I haven’t updated this site in a long while, primarily because we’ve put our journey through “Charismania” behind us…for the most part.
Oh sure, from time to time my husband and I will reminisce about our years at Living Word Church (a pseudonym, as are all other names used here, except those of widely-known celebrity preachers). We will joke about some of the more outrageous stuff we went through. We will shake our heads and marvel at how we got sucked in.
But soon it will have been four years since we left Living Word, so as you might imagine, we’ve pretty much processed the obvious emotions. We’ve thought through most of the things that were off-kilter about Living Word Church and the Smith family (Pastor Smith, his wife Mary, and their two young-adult sons) who ran Living Word and controlled it just like it was their family business.
Because I was pretty sure we were “over” everything, I was actually looking forward to a community event that required our attendance, an event that was coincidentally going to be held at Living Word Church. I was eager to walk through the doors again and see if I’d feel any of the old feelings. I wondered what memories would be stirred by something as basic as how the place smelled. (Oddly enough – and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this – I always thought that Living Word exuded a really alluring fragrance, almost like the whole place had been soaked in anointing oil.)
I wanted to see if the Smith family’s highly retouched portraits still graced the walls of the church lobby…I was curious if they’d added any new photos of the sons’ wives and the grandchildren who had been born since we left.
And I wondered if I’d somehow be able to flip through a copy of the magazine that Mary Smith had begun to publish a year or so ago.
Yes, you read that right. Living Word Church’s “first lady” publishes her own women’s magazine.
We may be “over” our Living Word experience, and we may have moved on, but we still like to check the church’s website from time to time, just to see if anything has changed. It’s been fun to keep tabs on various staffing changes, and to see which guest ministries they’ve continued to invite in to preach.
That’s where I first learned of Mary Smith’s magazine. When it was first launched, it was heavily promoted on the church’s website.
From the beginning, I marveled at the concept. A magazine seemed like a really ambitious undertaking, especially considering that Living Word Church really is not that big. Although they like to call themselves a “megachurch,” attendance seems to hover at around the same level, with probably fewer than 1,000 people showing up on most Sundays. Shortly after we left Living Word, they’d added an extra service on Sunday mornings while ditching their Sunday evening service. But that move didn’t last. After a couple of years, there apparently just wasn’t the demand for two Sunday morning services. Judging from the videos broadcast online, it didn’t even look like they were filling the 1,500-seat auditorium to capacity (or even close) for ONE service.
So I wondered at the idea of a ladies’ magazine which would have such a small distribution. From the church’s website, it didn’t look like it was a skinny little pamphlet or brochure. The magazine instead appeared to be quite a hefty glossy book. Who does that sort of thing? Who puts out a semi-quarterly magazine – complete with the First Lady’s photo gracing each cover, like she’s Oprah or something – for an audience of maybe (at best) a thousand readers?
Although the website showed that they were charging $5 per copy, it still seemed like a money-losing endeavor. Knowing the hugely expensive photographer the First Lady always uses – the one who charges $300 per hour to retouch photos – and knowing that nothing at Living Word is ever done halfway, I could only imagine what a money pit a 50-page (or so) magazine must be.
Plus, I wondered about its sustainability. During our years at Living Word Church, Mary Smith had a pattern of starting programs with great fanfare, only to watch them quickly burn out. Lots of classes and activities would happen once or twice and then would just quietly go away with ZERO explanation (sort of like how there never seemed to be a word mentioned about bringing back the second Sunday morning service). The First Lady would set the bar so high for herself, with such crazily demanding and exacting standards, such over-the-top expectations, that it was almost a given that nothing she did ever lasted. Even the constantly touted “Mary Events” – those grossly indulgent special women’s meetings, with their elaborate decorations, expensive door prizes, pricey tickets, and stressed-out decorating committee of women who sniped and snapped at each other, all in the name of ministry – didn’t happen that often, following no set schedule at all. About the only “Mary Event” that took place with any predictable regularity was the Christmas Tea (with tickets priced at upwards of $20 apiece), and even that has quietly gone by the wayside over the past couple of years.
So how in the world would Mary Smith be able to sustain a women’s magazine, especially one that appeared to be so ambitious?
I was curious, too, about what would be in such a magazine. With all the publications out there already geared toward women – even Christian women – what would be the point of yet another periodical containing the usual drivel about fashion, cooking, relationships, and decorating? What could Mary Smith’s Living Word minions find to say that would be so unique and necessary that it would warrant going to so much effort and expense?
