Archive for September, 2007

Living Word Church (a pseudonym) used to be on television.

A couple of years ago, Pastor Smith (another pseudonym) made a huge deal about how “God told him” to go on TV.  Then he announced that soon, Living Word would begin to televise the church services, having negotiated prime broadcast times on two national Christian networks.  For several weeks, he talked up Living Word’s premiere, saying again and again that although he was highly reluctant to go on TV (“I am not chasing fame, I do not have ‘red light fever'”), he nonetheless knew he had to be obedient to what the Lord was telling him.    

God had told Pastor Smith that he needed to go on television and preach the Gospel.  God told Pastor Smith that there was a huge group of backsliders who needed to be brought back into church, and Pastor Smith would reach these folks on TV with the good news of Jesus. He made special appeals for us to watch the broadcasts of Living Word.  He also mentioned that if we wanted to give an amount above and beyond our usual tithes and offerings, we could mark it “Television Ministry,” and it would be much appreciated.

We can’t even begin to estimate how much money Smith forked over to buy prime twice-a-week national air time.  But hey, it was worth it, right?  Especially since God had told Pastor Smith to do so.  We believed, right along with Pastor Smith, that this television ministry just might be the very vehicle that would finally usher in the great revival that had been prophesied time and again over Pastor Smith and Living Word.

So you can imagine how shocked we were when, as we dutifully tuned in, we discovered that these half-hour broadcasts were an odd combination of “artsy” grainy introductory footage, then about ten minutes of Pastor Smith giving opening remarks in a television studio about what a great church Living Word is, and how you need to visit Living Word, and then perhaps another 10 or 15 minutes of unrelated snippets of Pastor Smith going on yelling rants, plucked from various sermons.

Considering the fact that “God told him” to go on TV to preach the Gospel, we thought the Living Word broadcasts were especially bizarre, since you’d be hard-pressed to find any Gospel preaching in them at all.  Rather, the shows served mainly as infomercials for Living Word Church and Pastor Smith, complete with his concluding reminders to come be part of this “great multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation.”

In his remarks in front of the camera, Pastor Smith was impressively smooth and glib.  He seemed both earnest and friendly as he touted all the fine characteristics of Living Word – the “world-class” children’s ministry, the great diversity of the people, the exciting youth events, and all the other wonderful programs the church offered, in addition to Smith’s own “uncompromised preaching” of the Word.

Sitting there in front of our TV, watching Smith’s dapper and articulate self on the screen, I looked over at my husband and said, “What happened to the Gospel of Jesus?”

After all, that was Smith’s entire stated purpose of this new television “ministry” – to preach the Gospel, particularly to backsliders.

But in actuality, Smith used this pricey airtime to urge folks to visit Living Word.  The clips of Smith preaching, like I said, were disjointed segments pulled from different sermons.  The televised portions of Smiths messages were very difficult to follow, even for us – and we’d been in the audience when these sermons were videotaped!  If you weren’t a believer, you’d be no more enlightened about how to be saved or how to live a life more pleasing to God just from watching the Living Word TV show.

It was puzzling.

Meanwhile, after Living Word had been on television for some weeks, I think the Smiths were somewhat surprised that attendance in the church services hadn’t increased at all.  They’d mentioned on more than one occasion how things were about to “explode” at the church once they went on TV.  But instead, attendance remained the same.

After several months had passed, we noticed one day that the Living Word television program was not on at its usual time.  We began to look for it (we’d quit being regular viewers some time before, after the novelty of seeing Pastor Smith on the small screen had worn off), but the show never did reappear.

Even stranger, nothing was EVER said about the disappearing TV broadcast.  Nothing.  The little blurb in the bulletin, listing times and stations, also quietly went away.

The television ministry – both its rise and then its unremarked demise – was yet another one of those things that caused us to start questioning what we were doing at Living Word Church.  On so many levels, it illustrated many of our frustrations with the place.

First of all, it was a perfect example of how – despite the fact that Living Word was supposed to be a church body, made up of more than a thousand members – Pastor Smith ruled everything and made all crucial decisions without ever bothering to consult his people.  The first that we, as a congregation, ever heard about the television ministry was when Pastor Smith announced the premiere.  Obviously, the negotiations for air time, the decision to commit a significant amount of money to the broadcasts, and the taping and editing of the studio segments had already been in the works for quite some time before that.

If Pastor Smith were spending his own money on these broadcasts, it would be appropriate for him to make all the decisions without his congregation’s approval.  But he was committing money that had been “given to God” by the people.  Shouldn’t he have sought some input from the people?  Shouldn’t the decision to go on TV have perhaps been a matter of a congregational vote or something? 

We began to have serious questions about how the church handled its finances.  Why weren’t more of these issues discussed openly? 

Secondly, Living Word’s television ministry illustrated a phenomenon I’d been vaguely aware of for awhile, but now I was finally able to articulate it to myself. 

I realized that Pastor Smith had confused sharing the Gospel of Jesus with telling people about his church.  And promoting himself.

After all, Pastor Smith had said, over and over again, that “God had told him” to go on TV so that he could preach the Gospel to backsliders.  According to the Bible, the Gospel is the “good news,” the news that although we are sinners and doomed to eternal separation from God and eternal damnation, God made a way for us to be reconciled to Himself.  He sent His Son Jesus to this earth to live a perfect, sinless life and then die on a cross, shedding His blood to pay the price for our sin.  After Jesus was dead for 3 days, He rose again, defeating death and hell.  We can share in Jesus’ victory and be right with God, with the promise of living with Him in heaven for eternity, if we repent from our sins and have faith in what Jesus did on the cross. 

That’s the Gospel, according to the Bible.

But the Gospel according to Pastor Smith was something quite different…especially on the Living Word television show.  It seemed to center around experiencing “the anointing” at Living Word.  Jesus was barely mentioned.

I still haven’t figured out if this was something Pastor Smith did deliberately, or if he had somehow just slid into it after years and years of promoting his own ministry, but either way, it was one of the worst peculiarities of Living Word Church, and it was very widespread.  Smith was just the most obvious example of someone who honestly thought that standing in front of a TV camera and earnestly telling folks to “Come check us out at Living Word Church” was the same thing as “preaching the Gospel.” 

I even found myself doing this – “sharing church,” when I meant to be “sharing Christ.”  After my profound, life-changing experience at Living Word, I became absolutely gung-ho about what I thought was “witnessing.”  I had a new boldness and confidence in my prayer life and in my witnessing that made me strike up conversations with random people. 

But interestingly, I never actually shared much of the Gospel with people.  Instead, I found my conversations veering toward inviting people to church.  I did buy a lot of Bibles and give them out, but I also (I cringe to think of this now!) included a Living Word visitor’s packet in these gift bags!  And I found myself saying things like, “You can find a lot of good churches that preach the truth, but our church really is special.  WE also have victory and power and the Holy Spirit.” 

