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Archive for July, 2007

A few months ago, I discovered that our old (“cult-like”) church is now offering Pastor Smith’s sermons on iTunes. At first, I didn’t have the heart to listen to our former pastor. Honestly, hearing his forceful, authoritative, yet raspy voice just made me sad. (Although Pastor Smith is not black, he sure could play an African American on the radio…when he really gets to shoutin’, he sounds an awful lot like Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford on the old 70s sitcom, “Sanford and Son”.) We’d invested several years of our lives into Pastor Smith’s ministry and that church, and although we’d come to the realization that many of Smith’s favorite teachings and practices were in error, we still loved him. Listening to him preach brought back all sorts of memories, memories that once were good and happy, but now, in retrospect, are nothing but poignant reminders of the time we wasted supporting this misguided ministry.

So for awhile, I avoided those podcasts.

Then one day, my husband mentioned that he’d downloaded a recent sermon, and he challenged me to listen to it. He said it was an interesting exercise, given our changed perspective.

For one thing, my husband said, he’d realized that hearing just the audio of the sermon was tremendously different than actually being in the church service and experiencing Pastor Smith live and in person. He wanted to see if I thought so, too.

So I gave it a listen. And wow, he was right.

I still haven’t figured out if Pastor Smith’s preaching has changed a lot since the days when we thought he was the greatest preacher we’d ever heard. I mean, it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t always the way he now comes across on iTunes. I’d like, in fact, to believe that the sermons that first provoked our loyalty to him and his church several years ago were much deeper, scholarly, and far less self-serving than what he’s preaching today.

But unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. I’m pretty sure, although I’d love to think otherwise, that Pastor Smith has always hammered away on the same basic themes and in the same essential style.

The first thing that struck me, when I listened to a recent iTunes offering, was that Pastor Smith is a master at provoking the crowd to cheer and support him, which—when you’re in the audience, at least—gives Smith an instant aura of credibility.

I’ve already mentioned in other essays that Smith has a unique curmudgeonly charm, a humorous way of being smartly sarcastic. He also possesses what seems like an intense sincerity, a certain single-minded innocence which makes his audience want to get behind him and show its support. When he preaches, he displays a genius for the perfectly-timed, “Hello?? Can I get an ‘amen’?” He’s also got a way of flicking an eyebrow, or flashing a certain facial expression, that makes his eager crowd start to clap or holler.

And that makes listening to just an audio recording of his sermons quite odd, because of course, one cannot see the theatrics that take place before the cheering starts. On iTunes, I have to say that the congregants of our former church sound like brainwashed robots, the way they will wildly clap and shout over even the most basic, obvious statements that Pastor Smith makes. And if he stops and sarcastically says, “Thank you to the twelve disciples who caught what I just said,” that’s all it takes to provoke even more thunderous applause.

Another thing that struck me is how much time Pastor Smith spends promoting himself.

That was probably the biggest shock, now that we’re more than six months into our journey out of that church. Smith is masterful in the way he touts his own authority, his own spiritual giftings, all the while seeming to sincerely believe that he’s preaching “the Gospel.”

Tonight I listened to a recent iTunes offering, entitled “Reverse the Curse and Loose the Blessing.” Smith began this sermon with a reading from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, where God promises the Israelites that they’d be “blessed in the city, blessed in the fields” if they followed God’s laws. Conversely, they’d be cursed if they failed to observe God’s laws, if they turned to other gods.

Nothing wrong with that.

But my newly sensitized ears soon began to pick up on a disturbing underlying message.

At first, I attempted here to summarize the segment of Pastor Smith’s 70-minute sermon that bothered me the most. But honestly, his own words will demonstrate far better than any summary of mine the sort of false garbage that is tucked into otherwise decent teachings at our former church week after week.

So, although it took a bit more time, here is a word-for-word transcript of a 10-minute portion of Pastor Smith’s sermon from two weeks ago:
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[BEGIN SERMON SNIP:]

All right, if you want to reverse the curse and loose the blessing, number one, you’ve gotta learn how to make the right choices, and number two, you’ve gotta find out who God blesses, and get connected to them. ‘Cause it said, “I’ll bless them that bless thee.”

