Unpacking Spiritual Baggage – Part 3

“How are you doing?” There’s a lot of different ways in which those words can be voiced ranging from a casual aside with no desire for an answer to the way the pastor of the church we’d attended for a year and a half asked it of me. It sounded as though he really wanted to know because he really cared about the state of my soul.

I hesitated for a moment. Could I trust him? I’d worked hard with the help of the Holy Spirit using the gfits and training of an excellent counselor to unpack some of the baggage I’d been carrying from a couple of toxic churches. The bags weren’t gone, but they were significantly lighter in weight than they’d been in years. Me with overstuffed baggage would have kept my mouth shut in response to this question. But the current me, the one now toting this lighter-weight baggage, took a measured risk. I trusted him. I told him a little bit about the challenges I was facing at work. He listened with great empathy, and I was grateful for his quiet assurance that he’d keep me in prayer.

A couple of weeks later, I ran into one of his young adult children as I was on my way to grab a bite to eat in the middle of my workday. A couple of coworkers were within earshot as this young woman called out to me from the bottom of a crowded staircase, “Hey, Michelle! How are you doing? My dad said you were having a hard time with things around here.”

The challenge of icky workplace politics was nothing compared to the realization that the trust I’d been working so hard to regain had just been violated. Again.

* * * * * * *

In my first post in this series, I took a look at some of the kinds of baggage people carry with them from involvement in toxic church cultures. My second post talked about the kinds of patient, prayerful questions that might help a trust-damaged person begin to unpack those suitcases they’re lugging with them.

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about what rebuilding trust might look like. Obviously, it doesn’t look like the way in which this pastor took the information I shared with him in confidence and dished about it with his clan around the proverbial dinner table. He’d been a pastor a long time. He (and his adult child!) should have known better. When I later confronted him about his lack of discretion, he apologized. I forgave him. But I couldn’t trust him after that. It would have been foolish – and would have set me up for possible abuse in his church – to have done so.

The whole incident read like a test. What was I to do with another violation of trust by someone who had the title of spiritual authority?

Earlier abuse of the trust I gave to those claiming to be my spiritual authorities had loaded me down with baggage. I’d carried it with me, even though it was

so.

darn.

heavy.

Though that baggage was full of hurt and pain, I carried it until I found a place of relative safety in which I could begin to unpack it at last. When I did, I learned that broken trust never quite heals into innocence. In the best cases, those shards re-form into a wiser relationship with a new church. Getting reengaged in ministry in a new church will look different because a person wounded by a bad previous church experience is now sporting a fresh set of B.S. sensors. The person isn’t vulnerable to the kind of manipulation or abuse that gave them the baggage in the first place. He or she is able to risk offering themselves and their gifts in freedom.

Because it is a risk. There is a very real temptation for me toward self-protection, of bunkering behind baggage so as not to get hurt by another preditory or foolish church leader ever, ever again. Damaged trust is not the same as unforgiveness, though I daresay there are times when one kind of baggage might function like the other. Damaged trust is the mark of a broken heart, not a hardened one.  The way forward after the spiritual abuse I experienced two decades ago has been to be very intentional about ignoring or minimizing in my mind the positional authority granted by title on an organizational chart to another fallen human being. The more a person in leadership makes sure the rest of us in a church know s/he is the one with the gifts, power and/or importance, the less likely I am to trust him or her. If they tell me from afar what they want me to do to for them for the church (for my own spiritual good, of course) without taking the time to get to know me or hear my story, I am not all that inclined to say yes unless the Holy Spirit specifically urges me to step forward for his purposes. I can report that obedience to his ask is sweet and healing.

I will risk trust in the context of relationship. Even when the risk doesn’t pay off, as in the case of the gossipy pastor, my relationship with the larger body of Christ takes a smaller hit (less or no new baggage) when I view the pastor or leader as a peer, not as my capital “A” Authority.