In retrospect, it’s no big shock that my “witnessing” didn’t get me very far.  Every time I “witnessed,” I could see the “witnessee’s” eyes glaze over when the conversation would veer toward my church and the power that supposedly existed there.  Although a few people did go to church with me from time to time, I never actually led anyone to Jesus, didn’t actually “pray the sinner’s prayer” with anyone.

After I’d watched the Living Word television broadcasts a few times, I realized that this whole “sharing church instead of sharing Christ” thing was not just limited to my own confusion.  Rather, it was something that – like the “anointing” that Pastor Smith was always talking about – “flowed from the head down.”  The TV shows were hard evidence that Pastor Smith believed that promoting his church was the same as “preaching the Gospel.”

The rise and fall of the television ministry also highlighted another issue, and that was the thin ice Pastor Smith skated on whenever he uttered the words, “God told me.”

Sadly, it was pretty obvious – first from the lack of Gospel preaching, and then from the very disappearance of the broadcast – that if Pastor Smith had heard someone telling him to go on television, he WASN’T hearing from God.  After all, if God tells someone to do something, wouldn’t God also make certain that the endeavor was a success?  Moreover, wouldn’t God have helped Pastor Smith design a better broadcast, one that actually conveyed the truth of Jesus to those backsliders that Pastor Smith had said were God’s target audience?

Week after week, we harbored hope that Pastor Smith would address the vanishing TV show.  But his unbroken silence just served to highlight both his fallibility in “hearing from God” and his low opinion of the people.  In his refusal to talk about what happened to the television broadcast, Pastor Smith demonstrated that he thought his congregation was stupid and forgetful.  He also demonstrated that he didn’t care one bit about giving an account of his stewardship of the church’s resources.

The Living Word television ministry was obviously not successful in the manner that Pastor Smith had hoped it would be.  But it turned out to be a powerful illustration for us, helping us to see the truth about Living Word Church.

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In response to our previous entry (“Heaping up teachers“), reader AJS posted the following comment:

The problem of the teaching in these types of churches is an interesting one.  Because the connections between the verses are often glib and patched together haplessly, strong rules for reading scripture properly are never enforced.  The result is two-fold:  1) the preacher is more free to deviate from the Bible because no one knows how to question the false teachings properly; and 2) the congregation never studies the Bible well individually.  Thus, there is no real system of accountability left in place and the congregation is too dependent upon the pastor to receive anything from the Bible or to really develop spiritually themselves.

I thought AJS’s comment was a very succinct summary of what allows and fosters false teachings in Charismaniac churches.  Here are my own observations:

Since we left Living Word (a pseudonym), I’ve begun to realize that we were taught, both directly and indirectly, that Pastor Smith (another pseudonym) was somehow more closely connected to God than we were.  He was the prophet, and since God talked to him so much, what Pastor Smith thought and taught carried far more weight than any study we might undertake on our own.

It’s little wonder that Living Word had such a large contingent of former Catholics who felt comfortable there.  If you think about it, the way we were trained to view Pastor Smith’s preaching (and the reliability of our own understanding, in comparison to Smith’s, while reading the Bible) was the same way that Catholics are taught to view their personal Bible study and what their clergy say.

Also, at Living Word Church, we were taught to be highly suspicious of prophecies that were given to us by anybody other than Pastor Smith.  I can remember MANY occasions where he would make fun of what he called “parking lot prophecies.”  The message was clear:  only Pastor Smith REALLY heard from God in that way.

Even how we were trained to refer to him as “Pastor” (like he didn’t actually have a first name) now reminds me of Catholicism and how their priests are called “Father.”  Everything – the use of the title of “Pastor,” the psychological edge of placing his family in throne-like chairs on the stage (so that they were 4 feet above us, looking down on us from a position of superiority), the cadre of “bodyguards” who always surrounded him, even the velvet ropes that were used to cordon off the walkway when he traveled from his office to the doors leading to the stage – was designed to foster our belief in Smith’s superiority and authority and specialness.

This whole attitude that Pastor Smith is somehow on a higher plane spiritually than the rest of us is one of the reasons why people wouldn’t question the way he handled the Bible.  Because, even if you sensed that he was misinterpreting something or giving a weird spin to a familiar teaching, you’d set aside your own thinking and still accept what he said.  After all, he was the “set man of God” for “the house,” the one whom God had put in place to “speak a word into your life.”

I can remember when Pastor Smith taught a whole series about Jesus’ words in John 14, “I go to prepare a place for you.”  During that series, Smith presented quite an odd take on this familiar passage.  He reasoned that since mansions already exist in heaven (“In my Father’s house ARE…”), then when Jesus said He was “going to prepare a place,” then PLACE must mean something other than a mansion.  Smith then defined place (I assume from the dictionary) as a position.  Then he said that what Jesus REALLY meant was that He was going to prepare our “prophetic destiny.”

Could the passage really be saying that?

Well, as I listened, I instinctively felt that this was “off.”  (Especially because his “application,” to use the term loosely, was all about him and his own prophetic destiny as our shepherd and the leader of the “great end-times harvest” that was soon to hit Living Word!)  And yet, you could sort of interpret John 14 that way.  Sort of.

I silenced my misgivings and listened to Smith and believed that maybe Jesus was indeed talking about my prophetic destiny, since “God’s man” who was supposed to be my “covering” was telling me so.

Even when he launched into a COMPLETELY off-base study of the word “prepare,” I continued to listen to Smith with an open mind.  Yet…I was an English teacher in a former life, and I instantly recognized that his whole breakdown of the word “prepare” (that since “pre” means before, and “pare” means to shave away, like in paring an apple, before you can get to the “prepared place,” God has to “pare” some stuff off of your life, that there is a painful cutting-away process) was flat-out wrong and had NOTHING to do with that passage of Scripture.

I can remember feeling very troubled during that sermon series.  But again…in Charismaniac churches, there is SUCH an emphasis on the specialness and the authority of the pastor, that even when the people might know better, they still accept poor teachings.

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Lately I’ve been thinking about why we remained at Living Word for as long as we did.  (Note:  “Living Word Church” and all other names, including “Pastor Smith,” are PSEUDONYMS.)  Certainly, if you’ve read some of our articles here, you’re probably thinking that it should have been OBVIOUS to us – far sooner than it was – that we were in a dysfunctional church.  I know that we ourselves have done a lot of soul-searching about this issue.  It can be a train of thought full of regrets for all those wasted years.  It can cause us to “beat ourselves up” about how we didn’t see things more clearly any sooner.

However, as we’ve analyzed all the reasons why we stayed for as long as we did, we’ve realized that in one respect, it’s incredible that we left at all.

You see, one characteristic of “Charismaniac” churches is that typically, the preacher will tell his people what they like to hear.  And listening to someone tell you all the stuff you like to hear, especially when it SEEMS like it’s backed up by the Bible…well, that can be like a highly addictive drug.  I know that it was for us.