All right, I’m going to be my humble self here today. Some of you don’t realize how blessed you are to have me. No, you don’t. No, listen to me. ‘Cause there’s a lot of these guys out there in these pulpits all across our city, that they’re the product of their theological cemeteries that—seminaries that they come out of, and they know all their Hebrew and their Greek, but they don’t believe that God can do ANYTHING. And they go through all their pre-written motivational speeches that are more secular humanism than they are Gospel, and they try to tell you that God is not the same as he was 2,000 years ago, and that what he once hated he now loves, and all of a sudden, people buy into that lie.

But when you tap into someone who IS anointed, and you begin to bless them, God will begin to bless you. Some people get that need-based mentality. “I wonder if Pastor NEEDS anything. If he looked like he needed anything, I’d do something for him.” Maybe my car IS more expensive than your car, maybe my house IS bigger than your house, but when you are set in a house, and you’re the set man in the house, and you’re the anointed of God to lead the flock, when you bless me, God says, I will bless them that bless thee.

You say, “He doesn’t need my hundred dollars.” No, maybe I don’t. But maybe you need to give it. “Oh, I’ll give it to somebody that can’t put food on their table.” Oh, Abraham was rich, but God said, “Anybody that blesses you, I will bless them.” Oh, Abraham had more cattle and sheep than anybody, but He said “I will bless them that bless thee.”  People don’t get this anymore. I’ll send an offering to Bishop Jakes, and in my natural mind, I’ll say, He don’t need your offering. And you know what? He doesn’t. He’s one of the best-selling authors in the United States of America, he has his dance card filled to the millennial reign. It’s not, “Am I gonna preach somewhere?” It’s “Where am I gonna preach.?”

And the Lord will speak and say, “Send him some money. And in my natural mind…and the Lord’s sometimes my wife, Mary Lord Smith. And she’ll say, “We watched that DVD, and it really blessed us, you need to send Bishop an offering. And I’m thinking, “Bishop don’t need no money! I need this money!” I gotta pay the Nordstrom’s bill, and I know she’s gonna wanna buy something else somewhere. And I’ll say, “Bishop’s got a contract with Time Warner. I mean, Bishop oughtta send ME an offering!”

You’d better find out who God’s blessing. Some of you keep throwing your seed on asphalt when you need to start throwing it into fertile soil. See, I don’t bring no asphalt into our pulpit. You know why? ‘Cause every time you bless somebody, I know your seed is going to bring blessing to you, Why? Because God said, “Abraham, anyone that blesses you, I will bless them.

And if they curse you, they’re my enemy.”

Some people, they don’t take—they take too lightly the scripture, “Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm,” ‘cause that’s Old Testament. So they think they can chew up the man of God and spit him out and say all manner of evil against him. They can say all manner of things that are not encouraging about his ministry in order to justify their own rebellion.

Oh, excuse me, I think I’m just gonna go there. I’m like any other pastor in any other church. There’s a revolving door. You don’t see it, but it’s there. And you know what? We’ve got a lot of people who’ve left this church, and they did not do it in the will of God.  And I hope they get this DVD or this CD or whatever tape or whatever it is. They did not do it in the will of God, but to authenticate their rebellion, they have to attack the man of God. And you know what? That’s not my problem. That’s their problem. Because God judges those that curse those that are anointed. And I’m not perfect, ladies and gentlemen, as user-friendly and sweet as I am. I am not perfect. I know you think I am, but I’m not. I have one or two faults that are almost perfected.

But see, the thing is, even though I’m not perfect, I’m still the anointed of the Lord, and even though I don’t do everything that everybody wants me to, I’m still the anointed of the Lord, and if you bless me with your mouth or your finance or your encouragement, God will bless you, but if you curse me, you deal with the Lord. Some people have things come on them that nobody can pray it off of them.

[END OF SERMON SNIP]

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Even now, as I re-read this transcript, my heart beats faster in indignation. Because, you see, Pastor Smith preached this sermon around the very same time that the “church staff” (thinly veiled terminology for Pastor Smith himself, since Pastor Smith NEVER allows anything to be sent from the church without his prior approval) mailed a letter announcing that a birthday card shower would be taken up for Pastor Smith the following Sunday, and our cards and monetary gifts would be a great encouragement to him. (For a more detailed description of what these card showers were like, see the essay here entitled, “Asking For It.”)

But aside from this sadly blatant display of Smith’s personal greed, I hardly know where to begin to dissect the Scripture-twisting that Pastor Smith does in the above snippet.

