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.