The other day a pastor sent me a letter. It’s the kind of letter I rarely ever receive from pastors. It was encouraging to me because I know there are such pastors out there, quietly working in the trenches out of the limelight. Here it is in part:
“Dear David, thank you for your post which gave a response to Lillian Daniel. This was some weeks back… it takes me a while to reflect on things while most people have moved on.
“One of my great desires as a pastor is to help people take the next step towards God. I’ve given up long ago trying to tell people what that step is. I’d rather come alongside and help individuals to determine for themselves what that step is.
“What I don’t want to get in the way of this desire are the subtle ways of manipulating people. I’m asking because I’m not sure i would always see the subtle unintentional forms of abuse without the help of another’s eyes. Would you please share with me some subtle “abusive” tactics you have seen churches employ to control others?
I hope this okay to ask. But I ask so that I can be more self-aware and a better human being.”
Fantastic! This is my response:
Of course there are easy ways to avoid abusive tactics: Don’t tell people what to do. Don’t criticize people. Don’t threaten people. Don’t even suggest threats. Don’t use fear, guilt or shame to motivate people. Don’t use names, even if they’re from the bible. Don’t slot people, because we change from day to day. Don’t pressure people. Don’t beg. Don’t talk down. Don’t discourage questions, even the scariest kinds. Don’t dismiss suffering. Don’t put a time limit on emotions. I could go on an on.
I would rather talk about the environment that encourages the abuse and manipulation of people. I wrote a book called “Without a Vision My People Prosper” in which I critique visionary thinking in the church. I’ve come to question whether we can live entirely ideology-free, but I believe ideology, utopia mentality and visionary thinking is the greatest threat to human liberty in a church community setting. No matter how lofty the vision is, it will require the surrender of freedom to some extent. Whenever you say, “You have to do this to make this work,” then the manipulation of the human spirit is at work. Sometimes compromise is necessary. Sometimes agreeing to put our hands to the wheel together is required. But if it becomes constant then I question it.
“In order for this church to accomplish its goals, you have to do this and stop doing that.” This destroys community. Businesses and charities and other organizations may do this when it only requires the mutual consent of its members for a limited time in the day. This is called work. But when it becomes life then it’s slavery. It doesn’t matter how effective or world-changing it is. If it demands the sacrifice of human beings then it has failed to liberate them.
When I pastored my last local church we had no vision. No goals. We just were. The pressure to develop a vision was strong. But when we left people to live in their own way in the context of a loving, supportive community, it was a dynamic I’ve never experienced before. Things got done. Spontaneous projects and charities would rise up. But no one was coerced. No one felt manipulated. We called it “authenticity with accountability”. That is, I’m free to be me, but as soon as I hurt someone they or the community have the right to challenge me on it.
We received a lot of criticism for it. People can’t believe this is possible. But it is. I’ve seen it and experienced it. And the community was the richest I’ve ever seen in a local church. I don’t boast about myself. I boast about the people who achieved this by refusing to focus away from themselves to a visionary goal or ideological utopia. It really did work when it worked. I’m seeing the same thing now in my online community The Lasting Supper, and the same dynamic is at work. It’s amazing.
So that’s my answer. Remove the expectations you or a goal would have for people and most of the manipulative, abuse tactics become useless. Then, just be compassionate.