Week after week, while being told from the pulpit that we were receiving a “hard word” from someone who “still dares to call sin ‘sin,'” the truth was that most of Pastor Smith’s sermons focused on just a few very narrow themes.  And these themes were essentially the message of the “Prosperity Gospel” – that God promises that His children, if they serve Him and are planted in a good church (under the covering of an “anointed man of God”), will experience financial blessings, health, miracles, and a good family life. 

Smith seemed to use many, many Bible verses to support this Prosperity Gospel, too.

As one of our commenters pointed out awhile back, when you first start attending a “Charismaniac” church, you THINK you are receiving incredibly deep Bible teachings.  The first reason you think thusly is because – at least in our case – the pastor tells you so.  Almost every single Sunday, Pastor Smith would talk for several minutes about the poor quality of preaching at OTHER churches.  OTHER pastors served their congregations nothing but “skim milk and diet cookies” (a favorite Pastor Smith-ism), but HE gave us the true “meat of the Word.”

In addition to having your pastor tell you so, another reason why you might think your “Charismaniac” church is offering up deep teachings is because the sermons seem to be so full of Scriptures.  Indeed, Pastor Smith is very skilled at backing up whatever he says with just the right verse. 

Week after week, we’d leave church on a spiritual “high,” after being told in an incredibly enthusiastic and authoritative way that we are “the head, and not the tail, above only, and not beneath,” that we’d be “blessed in the city, and blessed in the field.”  Every Sunday, we’d listen to Smith preach for usually more than an hour at a stretch about all the incredible ways that our lives would improve.  We’d hear such exciting, empowering things about how the “devil is now under our feet,” how we were going to “walk in a greater and greater anointing,” how “miracles would be increasing,” to the point where people would be instantaneously healed just because we walked into a room…

It was heady stuff.

Oh, to be fair, Smith DID preach about Christ’s work on the cross.  He DID preach about salvation, and he DID give altar calls, where people DID go forward and DID pray the “sinner’s prayer.”  But often, the altar calls would be almost a footnote.  The true Good News of Christ – that we’re all sinners and deserve to die, but that Jesus came and paid our entire debt by living a sinless life, dying on the cross, and rising again so that we can now be reconciled to God for all eternity – often seemed secondary to all the great and exciting blessings that we could have in THIS life, for the here and the now. 

In fact, Smith would most of the time give an altar call BEFORE he preached his sermon.  For a long time, we thought that that was amazing.  We thought that these pre-sermon altar calls were evidence of “the anointing” that was “so strong in the house” that Pastor Smith didn’t even NEED to preach a sermon in order for someone to see his or her need for salvation.  And indeed, people did come forward by the dozen when Smith would say, “If you know you’re not right with God right now, then meet me down at this altar.”

I’m in NO WAY disparaging the occasions when Smith actually presented the real Gospel of Christ.  I’ll NEVER minimize the fact that Smith at least discussed people’s need for a Savior as often as he did.  Actually, I am convinced that that is probably the single reason why Smith and his family are still “in business,” so to speak, and continue to enjoy a measure of success despite all the abuses and oddities that they’ve engineered and fostered within Living Word Church.

But toward the end of our time at Living Word, I can honestly say that the true Gospel was treated as almost incidental to the “deeper things” that Smith preached in his sermons – “deeper things” that nearly always focused on how we could get our “blessing,” which nearly always boiled down to finances and giving heavily in the offerings. 

In fact, if you were a longtime member there, it was easy to feel restless during the altar call times.  There was a strong sense among the “regulars” that the invitation (“If you’re not right with God, meet me down at the altar”) was purely for non-Christians or those new to Living Word.  The higher up on the church leadership totem pole one was, the less one needed to be reminded of the basic salvation message.  I’m ashamed to admit this, but mine probably would have been one of the wagging tongues if I’d seen one of Smith’s “chosen leaders” respond to an altar call and go forward for prayer.  There was just this attitude among the regulars that the Gospel was merely a starting point, and that the longer you stayed at Living Word, the more you advanced beyond that.

Some “regulars” would even take the altar call portion of the service as their signal to sneak out to the lobby for a restroom break.  It was pretty common for Pastor Smith (to his credit) to stop and rebuke people for their inattentiveness.  He would remind the audience that this “moment of decision” was a holy one for the folks at the altar, and that we needed to show them the respect that their boldness deserved.

He was right, of course.  I always respected Pastor Smith for giving us these much-needed “talking to’s.”

But now, looking back, it was quite telling that he needed to do this.

It speaks volumes about what we came to church for, and it says a lot about what the main focus of Pastor Smith’s sermons must have been.

You see, at Living Word, although we were TOLD that we were receiving a deep “meat-and-potatoes word from the Lord,” the reality was that Pastor Smith spent most of his time behind the pulpit telling us what we wanted to hear.  Although he SAID that he preached against sin, the reality was that he rarely did so in a way that brought about conviction in any of us.  He WOULD often mention various sins that most culturally conservative Christians don’t like, such as homosexuality and adultery.  But the cheers and the amens are enough to convince me, now, that Smith’s anti-sin rants were more about drumming up the sort of response in his audience that would garner fans for himself and make for a hearty offering rather than they were about challenging his people to repentance leading to greater holiness or more zeal to share the Gospel.

The remainder of his preaching, after the obligatory mention of the “bad sins,” centered around telling us how victorious we were going to be – particularly in relation to Living Word Church.  We were told such things as, “Dream big and believe God for favor.”  We were told that the “set time for favor has arrived.”  Depending on the year, we were told that it’s “the year of overflow,” “the year of arrival,” or “the year of completion.”  We were told that a great end-times harvest was right around the corner, and that because we were so blessed to have been planted within the fertile soil of Living Word, we would get to share in that harvest. 

It was a very positive message, and it seemed so alive, so new and refreshing, especially after a lifetime spent in typical Evangelical Christianity.  It was great to be told about our future victories rather than hear the same old reminders of our sinfulness and our need for Christ.  It was empowering to learn that sickness was from the devil – a tool he used to try and derail Christians who were becoming a threat to him – and that we could “speak the Word” and instantly be healed from all our diseases.  It was exciting to hear that our “latter would be greater than our first.”  It was even more exciting to anticipate how God was soon going to shower us with material abundance so that there would be no more lack.

I know that for me, the financial message held quite the allure for awhile, particularly when my husband went through a time of career uncertainty.  I’d sit there and listen to Pastor Smith talk about our soon-coming abundance – about all the financial resources that were going to be showered upon the church in the near future, to help fund the end-times harvest – and I’d daydream.  At the time, I thought this daydreaming was “the anointing” helping to direct my thoughts, but now I realize that my thoughts weren’t much different than the sort of fantasizing that people do after they buy lottery tickets.  Nonetheless, I’d leave those services feeling empowered to face another week, confident that our “blessing” was coming soon.