What do you think? Leaders reading this, does my intentionally flattened approach to church hierarchy sound like potential sedition? Those who’ve survived a lousy church situation and found a home in a new church, how have you learned to trust in new ways?   

Unpacking Spiritual Baggage: Part 2

If you attended a church service this weekend, you may have been sitting in a roomful of suitcases. There’s no way to tell what percentage of people in a given congregation are schlepping baggage from a previous negative church experience, but I suspect the numbers would startle even veteran church leaders. Bad baggage is often eagerly recycled by leaders. This may serve the needs of the organization. It may even be called good pastoral care by some leaders, who rationalize that putting hurting people back into service as quickly as possible will promote healing. In some cases, this may be true. But it is often self-serving expediency at work in this line of thinking.

I would like to suggest that creating an environment where it is safe for people to unpack their baggage is Discipleship 101 in a way that many other church activities packaged under that banner isn’t.

(Click here to read the first post in this series for descriptions of some of the bad baggage people carry with them into new churches.)

In addition to the nearly-invisible backpack (old pain hidden in needy, performance-driven behavior), the damaged-in-transit luggage (a warrior in search of a doctrinally-pure congregation), the steamer trunk (carrying ancient hurts from decades ago), and the invisible tote (the carrier lurking in the shadows, hoping not to be noticed), a couple of other categories were suggested to me:

  • The Louis Vuitton Limited Edition: The kind of baggage the carrier acquires when people in their former church(es) tell him or her the doubts and questions s/he is voicing are completely unique, thus, they are completely weird and probably borderline heretical. It is a lovely parting gift of churches that value lockstep obedience to the doctrinal views and practices of the leaders. It is so lovely, in fact, that when it’s given to a person leaving the church, it comes with the label that its one-of-a-kind. And that label is not meant to be a blessing.
  • The nearly-invisible briefcase: This comes in a print that matches the nearly-invisible backpack. Where the backpack carrier buries his or her hurt in go-getter behavior, the person carrying the nearly-invisible briefcase is completely unaware that there’s anything in his or her hand. “I’m good! It wasn’t a big deal!” the briefcase carrier will say, waving off questions with a loaded briefcase he or she is unable to see, perhaps clobbering inquirers with that baggage.

So what does discipleship look like for people who are carrying baggage? Jesus used different approaches with different people during his years of active ministry: prophetic conversation with the woman at the well, mud daubed twice in a blind man’s eyes, forgiving a paralyzed man before healed him. Caring for someone who is replaying their old war with their former church (the damaged-in-transit luggage, the steamer trunk) requires a different kind of approach than does someone who has been marginalized by others (the Louis Vuitton Limited Edition). Those who either melt into the wallpaper carrying backpack or briefcase or those who run like hamsters might not appear at first glance to be asking for care as they either seem uninterested in the life of the church or fine-just-fine-thank-you.

There’s no single approach that will cover all suitcase styles. Some people’s church baggage has been crafted out of other areas of brokenness in their lives. A troubled childhood can be a perfect set-up that draws an abused person to join an authoritarian church, for instance. That church experience creates new baggage out of family of origin wounds.

Whether we have a title or position of leadership in a local congregation or not, every single one of us who follows Jesus is called to love one another. What does this care look like when a “one another” in our life is carrying some baggage? A good place to start is some empathetic conversation and compassionate prayer, if they’re willing to receive it, with a goal of emphasizing that anything person says can’t and won’t be used against them. A person carrying baggage has had their trust damaged. Even if you see them toting 18 pieces of luggage on a huge cart, you are not the one to demand it be unloaded. You are there to simply point them toward Jesus with gentleness. Unpacking can only begin when the person carrying the luggage discovers that Jesus didn’t load him or her down with this baggage, and in fact big time grieves what has been done by others in his name to the baggage carrier.

Tell me your story if you feel ready to share it. (It’s OK if you don’t!)

