In previous blog entries here, we’ve described various incidents and teachings that pushed us to leave what we’ve now come to see as our cult-like, “Charismaniac” church (which I’m going to call “Living Word Church” for today’s article, although that is NOT the real name of our former church).
I wrote awhile back about one particular service at Living Word Church, where Pastor Smith gave a “prophetic word” about how blessed all of us were going to be, and then as I watched all the people dancing around like whirling dervishes while the music played faster and faster, it was like a cold hand gripped my heart and a voice spoke into my thoughts, “Would they be this excited if the ‘word’ had been that each of them was going to lead three people to Christ this week?” And when, instantly, I knew that the answer to that question would be “No,” I had a sudden jolt that something about our church was SERIOUSLY wrong.
There was also the less important—but no less unbiblical—little oddity of how Living Word showed favoritism to the wealthy by saving them the best seats in the sanctuary.
Then there were the personal prophecies spoken over us by Pastor Smith. Most of those were vague enough not to be “testable,” but the single one that contained specific details failed to come to pass. We experienced a great deal of internal conflict as we dealt with the reality of this inaccurate “prophecy.” For awhile, we felt like something was wrong with us, because we kept hearing other church members and Smith himself touting what a “true prophet” Smith was, even while we KNEW that on at least one occasion, he’d completely missed it.
All of these things played a part in the process of how we decided we had to leave Living Word Church. But you know how Oprah has coined the term, an “Aha!” moment? Well, we might have continued at Living Word indefinitely if it hadn’t been for one particular such “Aha!” moment.
At Living Word Church, we were “Care Group” leaders. That’s a whole other subject for a whole other article, but to explain briefly here, our job as Care Group leaders was to help a small group of folks (who’d been assigned to our leadership) to feel connected to the church through phone calls and get-togethers.
Before we were asked to be Care Group leaders, we’d heard stories about how well Living Word treated its Care Group leaders. We’d heard about special social functions that Pastor Smith and First Lady Smith would put on for these leaders. In fact, one particular such get-together involved the church’s renting out the nearby movie theatre for a private showing of the movie Seabiscuit.
So last Christmas, although it probably SHOULD have struck us as odd, we weren’t terribly surprised when we received in the mail a Christmas gift from the church. They’d sent us a gift catalog, from which we were entitled to order any one of about fifty items. These items were not just little trinkets but were pretty expensive, especially considering that the church had sent these catalogs to all 60+ Care Group leaders. I figured out that the retail value of these gifts was probably around $100 apiece. Do the math. That’s over $6,000 the church spent on Christmas gifts for those in leadership.
But since I’m not one to look a gift catalog in the mouth, I quickly logged on to the website mentioned in the booklet, and I ordered the item we chose, which was a Cuisinart blender.
Just as I was about to toss the catalog in the trash, I happened to give it a closer look. Suddenly, I noticed something.
On the back page, it said, “Copyright 2006 Quixtar.” Somehow, the name “Quixtar” rang a bell.
A quick Google search later, I realized something very significant, which was that Living Word Church had at least some connection to the Amway Corporation.
Although we’d never been part of Amway, I had more vague recollections of horror stories I’d heard about Amway and what a loser business it was, basically a multi-level marketing scheme disguised as a “business opportunity.” So I did more poking around. And that’s when I stumbled upon an online book about one guy’s experiences with Amway. [Note: this is a huge pdf, so click at your own discretion.] At first, his story wasn’t that earth-shattering, but the more that I read, the more unsettled I became, because you see, I grew to realize that the culture of our church has many, MANY similarities to the way that Amway does business.
In fact, there were SO MANY similarities that I began to think it couldn’t possibly be accidental.
The way the book described how Amway leaders were treated—lavished with respect, NEVER questioned, waited on and practically worshiped as though they were celebrities—could have been talking about the way people treated Pastor Smith, his wife, and more recently, his two young-adult sons and THEIR wives. There was absolutely no difference.
Moreover, many other aspects of the Amway culture were identical to that at Living Word Church. For instance, Amway people had an obsession with presenting a “together,” well-groomed, prosperous appearance. Appearances were HUGELY important at Living Word.
