Abusive Churches: Why Do People Stay?

I have been following the implosion of a church in Illinois with great sadness. The situation is beyond belief really. The question I, and a friend who helped found  the church, have asked repeatedly is this: How can people stay in these abusive churches when there is a track record a mile long that should have concerned them?

A good blog post on this subject of why people stay is at the Counter Thought site.  Read it here.

It is important to note that abusive churches are not just those with some slickster celebrity pastor offering up heresy burgers and chasing out the old timers, not just those with top heavy layers of church government. . Some of the most abusive churches are those with suit-wearing, Bible-wielding (“We stand on the Word”) churches. These are often the covert abusers, and the true problem begins behind the scenes due to a corrupt power structure. Behind the scenes mafia tactics, requiring non-disclosure agreements from departing staff, handed out with dark threats, secret meetings, late night calls, smear campaigns, manipulation, and so forth. Something is very wrong at the top, back in the offices, and the damage flows from there, not primarily from  the messages in the pulpit.

If the solid people who have been the prayer warriors, the backbone of the church, the founders of the church, are peeling off and leaving, this is a massive red flag. There is a sickness in a place like this. Staying enables the wrongdoers, and emboldens them. When truly godly people you have known for years are leaving, and you allow them to be labeled “malcontents”, without any interest in getting to the bottom of it, you are part of an abusive system. Stay at your own peril.

The key line in the blog post  is here, I believe. “People stay in abusive systems because the desire for community has overwhelmed all other needs.”  Valuing comfort over truth is always a dangerous thing to do. Your abusive church is spiritually dead, a church with broken walls and no roof, spiritually speaking. . Protect yourself and your family before it is too late.

 

When Churches “Gray Out”

Some people have an unusually sharp sense of when something in an atmosphere is wrong. I mean seriously wrong. I’m not talking about some psychic ability, I am talking about an emotional radar that picks up on currents and undercurrents more quickly than many others do. When I was a child, my mom used to say that there was no fooling me when it came to these things. It was an ability to sense things going on that were not immediately obvious to others.

Years later, I’ve done a lot of reading about Empaths, those with an emotional radar on high alert. Empaths tend to absorb the emotional atmosphere of a group of people, a place very quickly. It can be helpful in life, but it can also be exhausting when things are troubled.

There is much more to this personality type, but this is one aspect of it.  I think it applies also to sensitivity to the spiritual atmosphere in places, as well.  It’s called discernment.  I will give one example.  Thirty-odd years ago, as a teen, I was attending a church with my family. It was a small church that was a split of a split. The church was reportedly going through some turmoil, but it went over my head as far as what the problem was exactly.

I hated the place. I hated being there, and I couldn’t say why. One of the unhappy church people was in charge of “children’s church” that ran during service time for the kids. I was roped into playing the old upright piano for the handful of kids she was leading. Eager to please, I was shocked to see the music she set before me just as the singing was to begin. Not being a very solid sight reader, I stumbled and hit several wrong notes. I was unprepared for the music she was using and had not had a chance to practice.

The sour look on the leader’s sharp face pretty much let me know that I had been an epic disappointment. It makes me laugh now, but at the time, I felt terrible. Lacking a great deal in confidence, I was apparently  a total failure as Children’s Church pianist.

I slunk off home that day, vowing to never ever again make such  a fool of myself and upset a church lady, especially that church lady who clearly disliked me. A few days later, one of my parents informed me that she had been most displeased with my performance and they had been informed that I was not needed in the future. My parents were disgusted with the church lady as well. I was relieved that my brief career as Children’s Church pianist was over.

Things worsened at the church, and every time I sat through the service, I had the uncanny sense that I had left a world of color.  This sounds strange, and it was strange. Over the years since then, I have called it “graying out.”  In these situations, it’s as though my eyes see things in gray and white, not in living color anymore.

I started resisting going, and various complaints kept me home altogether. My parents didn’t seem to mind. I developed a strange revulsion for the place. Then came word of something bizarre going on at the church. The pastor confided that strange things were occurring in the building. The piano in the sanctuary late one night began to play by itself., he said. In the dark. He believed it was some occult phenomenon due to the ugliness going on among the handful of church people, one of which was an angry pianist.  He claimed that strange chanting had been heard under his office windows. The pastor had been a missionary in South America prior to pastoring in the US. He was a devout Christian trying to hold the church together. He said things were dark spiritually at this church.  He resigned soon after, and he and and his family left the state. The church folded soon after that. Mercifully.

This “graying out” in the atmosphere I have experienced many times since.  I believe that God uses this sense as a warning about unhealthy places. It’s not something I disregard anymore.

As Christians, we are taught to believe the best in a situation, have patience, and to not hastily judge a person or circumstance. All of this is true, but when there is clearly the sense that something is wrong, it is worth stepping back and carefully evaluating a relationship or situation to decide what it is that we are sensing. The times I have ignored this have been serious mistakes.

When a room  or when a church “grays out” and the color and vibrancy is gone, something vital is missing. Life in the truest sense is being suppressed and repressed by something. Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s un-forgiveness and grudge holding. maybe it’s a powerful spirit of control that robs the atmosphere of color and oxygen.  Where the Lord truly is, there is a spirit of liberty, not control. Where love is, pride can’t rule and reign. Where forgiveness is, there is vibrant life and every color imaginable. There’s joy. No “graying out.”

A lot of churches in America are “graying out.” The forms remain, but the God that is being claimed has long ago left the premises. Those exceptional churches where humility and Christ-likeness reign are few and far between. Never take that for granted if you have one.  The love of Christ is life-giving. People grow in healthy ways. There is a freedom and respect for boundaries, and an atmosphere of hope. What a difference the Lord’s presence makes. All gray is gone, and the spirit of heaviness disappears like dew in the morning sun.