He so smoothly slips a promise God gave to Abraham—“In blessing, I will bless you”—into a discussion on the passage in Deuteronomy, in which God is discussing how He will bless the Israelites. Then Smith somehow equates himself (as “God’s anointed”) with Abraham, so that he can lead his congregation to give him more money!

But perhaps the most disturbing part of all is his reference to the church’s “revolving door,” and the things that those of us who have left say about him.

Does anyone in his congregation see how he twists Scripture and then uses scare tactics to attempt to control how his church members perceive any negative information that they might hear about him or his ministry?

It’s little wonder that our so-called “friends” from this church reacted in the manner that they did when I attempted to explain why we were leaving. They’d been conditioned, from the pulpit, to view any concerns or criticisms of Pastor Smith as attacks on “God’s anointed.” Moreover, since Pastor Smith so craftily abuses the Bible to provide seeming support for this, they also think that they will be CURSED BY GOD for saying anything negative about Pastor Smith!

Never mind that the Bible tells us in many places to contend for the truth, to keep our doctrine pure, to be careful lest we be deceived by a false “gospel”—Smith manipulates his people with an Old Testament verse plucked out of context (“Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm” was discussing Israel’s kings and REAL prophets, not inaccurate modern-day “prophets”) to cause his church members to tune out any negative information they might hear about Smith himself.

I may take the time, on another occasion, to more fully refute Smith’s use of this “Touch not mine anointed” passage, but for now, let me just say that if Smith wants to count himself among God’s anointed prophets and use those Old Testament standards for himself, then he can’t go halfway. He can’t just stop at I Chronicles 16:22. He needs to be held to the full Old Testament standards for prophecy. He needs to take in the “whole counsel of God” and be held to the standards put forth in Deuteronomy 13, where God tells His people that if a prophecy does not come to pass, the false prophet should be put to death, and the people have no need to fear such a false prophet.

However, as you might already guess, I’m not holding my breath waiting for the day when Smith will mention Deuteronomy 13. I’m pretty sure Pastor Smith will continue to cling to the “Touch not mine anointed” passage, all the while cleverly asserting that if people give him more money, they will be blessed.

Just think about that for a moment. Pastor Smith’s “gospel” is that you need to give your money to people who are already being “blessed”—in other words, people who are already wealthy, namely, Pastor Smith himself!—because to give money to someone who “can’t put food on their table” would be throwing your “seed” onto asphalt, rather than onto fertile soil.

The bottom line of Pastor Smith’s assertion here is that the whole point of giving is the blessing you expect to receive in return. Where in the New Testament would you ever find such a twisted and perverted message? Think of how Pastor Smith’s teaching contradicts most of what the Apostle Paul and the book of James have to say about taking care of the poor. You can look long and hard in the Bible, but you won’t find this bizarre, self-serving principle anywhere!

Even more incredible is how Pastor Smith asserts that he may not NEED your money, but YOU need to give it to him. In other words, although Pastor Smith lives in luxury, he’ll do you the favor of taking your hard-earned cash, just so you can be blessed.

Seriously…I think I’m going to be sick!

Plus, if Pastor Smith thinks we left “his” church out of rebellion, I’d like to know what he thinks we were rebelling against? It certainly wasn’t God or His Word. Rather, it was as though at almost the exact same moment, both my husband and I experienced the same rude awakening, as the scales fell off our eyes and we saw Smith’s teachings for what they were—mostly materialistic greed, where “blessing” is ALWAYS equated with money. We had absolutely NO desire to leave, to “rebel” against anything that Pastor Smith taught. For literally months, we’d stay up talking late into the night, attempting to rationalize and defend the things that Smith and his family said and did. We were grieved beyond expression to have to uproot our children from the flashy and exciting kids’ ministry that they loved, to disrupt our college-aged son’s views of the church where he’d spent his high school years deeply involved in the leadership of the youth ministry. I can say in utter honesty that the absolute LAST thing in the world that I desired was to leave that church and go searching for another.

Yet in the end, we simply could not rebel against the truth of God’s Word, the truth that He was gently showing us day after day. We had to leave.

So to hear Pastor Smith so callously proclaim that those of us who left his ministry did so outside of God’s will, did so out of rebellion…well, I’m sorry, but that makes me smokin’ mad! If Smith had even the tiniest particle of the heart of a true shepherd, he’d know how deeply we were hurt by what we knew God was calling us to do. He’d be far less concerned about damage control, about protecting his own image, and far more concerned about the sheep—us, and many others—whom God had entrusted into his care.

