10 reasons why abusive churches succeed

10 reasons why abusive churches succeed cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward

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I immediately want to acknowledge the danger of blaming the victims of abuse. My hope is that I’ve prevented myself from doing so or from even implying it.

I’m fascinated by the fact that such ministries as Mark Driscoll’s continue to grow. For a culture that is clearly abusive and swift to bully its members, it surprisingly lives on. Or is it surprising?

Here are 10 reasons why I think such abusive churches succeed:

  1. Bullying works: We all know that bullies position themselves as leader of the pack just by sheer force. Even though it may be a compromising alliance, your compliance promises a relative immunity against future bullying. For example, Mark Driscoll’s recent plagiarism allegations hint at bullying used to effectively silence dissent.
  2. Some confuse abuse with discipline: There are too many examples of churches that are clearly abusive but guise it all under the discipline of the Lord. Having been a pastor for many years as well as a member of many churches and ministries, I know from experience and observation that people will suffer unbelievable abuse because they think it is from the Lord… justly deserved and fruitful.
  3. Bad attention is better than no attention: In a world of people craving any kind of attention, to get any at all is a deeply felt need satisfied in churches that hand it out abundantly but negatively. Like Leslie Morgan Steiner relates, one of the prominent characteristics of abuse survivors is that they didn’t realize they were being abused.
  4. Their anger sounds biblical: There are plenty of verses in the bible intimating the wrath of God, the anger of Jesus and the affliction of the Spirit. So abuse can find biblical support even if it may be misinterpreted as such. One scripture verse trumps everything else, including common sense.
  5. They provide a place to belong: I know what it means to belong and I know what it means to feel like I don’t. I prefer to belong. Communities that accept people and promise to give them a family with direction is like boot camp where even though you must suffer incredible hardships, there is the very strong satisfaction of admission to an exclusive club.
  6. There’s the appearance of cool: These churches often talk about and copy contemporary music, popular culture, fashion, speech and style. They talk about sex with their smoking hot wives, drinking beer, smoking and other cool things. Sure, they have their own spin but it’s all under the appearance of cool and relevant.
  7. It is popular: Once these churches start to grow and create buzz, then growth is inevitable. Even negative press is good press. For many it’s fascinating to be a part of a growing phenomenon. If so many young, sane, cool people flock to it and belong to it then it can’t be all bad.
  8. Black and white appeals: In a culture that is increasingly fuzzy in its spirituality, beliefs and ethics, it can be nice to be a part of something that is clear about what it believes and how to live. It is not only satisfying, but vastly spellbinding to listen to black and white messages like it’s spellbinding to watch an accident scene. Here it is: your search for clarity is over!
  9. Shame needs pain: As I’ve sadly concluded, many people live in shame, and shame needs pain. Sadomasochism provides a means of escape from the stresses of life, from guilt or from responsibility. For others, to have a powerful authority figure dominate them provides the safety and security missing from their childhood.
  10. You don’t have to think: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had members of my churches say, “I would much rather you just tell me what to believe than ask me to think about it. You’re the professional. Not me. Just tell me and I’ll do it.” Unfortunately, being told what to believe and how to live is highly desired and sought by many.

Feel free to add your own reason to the list.

Again, I want to empathize that in critiquing such things there is always the danger of blaming the victim. I’m hyper-sensitive to that tendency and mistake and hope I haven’t done so here or even implied it. As I’ve discovered, often the thing that attracts people unbeknownst into abusive relationships is not the same as that which keeps them there.

My hope is that more and more people will continue to find the courage and then act upon it to name abuse and bullying wherever they see it.

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