driven" materials were quietly pushed to the bargain bin and dropped from the church library. Mark Driscoll magically appeared, just in time to scold the church for it's worldliness. Christian musicians became more angry, too—especially the ones who couldn’t make it in Nashville.

So in the vacuum left by weakened “pop” Evangelicalism, the Funda-gelicals stepped in, more than happy (well, as happy as they can be) to do so.

This latest breed would probably not want to be associated with something as extreme as Westboro Baptist Church, but I’ve noticed they actually use the same logic. When I saw the following video (foul language warning), I noticed that as ridiculous as these people are, their reasoning is exactly the same as many of the new Funda-gelicals, which is: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it; if you don’t agree, go to hell.” In a lot of ways, Westboro is just Fundamentalism being more honest about itself.

And of course, they hate Rob Bell (and anybody else who likes him). Even before Love Wins came out, they went for the kill on the blogosphere. And even after it turns out the book doesn’t say what they said it was going to say (that everyone is saved and that there’s no such thing as hell), they still want him silenced—and continue to take every opportunity to debunk and humiliate him.

As I said before, Fundamentalism is as much about the attitude of “slam-dunk” condescension as it is about doctrine. A lot of Fundamentalist doctrine is no different from Evangelical doctrine, honestly; the difference is the attitude. Evangelicalism at least tries to win people over by being friendly; Fundamentalism is rude, and doesn’t care if you believe or not—in fact, it expects you to not believe, thus sealing your doom even further.

So, let’s review…

I am not against Evangelicalism. On paper, it is a valid way to consider the Christian faith. But in the real world, Evangelicalism does unfortunately tend toward toward judgmentalism (because of the emphasis on observable behavior) and psychological manipulation (because of the need to “win” people over to Christ)—but all with a friendly face. Now that Evangelicalism has been getting the wind knocked out of it, through financial difficulties and a new fear of liberalism, it is struggling for stability. Where is it trying to find stability? In the arms of its abusive past, namely, Fundamentalism.

It might seem I'm painting with a broad brush here, but I'm not. Every individual, every local church, every denomination, has Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in varying amounts. Your results may vary. This is what I've seen, and all I’m saying is, watch out for this; it ain’t no Reese’s candy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Body of Christ vs. the Church Corporation

"The elders have decided that your days at [this] Church have come to an end...please have your office cleared out by the end of the week."

After the initial shock of hearing these words spoken to me by my fellow pastors, which was after having poured ten years of heart, soul, and professional life into this particular church, I was left wondering how "the Body of Christ" could so abruptly dispose of one of its own with all the grace of a scene from Dilbert or Office Space.

Since then, I have learned that I am far from alone in this sort of experience. I continue to meet "former pastors" all the time. Some, like me, found themselves on the receiving end of a wave of office politics. Others have stepped down willingly (I consider these the wiser ones), because they discovered that working in a church had less to do with actual ministry and more to do with power moves, finances, and image management.

I can't help but wonder how this continues to happen so often in churches, and along the way have made some observations in this blog about what’s really going on beneath the surface. Predictably, I've been told by Christians that "the church is full of imperfect people" and that I should just "forgive and let God deal with it." And believe it or not, this is what I have done. It hasn't been easy, but nonetheless this is what I continue to do.

However, I still think we as co-workers in God's Kingdom are responsible to learn from things like this and make changes--lest we continue to plod along in our ignorance, repeating our mistakes and letting more and more people get abused in the process.

What I have learned over this time is that there really is a difference between the Body of Christ and a Church Corporation--and that it is not only possible, but vitally important for God's people to recognize the difference. It’s easy to miss this.

The Latin word corpus means “body”. The Church of Jesus Christ is a “body”, made up of many parts, created by God for the purpose of continuing Jesus’ ministry on earth. A Corporation is also a “body”, but of a different kind--created by people for the purpose of financial strength and influence in the community; whether the corporation is “for profit” or “non-profit”, it thrives on finances and growth. And in many churches, the body of Christ has taken on the form of a corporation.