I thought I was getting over this whole experience of journeying into and then out of Charismania. But now, I’m not so sure. The fact that Smith can lead an entire congregation to cheer for his self-promoting (and totally unbiblical) baloney makes me wonder if there’s a need for someone to publically declare “Pastor Smith’s” error. Perhaps someone needs to be bold enough to take a stand for the truth. Perhaps we even need to stop hiding behind pseudonyms and vague references and actually name names.

I’m not sure. It’s certainly not something I have any natural desire to do. But for all those dear, confused, misled people whom I once viewed as my friends, I wonder if someone somewhere will ever speak the truth. For them.

Because Pastor Smith sure isn’t gonna!

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Random Observations

Once again, it’s been awhile since we’ve posted. We’re now six months into our journey away from our old “cult-like” church, and as time goes on, it seems, in some ways, as though there is less and less to say about our experiences there. However, in other ways, the old cliché, “Hindsight is 20/20” holds true.

Here are some random observations we’ve made through the perfected vision of hindsight, things that have struck us in retrospect:

1. We don’t dash to church any more just so that we can arrive in time to stake out seats near the front of the building. While this may not seem very significant, we realized one day that the fact that people competed for seats in the first six rows of the auditorium actually spoke volumes about the dynamics of the church service. Going to church was very much about being seen by the pastor. If you could make eye contact with Pastor Smith—if Pastor Smith was able to see you—then you might be the recipient of a “prophetic word.” He might just “call you out” and prophesy over you. Also, since Pastor Smith was the centerpiece of the church, you found yourself slipping into the mindset where you wanted him to see you so that he could sense your support.

It didn’t matter that just about every seat in the building provided a good-enough view of the stage (even seats in the balcony were decent, given the giant screen and the cameras that tracked Pastor Smith’s every move). Sitting in the front part of the main level turned church into quite a different experience. On one of my last Sundays there, in fact, I overheard the lady behind me FUMING to her husband because they’d gotten late and weren’t able to sit closer toward the front. She literally ranted about how “Church was RUINED” for her that day. All because she couldn’t get close enough to the pastor.

A few months ago, as my husband and I discussed this silly phenomenon, we suddenly realized how twisted and unbiblical it actually was. Church is supposed to be about the BODY OF BELIEVERS, not the pastor! We are supposed to be meeting together to build ONE ANOTHER up, not to “be there” for the pastor. Yet at our former church, people would much sooner be rude to one another in order to get a “good” seat where they could be closer to the stage and closer to the pastor. Bizarre!

2. Although Pastor Smith paid lip service to “giving God the glory,” the bottom line was that anything good that happened was actually credited to “the anointing of the house”—in other words, Pastor Smith both allowed and fostered the mentality that blessings were the direct result of being a part of his church.

For instance, on one of our first Sunday nights at this church, they had a “testimony service.” Normally, I really like church services where people have the opportunity to get up and tell stories of the good things that God has done in their lives. But the “testimony service” that night struck me a bit odd, because EVERY “testimony” was actually about the church and Pastor Smith’s ministry, NOT the Lord Jesus. Oh, God and Jesus were mentioned, but only incidentally. The main focus was still on the church and the pastor.

One pre-selected person after the next took the microphone and told stories about how much better things had gotten since they began attending Pastor Smith’s church. Several people recounted various prophecies that Pastor Smith had spoken over them, and how these prophecies had come true.

Interestingly, I can remember thinking the service that night was a bit odd, too much like a sales pitch for Pastor Smith’s ministry. But after listening to a half-dozen very respectable people speak reverently about Smith’s abilities, I found myself buying into the whole thing too. Swayed by their credibility, I set aside my misgivings and fully bought into what the people had said, but later on, I realized that my initial uneasiness was spot-on.

3. On the other hand, anything bad that happened to you was the devil.

It took me until just recently to see how cleverly Pastor Smith has set his people up with this “Heads I win, tails you lose” mentality.

In other words, if your life improved after you started attending his church, those improvements were the direct result of his ministry. But if your life went downhill after joining his church, then those negative things were because the devil was fighting you, since now you were starting to be a threat to the devil’s empire.