What drew you to your previous church? What did you like about it? What were your friends from the church like when times were good? 

When did you first sense something was wrong in the church? What happened after that? 

What was it like to leave? How did other church members treat you after you left? How did this experience change the way you thought about God? That specific congregation? The big C Church? 

What do you regret about the experience? What message do you wish you could give to those who hurt you? 

You as the listener are charged with sharing your story in response. Your own icky previous experiences can be used to encourage others, showing them that they’re not alone – and that a wiser, stronger faith the gift God their Healer will work in their lives as they work through the hurt with his help. If you’re one of the few who has never experienced Christians Behaving Badly, then you must at least dignify the other person’s experience by not shaming them for what’s happened to them, and by praying for them. If the baggage has caused the person to become a member of the Christians Behaving Badly club, which is often the case, all the same rules apply. Recognize that their bullying behavior is a sign that they are “the weaker brother“, no matter how over-loaded they may be with pristine doctrine and all the right answers.

Your efforts toward exercising care may not work. The story may not have a happy ending at this time. The person with the baggage may not be ready to drop it, much less unpack it. Love them anyway. If you use these stories to dismiss, label or turn a hurting person into a project, it time to check and see what kind of baggage you’re lugging around with you.

In my next post in this series, I’ll take a look a look at what rebuilding trust in God and others in a church may or may not look like.

When you’ve run across someone who has been hurt by a previous church experience, what have you found to be helpful in caring for them and walking with them until they’re ready to crack open their baggage? 

 

He kissed the secret of his childhood sexual abuse goodbye

Earlier this week, Pastor Josh Harris, pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, disclosed that he’d been a victim of sexual abuse when he was a child. The timing and context for this confession has something to tell us about the long-lasting effects of abuse in a victim’s life.

Harris’ church was “mother ship” of the network of 80 or so churches churches of Sovereign Grace Ministries, though the congregation left the SGM family a few months ago. SGM was recently the focus of a lawsuit alleging sexual impropriety and a system of coverup lasting many years by some of its key leaders. The lawsuit was dismissed because of a technicality, though the plaintiffs’ lawyers plan to proceed with a civil suit.

Though I’ve never met Harris in person, I’ve followed him since he was a kid via the ministry of his parents, who were popular convention speakers and writers in the home school movement during the 1990’s. When young adult Josh became a mainstream voice for the movement’s emphasis on Biblical courtship with his popular book, I Kissed Dating Goodbyemany homeschoolers viewed the moment as an affirmation that training a child up in the way he or she should go would net (guarantee, even!) a next generation of a family that would be willing to do hard things in life, and take strong moral stands in a decaying society. The Harris family were exemplars for many of this of this implied guarantee.

Gifted communicator Josh Harris was put on the fast track to senior leadership in the burgeoning SGM movement. More than a decade after he kissed dating goodbye, Harris did moderate some of his earlier statements in the book. His own marriage and fatherhood, and his experiences as a pastor likely burnished some of the razor edges of the all-or-nothing declarations he’d made as a much younger, single man. He learned the politics of moderation and compromise even as he preached uncompromising messages from the pulpit. He was moving in some heady circles of leadership as a young adult man. Those political skills serve organizational expediency and image, but don’t always create growing space for the messy parts of our personal stories.

While Harris’ star continued to rise within both the SGM movement and the larger conservative (neo-Reformed) camp, some serious cases of abuse appeared to be happening in the shadows to minors at the hands of a few of SGM’s leaders – and a number of other leaders agreed to cover it up. Sadly, no matter the denominiation, from Catholic to fundamentalist Baptist, there is a rotten sulfur-scented playbook from which those in power all draw in order to protect themselves and their reputations. SGM’s leadership culture already  had a bit of a reputation that allowed spiritual bullies to flourish; it is not surprising that some of those bullies used their bunkered positions of power for to satiate their own warped sexual desires.

