The journey started out innocently enough when a friend invited our family to attend his church in 1995. I had met him working at a part time job a few years earlier and just liked the guy. We had a number of other things in common, his kids were about the same age as ours, so I figured why not?? Our family didn’t have much of a connection to the local Presbyterian church we had been attending anyway.
In many ways it was a typical country church; a bit conservative for my taste, but not so much so to be ruled out. I found it to be an interesting mixture of college educated and technical types, along with some high school dropouts :-). But what struck me as a pleasant surprise, in comparison to our former church, was the enthusiasm of the congregation. For a relatively small church (maybe 200 members in all, counting kids) there were a lot of activities that I liked: home groups that met once a week, men’s breakfasts, a softball team, and various guest speakers among other things.
It didn’t take long to make the transition from guest to member. We soon met and became close friends with two other couples in the church, in addition to the couple who invited us, and it became more and more a part of our lives. Everything was humming along smoothly until sometime in 1999. I realized, too late, that the friend who had invited me started experiencing some type of mid-life crisis. I knew he was dealing with some issues, including a wife with a life threatening illness and a special needs child. What I didn’t know was his degree of stress, both at home and at work, and how it would manifest itself: an affair (or near affair, I can’t be sure) with the wife of one of the other couples we were close with, drug usage, and abandoning his family. To top it off, the wife of the remaining couple with which we were close began having an affair with someone outside the church. All of a sudden all was not so hunky dory in the promised land. These were my best friends at the time after all.
Even more troubling, I began to notice a paradigm shift in the direction of the church. Many started talking about a “River Experience,” based out of a church in Toronto, Canada, involving alleged “miraculous healing,” “words of knowledge,” and just plain weirdness that was way out of the mainstream. Our family attended several of these services, and it was not at all uncommon to hear people screaming at the top of their voices or making animal sounds during services, just as two examples. At the end of each service everyone lined up and had the pastor “lay hands on them;” at which point each was expected to fall down and be healed of whatever ailed them. At first you find yourself taken aback by what you are seeing, but eventually come to accept what is clearly abnormal behavior as perfectly normal.
“Miraculous healing,””words of prophecy,” and “the laying on of hands” were soon adopted by our home church. Stories began circulating among members of the church being healed of every sort of malady you can imagine. If you recovered from anything, up to, and including the common cold, somehow it was God’s doing and your duty to report it to the church. No matter what the ailment, the answer was “just get prayer.” This had tragic consequences in at least one instance, when a member refused to accept that God wouldn’t heal her of cancer and eventually died. A hierarchy developed in which the pastor held greatest power to heal, then the elders, then the deacons, and finally the rest of us peons. As a result, the pastor was soon held in Christ-like admiration, and everyone’s goal was to curry favor with him.
The pastor began to claim divine revelations from God, which he would share with the church as “prophecy.” This could happen at any time during the service, which typically included Sunday School, “worship” (singing) and the sermon itself and typically lasted from 9:30 am through 1:30 pm. The revelations would often begin, “The Lord says” or “the Lord is telling me…” and could lead anywhere. They were usually general enough to be easily disavowed and, of course, no one would think of challenging it even if it could be proven completely wrong.
The church began taking more and more conservative political stances which, again, were to be accepted or to risk being shunned. Abortion was a big one. All church members we were expected to join the annual March for Life and listen to repeated sermons condemning it. The pastor let it be known that Ronald Reagan was his favorite president and it went without saying that everyone was expected to vote Republican. Someone brought in an Israeli flag and it was waved at every service; in the congregation’s mind, there was no difference between ancient Israel and the Israel of today. This led to a lot of hysterical rantings about the evils of Islam (and eventually to almost every other church save this one). Home schooling with a heavy dose of religion was strongly encouraged. In some cases the results were surprisingly good, but in many others disastrous. Anything other than G rated movies was considered sinful and any even remote expression of sexuality among the youth suppressed. This led one poor young man to confess in front of the church that he had actually masturbated. It is funny to think about now, but nothing out of the ordinary at the time. The church became more and more insular. Visitors were forced to choose between accepting what they saw (which very few did) and moving on (which very many did).
The pastor’s control and imprint on everything became more and more complete. By 2006 he controlled all three segments of the service, and had a pretty good handle on how everyone lived their lives, through his preaching and words of prophecy. And things kept getting weirder and weirder. On one occasion at a home group Bible study meeting two adult women held a competition to determine who could see the most “angels” in the room. When the daughter of one of the elders of the church claimed there were “evil spirits” in a house she was renting, the pastor and the elder went to “cast them out.” I’m not sure whether they imagined they were Jesus or something out of the movie Ghostbusters, but they were dead serious.
For me, the final straw came during one of our men’s breakfasts. The pastor, who hadn’t attended a single one of our meetings in over a year, suddenly made an appearance when the decision about which books we would be using for the next several years was going to be made. No matter that I had a book I wanted to use, and another member had a book he wanted to use, we were to use the one the pastor wanted. When I asked the pastor if he would be willing to teach the book (he had selected it after all) his answer was no, that was up to us.
Cognitive dissonance became overwhelming for me. Webster defines cognitive dissonance as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” At some point I just couldn’t continue to deny that what I was manifesting on the outside and what I was feeling on the inside were diametrically opposed. The question had always been when that dissonance was so great that I would be willing to leave what had been a huge part of my life for eleven years into an uncertain future. I finally had an answer.
As I expected, the pressure not to leave was enormous. I was told in no uncertain terms that the Methodist church I began attending would lead straight to hell. Even greater pressure was put on my wife, who stayed on for a while even after I left. But I consider it to be very possibly the best decision I have made in my life. I am now an active member in my new church, have accepted several leadership roles, and have complete freedom to voice my own opinion. The dissonance is gone.
Epilogue: I should note that reading the books and listening to the sermons by Joel Osteen was a tremendous aid and support in making my decision. I should also note that it turned out our family was the first of many to leave our former church. Eventually, the “tithes and offerings” weren’t sufficient for the pastor and he left, the church members who remained started bickering among themselves and the church split. I wish them all the best.