I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only person who sat through Smith’s “Blessing” sermons with wistful dollar signs floating through my thoughts.  While I didn’t have many friends at Living Word, I had become somewhat close with two ladies, sisters who often sat right behind us in the sanctuary.  They were dear fifty-something gals (both single) who were living in their mother’s basement.  I loved talking with them because of how enthusiastic they were about things of the Lord.  They had such a positive, childlike faith, particularly in the whole area of prophecy – both Pastor Smith’s and their own.  They had utter confidence in Pastor Smith’s prophetic abilities, and they also believed in many, many dreams and visions that they themselves had had.

Their main vision involved retiring from their secretarial jobs and running a hospitality house for visiting ministries.  They sincerely and earnestly believed that “God told them” that they were going to come into a huge amount of money, enough money so that they could quit their jobs and buy a particular mansion in a particular high-end neighborhood in our town.

Like I said, I loved talking to these two gals.  I thought they were dear and sweet and sincere, and visiting with them was always so uplifting.  But I have to admit that I struggled with how to support them in this particular “vision.”  They were so sure they’d heard directly from God Himself about the millions that would soon be in their bank account.  Yet I couldn’t help it – no matter how hard I tried to believe in their dream along with them, a part of me thought it was quite far-fetched.  And while yes, God often performed amazing and far-fetched miracles in the Bible, I had a difficult time seeing how He could want these gals to base all their retirement planning on this dream fortune.

The two ladies were just as addicted as I was to hearing Pastor Smith’s messages about blessing and empowerment.  Like us, they were in church every time the doors were open.  They would even talk about how desperately they needed Pastor Smith’s preaching so that they could maintain their faith.

But as with any other addictive substance, prolonged use can cause one to become immune to the regular dose, can cause one to need ever-increasing amounts to achieve the same “high.”

After so many years of hearing all those words of encouragement, it was getting harder and harder to drum up the same level of excitement when Pastor Smith would “go off” on one of his “Scripture Promises” rants or deliver a prophetic “word” about our future blessing.  I found I had an increasingly difficult time believing in the great “healing anointing” that supposedly was going to come upon us.  And after several years of hearing about the financial blessings that were always “just around the corner,” I grew weary of believing that we were going to “walk in overflow.”

One Sunday, as I situated myself in our usual pew, I turned around to greet my friends – the two dear sisters – and noticed that they looked particularly glum.  In fact, they seemed to be very close to tears.

“Is anything wrong?” I asked.

“Oh,” one sister said, “we’re just tired.  And a little discouraged.”

“We’re losing hope in our ‘arrival time,'” the other sister added.  (According to Pastor Smith’s yearly prophetic “forecast” – for lack of a better word – that year was supposed to be our “arrival time” at the church, the time when all those incredible prophesied blessings would become a tangible reality.)

Although I already knew the answer, I asked my friends, “What would ‘arrival time’ look like for you guys?”

And they both replied, IN UNISON, “We’d be in our house!”

I almost felt like crying FOR them, then.  It struck me that something very wrong was happening.  The “Good News” of Jesus had been twisted to the point where it had become all about the here and the now.  At Living Word Church, the “gospel” that us “regulars” came to hear had little to do with eternity and true peace.  Instead, we were being encouraged, week after week, to place our hope in money and miracles instead of Jesus Christ.

Then, the very next Sunday morning, we were sitting in our usual spot when Pastor Smith began prophesying about the great financial blessing that was coming to those of us in “the House.” That day, I just wasn’t “feeling it” the way I used to. I’d heard it all too many times before and had never seen it come to pass – not for my friends nor for myself.  I didn’t join the cheering masses who were on their feet, clapping and hooting enthusiastically. I did stand with everybody else when the typical up-tempo “shout music” began to play, but I didn’t feel any need to dance with them. Rather, as I watched all the people around me begin to do their typical “Holy Ghost gymnastics” because of the “news” that they were going to experience financial blessing, I felt even more coldness flood my heart.

And then I found myself thinking, “If the prophetic ‘Word’ had been that each of us would lead one person to Jesus this week, would these people be so excited?”

Sadly, I knew immediately that the answer would be “NO.” The frenzied joy on display all around us was for the love of money, NOT for love of Jesus or His Gospel.

After that service, we left Living Word Church just as soon as we could extricate ourselves from our various leadership positions.  But to this day, although I wish we would have seen the truth sooner, it’s nonetheless amazing that God opened our eyes at all.  He was very merciful to us.  According to the Bible, others will remain mired in the same error that ensnared us.  As II Timothy 4:1-4 says,

1 I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.

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We’ve really been enjoying the comments that folks have left here.  In fact, a couple of your comments have sparked some of our more recent posts.  For example, when we put up the “Our First Clue” essay last week, a reader used the term “nepotism” in a remark, and although it should have been obvious to us that “nepotism” was indeed what Pastor Smith was engaging in at Living Word Church (again, for the record, all pseudonyms), we’d never quite connected that pejorative term with Smith’s practice of ensconcing his sons in church staff positions.

So readers’ comments have served to stimulate our own thinking and analysis.

As I was reading what some of you had to say about “Hard Question #4,” I found myself posting a comment of my own that expands upon what bothers us about nepotism in the church.  Rather than let it languish in the comments section, I figured I’d post it here for all to see, and maybe more of you would tell us what you think:

My sister and I were having an interesting discussion the other day, about how when you throw money (and a life of material ease) into the mix, it really does confuse things. It’s quite possible that one or both of Smith’s sons really ARE “anointed” for the ministry. But I just have to wonder how much of that “stirring in their hearts” would have been totally different if their parents had been struggling poor people. I mean, how honest are ANY of us about the true, deep motivations of our hearts?

It kind of reminds me of…like…if a young lady would be faced with marriage proposals from 2 different guys, both equally spiritual, kind, and talented…she has feelings for both of them…but one is very wealthy, while the other is poor. How easy would it be for her to convince herself that she is more “in love” with the rich guy? And how would she ever truly know her motivations?

I think a similar thing happens when sons of Charismatic pastors feel “called” to the ministry. How much of that “heart’s desire” comes from the fact that the ministry is familiar and comfortable? How much of it is because they want to please Mom and Dad? How much of it is because it’s the path of least resistance? How much of it is due to money?

It’s not that God can’t still “call” someone in the midst of all of that. I’m just saying that it sure makes it more confusing.

Especially because, as Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.”

If a Charismatic pastor is faced with a child who wants to follow him into the ministry, it seems like the wise thing to do would be to encourage him to take the same path as someone whose father was NOT in the ministry. Go to seminary, make connections, hook up with an organization for ordination, and pursue a pastoral position (with a NORMAL salary) NOT associated with the family.

The fact that most Charismatic families don’t do that…well, to me, it says something highly significant about their true motivation. Or at least their wisdom.