Josh Harris publicly stood shoulder-to-shoulder in support of his fellow SGM leaders for years. Last fall’s lawsuits frayed that connection to the breaking point and Harris’ congregation left SGM. For a guy who wrote a passionate book insisting that readers must commit to a local church no matter what, the process leading up to this breakup must have been an excruciating journey for him. This severing of relationship, and the results of the recent criminal lawsuit gave Harris the impetus to “come out” with a bit of his own story of his childhood sexual abuse last weekend.*

I know from personal experience that it can take years – or may never happen at all – before an abuse victim can speak about what selfish authority figures did to him or her. Shame, manipulation by abusers and confusion hold victims in a holding cell that is a house of horrors. (I’ve told a few of these stories here, here and here.)

Harris encouraged other victims to come forward and get help during a sermon last Sunday. I hope his words may have encouraged a few in his congregation to discover that they can take steps to exit the holding cell of shame and silence their abusers created for them. I pray, too, that Josh’s willingness to discuss his own experience will bring healing to him on a personal level. Victims can only speak when they feel it is safe to do so, and Josh felt safe at last to do so last Sunday.

I’ll admit to a few moments of wondering this week what the message of kissing dating goodbye might have been if the story of abuse was a part of his courtship message that made him a Christian celeb more than a decade ago. I’ve also wondered if that piece of his story might have been a klieg light in the shadowy, unhealthy SGM leader culture. (Who knows? Perhaps at some point, it was.)

But I know that speculation doesn’t facilitate healing. Only forgiveness, surrender to God and the companioning of wise counselors/friends can. So today, I offer my prayers to the One who promises that he will wipe away every tear, on behalf of the victims in this story – those abused by SGM leaders, and those, like Josh Harris, who held his own abuse close to the vest in a rotten culture that was more about constructing theological holding cells than setting captives free.

If you’ve followed the SGM case, what are your thoughts on Harris’ disclosure from the pulpit last Sunday?  

* Note: Josh Harris did not spend his childhood years in a SGM church.  

Some Thoughts On The Relationship Between Bloggers And The Local Church

bloggerI watched a cyclone of furor erupt online last week in response to Tish Harrison Warren’s CT Women piece entitled Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere? in which she called for greater accountability between Christian bloggers and their local churches and/or denominations. Though she was writing to a female audience, the message of her post certainly applies to male bloggers as well. Some bloggers infuriated by her piece took offense that she’d used Jen Hatmaker as an example, others observed that asking for accountability from male-run institutions that have a long history of silencing women’s voices was the very definition of insanity.

Harrison’s thesis:

As public teachers—even those operating in cyberspace—we forfeit the luxury of holding merely “private” beliefs. When Christian writers or speakers make theological statements, we have a responsibility to give a specific argument, show our rigorous theological work, elevate the conversation, welcome strong criticism and debate, and in so doing, help others think and worship better. And although many Christian writers and speakers might have some level of private, informal accountability in their home churches, they still need overt institutional superintendence (to match a huge national stage) and ecclesial accountability that has heft and power. Otherwise, they can teach any doctrine on earth under the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy.

As both a survivor of spiritual abuse and a person not a fan of layers of church/denominational hierarchy –  you would think I’d chafe at her words. But I am not. As I noted via Twitter last week, the church and the Christian blogosphere are not two separate, barely-overlapping circles on a Venn diagram. While I celebrate the priesthood of all believers, I also believe we believers are a part of one catholic (small “c”, meaning universal) church no matter which orthodox (small “o”, meaning adhering to the realities expressed in the creeds) stream to which we belong.

Over the last four decades, my husband and I have logged time mostly in non-denominational churches, which means the congregation is self-governing; there is no hierarchy beyond what exists within the literal or metaphorical “four walls” of the local body. We’ve spent time in congregations like the Vineyard who form relational networks of local churches, but eschew the trappings of formal denominationalism. We’ve also been members in an Anglican congregation, which relies on a highly organized hierarchy to run the denomination.

