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.