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Hard Question #4:

What’s up with all the nepotism in “Charismaniac” churches?

Everywhere we turn, in almost everything we read, it seems like nepotism is an unavoidable fact of life within your typical charismatic church or ministry.  If you look at well-known ministries, you’d be hard-pressed to find one where the staff is NOT made up of the celebrity pastor/evangelist’s family members.

Benny Hinn, for instance, has his wife on the payroll.  His brothers also work for his organization, and according to one report I read, they and other family members comprise most of his board of directors.  Joyce Meyer has her entire family on her ministry’s payroll, to the point where her ministry funds a lavish compound made up of several mansions where she, her husband, and her children and their spouses live.  Paul and Jan Crouch, of pink-wigged TBN fame, have one son on their staff and have used millions of ministry dollars to fund their other son’s movie-making business.

And those are just a few celebrity examples.  We could spend weeks listing the multitudes of smaller, lesser-known ministries where all staff members just “happen” to share the same last name as the senior pastor.

Like we mentioned before, the nepotism at Living Word Church (a pseudonym) was evident even from our very first Sunday morning there.  It gave us a bit of a pause at first, since it was so unlike anything either of us had ever known in the democratic, egalitarian Baptist/Evangelical world of our past.  But because we WERE new to Spirit-filled Charismatic stuff, and because this type of nepotism is everywhere within Charismania, we quickly shrugged off our concerns and chose to view the “staff family” as just something else that we had to get used to.

Pastor Smith (again, another pseudonym) did a remarkable job of convincing his people of the unique authority he wielded as our leader.  Because of Smith’s prophetic gift, we were all under the impression that Smith had a direct pipeline to God.  We’d often heard him utter the words, “God told me to tell you…” as an introduction to his prophecies.  So, when Smith made various decisions regarding the church and its staff, there was that underlying assumption that he was doing so at the behest of God Himself.

Pastor Smith  also did a good job of hammering away at the idea that “The Anointing” is somehow generational as well as transferrable.

Although I’ve grown cynical about some aspects of how Pastor Smith set up and ran his church, I’m still convinced that Smith sincerely believes that by virtue of their relationship to him, his sons are somehow automatically destined and equipped to follow him into the ministry.  It was, after all, probably exactly what Smith’s own father did to Smith himself, as Pastor Smith took over his dad’s congregation – the same group that eventually became Living Word Church – when his dad retired some twenty years before.

At any rate, we – and apparently most of the rest of the congregation – bought into Pastor Smith’s teachings on this “generational” anointing, partly because of how Smith promoted and wielded his own authority, and partly because initially, at least, his two sons did well enough in the positions that he’d installed them in at the tender ages of 17 and 19, respectively.

While Tommy Smith had some serious trouble carrying a tune, he could certainly play the piano like nobody’s business, and he seemed to have a tremendous work ethic when it came to the music ministry that he led.  His older brother Timmy apparently did a good job with the youth ministry as well. 

Both boys were in college, working on ministerial degrees (or so we thought), and while they finished their education, Pastor Smith was wise enough to have youth pastor Timmy under the supervision of another staff member, a Bible-college-trained and ordained minister in his late 30s who was NOT a relative.  Music minister Tommy had lots of help from his assistants in the music department.  It felt like there was at least some system of checks and balances in place.

But after a year or two had passed, Timmy and Tommy Smith both graduated from college.  And that’s when things began to shift.  It seemed to start with their ordination, which took place in an elaborate church service where a celebrity preacher officiated.  A scant few weeks later, Timmy – who hadn’t actually attended seminary after all but earned a business degree – preached his first Sunday morning service.  And honestly, while it probably worked well enough with the youth, Timmy’s preaching had about as much depth as a cookie sheet.  In fact, after he was introduced with great fanfare and a standing ovation that Sunday morning, he actually repeated, almost word for word, a cute little pep talk that he’d given on a Sunday evening some months before.

Nevertheless, the congregation that morning cheered and shouted their amens just as loudly as ever.  When Timmy launched into a familiar “riff” of his dad’s favorite Scriptural promises – which didn’t even really fit into his pep talk – the crowd went wild.

In the following months and years, we grew increasingly dismayed by Pastor Smith’s apparent determination to move Timmy into more of an authoritative role.  Tommy, too, took on greater and greater responsibilities, ruling over the choir members and other musicians with an almost despot-like control.

Then both “boys” (young men in their early 20s by this point) got married.  Shortly after Timmy’s marriage, Pastor Smith maneuvered him and his young bride into a senior pastor position at another church in another state.  Tommy then took over his brother’s old youth pastor duties, in addition to his continuing role as music pastor.

At this point, although we still loved and respected Pastor Smith – and still deeply desired to believe that he was making all of his decisions under the direction of God – we began to find ourselves questioning what was REALLY going on. 

I mean, it was becoming so glaringly OBVIOUS to us that Smith, by placing his young sons in charge and giving them such unquestioned authority, could not possibly be looking out for the interests of his people.  We couldn’t figure out why others on staff, with far more training and experience, continued to be sidelined in favor of Timmy and Tommy.

It was also obvious that Smith wasn’t even thinking clearly in terms of his own sons’ best interests.  If all that unchecked authority wasn’t healthy for the congregation, it most definitely wasn’t healthy for the two twentysomething Smith kids. 

Certainly Timmy Smith and his young wife needed some time to adjust to marriage and perhaps actually go to seminary before taking on the senior pastorate thousands of miles away from home.  And Tommy…well, if both the youth pastor job and the music pastor job were truly full-time positions, worthy of the hefty salaries that the boys (as evidenced by their luxury cars, expensive clothes, and nice homes) received, then how in heaven’s name could one young, newly-married guy be expected to do justice to them both?

When, with no credentials other than her marriage license, Tommy’s wife suddenly became a staff member bestowed with the coveted title of “Pastor” (something reserved ONLY for members of the Smith family – everyone else on staff, no matter how educated or ordained, was simply called “Director”), we were forced to acknowledge that Smith’s personnel decisions had NOTHING to do with “God’s will” and everything to do with promoting his own family and their interests.

Since we left Living Word Church, we’ve been learning more about other Charismatic ministries.  It sure seems to us like there’s some secret “playbook” out there containing all the strategies for starting your own family business ministry.  Why else would every single ministry be so rife with nepotism?

More to the point, why do we church members put up with it?  Any thoughts? 

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Do you ever have one of those moments that causes you to question your own sanity?  Have you ever found yourself making a statement with absolute certainty, only to discover that what you THOUGHT was utterly factual might actually not be true?  Have you ever rubbed your eyes in puzzlement and asked yourself, “Are my senses deceiving me?”

I had one of those moments the other day.

Awhile back, we posted an article calling into question preachers who feel the need to use their honorary doctorate degrees even though they otherwise belittle education.  I’d mentioned that our former pastor, Pastor Smith (not his real name), was quite free with referring to himself as “Doctor,” to the point of having his title chiseled into the large stone sign at the front of the church property.