In other words, I’ve been around. I’ve been blogging since 2005, more than a quarter of that four decades. When I started blogging, I viewed my blog as a little more than an online diary. My total readership was comprised of like maybe eight friends. However, I’d been writing for a long time before that – curriculum, articles, plays, devotionals, and more. I note here no church leader of a congregation of which I’d been a part had ever showed the teensiest interest in the writing I’ve done for the big “C” Church, though a few were happy to have me do various bits of writing for their own congregations. I’ve been conditioned by the complete lack of interest in my vocation not to expect anything whatsoever from a pastor.

As I read Tish’s words, I reflected on the congregations of which I’ve been a part since 2005* (in part because of four housing relocations within the Chicago metropolitan area), and that complete lack of interest has continued:

  • 2005-2006: Attended a small (<150) congregation affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. The pastor was a fairly-well known author and blogger. He knew I was a writer as I’d sent him one of my books and chatted with him about writing. No interest at all in my work. Zero.
  • 2006-2007: Attended a small (<100) congregation with roots in the Christian (Reconstructionist) tradition. The pastor knew I was a writer, as I was volunteering my communication skills at that time as a ministry with which he was associated. No interest at all in what I wrote.
  • 2007-2010: Attended a small (<200) Anglican congregation. The rector handled communications for a season for the sub-denominational stream. He knew I was a writer. No interest in my work.
  • 2010-2012: Attended a mid-sized (<300) non-denominational congregation affiliated with The Gospel Coalition. The pastor knew I was a writer. I’ll put it this way: he wasn’t a big fan of female writers or teachers unless they were writing for other women or teaching children. He treated me with general kindness but also with palpable suspicion regarding my writing, because by then, I was a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s popular Her.meneutics blog, the predecessor to CT Women.
  • 2013-2015: Attended Willow Creek (<25,000) on Saturday nights with our grandsons. Did try to reach out as I had a book releasing that I thought might be of interest to some of their ministry leaders. Never got a response, but that was fine with me as the church was not a fit at all for us grandparents. My diagnosis of an immune system deficiency put an end to our attendance there.
  • 2016 to present: Attend Messianic congregation Adat HaTikvah (<150). The congregation’s leader knows I’m a writer – he actually came to my book release party for If Only: Letting Go Of Regret and mentioned from the pulpit my newest book upon its releaseI sent him a link to Tish’s article with a note that her words might be worth consideration since he has at least two bloggers attending his congregation.

Our tumbleweed existence has called for mastery of the skill of being the New People. Perhaps because of that, the nearly-complete lack of interest in my work from my own church leaders matched the fact that I expected nothing from them. Occasionally, it would strike me as weird and ironic that a good number of other church leaders read my work but my own pastors seemed sort of agnostic toward my writing. I’m not a big name blogger or speaker, but I recognize that I now have more than eight people reading what I write.

Tish’s words have challenged me to stop being OK with this. So what does accountability look like in a low-church or non-denominational setting?

For me: 

  • I need to ask my church leaders to be willing to read some of what I write, because I the work I do falls into this category: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” (James 3:1-2)
  • I must be willing to invite them to pray for me, and respectfully dialogue with me about my work. I need to pursue a little more “one anothering” in regards to my writing.
  • I need to voice my need for some level of spiritual collaboration because I am rooted (at least for the present moment, because Tumbleweed) in real-life community, and I’ve not yet had a leader who is a mind-reader. I am not asking my church leaders to copy edit my work or dictate my message. I am not looking for authoritarian-style control, nor do I see my role as a writer and speaker as being the unofficial mouthpiece for a particular congregation.

For my leaders:

  • They should read some of what I write.
  • They should pray for me.
  • They should recognize that what I do is a part of their reach into the world and service to the community though it doesn’t fit on their church org chart. (Here’s a thought: Maybe it belongs on the church org chart.)