Many believers never give this a thought. It is assumed that the “church” they attend is in fact “the body of Christ”, when in fact there are two bodies at work—the body of Christ (the believers themselves), and the church corporation (the business structure). These two entities co-exist in almost all local churches, thus creating one of the most basic problems in the Christianity of our day.

Does your church have a budget, staff, and/or facility? If so, there is a strong pull to become less like the body of Christ and more like a corporation.

Of course this is nothing new. The church has taken on worldly forms of organization ever since the days of Constantine (if this is new information for you, I recommend Pagan Christianity by Viola and Barna). What’s different now is that many members of the body of Christ are abandoning those forms in favor of less structured ones, which is creating a real crisis in the world of corporate Christianity.

More and more believers are discovering that what they thought was the body of Christ in their church is, in fact, a corporation--sustained by money and power politics. And while there are still many wonderful members of the body of Christ existing in these environments, the financial and power cravings inherent in a corporation are increasingly at odds with the community of love and grace that is the body of Christ.

Many believers intuitively feel this war going on—resulting in the large-scale disillusionment we see within Christianity—but have a hard time identifying or naming the problem. They’ve been taught that the church corporation IS the body of Christ, and although it may be “imperfect”, we should not criticize or find fault; because, after all “it is the body of Christ” and you shouldn’t “tear it down” or be “divisive”. This misunderstanding has kept many believers from standing up for the body of Christ in the midst of corporate takeovers in their own churches.

I think that to understand the conflict between these two “bodies” is to understand a lot of what’s gone wrong in many churches.

It can be difficult to discern at times: When things go wrong, such as abuse, condemnation, manipulation, corruption, secrecy, guilt tactics, pressure, obligation, or punishment for nonconformity in a church, where does that come from? Is this just the effects of an “imperfect” body of Christ, or the bitter fruit of a corrupt system that above all else needs to feed and protect itself?

This is, in fact, the essential difference between the two kinds of “bodies”. One (the body of Christ) lives to extend and give to others, the other (the corporation) lives off of others in order to keep itself alive. At its deepest level, the body of Christ embodies Jesus in this world, and continues the ministry and message that Jesus gave when he was on earth—the mission is everything. At its deepest level, the corporation exists to add value to its investors through the success and expansion of the organization—the mission (or “mission statement”) is a means to that end.

The body of Christ cares about all kinds of people and makes sacrifices to express God’s love and grace to others. The church corporation cares about bottom line, budget, expansion, reputation, growth and will use or misuse people as necessary to achieve those objectives. The body of Christ has a heart; the church corporation does not, although for public relations’ sake it pretends to.

Make no mistake; these are two conflicting entities, and they are constantly at war in local churches. In some cases, the body of Christ is holding the corporation at bay; in others the corporation has already taken over, and the life and freedom of the body of Christ has been minimized and even rendered ineffective.

In the best of corporate churches, the leaders recognize this tension and do their best to keep the corporate side of things contained, and they hope that the relational side outweighs the corporate side. They may even have the presence of mind to be aware that money-giving “investors” may use their giving as a tool of control in the church. But still, too many church leaders fall prey to the lure of financial support or status in the community and thus give away their spiritual birthright, in exchange for a tasty bowl of soup.

Is there a simple solution to this? I don’t think so. Without the clear leadership of Jesus himself in our gatherings, and the bold determination to submit to one another and follow Him alone, we will still try to find a “Saul” to lead us. We still crave the “security” that comes from a familiar church environment, even if we see corruption in it. In our present economic upheaval, we still desperately hope that a strong, well-led organization and leadership will make things right for us. Truth be told, we also still love to be part of the winning team, the one that’s growing in strength and numbers. And so “investors” and “leaders” become very attractive to us, and by taking the bait, we fall into corporate Christianity.