I should describe the church sign in a bit more detail.  The church name, Living Word Church (a pseudonym), is at the top of the sign, in very large lettering in the trademark calligraphy-style font that’s used in all of the church literature.  Beneath that is a lighted digital display that shows service times, although it is sometimes changed to announce special services or guest ministers.  Then, beneath that, is a narrow strip of stone (or concrete) material that contains the pastors’ names carved in a smaller, different style of lettering.

Well, a couple of days ago, while running some errands, I found myself driving past our former church.  I hadn’t been down that road in quite some time – perhaps a few months – so I took a moment to slow down a little and check the place out.  I’m still interested in how Living Word Church is doing.  After all, we invested four years of our lives into that ministry.

You can imagine my surprise when I suddenly noticed that the church sign no longer showed Pastor Smith’s title.  Instead of saying, “Living Word Church, Dr. Mike T. and Mary Smith, Pastors,” it now reads, “Living Word Church, Pastors Mike T. and Mary Smith.”

The pastors’ names are still carved into that narrow stone strip.  But Pastor Smith is no longer referred to as “Doctor.”

And that has caused me to totally question my own senses.

You see, I can’t imagine that they would have gone to the trouble to change the strip of stone that contained Pastor and Mary Smith’s names.  Pastor Smith continues to use his honorary (or diploma mill, we’re not totally sure) doctorate in several places on the church website.  Since a website is a lot easier to change than a stone sign, it seems logical to me that if Smith had suddenly gotten an etiquette lesson about the proper use of honorary titles (or been stricken by conscience over his fraudulent use of such a title), they would have removed the fake “Dr.” from the website first.  Right?

And yet…

I have an incredibly vivid, absolutely definite memory of a Sunday afternoon when I had to bring one of the kids to a church music practice.  Finding myself with time to kill, and not wanting to hang out in the church sanctuary for hours before the evening service started, I drove down the road and got myself a nice cup of coffee and a decadent dessert.

Then I returned to the church parking lot and sat in the car to finish my coffee, staring off into space and just letting my thoughts wander.  It was actually one of those little moments that was highly pleasurable, one of those times when you just feel good about life.  I can vividly remember the steam from my coffee as it fogged up my sunglasses.  I can remember my eyes landing on the church sign, contemplating Pastor Smith’s Ph.D., and being glad in the knowledge that our pastor was such a learned man.

Some weeks later, when my dad happened to visit our church and was asking me questions about Pastor Smith’s educational background, I can remember asserting with absolute confidence that Smith had a real degree.  I can remember telling my dad, “I can’t imagine that they’d chisel that into the sign if it were just honorary.”

But now?  Right at this moment?  It’s no longer chiseled in stone!

So I’ll have to admit, I am absolutely and totally puzzled.  Was I deceived by my very own senses?  Did the sign actually never refer to Pastor Smith as “Doctor”?  Did my mind, somehow, in what I now see to be its somewhat brainwashed state back then, just fill in Pastor Smith’s title, just IMAGINE it said “Doctor,” even though it wasn’t actually part of the sign?

Or is it possible that I’m not the only one making rumblings about Smith’s use of this honorary title?  Maybe others have been raising questions, and maybe Pastor Smith decided to retool the sign?

I guess you’ll have to chalk this up to yet one more thing that I’m not sure of.

But in the interest of full honesty, I must amend my earlier article with this:  Although Pastor Smith continues to use his title in introductions and on the church website, it is – for now, at least – NOT carved in stone on the church sign.

Any way you look at it, it’s bizarre.

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Beneath its glittery, “perfect” surface, we eventually discovered that Living Word Church was odd in many, many ways.  Perhaps one of the saddest oddities was that its people didn’t really connect with one another.  In that respect, it truly was unlike any other church we’ve attended. 

Oh sure, there was the “Care Group” ministry, which was glowingly talked up from the pulpit.  Pastor Smith had a staff of about 50 to 60 volunteers (mostly married couples who were his “deacons and Care Group leaders”) who were each assigned random church people they were supposed to call and invite to parties and offer to pray for.  But honestly, most Care Groups were little else besides a list of names on a sheet of paper.  I knew of just a FEW Care Groups that functioned like they were supposed to.  The rest of them were like the ones we’d been part of – they never actually met together, except perhaps a couple of times a year. 

Later in our time at Living Word, when we received the high “honor” of being asked to become Care Group leaders, we discovered for ourselves just how hard it was to get our group of randomly assigned folks to return our phone calls, let alone show up for a social get-together.  Since we were instructed to NOT do anything other than lightheartedly socialize, there were no Care Group prayer times or other occasions for more meaningful exchanges.  In fact, there was absolutely nothing spiritual about being part of a Care Group.  

It was odd, and it was one of the reasons why we grew cynical and frustrated, without really understanding why we were feeling that way.  Our frustration (later, I’d come to realize it was what psychologists would term, “cognitive dissonance”) was especially bad when we had to hear from the pulpit what a “busy body of Christ” Living Word Church was, because we knew otherwise.  There may have been some occasional activities, but there was practically NO true “fellowship of the saints” taking place at Living Word Church.

Besides coordinating the Care Group lists, the church did nothing to promote deeper interaction  There were few places where people would talk with each other, beyond the times of “turn and greet 6 people this morning.”  There was no “Adult Sunday School.”  There were no Bible studies that involved group discussions.  (That in itself is another subject for a whole different article!) 

One of the only ways to really get to know other Living Word members was to volunteer to work at the church.  But – and again, this is yet another subject that deserves its own article – there was a definite hierarchy of status among the volunteer positions.  If you were new to Living Word and didn’t know anybody, you were very limited in what you’d be allowed to volunteer for.  You could work in the children’s ministry, or you could become a greeter.  If you had some talent and had been around for awhile, you might be able to audition to be part of the choir or the music ministry.  If you were a couple of steps up the hierarchy and knew some insiders, MAYBE you’d be allowed to help set up for the ladies’ events.  But that was pretty much it.

Or, if you sat in the same place every Sunday – which, human nature being what it is, most people did – then you might chat with the folks sitting nearby.  Because staking out a good seat near the front of the sanctuary was so important to the quality of one’s Living Word experience, we’d find ourselves arriving for services quite early, often as much as 45 minutes before church started.  During these long stretches of lag time, I’d try to strike up conversations with the people sitting near me.  And that was how I made most of my friends.  

Dan and Sue were one of the couples who tended to sit in our area.  They were a very polished and well-dressed duo.  Dan had an important, high-paying job with a government contractor, and Sue was a part-time dental hygienist.  Dan, especially, was talkative, and he and my husband would often joke with each other, mostly about nothing more substantive than college football. 