I’d love to get your feedback on this, readers. Am I asking too much? Too little? In your context, what does the relationship look like between a blogger (or writer or speaker) and his or her local church?    

 

License: image source

 

* Dates approximate

 

Back To Church?

I’ve been blogging for more than a decade,and I’ve written often about spiritual abuse by church leaders – sharing both my own experience and referencing the struggles of others. I’m just one voice in a large crowd: there are numerous blogs, books, and worthwhile organizations telling the stories of spiritual and/or clergy sexual abuse survivors. The internet has been a tool for good in this struggle as it has facilitated connection between survivors. In a few high profile cases, the networking of survivors has been instrumental in bringing to light what has happened in the darkness.

Understandably, many who’ve experienced abuse from a church leader never return to a church. In the wake of my own traumatizing experience, I remember repeating my own version of Peter’s words from John 6:68 (“Lord, where else can I go? You have the words of eternal life.”) even as my husband and I tried to figure out how our family could ever be a part of a congregation again after all that had happened at our previous church. I still loved Jesus even though I was hurting, but it seemed at the time his big “C” Church didn’t love me back.

In the wake of the trauma, it was easier not to attend church. We relied on our Christian friends to provide us fellowship. We even attempted home churching with two other families for nearly a year. But as time went on, we realized we missed the structure and relative diversity of congregational life. It was a milepost on our continuing journey toward healing that we found we could hope most churches were not teeming with gross dysfunction or being run by adulterous leaders – and then act on that hope.

The road back to church was a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process. One telling moment came as we were moving toward making a commitment to a new congregation when an elder tasked with plugging people into the ministry of the church sensed some reticence on my part.

He said, “It sounds like you have a lot of trust issues.” [Read more]

Can Two-Dimensional Non-Community Be Church?

In a world where many large Protestant churches livestream their services online, where both Catholic and Evangelicals/Charismatics have their own basic cable networks, why show up in person at a local church when you can watch a much slicker version of church on your computer or TV? Why show up at a local church when the “quality” of the worship service may seem like a low-budget version of old school TV talent show Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour and the group dynamics scream middle school instead of radical community defined by the love of Jesus?

Further, the trend toward multi-site churches in the Evangelical world means even if you do show up at a local church, you may be sitting in a room with other people watching at least part of a service on a big screen. Certainly broadcasting of church services is not a new phenomenon. Church services aimed at the housebound have been aired since radio’s early days. I’ve relied on Christian radio programming for spiritual nurture at different points and in different measures throughout my faith journey.

After more than a year and a half attending a big box church with a number of multi-site locations that also livestreams its services online, I have had the same basic experience of church sitting in the comfy theater seats (sans cupholders) that a person would viewing the service on a screen. While there have been a few 3-D moments throughout that time, notably communion and a couple of all-congregation service projects, almost all of our time at the church has been very two-dimensional.

There are some very good reasons for watching a church service on a screen, so I can’t dismiss the option out of hand. It is a wonderful gift for those too ill or frail to attend in person, in caregiving roles, with work schedules that don’t permit it, or those who may be prohibited, as I was for the first three years of my faith journey, from attending church in person.

unnamedI wonder if churches making a big, expensive effort to broadcast their services are doing so only with these groups in mind. From the literature I’ve read on the topic over the years and from the way the online option is framed at the church we currently attend, I don’t think so. I get the impression they recognize that more and more people are choosing a virtual version of church. Some are those from the Done category – people who’ve been burned by dysfunction in an earlier 3-D church experience. Some are those who’ve adopted a self-curated approach to their spiritual lives by choosing what is most pleasing out of the banquet of offerings available to us these days. A couple of decades ago, many in the church bashed the way in pop spirituality encouraged this approach: “Mix one part yoga class, one part crystals, and three parts Oprah”. Now the church has enabled some to add church services to their own personal smorgasbord.