Maybe the most important thing is to simply for now be aware of this and to refocus on Jesus himself rather than the particular drama and politics of our church bodies. Maybe we just need to be aware that the “body” and the “corporation” are indeed at war with one another--and in many cases, the corporation is winning. But maybe, with that awareness, we as followers of Christ can see more clearly where “the body” ends and “the corporation” begins. Maybe that will help us see why things are happening the way they are and give us the boldness to speak up when it’s needed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ted Haggard and the Institutional Church

Followers of this blog know that it is partly my own rant about the destructive nature of churches corrupted by money-power politics, and partly my own quest to see the true church rise up in the love of God and live up to her potential as the bride of Christ. If you’re following this blog, I’m guessing you may share my passion about this.

That being said, I have been following the continuing Ted Haggard story with great interest; and if you haven’t, you really should (if you don’t know the story at all, Google it and come back later!). If you’ve lumped this story in with the other famous “church leader scandals” (Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, et al) that have by now faded into outdated comedy material, you may want to reconsider. I think this story is far from over, and personally I believe the implications to the American church are yet to be seen.

I felt uniquely privileged last November to be able to meet Ted personally--not only see him speak in my home church, but also to share meals with him, and to talk casually at a friend’s house an unhurried, informal, heart-to-heart way. How often do you get an opportunity like that? I’m still amazed by this, especially considering I’m part of a small church body in a small town in Wisconsin.

A lot of people might assume that Ted is just another "Christian celebrity”, seeking a big following and a big income, willing to manipulate gullible followers to his own advantage. Simply put, I don’t believe that; I think Ted is the real deal.

I’ve met my share of shallow, phony church leaders, long on image management and short on integrity; outwardly communicating love for people while secretly resenting them--maybe you have too. Because of my own experiences, I think that my pastoral B.S. detector is in peak condition; if anything, it might be a bit too sensitive—kind of like the war veteran that hits the deck in the grocery store when a display gets knocked over. My naivety in this area is long gone.

However, I can honestly say when I met Ted, I didn’t get the “sleazy pastor” vibe—at all. What I did sense was a person highly gifted in leadership, passionate about the church, genuinely interested in people as individuals, brutally honest, and wide-open transparent about the personal struggles that led to his scandal and fall from leadership as a pastor. To me, this is what a pastor should be, but rarely is.

So what does all this have to do with the institutional church? One of my beliefs about churches driven by money-power politics is that they regularly discard gifted leaders that might be "bad for business". Check the statistics; gifted pastors that love the church are being thrown under the bus by church boards all over the country—1500 a month last I checked. The “shepherds” are being regularly replaced by “hirelings” that know how to look good, maintain morale and keep people giving.

Here’s the story with Ted: Yes, he got overtaken by a behavior that violated his relationship with his wife, his family, and his church; he needed to step down. We all know this, but this is not the whole story. We who claim to care about the church also need to take a look at how Ted was treated by the leaders who immediately banned him from entering the church, exiled him from the state of Colorado, while claiming to the congregation and to the world that they had offered him a “restoration process.” You will more about this in months to come.

Institutionalized churches exhibit a very predictable behavior in times of “transition”: Whenever a leader is lost, there is a leadership vacuum, and a power grab naturally ensues. Usually it’s a group that’s felt frustrated and marginalized and has been building up steam, sometimes for years. When a weakness is detected in the current leadership, any opportunity to capitalize on that weakness and gain control over the leadership is seized with all-out intensity. The former leader will often be criticized, even demonized; the new leaders will present themselves as the “saviors” of the church and proceed to win the church body over to their viewpoint. This is the pattern that is repeated, again and again, in churches all over America, on a regular basis. Ted’s former church would be no exception.

Up to this point, much of the story has been focused on Ted and his sin. This is beginning to turn around; Ted’s wife, Gayle, just released her best-seller, Why I Stayed, and is now having the opportunity to share her story all over the national media—not only about her relationship with Ted, but also about their experience of being very un-lovingly exiled by the church leaders. From what Ted told me, he is not done telling his story either; stay tuned over the next year for his side of this whole ordeal.