Also, Amway people are fond of the verse, “Without vision, the people perish,” because how you envision your success is how well you will do in the Amway business. Pastor Smith was very fond of quoting that same verse, only he used it to direct attention toward his own gift of prophecy.
Another thing that was weirdly similar between Amway and Living Word was the protocol for their meetings. The main speakers/leaders at an Amway meeting would arrive late, after the crowd had been revved into a cheering frenzy. That was exactly what Pastor and Mary Smith did—they never made their grand entrance until a good strong 20 minutes into the praise and worship time. Once the Amway meetings were underway, the audience was urged to cheer and support everything the speakers said. That was exactly what Living Word Church did.
As the Amway book’s author said, that kind of audience participation does two things. It creates an atmosphere where emotions are hyped and one can find oneself going along with the crowd and setting aside one’s natural inhibitions. And then it also gives a lot of credibility to the meeting’s message. If one sees all these well-dressed, seemingly successful professionals cheering their wild support for the message and the leader, one can’t help but think, “Well, if it’s OK for them and if they buy into it, then all my misgivings must just be wrong.”
Another similarity is, Amway leaders carefully cultivated loyalty, by rewarding the people below them with special privileges. These privileges—reserved, preferred seating at events, for instance—were doled out judiciously. So was recognition. The Smiths did that exact same thing. And there was something about the way they lauded and honored their most faithful members that made you begin to strive for that same level of attention and approval.
In the book about Amway, the author described the top leader, a man by the name of Zack. One of the things that Zack did was to take on the role of main father figure to his followers. This was done by design and done deliberately. When I reached this point in the book, I was appalled, because Pastor Smith had seemed to try to do that exact same thing. In fact, he’d recently preached a weird series of sermons focusing on the verse, “For you have many teachers, but only one spiritual father.” Although he never actually spelled it out in so many words, everything he said led up to the idea that he was our spiritual father. I can remember leaving those services feeling really strange about these messages. I tried to set aside my discomfort, but it just struck me as not the sort of thing a normal pastor would say to a normal congregation. Yet Smith had the crowd cheering their approval as usual.
The leaders at the top of the Amway heap also led lives of luxury. The Amway book describes Zack’s Mercedes and mansion and custom-made suits. That paragraph could have been lifted, word for word, to describe Pastor Smith.
Another thing was how Amway leaders, by how they responded to questions about “the Business,” subtly and indirectly conditioned the people at the bottom to say only positive things about their leadership and not to question ANYTHING that leadership says or does. That exact same rule, in the exact same unspoken fashion, was in operation at Living Word Church. If a person were to be so foolish or uninformed to ask a question that seemed to indicate doubt about the Smiths or appeared to call into question something that was going on there, that person would immediately be treated to the cold shoulder.
As a matter of fact, the previous Christmas, I’d experienced this firsthand. A gal named Annie White—who apparently had the job of being Pastor Mary Smith’s mouthpiece—wrote me an email, asking me for some feedback about what the decorating sessions for the Christmas ladies’ event had been like, and what I thought needed to change.
Under the impression that she actually wanted my honest opinion, I spent several hours carefully crafting my response. To read it now, almost two years later, is actually painful to me, because my observations about the cat-fights, the sniping, the ridiculous perfectionistic frenzies that went on, were all SO watered down. In that email, I literally sound AFRAID as I try to describe everything. I felt the need to spend several paragraphs talking about what a WONDERFUL teacher Mary Smith is, how great her ladies’ events always are, how beautiful they end up being…how I would NEVER want to say anything negative…but, since Annie had asked…
I oh-so-gently describe, in vague terms, how certain attitudes seem to prevent the newer helpers from feeling accepted. I make a few mild suggestions about how we might go about making it better. Then I end the email with even more blather about how I’d NEVER want to be ANYTHING but an encouragement to Mary Smith, blah blah blah…
Reading it now, my excruciatingly respectful and worshipful attitude, my palpable fear of offending Mary and her inner circle, are NAUSEATING. But at the time, I was almost sick to my stomach with nervousness when I clicked “Send.” I was really curious what Annie would say. I wondered if—indeed, I had naïvely optimistic hopes that—maybe some of my suggestions (which were as basic as, perhaps we could all introduce ourselves before getting started setting tables, and perhaps we could pray together that everything would go smoothly) would actually be implemented.