After perhaps a year had passed, we were assigned to be members of the Care Group that they led, although as I’ve already said, our “group” never actually met.  But Dan and Sue did invite us to their large and perfectly decorated home for a couple of Christmas parties.  To this day, I have no idea who the other people in Dan and Sue’s Care Group might have been, because we were the only Living Word people who attended their get-togethers.  The rest of the partygoers were Dan and Sue’s neighbors and non-church friends.

We didn’t do anything at their parties beyond make idle chitchat with their other guests, and we NEVER felt as though we needed to approach Dan and Sue about anything spiritual.  Nevertheless, for perhaps two years, Dan and Sue functioned – on paper, at least – as our “spiritual leaders.” 

Then, around the time that we ourselves were moved into a leadership position within the Care Group system, Dan had a job change, and he and Sue were relocated to a city 2,000 miles across the country.  But we still kept in touch with them, usually via the occasional casual email my husband would either send Dan or receive from him.

As you might gather, it was no deep friendship, by any means, but because we’d been part of their Care Group, we still sort of viewed Dan and Sue as a step above us in the church hierarchy.  I know it’s hard to understand, but there was something about the way Pastor Smith would endorse his leaders that made you want to view them in the way that Smith said to.

So we were especially curious about what Dan and Sue would say if they ever learned that we’d left Living Word.  Dan in particular was a pretty intelligent guy, and we entertained thoughts of perhaps sharing with him our concerns and observations, especially since he was no longer around to be part of things.  When my husband received a cheery email from Dan that said he and Sue would be in town and wanted to get together with us for dinner after church, we looked forward to seeing them again.

Dan’s email had specifically asked my husband if we would be at a particular church service, so my husband wrote him back and said simply, “We don’t attend Living Word anymore.”  He then added a line or two about meeting up with them anyway, and clicked “send.”

We were eager to see how Dan would respond, now that he knew the truth.  We were glad that we’d already become part of another church, because we figured that that would allay any concerns that Dan might have about our spiritual well-being.  Lots of folks who leave abusive church environments don’t bother to search out another body of believers.  We wanted Dan and Sue to know that we were doing remarkably well in that respect.  God has been good to us.

Well, it’s now been over 6 weeks since my husband sent Dan that email, and we’ve never heard back from him or Sue.  Never.  There’s not been one word in response.  Not a single question about why we left or how we’re doing, not a mention of concern, not anything.

I know you’re probably thinking, in light of our other stories, that we shouldn’t be surprised.  And you’re right.  We shouldn’t be surprised, and in one way, we aren’t. 

Yet, isn’t it highly telling that our former “spiritual leaders” don’t want anything more to do with us now that they’ve discovered we’re not connected to Living Word Church?  What does that say about their understanding of the very role of a church in a believer’s life?  What does that say about Living Word, and how Living Word operated in terms of its actually being a CHURCH – the “body of Christ”?

Dan and Sue haven’t been the only ones in leadership to drop us like hot potatoes.  My husband was fairly friendly with another church member, a business leader in our town.  We’d also gone to his home and had socialized with him and his wife on a couple of occasions.  Since that had taken place quite some time after we’d left Living Word, we had thought that perhaps, just perhaps, this man and his family were going to be the exception to the general trend among our Living Word “friends.”  Maybe we’d be able to maintain some sort of friendship with them.We were wrong.  Again.

The business leader was sometimes sporadic in his church attendance, and Living Word was a pretty large church, so I guess it had taken him quite awhile to figure out that we weren’t around like we used to be.  A few weeks ago, he called my husband on an unrelated issue.  Then, almost incidentally, he mentioned that he hadn’t seen us at church in the past couple of weeks.  My husband replied, “We’ve been going somewhere else since January.”

Do you know what his response was?  (He is also a church Care Group leader, by the way, someone who supposedly is responsible for others’ spiritual well-being.)

His response was, “Oh, that’s sad.”

My husband said, “No, George [not the his real name], what would be said is if I said we’d turned away from Christianity altogether.  All I said is that we’re going to a different church.  But it’s still Bible-believing, and it’s a better fit for us right now.”

George held fast to his first response, that our leaving Living Word was tragic.  When pressed for why, he didn’t really have an answer, beyond that he didn’t want to see us go back to our old “dead” church.

Then he ended the conversation rather abruptly, and we haven’t heard from him since.

I guess my purpose in sharing these stories is twofold.  First of all, to us, the way our so-called friends have reacted to our leaving Living Word Church has spoken volumes about what was really going on there.  Living Word may have called itself a “church,” but it bore more resemblance to a Branson (Missouri)-style celebrity theatre than a church family or “body of Christ.” 

The Bible uses the picture of a “body” to show how we are all supposed to be interconnected to each other, to show how we are supposed to feel each other’s pain and care for each other.  That biblical metaphor does not work for Living Word.  A better analogy would be a wagon wheel, where Pastor Smith was the hub of the wheel, the spiritual experiences one had comprised the wheel’s rim, and all the rest of the church members were the spokes.  There’s really nothing crucial about each individual spoke, and if one or two get broken, there are always replacements.  Moreover, each spoke is dependent only upon its relationship to the hub – Pastor Smith – and not to the other spokes.

Our other purpose in sharing our story is to offer support and perhaps a bit of guidance to anyone who might be facing a similar situation.  If you are in a dysfunctional or abusive church environment, do not expect your church friends to treat you in the same way once you leave.  Once they learn that you are rejecting the “spoke” of their wheel, they will tend to see it as a rejection of themselves, personally. 

Also, the very fact of their rejection will validate what you’re already seeing about your dysfunctional church.

A real body of Christ is made up of people who actually DO care about each other.  Don’t be surprised when members of your dysfunctional church want nothing to do with you once you leave.  When your church friends reject you, their rejection just proves that you did indeed need to leave.

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As we’ve mentioned before, my husband and I continue to grapple with what, exactly, was going on when Pastor Smith (a pseudonym) would “prophesy” over the people at Living Word (another pseudonym), our former church.  (You can read about Pastor Smith’s prophecies in more detail here, here, and here.)

Pastor Smith would speak with such authority, often lapsing into King James English, as he declared these “words” to people.  Sometimes, he’d even phrase the prophecies in the first person, like God Himself was speaking. 

As you might imagine, receiving a prophecy from Pastor Smith was the most dramatic thing that could happen to a member of Living Word Church.  Yet in retrospect, a lot of the “words” that my husband received seemed awfully vague and – worse – suspiciously similar to “words” that Smith gave to others in the congregation.

