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.