Well, after about a week, I quit holding my breath every time I checked my email. Annie never responded. When I saw her at church, she was still nice, but she never said a word about my email. Wondering if she’d even received it at all, I finally asked her, a couple of weeks later, if she’d gotten it, and she then replied, with a strange reserve in her tone, that she had. And that was it.
When the next ladies’ event was announced some months later, I was rather surprised that I hadn’t already heard anything about it, seeing as I had always been asked to help with the decorations and how they usually scheduled their decorating sessions before they officially announced the events. But I never did receive a phone call from one of Mary Smith’s minions.
The event came and went, and it was only then that my thickheaded self realized that I’d been removed from the decoration committee. The message was clear: even if you’re asked, NEVER say anything negative about your upline!
I spent a lot of time pondering these overwhelming similarities between Amway and Living Word Church. I’d already known that MANY Amway people attended Living Word. For whatever reason, Living Word made the multi-level marketing-type personality feel comfortable there. I also then remembered how Dan and Sue, a couple we’d become acquainted with because we tended to sit near them every Sunday, had told the rather vague story of how they themselves had begun attending Living Word Church several years earlier.
It had involved how they’d gone to a “business meeting” and Dan’s knee had been healed while one of the speakers was talking. That same speaker was going to be at Living Word Church shortly thereafter, so they’d gone to Living Word to hear him. That was how they were introduced to the church.
I can remember asking Dan and Sue what “business meeting” would have what must have been a “faith healer” for a speaker, and that was when they rather reluctantly mentioned Amway.
So, apparently, Living Word Church also shared speakers with Amway!
In just the relatively small group of Living Word Church members of our acquaintance, I could count at least a half-dozen families who had some connection to Amway. Very likely, there were many more Amway folks among the crowd we didn’t know.
Certainly, the very fact that the church had bought over 60 Quixtar/Amway gift catalogs to give to the Care group leaders for Christmas was an indicator of a relationship somewhere. Someone on staff must be a Quixtar distributor and must have profited off the sale of those catalogs.
At any rate, now that I was fully aware of how many Amway strategies were also in use at Living Word Church, I tried to make sense of what I’d learned.
In other words, what did it MEAN, to discover that Living Word Church employed the same tactics as a multi-level marketing (and many would say cultlike and destructive) company?
I found I just had to know more. I had to find out if there were some sort of connection between Amway and Living Word Church, something that perhaps I could document.
I began to read everything I could find online about Amway. Basically, NONE of it was good! Aside from the official Amway/Quixtar websites and some rather sadly optimistic websites run by new Amway distributors who still hoped to make it big through the company, everything I read seemed to indicate that Amway/Quixtar was indeed a multi-level marketing scheme that exploited its victims’ greed and desires for independence and a better family life.
Through mind-control tactics like those listed above (and others, such as coercing their “independent distributors” to listen to hundreds of motivational tapes to keep the Amway message foremost in their minds), the few people at the top of the Amway food chain lived large and profited off of tape sales, while everybody else lived off of false hope.
I was disgusted by how Amway exploited people and kept them mired in the organization through empty promises. And the more I learned, the more I could see virtually no difference in Amway’s tactics and promises and what Living Word Church did to its members.
The only distinction, actually, that I could point to with certainty was that Pastor Smith preached the Bible and Jesus. But as I’ve already discussed, Pastor Smith’s “gospel” was actually quite different from the Gospel of the Bible. It was, actually, the exact same “gospel” that Amway promoted—the “gospel” of prosperity, of money. Only at least Amway was somewhat more honest and didn’t hide behind the Bible.
Discovering this “Amway Connection” was the catalyst—our “Aha!” moment—that finally forced us to see that we needed to leave Living Word Church.