Perhaps we’ve always done this to some degree. At some point, those of us serious about discipleship discover our local church can’t be the only thing nurturing our spiritual growth. I’ve always supplemented what I’ve learned from my local church through personal spiritual discipline, service outside the four walls of the church, reading, conferences, prayer gatherings, retreats, and countless conversations over coffee.

I understand that a percentage of those watching are not-yet-believers, and may be watching from a safe distance in order to figure out if church is for them. I know many others streaming church services have been burned by previous involvement in a local church. They love Jesus, but can’t bear the thought of repeating the insanity again. Watching from a safe distance means they can maintain some level of engagement without risk. Others don’t like the church options in their particular neck of the woods, so they can either replace or supplement what’s available with what they prefer.

This is where it gets tricky. If church is simply one more item in the buffet line, we’ve reduced it to something far less than what it is meant to be. Scripture never speaks of the church in terms of being a two-dimensional item or just one more consumer menu item on the 57 foot-long steam table of spirituality. There have been plenty of times in my life when I wished it were so – recovering from spiritual abuse and some of the dysfunctional churches of which we’ve been a part have made an individualistic approach to following Jesus a mighty tempting line of thinking. But I can’t get past the picture of embodied, three-dimensional community that began with Jesus’ first “Follow me” invitation to a prospective disciple and continued like a line drive through the day of Pentecost all the way to here and now.

A building or an organization is not the church – nor, for that matter, is it merely a corporate worship service. The church is a living organism with Jesus the Messiah as its head. I am grateful for the provision of a number of spaces in my life that have functioned as a kind of “micro-church” for me during this sojourn at the mega church: a Bible study, the classroom, and all those places I’ve shared a cup of coffee or a meal with another believer. I’m grateful for the virtual fellowship I have with a number of friends online. But these are all relationships of my own buffet-line choice. The whole lot is a gift, and an expression of the big C Church.

I understand that a local church is also an expression of that same big C Church. However, she is called to function differently than a self-selected subset grouping of the Church does. A church body gathers to give one another the gifts God has given us, worship and learn together, and schelp ourselves together – in all our messy diversity – to God’s table.

But being an audience member at a megachurch for the last year and 3/4 has reinforced in me the notion that Christianity can never be a two-dimensional, individualistic faith. There are times in our lives when we must be on our own, and God’s grace connects us to himself and his body in profoundly mystical ways. But when we have the freedom to choose to be a part of a church community, and select the buffet line instead, we go hungry.

What do you think? Has your faith been sustained by the buffet line and drained by the church? Are you experiencing community in your local congregation? 

 

LicenseImage source 

Review: Strange Fire, Holy Fire

strange fireI wish I could give a copy of Michael J. Klassen’s Strange Fire, Holy Fire: Exploring the Highs and Lows of Your Charismatic Experience (Bethany House Publishers, 2009) to every person I’ve ever met in the various Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Third Wave/Vineyard congregations of which we’ve been a part. Whether they’re still a part of one of these congregations, have jumped to a different stream within the Church, or have chosen to hang out the “Done” sign on any formal church involvement, Klassen’s book is a helpful insider’s view from someone who has been there…and there…and there. He’s seen it all, participated in most of it, and has emerged with a chastened, mature perspective on the movement(s). Klassen is not speaking as an enemy of the charismatic world. Instead, he calls himself at the outset of the book both “a critic and apologist”. He manages the tricky business of being both detractor and explainer by speaking to his readers with a warm pastoral voice meant to help them figure out how to toss the bathwater while hanging on to the baby.

The Oral Roberts University and Fuller Seminary grad covers just about every topic that has marked the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic movement including definitions of the various sub-groups fitting under this umbrella, tongues, the thirst for power, authority, titles, personal prophecy, legalism, the Word of Faith movement, wacky theology, anti-intellectualism, healing, the nature of faith, emotionalism, spiritual warfare, and suffering. “Tongues might be the litmus test of a true-blue charismatic, but what we craved was power,” Klassen writes. “The charismatic movement is more about power than anything.” Charismatics don’t believe Jesus’ words are a set of propositions they need to adopt, but instead lean hard on Jesus’ promise that his followers would do greater works than he did.

