It’s the funniest thing…like I said in our last article, I really thought I had moved beyond caring about the current goings-on at our former church. But after spending a couple of hours listening to and then transcribing part of one of Pastor Smith’s recent sermons the other day, I find myself dealing with a whole new set of reactions.
For one thing, I am feeling fresh anger over how Smith uses—actually, abuses—God’s Word to manipulate people. Although I’m not totally sure, it seems like Pastor Smith has recently grown a lot more bold in the way he twists Scripture. When we first began attending Smith’s church several years ago, I remember thinking that his sermons were works of art, carefully crafted after hours of study. But now? His preaching has devolved into reading a couple of Bible verses and then using them to support his boasting about himself, or his harping on “blessing,” which in his world is synonymous with money.
I also find myself obsessing once again, trying to figure out how, exactly, Pastor Smith works his magic. How on earth does he get so many otherwise intelligent, successful people to check their brains at the door and cheer for him as he brags about himself and tells them to give him money?
Why don’t more people catch on to his game and leave? How does he keep his loyal following?
Our former church really isn’t your “typical” charismatic church. For one thing, it’s located in one of the most affluent suburbs in the United States. Although we did discover, little by little, that the church membership isn’t nearly as financially prosperous as appearances would lead one to believe, the church still draws from a population base that is a lot wealthier than average.
Also, our former church attracts, by and large, a fairly educated group of people. In our time there, I met lawyers, a physician, business executives, and people with multiple graduate degrees. Pastor Smith did not “minister” to stupid, illiterate folks. Why do these educated people put up with a pastor who twists Scripture and openly tells his audience to give him (Smith himself personally, NOT the church as a separate entity) money so that they can be blessed? Why do they, for the most part, keep believing in his authenticity and his sincerity?
Why do so many of these seemingly successful, smart individuals continue to hang around, continue to be Smith’s loyal followers?
After getting myself all riled up by noticing the many falsehoods Pastor Smith uttered in his iTunes sermon entitled, “Reverse the Curse and Loose the Blessing” (the most offensive part of which I transcribed in this essay), I decided to listen to the next sermon in that series, which was called “Generational Blessing.”
I was certainly prepared to be fired up again, prepared to transcribe more examples of Pastor Smith’s craziness and then blog about them.
But interestingly, although I’d still say that Pastor Smith said little of depth in that sermon—it was essentially a rehash of the same stuff I’d heard many, many times before, about avoiding curses by tithing, about “speaking the word” over one’s children, and about praying for one’s children—“Generational Blessing” contained nothing anywhere near as overtly wrong and bizarre as Pastor Smith’s rant in “Reverse the Curse and Loose the Blessing.”
In fact, in “Generational Blessing,” Smith sounded like the preacher we’d known and loved. He came across as rational, articulate, and passionately sincere. Although his introductory remarks were even a recap, covering the same points as his rant, he said them in such a way that they weren’t even all that strikingly offensive.
I was almost disappointed!
I found myself puzzling over how this could be. Was I wrong in thinking that “Reverse the Curse and Loose the Blessing” was so off-base? Had I just imagined that Pastor Smith sounded like a crazed megalomaniac as he commanded people to give him their money, as he asserted that God would curse those who dared to criticize him? Even as I re-read my transcript of his words, I wondered if maybe I’d been mistaken in how I’d interpreted what he’d said. Could I have been wrong?
As I pondered these things, it suddenly hit me: THIS was how Pastor Smith works his magic! THIS was exactly how he keeps people coming back.
Like any other abusive person, the secret of the hold that Pastor Smith has over his people is both subtle and obvious—he’s highly selective and very careful about just how and when he reveals his crazy side.
He knows just how far he dares push his people. If he “slips up” and says too much, gets too transparently greedy (as he’d done in “Reverse the Curse”), he is sure to reign it in the next time he preaches. That way, the people who might begin to question his integrity will soon find themselves shrugging off their questions, even doubting their own thoughts and perceptions.
Because, Pastor Smith is not consistently crazy.
As I thought about all of this, I was reminded of those abused women you see on Oprah or Dr. Phil, the sad ladies who, despite being bruised and battered, return again and again to their boyfriends or husbands. One and all, they say the same thing: “He isn’t always like that. He can be sweet and loving. He’s a good dad…”
I also think that Pastor Smith maintains his hold on his congregation with other tactics as well. In addition to the unpredictability and inconsistency of his bad side, here are some of the other things he does to keep people paralyzed and unable or unwilling to leave:
- He constantly pushes the notion that his church is the only church around that “gets it right.” Attend Smith’s church for a Sunday or two, and you’re sure to hear a lot about other preachers and other churches. Only, unless Smith is talking about one of his mentors (specifically, T.D. Jakes) or one of his close associates (those he allows to preach from his pulpit), what Smith says about other preachers is NEVER good. Smith is the master of the put-down. You’ll notice that even in the snippet I transcribed, he makes cracks about seminary, calling it “cemetery.” Even in that short bit, he gets in his digs about how other churches in our city are inferior and do not preach the “real” Gospel.Since just about all of Smith’s church members are Christians who came to him from other churches, Smith’s constant slamming of other ministries has a twofold effect. First of all, it stokes one’s ego, because it makes one feel pretty smart for having discovered Smith’s superiority and for having realized how deficient one’s former church was. Secondly, it makes one very reluctant to even THINK of going somewhere else, because one becomes conditioned to believe that Smith and his church are far superior to any other preacher or congregation.I won’t take the time here to point out how anti-biblical this is. Suffice it to say that it’s the very opposite of the attitudes displayed by Paul and the other apostles toward one another.