I believe this story is significant. Money-power-politics churches get away with crucifying their leaders constantly. For the most part, congregations and church members are either unaware of how this works, apathetic, or powerless to do anything about it. Corrupt leadership continues to hold many churches hostage, sucking the life out its members, and preventing the body of Christ to grow, in the name of protecting reputation and cashflow. I believe Ted Haggard has a good chance of addressing this issue in a very public way; I hope this story will help the body of Christ understand what’s really going on in many of their churches, and then do something about it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book Review: "The Misunderstood God" by Darin Hufford

When you consider the God of Christianity and how He relates to His children, what kind of person do you envision?

Someone like this:

...A God who is absolutely patient and understanding with you, regardless of how badly you misbehave; someone who knows and loves your the deepest part of your heart; someone who is selfless, never wanting for Himself what belongs to others; someone who will lower Himself to help you; someone who makes Himself vulnerable so He can have a relationship with you; someone who doesn't hide himself from you; someone who is truly happy when you are praised and honored; someone mature enough to handle mistreatment or disrespect gracefully; someone who truly disregards your failures, and never once holds them over your head; someone who loves the REAL you, including the whole truth about you; someone who trusts you, and is excited about your future; someone who will always stand by you through everything, without exception...

Or someone like this:

...A God with a hair-trigger temper; someone who may be nice, but only so that He can get what He wants; someone who craves attention for Himself, who loves to impress you with his power; someone who loves to remind people how wonderful He is; someone who is disrespectful toward His inferiors; someone who gets upset if He's not given enough attention; someone you need to walk on eggshells around; someone who always reminds you of your mistakes, and uses fear and threats to keep you in line; someone that focuses on your faults and weaknesses; someone who doesn't really care if you heart gets stepped on; someone who doesn't trust you to anything right; someone who is constantly disappointed in you; and someone who, if things get bad enough, will leave you...

At the risk of being trite, I'll call the first description God A and the second God B.

In The Misunderstood God, author Darin Hufford presents the idea that God A is in fact the true God--the God of love as described in the famous "love chapter" of 1 Corinthians 13--but that Christian religion has instead given us God B. This God is someone who looks more like an abusive father or a paranoid leader than the source of absolute, pure, untainted, undiluted love.

According to Darin, God A is the one that every person, deep in their heart, knows is the true God, whether or not they even believe in Him. We instinctively know this, and long to experience this kind of love.

But in many cases, when we encounter Christianity, we discover a God who is unsatisfied with us until we behave perfectly. We learn about a God who expects us to obey and worship Him even if our heart isn't in it, a God who uses guilt to makes us behave better, a God who doesn't want us to shine too brightly, because it will make us proud and draw attention away from Him, a God who will not bless you unless you give yourself and your money to Him, and a God who needs to micromanage every detail of your life.

Even the message of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection has been distorted by this misunderstanding about who God is. In Darin's words:
Sadly, the gospel message has been affected by this way of thinking. "God loves you; come to Him," has been turned into, "Jesus got a major beating that was meant for you, so come to Him." (p. 63)
Darin speaks from his own experience as a child, father, believer, and former pastor. He discovered that in many ways, the God of his religion was exactly opposite from the God of love. As a former pastor myself, this rang true to my own experience. We both had the disheartening experience of discovering that the deeper you get into religion, the more damaging it is to relationships. How could such a thing be? Darin nails the answer on the head, and I for one am deeply thankful.

Essentially, The Misunderstood God is a look at "the love chapter", but from the perspective that if God is love, and love is patient, kind, etc., then God must have these qualities. And if God is like this, then how on earth is the church giving us God B?

Of course your experience may not mirror Darin's. You may not have had the same kind of family upbringing, the same religious upbringing, or the same relational dysfunctions. You may not identify with him in all these areas. You may not agree with him on every point--I'm not sure I do. If you've been trained in theology, you may squirm just a little.

