Celebrity-Driven Church Is Not Safe For Kids

Celebrity-Driven Church Is Not Safe For Kids July 13, 2020

I keep on thinking that I’m “over” what happened to me. At a shamanic retreat in December, I “completely” forgave the man who molested me at a church basketball lock-in, and I thought yes finally I’m done; this time it’s going to stick. But then I read the Menlo Park #ChurchToo story and the rage came back. I just wish that I could vomit fire all over every authoritarian, patriarchal, celebrity-driven church institution until authoritarian, patriarchal, celebrity-driven Christianity is incinerated and vaporized beyond recognition.

And then I think about gifted queer and neurodivergent people called to the ministry who have been “flagged” for potential “risky behavior” by impersonal institutional CYA bureaucracies in the form of “objective” psychological testing. Their ordination is denied since the psychological testing is normalized around cis-hetero white culture. Even supposedly progressive denominations still default to viewing stable pastoral leadership as being culturally white male. So many gifted pastors have been rejected by ordination boards for stupid reasons. Church, you really don’t deserve to call the place where you meet a “sanctuary.”

The church where I finally found refuge after years of repressing my deep wound amidst the self-hatred of evangelical total depravity was the female-pastored, mostly queer congregation of Central Avenue United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio. It was a small, fiscally imperiled church for most of its existence. I wasn’t even there for a full year, but reading Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved in that church with a small group of sixty year old lesbians finally introduced me to the God who delights in me. And I have tried (and mostly failed) to create that kind of holy authentic, vulnerable community everywhere I have served in my decade of pastoral ministry.

One thing is clear to me. Children cannot be safe in an authoritarian, patriarchal church where the deference granted to the celebrity pastor, the pillars of the church, and anyone else in the royal family means that people will not speak up if something seems fishy. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned everyone is at every level. The toxicity is in the deference and quieting of voices who need to speak freely. Nobody speaks freely if their community is built around a charismatic leader everyone likes, because of the mortal fear that if that leader gets taken down, the whole community will collapse. We cannot have churches that are built around the charisma of a single leader.

Because the man who molested me was a pillar in the church — scoutmaster, basketball coach, and middle school Sunday school teacher — and because he didn’t touch me but just watched me shower and talked to me about my genitalia, I was told that it must have been a “misunderstanding.” So I buried it, and I just thought that my penis had shrunk every time I peed after that for many years. And I fostered a hatred of white evangelical men that has consumed me for much of my life, which hasn’t been an entirely bad thing since it stoked my prophetic fire.

We need churches that don’t have celebrities or pillars. They need to be spaces where everyone is empowered and their gifts are treasured, especially children and marginalized people. We need to teach and practice consent at every level of relationship. Children should not be shamed into giving hugs or having “good manners” with their elders. If they’re sulky or rude, then it’s an opportunity for the grownups to practice grace for both the children and their exhausted, mortified parents. If anyone has authority in such a church, it should be the children themselves in ways that are boundaried and age-appropriate.

My hope is that the Coronavirus is going to bankrupt all the churches that depend upon a celebrity-driven, attractional model of worship so that we can build spiritual communities where authentic relationship and personal belonging are the glue instead of a cult of personality. I’m convinced that in a rigorously honest, authentic, egalitarian community where everyone is empowered to speak up, people with mental disorders of every kind can be cared for and protected from harming others. I have not studied pedophilia in depth in my counseling training, but I do believe that all of us need to be protected from the danger of forgetting who we are under conditions of isolation and entitlement. All of us need to guarded from harming and being harmed by tight-knit, shame-free, relational communities.

Maybe one day we will have churches that live with enough intentionality to keep our children safe. Jesus literally said that the kingdom of God belongs to our children. Let’s keep them safe so they can teach us how to live.

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