Every single emphasis from within the movement can be found in Scripture; so, too, can evidences of excess and abuse/false teaching from the very beginning of the Church. Two thousand years of Church history prove that we are still vulnerable to the same temptations our spiritual forebears were. Klassen gives particular emphasis to the Word of Faith movement, understandable given his own church and educational background. TV prosperity preachers wearing expensive, custom-tailored Italian suits may be the most visible expression of this movement, but the seeds of Word of Faith thinking have been sown across the Charismatic/Pentecostal world. “If I didn’t know better, I would think that some people in the Word of Faith movement were simply charismatic Christian Scientists,” he writes. With a focus on speaking just the right words to reflect mastery of and belief in a set of deistic principles (“Don’t say, ‘I was just laid off from work’, say ‘God is positioning me for a fulfilling job that pays me more money than I ever dreamed”), I found this reliance on formula deeply rooted in most of the Charismatic congregations of which we’ve been a part, though none were officially affiliated with any of the Word of Faith teachers/ministries.

In the midst of his discussion on pain and suffering, the author of Hebrews offers these words: ‘Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest who we confess” (Hebrews 3:1).

In the midst of pain and suffering, the author doesn’t say:

  • ‘Curse the suffering’ or
  • ‘Bind and rebuke the spirits of suffering’ or
  • ‘Ignore the pain’ or
  • ‘Exercise the faith to overcome it.’

He says, ‘Fix your thoughts on Jesus.’  

Klassen offers practical, grounded coaching for those wounded by the specific excess he addresses in the chapter as well as posing thoughtful questions for those who are still part of churches where the excess is the main course each week. The last couple of decades have found more mainstream Evangelical congregations joining their Catholic and Anglican brothers and sisters in integrating charismatic belief and practice into their common life. As a result, independent charismatic congregations and historical Pentecostal denominations…”seem to be working hard to remain ‘a peculiar people.’ They chase trendy theologies and become increasingly addicted to hype,” Klassen notes. “What does the future hold for independent charismatic? If they continue trying to be peculiar, they’ll eventually fade away into oblivion, because the mainstream churches will offer something more grounded and palatable to society.”

In my own case, I’m not sure I was in search of power as much as I was longing to experience God heart, soul, mind, and strength. I first encountered the charismatic movement during the 1970’s via televangelist Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, a bunch of books I bought at a Christian bookstore written by faith healers Charles and Frances Hunter, and attendance at a Saturday night gathering connected with the Shepherding Movement. I prayed during those years to receive the baptism with the Holy Spirit, but soon learned that the experience was not the essence of discipleship – keeping in step with the Spirit was. My husband and I were part of a “second wave” charismatic church for several years before landing in a series of “third wave” Vineyard/Vineyard-influenced churches throughout the 1990’s and into the first couple of years of the new millennium. We logged time at the International House of Prayer (Klassen doesn’t address this influential rivulet flowing from the Vineyard movement in his book) before moving back into mainstream Evangelicalism during the last decade. The charismatic movement modeled for me the gifts of unbridled passion for God and a certainty that God was willing to intervene in the affairs of humanity here and now. It also left me with the scars of spiritual abuse and an ongoing frustration with sloppy theology because of the primacy of emotional experience in those congregations.

I recommend Strange Fire, Holy Fire to you if you too have “been there”. Even more, I commend it to you if you still are “there”. May we all grow as one body toward the spiritual maturity, which is not the same thing as quenching the Spirit. Michael J. Klassen helps us see the difference, and choose the former while not doing the latter.

Have you spent time in a charismatic or Pentecostal congregation? Has the experience been positive or negative for you? 

 

 

 

Follow Us!