That's not the point, of course. The bottom line is, what is God really like, as a person? Your answer to this question affects everything else--your theology, your interpretation of scripture, your church life, everything. That's why you should at least read and consider what it has to say. Is it possible you've been trying to serve a distorted image that's more like your human dad than like God the Father? If there really is a "God A", I want to know that one.

Darin is not cut from the traditional Christian cloth, and is already held with contempt in some Christian circles; this book will not increase his popularity among these folks. I suspect he will take some heat for some statements that cut directly across the grain of even the most easy-going Christians, such as:
When we say that God wants to "use us" in some way to further His purposes, we are truly saying an awful thing about His heart...The gifts He has given you are never to be used at your expense. He does not want you to be used by anyone, and He will never use you. Your gifts were given to you for the purpose of bringing joy to your life, not for the purpose of serving Him or furthering His cause. Your happiness is His cause. (pp. 99-100)
I can already hear the Bible verses being quoted and the voices being raised in righteous indignation! This statement, taken out of context, seems to promote a completely self-centered approach to the Christian life. But if you will read the whole story, you will discover that the whole message is love, and love only lives when it is given to another.

If God is love, what does that look like? Is it more like the classic dysfunctional family, where relationships are characterized by power struggles, insecurity, one-upmanship, scapegoating, lying, and manipulation? Or is it something beautiful that my heart knows and longs for? Is it truly unconditional love that is steady, peaceful, patient, supportive, and absolutely reliable?

Obviously this is not an objective book review; I want you to read this book! You may love it or hate it, but it probably won't just fade into your memory like so many other things you have read. This is a unique book; it's not a new teaching, although it may feel new, because so many of us are generally confused about our relationship with God--what He really thinks about us, how He really feels about us.

Personally, I am very thankful this was written. I think you will find it true to life, honest, profound, and maybe a little unsettling, but in a good way. My hope, and I'm sure Darin's hope as well, is that ultimately you will discover and know this God of love for yourself.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My Club is Better than Your Club (part 1)

Let's face it: Churches, organizationally speaking, are faith-based clubs, of which you are either a member or not.

They are all looking for new committed members, so that they can continue to exist, or possibly even grow. Every one of them has good reasons why theirs is better than the other ones in town. It might be better music, better drama, a better pastor, better preaching/teaching, better facilities, nicer people, better multimedia, staff, missions projects, community activities, outreach programs, Bible studies, doctrinal statements, counseling, youth activities, kids' programs, political associations, status in the community, etc.

Go ahead, ask any pastor or priest why their church is a better choice than the other ones in town--if they are a good salesperson, you should get a nice list of reasons.

I remember once seeing a Catholic priest meeting with some potential members, saying "the thing about the Catholic church is that everything you see inside the building MEANS something." I don't know...that might be a selling point for somebody, but I don't really care that much about symbolism.

I guess I need a different kind of club--maybe something a little more intellectual and edgy. That's my personality, after all.

There's nothing wrong with joining a club that fits your personality, right? So if you find one you like, why not? Go for it.

What is a club? It's:
"an association of persons for some common object usually jointly supported and meeting periodically; also : a group identified by some common characteristic b : the meeting place of a club <lunch at the club> c : an association of persons participating in a plan by which they agree to make regular payments or purchases in order to secure some advantage." (Merriam-Webster)
That could describe most churches, I think.

So then, what does it take to join a club?

First, you need to be eligible and willing to commit to membership. In the case of church membership, to be eligible, you need to agree to the church's doctrinal statement. In some you need to say you have a personal relationship with Jesus. Of course they hope that you believe the statement with your whole heart, not just agree mentally. But since there's no way of proving that one way or the other, a mental agreement will have to do.