I was poking around online the other day, and I found yet another transcript of a prophecy Pastor Smith gave to some people.  These folks obviously were highly affected by the experience of having “God” speak to them.  As we mentioned in another article, in some ways, this extremely generic style of prophecy seems harmless enough.  It’s not a whole lot different than getting a personal pep talk.  Yet as one of our commenters pointed out, in response to a different prophecy transcript, 

This kind of “prophecy” is nothing more than empty words geared toward making the prophecy’s “target” receptive to the ministry of the “prophet”. Having been prophesied over more times than memory serves, I can only say that there is no such thing as an “all right” prophecy. Either it is of God, and 100% accurate, and peering deep into the person to reveal the secrets of his heart, or it is a fraud, built by a man and used for his own benefit. The above “prophecy” is so generic it is literally “shotgun”. It will scatter so many words it has to hit something, somewhere. This kind of empty “word” does great damage to a susceptible believer, and will bring judgement on the pastor or prophet who gives it.

Since we’re told in I Thessalonians not to despise prophecy but to “test everything,” here’s a transcript of the latest Smith prophecy that I found the other day.  We welcome all comments.  Does this seem like a “word” that lines up with the Bible?  Is there anything in it that is unscriptural?  Do you think that it’s OK for a prophet to speak this sort of “word” over someone?  If you agree with our previous commenter (quoted above) that there IS harm in a generic prophecy, why do you think so?

I declare in the Name of Jesus…God will open a door for the future of your ministry that no man can shut. I declare as the apostle prayed over you today…Breakthroughs are coming to your ministry…barriers are getting ready to be broken…And the Lord would say to thee both…I shall cause you to arise with a supernatural confidence…and I will cause you to “Break Out” and “Enter In” and Possess…For I have already prepared a place for your ministry…I have already prepared a place…And I would say unto thee…I have been making you ready…that I could breathe something fresh into both of you…And you shall return a different man…And you shall return with the assurance that everything I’ve already shown you shall come to pass!

So readers, don’t be shy.  Tell us what do you think.

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Since we issued the “Charismania Challenge” the other day, we’ve been thinking about some of the questions we posed for “story starters.”  One of them – question 2 – got us to talking about our own experience, got us asking ourselves when we first sensed that something wasn’t quite right at Living Word Church (again, for the record, NOT THE REAL NAME OF OUR FORMER CHURCH).

Since we were ultra-faithful and loyal members of Living Word for four years, and since we only really began to allow ourselves to question things there perhaps 8 or 10 months ago, my husband and I were shocked to realize that we’d noticed something odd about the place during our VERY FIRST Sunday morning service.

I’ve mentioned before that we first visited Living Word on a Sunday night.  In that service, I responded to an altar call and received “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” which radically changed me.

So when, the following Sunday, we decided to attend a morning service at Living Word, we were already much more than casual visitors.  We were primed and ready to see everything at this church in the best possible light.  Because of the experience I’d already had, I was practically in love with Living Word Church.  I would have given almost anything the benefit of the doubt at that point.

So that is a bit of an explanation for why we so enthusiastically embraced the place despite one of the oddities that we noticed during that very first Sunday morning service.

During that service, Pastor Smith (again, a pseudonym) proudly introduced his son Tommy and explained to the cheering congregation that Tommy, who had been the church’s worship leader for 2 years already, since the tender age of 17, was going to debut his second CD that very morning.  Pastor Smith hyped Tommy’s CD, proclaiming it to be both anointed and incredibly well-done.  He described how Tommy had written all the songs, had recorded every single track all by himself, had done all the mixing, all the singing, all the producing, and had played all the instrumentals.

Sitting there that morning, listening to all of this, we were quite impressed.  Everyone else in the crowd seemed to be impressed, too.  They were all clapping and shouting, making far more noise than we’d ever been used to in a church service.  When the CD’s title track began to play over the church sound system, everybody started to move and dance to the music.

We fell in line and stepped and clapped along with the rest of the crowd.  But almost immediately, I felt disappointed.  Because the track – which was cranked so loud that my teeth vibrated – was, honestly, nothing to get all that excited about. 

And OK, I know that a lot of you are going to shrug and say that what passes for “good” music, like all other art, is in the eye (or in this case the ear) of the beholder.  You’re right, of course.  I’m not going to say that my tastes would be the same as yours.  Maybe you’d have liked Tommy’s CD.

But I kind of doubt it.

I don’t consider myself some big music connoisseur, but I know enough to be able to hear when something sounds like it was recorded in a tin can.  I also have enough musical training to discern when someone can’t sing on key.  Moreover, there wasn’t anything particularly memorable, catchy, or, most importantly, MEANINGFUL, about the song.  If we weren’t in church and if we didn’t know that Tommy Smith had penned the lyrics and was a Christian artist, I’d never have been able to discern anything sacred about the song at all.

(At this point in the story, I need to mention that in the months and years to come, we were to find Tommy Smith to be a pleasant and nice individual.  We have nothing against Tommy.  We appreciate the effort he put into the music ministry.  He was also a talented pianist.  In no way do I mean to imply that he didn’t have some level of ability.  He did, particularly when he just stuck with the keyboard and left the singing to others.  We are only mentioning Tommy and his CD because it illustrates something far more important about the PEOPLE at Living Word, NOT because we see ourselves as music critics!)

But on our first Sunday at Living Word, by the time Tommy had performed the second and third tracks from his CD, I was starting to wonder what was wrong with the people around me.  I almost felt sorry for Tommy, because after such an excruciatingly generous and over-the-top positive reception from his home audience, he was going to have a painful reality check if he ever played this music for people who didn’t know he was the pastor’s son.

After this mini-concert was finished, Pastor Smith made sure we knew that Tommy’s CD would be for sale for $10 in the lobby after the service.  We were all exhorted to buy a copy, and if we did so that day, Tommy would autograph our CD for us.

I remember being really surprised at the huge line that formed in front of Tommy’s CD table.  After the service, a few hundred people were waiting patiently, their $10 bills in hand, for the chance to buy Tommy’s music and have him autograph their purchases.

Even then – and like I’ve said, at that point, I was totally and completely sympathetic to anything that anyone from Living Word Church would have said or done – I remember wondering to myself, “Just how bad would that CD have had to be for the people NOT to buy it?”

The answer to that question was, I’m afraid, that it honestly wouldn’t have mattered how bad the CD was.  If Tommy Smith recorded it, and if Pastor Smith said to buy it, that’s all it took.

And there you have it, folks. The first time we attended a Sunday morning service at Living Word Church, we saw a prime example of the type of control that Pastor Smith exerted over his people.  We saw a prime example, too, of the extreme “pastor love” that characterized the place.  Later we were to realize that for most of the people who attended Living Word, pleasing Pastor Smith (and his family) and looking good in Pastor Smith’s eyes mattered more than just about anything else. 

It also was a taste of the strange hype and reverence that surrounded every member of the Smith family.  For reasons we still can’t figure out, the Smiths are like celebrities in the little world they’ve created.  People put them on a pedestal.  People vie for the “privilege” of getting to stand around on a rainy Sunday morning and open their car doors.  People stream forward to give them “love offerings” on their birthdays.  And people accept just about anything as long as it comes from a Smith.

We still don’t understand it.  But there it was, plain as day, on our very first Sunday at Living Word Church.

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