Pastor Smith would often talk about how the devil leaves people alone when they’re not a threat to him. But if they’re starting to rattle the devil’s cage, then the devil will try to take them down, will bring all sorts of hardships and difficulties into their lives.

I’m actually ashamed to admit that I never saw this logical fallacy for what it was. I mean, if a person was “being blessed”—that is, if they were experiencing financial ease—it was always the direct result of being connected to Pastor Smith’s ministry. But if they were having hard times, it was the devil attacking them. It never occurred to me that, following this line of reasoning, the “financially blessed” person must not be doing enough to “threaten” the devil, or else the devil would then begin to try to take them down by messing up their finances. Right?

4. Just about everyone I ever knew personally at that church had some “professional” ministry that they wanted to start. Whether they dreamed of operating a “Hospitality House” for visiting guest ministers, or whether they wanted to work with wayward teens, everyone I talked to had big dreams of having their “own” ministry.

“What’s wrong with that,” you ask? Well, it sure seems in retrospect like “ministry” in that church was compartmentalized and professionalized, rather than just a natural part of one’s life, a natural product of one’s relationship with Jesus. While I can’t point to any concrete proof for what I’m about to say, I have a strong conviction that this mentality among the churchfolk was the direct product of Pastor Smith’s own “professionalization” of his ministry.

If you ever spoke with Pastor Smith one-on-one, he rarely, if ever, talked about “spiritual” stuff. It was almost like that was “talking shop.” Conversation would instead involve typical small talk on subjects like sports.

His two young-adult sons were exactly the same way. Although they’d both been installed in key pastoral positions (one was the worship leader, the other was the youth pastor), they seemed far more natural and at ease while discussing the latest video games, for instance, rather than anything spiritual. Once I tried to ask the worship leader son about the music that led him personally into worship, that ushered in the presence of God for him. I was met with a completely blank stare, like I was speaking another language.

5. While that church spent more time discussing money and earthly “blessings” than any other place I’ve ever been to, the only people I really saw “prospering” were the Smiths.

Yes, I’m sure there were SOME financially successful folks around. I knew one family for certain that had plenty of money. And on the outside, there were a lot of showy status symbols. Lots of ladies carried designer purses, and everybody dressed pretty well on a typical Sunday morning.

But a disturbing number of people (and these are just the ones that my husband and I happened to know) seemed to be teetering on the edge of financial disaster right below the surface. For a church that taught that one would be blessed just for giving one’s tithe there and for “coming under the Anointing,” there seemed to be an inordinate amount of people experiencing serious financial lack.

During the four years that we were part of this church, I lost count of how many times I was surprised to learn that this person or that person who I’d THOUGHT was quite prosperous was actually on the verge of bankruptcy. I can remember one couple who always looked very put-together. I always assumed they did quite well financially. But when it came time to co-host a party with them, I was shocked to find out that they lived in a rented apartment in a crummy part of town. In our brief conversation to discuss the party details, the wife even told me how much she longed to own a home, and how she was “believing God” that someday this would happen for them.

Another couple stunned me one Sunday when I saw them, dressed to the nines as always, getting into an absolute rusted-out jalopy of a car (the back window of which had been replaced with plastic held on with duct tape) and sputter out of the church parking lot. I never would have dreamed that people who had put so much effort into their clothing would drive such an obviously unreliable (unsafe, even!) car.

The Smiths, on the other hand, all had gorgeous houses and top-of-the-line vehicles, in addition to their expensive designer clothes.

6. Despite Jesus’ admonition to “Not let your left hand know what your right is doing,” the offering collections at our former church were VERY public spectacles. First of all, Pastor Smith was big into having us “lift our seed up toward heaven” during the prayer of blessing. While we were in the throes of our love for this church, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with this, but now, I wonder if this wasn’t one way that the Smiths kept track of who was giving and who wasn’t. First Lady Smith (the pastor’s wife) would sit on her throne onstage and observe everything with an obvious gimlet eye. Surely she could see who was lifting a white envelope up and who was sitting there empty-handed.

Then, to add insult to injury, the offering was not collected. Rather, everybody trooped down to the front of the building. It was very much a time to see and be seen.

It was also, I now believe, highly unscriptural!

As I said at the beginning of this article, these are just some random observations. But the more we look back, the more strange dysfunction we see.

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