If you’ve read many of our articles here, you’ve probably decided that Living Word Church [AGAIN, FOR THE RECORD, NOT THE REAL NAME OF OUR FORMER CHURCH] and its pastor, Pastor Smith, are seriously messed up. You’ve probably wondered how in the world we could be the least bit biblically literate (or even remotely normal!) and still tolerate stuff like the birthday offerings, or Pastor Smith’s open self-promotion, or the inaccurate prophecies that were presented as though they were on par with the Bible itself. How in the world did we ever reach a place where we thought this stuff was OK? Worse, how did we ever become part of the enthusiastic, cheering crowd?
Often, as I read our own essays here, I have to wonder that myself.
It seems to me that our human minds have been created with a desire to categorize things in black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. When, for instance, someone does something heroic, we tend to see that person as essentially a hero. Likewise, if that same individual were to commit a heinous crime, we’d probably write him or her off as a blight on society.
But oftentimes, life isn’t quite so tidy.
Honestly, to this day, I still don’t know for sure what to make of all that we went through at Living Word Church.
The very first time we visited Living Word Church, I had an absolutely profound, life-changing experience. During that service, many people had gone forward for prayer. The altar call had specifically been for healing, but some people wanted prayer to be “baptized in the Holy Ghost.” I’d longed for ages for my Christianity to be something more than what it had always been (lots of Bible study, lots of rather shallow prayer times where we interceded for stuff like Aunt Millie’s broken hip, lots of the nagging sense that I was never going to be like Jesus, so what was the use of trying). Since as a child I’d gone with my grandparents to their Pentecostal church, I had some knowledge of Pentecostal/Charismatic teachings and in fact had always wondered about the practice of speaking in tongues. When I saw these folks receiving prayer for “the Baptism,” every last bit of my Christian ennui and dissatisfaction rose to the surface, and I found I almost couldn’t push my way forward fast enough to join the throngs at the altar.
When my turn came, I actually spoke in tongues. It didn’t flow as freely as I’d hoped. I’m not sure exactly what I’d expected—some sort of Holy Spirit ventriloquist act?—but nevertheless, the next morning, I woke up and found that I was completely changed.
After a lifetime of Christianity, of Sunday school and Sunday sermons, of AWANA clubs and Christian school, of Christian college and Bible studies and more Sunday school, I was suddenly absolutely passionate about my faith. It had become not just the priority of my HEAD—it was now the absolute priority of my HEART.
I found myself walking in a new sensitivity to both what would please God and what would offend Him. Before this, I’d often slipped into “little” sins (and yes, I know there is no such thing as a “little” sin, hence the quotation marks) without even realizing I’d made a conscious decision to do so. I’d find myself having a gossipy phone conversation, for instance, and feeling powerless to stop myself.
But after my Holy Spirit experience, I didn’t even encounter the temptation to say a wrong word. I can’t really explain it in any other way, except to say that it was like suddenly, I was surrounded by some sort of “force field” that seemed to be protecting me from sin. Whereas before, trying to “live the Christian life” had seemed like an Herculean task, afterwards, it was almost effortless.
I also had a new and burning hunger to read and study my Bible. After a lifetime of Bible classes, my “devotions” (or “quiet time”) was no longer a chore. It had become something I looked forward to, desperately longed for, and now easily made a priority.
Because I’d grown up in church and had been a Christian for almost my entire life, “receiving the Holy Spirit” was more like a conversion experience for me than anything I’d gone through previously. It was my own personal “Road to Damascus.”
And it had happened at the altar of Living Word Church.
Also, throughout many, many subsequent church services, I found myself worshipping God with an intensity that I’d never known before. I’d always been a pretty reserved person, but suddenly, there I was, flinging my arms straight up in the air and passionately singing songs like this one:
Lord, you are
Everything to me.
Who can compare to You?
Great is the measure
Of your royalty.
Oh Morning Star,
You truly are
Even now, as I sing this song in my thoughts, a flood of emotions, of passion for God, almost overwhelms me. Although it’s already been several years ago, I can still remember how my eyes filled with tears as the reality of the One True Living God filled the room and filled my heart and made me surrender in the face of His majesty.
I can remember how incredibly wonderful those times of worship could be. It was almost like my thirsty heart would just open up and drink deeply from springs of perfectly cold, crystal-clear water. During those moments, it felt exactly like how heaven would be, where time ceased to exist. Even if we’d sung and worshipped for hours, it still only felt like it had been ten minutes.
Mind you, this didn’t happen every single Sunday. But for quite awhile, at least, it happened often enough, and the changes in my life after attending Living Word had been profound enough, that it was easy to silence or explain away every single one of my hesitations about the place.
Even when the worship leader (who happened to be Pastor Smith’s son) seemed determined to do away with all of the slower, more meaningful worship music and replace it with lots of driving and abrasive tunes that had to end with, “Let’s give the Lord a great shout,” I still kept coming back to my own initial experience at Living Word’s altar.
I can remember Todd standing there on the stage, commanding us all to bounce up and down (and demonstrating how to do so). Watching many of the ladies in their traditional high-heeled pumps attempting to hop like a bunch of drugged-out teenagers in a mosh pit, I felt ridiculous. But again—Living Word was where I received the Holy Spirit. Pastor Smith HAD to be OK.
And that is why I was able to stick around for such a long time. That is why it didn’t bother me when occasionally, Pastor Smith’s preaching would veer into questionable territory. That’s why I almost happily put up with lots of odd, unjust practices. That’s why I bought into the whole “Pastor Smith is a prophet” stuff, too.
Because, certainly, I had received and experienced some wonderful things at Living Word. These things had helped me grow spiritually in a way that did line up with the Bible.
To this day, I still don’t understand how this is possible. How did I have such a profoundly life-changing experience under the ministry of someone who proudly touts his fake degree, who mocks other ministries, who demonstrates an obvious greed for money, who has a compulsive need to maintain absolute control over everything and everybody at the church, and worst of all, pushes his vague (and almost horoscope-like) proclamations as “prophecy”?
I wish I knew how to make sense of all of this.
I guess at this point, all I can say is that God chose to use this ministry in my life for a time. But then He showed me, through His Word, that this same ministry had become twisted and unscriptural.