Last night was Halloween. And it was the first Halloween in years that we did not attend the “Harvest Party” at Living Word Church (for the record, a pseudonym, as is “Pastor Smith” and all other names in this post).
Some of you reading this are probably shrugging your shoulders. “Big deal,” you say. “So what if you didn’t go to your old church on Halloween?”
Well, for us, it WAS something of a big deal.
You see, over the past year or so, we’ve come to realize that one common trait of “Charismaniac” churches is that they brainwash their people into believing all sorts of things that aren’t really true – and most of this is done deliberately, to keep people “hooked” on the church.
For instance, Pastor Smith was always talking about his “anointing” – how this anointing could “remove burdens and destroy yokes,” how this anointing would “flow from the head down,” how much we needed him and his anointing. I know it sounds crazy, but if you listen to someone – someone whom you’ve chosen to respect – repeat something over and over again, and say this thing with lots of confidence and authority, you almost can’t help but come to believe it.
This brainwashing didn’t just happen with “spiritual” teachings, either. One of the themes constantly hammered on at Living Word was “excellence.”
From the moment you walked through the door, you’d get hit over the head with “excellence.” Pastor Smith and Mary were very proud of their beautiful church facility, and to give credit where credit is due, Living Word Church does occupy a great space. The church has a large and spacious, tastefully decorated lobby. The sanctuary is well-designed and VERY well-lit, so that you can sit almost anywhere and have a great view of the stage (or of the giant TV screen). At the same time, it feels as though you’re in a more intimate setting, because you can see everybody around you and the people on the stage can see you, too. The children’s area is really something to behold, with themed rooms, cute murals in the hallways, and an indoor playland that easily outdoes a McDonald’s Playplace. Living Word Church definitely has great facilities.
But Living Word promotes the “excellence” of its events, too.
The Smiths always tout that everything they do is better than “top-notch” or “first-class”…and better than any other church’s efforts, too. In terms of accoutrements…well, you’d be hard-pressed to find another church that makes such an over-the-top effort with the STUFF that goes along with the events they put on. If you send your kid to Vacation Bible School, they get a t-shirt and a daily little toy, not to mention an end-of-the-week picnic with carnival games. If you attend a ladies’ event, the centerpieces will be so elaborate that there is barely room for plates and forks. And the church Halloween celebration – the “Harvest Party” – well, it includes bounce houses, a 2-story inflatable slide, a hundred carnival-style games, food, pony rides, and a petting zoo.
Obviously, there is nothing actually “wrong” with ANY of this. We’re all for the idea that hey, if you’re going to do something for God, you might as well make your best effort and do it right.
But we’ve come to realize that Living Word’s continual emphasis on the “excellence” of their events was yet another way they hooked people in and then made them afraid to leave.
In the same fashion that Pastor Smith used to rant and rave against the mediocrity of the preaching at other churches (“They have you in at 11 and out by noon, they give you skim milk and diet cookies, but here at Living Word, I give you the real MEAT of the Word!”), the Smiths also conditioned us to believe that other churches’ events were mediocre in comparison to Living Word’s.
This year, as Halloween approached, I found myself thinking wistfully of Living Word’s “Harvest Party.” I found myself feeling rather sad about how we had to give up such a fun event that our kids always enjoyed.
(On a side note – I was NOT sad about the fact that we didn’t have to deal with being responsible for a carnival booth this year. That was always a tedious and stressful aspect of being a “Care Group” leader at Living Word. Although our “Care Group” was little more than a list of people we’d been assigned to meet and “connect” with, somehow we were expected each October to gather our dozen or so members together and come up with an elaborate carnival-style booth, complete with prizes and volunteers to man each shift. The level of frenzy among some of the Care Group leaders, as they competed to outdo each other and earn more of Pastor and Mary Smith’s approval for their efforts, made that part of the Harvest Party something that we did NOT enjoy, especially when a couple of phone calls to our members had resulted in people hanging up on us with, “We don’t even GO there anymore!”
But that’s another story, for another time…)
Anyway, as I looked ahead to Halloween this year, I experienced a sense of worry and regret over the inevitable inferiority of whatever we’d end up doing for our kids instead. Trick-or-Treating was going to be such a letdown in comparison to pony rides. And obviously, any other church’s festivities were going to seem lame in comparison to Living Word’s.
Well, you can imagine my pleasant surprise when, last night, our kids announced that the evening had been “the best Halloween ever!” We’d gone to another church’s outreach – also called a “Harvest Party” – that was quite simple by Living Word standards. This church had some carnival-style booths, but theirs were all themed after Bible stories. Then traffic was funnelled down to the church basement, where kids got to “trick-or-treat” at each Sunday school room. Finally, there was a cake walk.
Despite the fact that there wasn’t a pony ride or bounce house in sight, our kids loved it. And we enjoyed not having to deal with the hordes of people that Living Word’s festivities always attracted. It was great to be able to walk easily through the hallways, and it was also great to enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere. We didn’t get any sense that the people volunteering for the games were trying to outdo each other. And the pastor himself manned the registration table, greeting each kid and his or her parents with, “Hi, I’m Fred, nice to see you!”
It was a refreshing change.
As we drove home, I marveled at how yet another of my Living Word prejudices had just been knocked down. In the same way that, before we’d left Living Word, I’d sincerely believed that Pastor Smith was the only truly “anointed” pastor in this area of town, I’d also bought into Living Word’s propaganda about their “excellence,” to the point where their over-the-top approach to events had made me think I could never have as much fun anywhere else.
It’s a small thing, I know. And don’t get me wrong – I’m not criticizing Living Word’s dedication to their Harvest Party or any of their other outreaches. But it just hit me that in the same way that an abusive boyfriend will convince his woman that she’ll never be as happy with any other man, Pastor and Mary Smith had pulled that same trick with us. They’d used even something as relatively insignificant as a Halloween celebration to keep us tethered to their ministry.
In case you suspect you’re in such a church right now, I’d encourage you to step back and evaluate if your “Charismaniac” pastor (and his wife) might be using similar ploys to mess with YOUR mind. If so, please be encouraged. You CAN break away…but not only that, you can actually reach a point where you don’t miss anything about your old church.
We did it. You can, too.