- Smith conditions his people to have a knee-jerk suspicion of any criticism they might hear from disgruntled former members. You can see a prime example just in the transcribed portion of “Reverse the Curse.” In that rant, Smith talks about people who leave. He paints them all with the same broad brush—“They left in rebellion.” Right there, anyone who might run into one of these former members is automatically prepared to view him or her with suspicion. After all, this person is “rebellious,” and certainly not to be trusted.(As an aside here, I wonder what Pastor Smith has to say about his young daughter-in-law’s parents. They had been ultra-faithful, longtime members until their daughter married Timmy Smith, shortly after which they departed, never to be seen again, even when Timmy and their daughter came back to town so Timmy could preach. Did THEY “rebel”? If so, what were they rebelling against? If Mrs. Timmy Smith’s parents are in rebellion, doesn’t that reflect poorly upon Mrs. Timmy Smith? It can’t say too much about Timmy’s choice of a wife, either, if she comes from a “rebellious” family. But that’s just an aside…) (And for the record, I have a great deal of respect for Mrs. Timmy Smith’s parents. I highly doubt they are “in rebellion” at all! I only bring them up because their leaving is a perfect example of how Pastor Smith really did let his crazy side show with that “rebellious” comment. I think for the moment, he forgot that his son’s in-laws would be part of the group he was slandering.)
- Smith also employs scare tactics. He invokes a couple of select Old Testament scriptures to claim that anyone who criticizes him as a “prophet” is going to be cursed by God. If you “bad-mouth the man of God,” you will be cursed, Smith says. In retrospect, I don’t know why I was so surprised when we were shunned by the “friends” with whom I attempted to share some of our concerns and the reasons why we left. It also makes sense why they reacted with such dismay to our news. They were convinced that we were going to get in trouble with God. And if they continued to listen to us, they’d be in trouble, too.
Most of the folks who attend Smith’s church have invested a great deal of money in his ministry. No one wants to admit that they made a bad investment. Like compulsive gamblers convinced that “the next crank” will be their big jackpot, Smith’s church members feel they have a financial stake in sticking around.
- People are deliberately prevented from being able to easily get in touch with each other. Unlike every other church I’ve known in my lifetime, Smith’s church does not have a church member directory. Many people have asked for one, and before I grew suspicious and cynical, I even had a few innocent conversations with others about what it would take to get a photo directory so that we could better get to know each other. I was always told, “Pastor Smith won’t permit it.”Come on, now. Don’t you have to ask yourself why? I did, and the only answer I could think of was that somehow, Pastor Smith was afraid of what would happen if people were given the power to contact one another. What if I had the name and phone number or email of one of the families I hadn’t seen in several weeks? What if I called them? What if we got to talking and I discovered that they, too, had grown weary of the money talk or had begun to check Smith’s teachings against the Bible?
- Pastor Smith (and his wife, First Lady Smith) are absolute masters at creating a church culture that rewards “loyalty.” If you are new in Pastor Smith’s church, you can’t just participate in anything you might want to. Oh no. You must somehow “earn” the privilege to volunteer in certain areas. The closer the ministry is to the Smiths themselves (and, in other words, the more important and prestigious said ministry is), the longer you must have been a member. In all honesty, that was one of the biggest things that kept us going there as long as we did.Loyalty was a BIG thing. When my husband and I began to seriously ponder leaving the church, I am ashamed to admit that I—on more than one occasion, even—actually uttered the phrase, “But we’ve worked so hard to get where we are, I’d hate to throw it all out.” What I meant was, the Smiths knew us and trusted us. We were even, occasionally, mentioned by name from the pulpit when Smith would give an example of a “blessed” member. We were in leadership. Anything less than 100% loyalty would cause us to slip down the church totem pole.This little nugget of strangeness is another stroke of genius on Smith’s part. Demand loyalty, refuse volunteers unless they’ve “proven” themselves, make it a “privilege” to get to do certain tasks around the church, and you practically ensure that even if people have doubts and grow restless, they will stick around. We almost did.
- Smith is absolutely sincere in his beliefs about himself. George Costanza, the TV character from the old sitcom Seinfeld, once declared, “Jerry, remember: It’s not a lie if YOU believe it.” This is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle. I know it sounds incredible, but until you’ve experienced Smith yourself, just trust me on this one. Smith comes across as totally believable, because he himself thinks what he says is true.When he touts himself as a “true prophet,” you almost can’t doubt that he is, because he honestly believes in his own “prophetic gifting.” When he boasts about his integrity—which is does a great deal—you tend to find yourself agreeing with him. When he preaches about giving so that you can be blessed, well…he absolutely thinks this is true.“So what?” you ask.Well, Smith has a unique way, an unusual ability to sway an audience. Couple his powers of persuasion with his absolute confidence in what he preaches, and he can make folks believe things even against their better judgment.
These seven points really just comprise a partial list. I’m sure I’ll think of more of the tactics that Smith uses to maintain his loyal following.
I’ll keep you posted.