Most churches also have some doctrinal "distinctives" that set them apart from the other churches in town. These might be something along the lines of baptism, communion, spiritual gifts, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the trinity, predestination, free will, or the end times. You'll need to agree to those too. On the other hand, if you're not sure about your beliefs in these areas, don't worry that much. You'll have plenty of time to be taught these things as a member. Just sign the paper, ok? Let's not split hairs.

Second, you will need to be accepted as a member. You're not going to embarrass the church with your reputation, are you? Or make it seem like the church is condoning a sinful lifestyle? Or, maybe you have baggage from your last church. If you have a pentecostal background, for example, are you going to disrupt our worship services with your demonstrative worship methods? You're not going to fight with us over our view on baptism, are you? We need to make sure you really "fit" here.

But if everybody's agreeable up to this point, you can become a member--you're in! What now?

Well, of course there's the whole money issue. How else can we keep the lights on and the staff paid? We might call it a tithe, or an offering, or something else; the important thing is that our club keeps running. So above all, make sure you are giving money regularly, sacrificially, and faithfully. You don't want to be responsible for "robbing from God" and letting our club fall apart, do you?

Beyond giving money, you should also make sure to participate in the activities and classes as they're offered. It might fill up your schedule to an unmanageable level, but the important thing is that you are getting attached to THIS group of people and that you are learning OUR way of thinking and relating to God. Then you will truly understand, at a deep level, why our club is better than the others in town.

I remember being raised Lutheran, and being taught why their view on communion was right and the other Synod's view was wrong, and why they didn't associate with churches that associated with certain Christian movements, like ecumenism, for example. Later on, I discovered literature from the Worldwide Church of God, where I learned all about why they "got it" about God's plan and all the other churches in the world didn't.

Later, I became involved in a United Pentecostal Church and learned how the rest of Christendom had been deceiving the world with their unbiblical, tri-theistic view of the trinity and baptism. I also learned there that your clothing and appearance set you apart from the world (and the other so-called "Christians") that doesn't know God. In those days, I felt very superior to all the other, less enlightened, Christian clubs. That was a great feeling!

After a few years in that club, however, I started investigating into the world of Fundamentalism, where I learned that everything I learned at the Pentecostal church was wrong. I learned this from the best of the best, at a seminary led by a high-powered Bible teacher named John MacArthur. It totally messed up my previous church associations, and I had to upend my life once again, but at last I had found a better, more biblical club to join...for now.

But then, after a while, I discovered that Fundamentalism not only has deep divisions within its own ranks, but it ultimately cares a lot more about being doctrinally right than loving people (especially people with inferior doctrine)...so, I slowly walked away, shifted my paradigm once again, and joined a more moderate kind of Evangelicalism. It was kind of a mix of former Fundamentalists and Protestants and Catholics and Pentecostals who decided not to talk about these things in the open. Just keep things simple, don't dig too deep, put on an inspiring presentation on Sundays, keep people busy with activities and classes, and we're good to go! That worked really well for quite some time.

But a funny thing happened there, too...

After ten years of commitment to this particular club as a member and as leader/pastor, I was informed that I was a "square peg" where they needed a "round hole". I didn't fit in anymore, if indeed I ever did in the first place. How could this be, I wondered? I thought the body of Christ accepted all kinds of people, even different kinds of leaders? Nope, it really doesn't work that way at this club. You really need to fit in. You really need to be a representative of "our way" of doing things. If you're going to be a member and a leader in our club, you have to see things our way, and fit in with our style. Apparently one of the games they played in this club was "King of the Mountain"--and in the end, I lost.

Fair enough, I guess. If I joined the team at McDonald's and refused to wear the uniform, I would probably get fired. If I joined the local Republican party, but kept bringing up problems and questions with the party, I might get tossed out. I can appreciate that.

I just have to wonder though...what do all of these clubs have to do with the body of Christ? Is this really what Jesus had in mind when He birthed The Church? Didn't Jesus come up with something better than a myriad of Christian clubs competing for members?

Gosh, I sure hope so! More on this to come...