Since the first issue of Mary Smith’s magazine made its debut, my husband and I had been joking about how I could get my hands on a copy. We figured we were too recognizable to just show up at church some Sunday night, stroll into the bookstore, and buy one anonymously. Besides, we would never go to that much trouble just to satisfy my idle curiosity. And I certainly wasn’t going to order one through the church website, either. I wouldn’t want anyone on staff to think I’m still as interested as I am in the goings-on of what had always been (in my experience) such a shallow-minded yet haughty attempt at women’s ministries. Not to mention, I wouldn’t want to get my name and address back on the church’s main mailing list.
But this community event – now there might be an opportunity to at least surreptitiously flip through a copy before hastily putting it back on the rack (or table, or wherever I might find one left lying about).
As we drove into Living Word Church’s parking lot the other day, I actually found myself feeling a bit jittery and sick. Truly, the place is that laden with memories for me. During our years at Living Word, it was quite literally the number one priority of our lives. Just about any time the church doors were open, we’d be there. We would schedule vacations around Sundays, so that we could miss as few church services as possible. Also, because I had gotten my involvement with Living Word all tangled up in my thinking with my Christian faith itself, I frequently confused promoting Living Word with sharing the gospel of Jesus. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m actually ashamed now to look back on all the times when I’d start out trying to “share Christ” but then quickly end up talking about how, “If you REALLY want to experience REAL Christianity, you’ve GOT to go to my church and hear my pastor!”
For at least the first couple of years we were members of Living Word, I sincerely believed that there was something very special about what went on there – that there was something unique and unsurpassable about Living Word and Pastor Smith that could not be duplicated anywhere else. I believed that Living Word (and Pastor Smith) almost held some sort of magic, where if someone would only walk through the doors of that church, they would be overcome by the power of God and would experience a dramatic change, the same kind of change that I thought I’d experienced. I was convinced that the man (Pastor Smith) and the place (the church building, particularly the sanctuary) were “conduits of the anointing,” as Pastor Smith himself would often say. I thought that any problem people faced could be solved miraculously if I could just get them to come to my church and have Pastor Smith lay hands on them.
So the church facility itself has always held a certain level of mystique for me. And as we drove into the parking lot, I found myself feeling the same giddy anticipation that I used to feel when we arrived at church ready to “partake of the anointing.”
I was surprised by how little things have changed. The Smith family’s same portrait – taken at least 6 or 7 years ago – still graces the main hallway. The ladies’ restroom is actually looking a little run-down and shabby, in need of new stall doors and some updated paint (that flowery mural is looking awfully 90s!). The Smiths used to frequently mention Mary’s hangup about church restrooms, and the priority she placed on making the Living Word ladies’ room a beautiful and luxurious place because her standards were so much higher than those of other churches. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the fact that she has her own private restroom in her office has prevented her from noticing how beat-up the Nordstrom-style wooden stall doors are looking, and how the place would no longer strike most women as being particularly nice or special.
I was disappointed to note that Living Word Church no longer smells like it used to. Maybe they quit using the same fragrant anointing oils, or maybe time has just taken its toll, but it didn’t exude the same aroma at all.
In one way, I was almost glad that I didn’t have to smell that smell that used to hold such meaning for me. Walking through the doors of Living Word Church was an experience akin to running into an old boyfriend, a boyfriend who had broken my heart with pretenses and false promises and outright lies.
I decided to do a bit of roaming around while we waited for the event to begin. And that’s when I noticed that the door to the church bookstore was open. The lights were off – the bookstore was clearly closed – but the door was open. I walked over and poked my head in the doorway and took a good look around.
My eyes quickly caught sight of the magazine rack full of the five issues of Mary Smith’s magazine. I could see them against the wall, just a scant 10 or so feet away from the doorway where I was standing. Oh how I wished I dared walk across the threshold and grab one, just to satisfy my now-raging curiosity!
That’s when I suddenly thought to myself, “Well, it’s now or never.” My foot, almost of its own accord, took a tentative step toward the magazine rack.
And at that very moment, I suddenly heard a voice over my shoulder. Startled, I turned to see none other than the church facilities manager, a man I’ll call Lin Jackson. Lin had known my husband and me for years. He and I had spoken many times. We’d worked on various “Mary Events” together.
“May I help you?” Lin Jackson asked.
I was busted.
[to be continued…]