Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rock N Roll, Piercings & Tequila Baby!


Forgive me everyone, I've gotten a bit behind on my posts.

In May you'll see Ghosts, Gifts & Abilities.  We will answer the question, did Jesus believe in Ghosts?  We're going to talk about Astral Projection and a TON of other topics.  Nothing is off limits and this is going to be fun.

I will also be doing an extra post in May to get caught up called Holiness Unto the Lord.  We are going to look at what holiness really is.  Is it looking a certain way?  Is it the music we listen to?  Is it okay to drink alcohol? 

Since I've started this blog I have come to love every person that has chimed in with their opinion on the posts.  This is what con†roversy is about. 

Your ideas.

We all see things in a different light.  If we make our world one in which all opinions can be heard, without hate and defensiveness, what a better place this will be.

All opinions are welcome at con†roversy and I look forward to your thoughts on these next two posts.

Have a wonderful evening and much love,

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Spiritual Abuse: The Lost Christians

Once at church we were called "Swine!" and had things thrown at us.  Years later, after many of us had left the congregation, I was heartbroken to hear what had been going on in the lives of the people I used to know.  Some took paths away from God, while others took their own lives.  This is power-corruption in the Body of Christ at its worst.   

About three years ago I woke up in the middle of the night.  I had a moment of clarity.  I knew it was time to start attending church regularly again; a church where I could worship, seek Christ and pray with other believers, a church that I could serve at, invest in and a church that I could call my family.

I was terrified.

Finding a church probably seems common-place to many and maybe even boring to some, but the thought of going back was a frightening thought to me.

Question:  Can a church with good, foundational doctrine and great teaching engage in abuse?

Answer:  Yes.

This is the most difficult post I’ve written.  When I realized that this was what I needed to post this month, it was the last thing I wanted to do.  I'll just put my thoughts in the form of bullet points to be clear.

  • It wasn’t on my list of topics. 
  • It wasn't on my radar. 
  • I didn't want to do it.

But then I thought about others out there that have gone through the same experiences as myself.  I thought about pastors that may have members in their congregation that have left abusive churches and struggle in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine.  I thought about churches that still engage in abuse.  This isn’t a new topic by any means, but my heart stirred and I wanted to share my story and talk about the complete emotional, spiritual and mental healing that has come through Christ, who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

More than 20 years ago I was attending my first year in college.  The most wonderful and life changing event happened and nothing was ever the same.  I found my savior, Jesus.

I had never understood the terms “born-again” or “being saved”.  Those were just phrases crazy fanatics used.  Then I met Him.  I understood what it meant to accept His grace.  I understood His death on the cross and His resurrection.  I accepted that.  He cleansed me and He filled me.  This new life and constant companionship with God was one that I could have never imagined. It was beautiful.

Things were about to go horribly wrong.

I began attending a church immediately after becoming a Christian.  It wasn't surrounded by barbed wire or anything.  It wasn't a private compound.  There were a lot of great things about this church.  The congregation was loving.  The worship, prayer teams and bible studies were excellent.  The foundational teachings of Christianity were solid.

I didn’t know this church was heavily influenced by The Shepherding Movement.  At that time I didn’t even know what The Shepherding Movement was.  Wikipedia has a descent description of it and mentions a book called Damaged Disciples that I have read.  This movement started with good intentions in the late 70’s and 80’s, but unfortunately led to extreme power abuse in some churches and the founders of the movement ended up recanting. 

I'm not going to spend too much time on the movement because it can be easily researched online, but I'll give a quick description.  Churches were set up in a pyramid style hierarchy, with congregations broken into smaller groups and those groups led by congregational leaders.  Those leaders were then accountable to the higher-ups.  Now this may sound very efficient, especially for a large church, but the teaching that went along with it was the problem.  You were to view the accountability to your leadership as equal to your accountability to God.  This still may not sound dangerous.  But it led to many churches where some or all of the leadership were corrupted by power. 

Here’s how it logistically played out.

The control started slowly.  Just little things, like being accountable for what you did over the weekend or who you hung out with.  We didn't know as new parishioners that we were deliberately being eased into a very controlling system.  We didn't know that when we confessed sins that they were being systematically reported and documented.

I had been attending for more than a year.  I was in my 20's and working.  I supported myself and rented my own house.  I grew up always having animals and was now in a position to finally have one on my own.  I got a cat.

About a week later I was meeting with my immediate leadership and mentioned my new pet.  I was put through the ringer for almost an hour, being asked if I thought I was responsible enough to own an animal.  I was reprimanded for not making a pro and con list in regards to having a cat and bringing it to them for approval.

This wasn't the first time a bomb dropped and I was shell-shocked. 

After attending for a while you wouldn't think of making decisions without approval.  Dating, marriage, having a baby or buying a car were only pursued with leadership consent.  New members were encouraged to take a class that implemented personality tests.  It was a class that taught maturity in the body of Christ and how we should relate with others that have different personalities than our own.

Giving yourself over to discipleship by your leadership was a very important aspect of this church.  I have to confess I still can't hear the words "discipleship" or "mentoring by your leadership" without a chill going down my spine.  Once at a meeting a head pastor was speaking to us.  She was very upset that our reactions to her were not excited and upbeat.  We were very interested in what she was saying and we were respectfully listening, but not yelling out "AMEN!" and other phrases.  She stopped the meeting and turned to another pastor and explained her frustration with us.  She began yelling that she wanted the personality test of each person in the room on her desk immediately and she stormed out. 

An assistant pastor took over the meeting and quoted Matthew 7:6, about never casting your pearls before swine.  She started calling us swine and demeaning us.  She said we were not worthy of the teachings of Christ or the pastor's time.  I felt like I was being treated wrongly, but that I deserved it at the same time.  I went home after the meeting and closed all the shades.  I climbed into bed and curled up with my pillows and my blankets and cried for hours.  I poured my heart out to Jesus, asking if I really was swine to Him.  I loved Him so much, but I couldn't shake the things she said or the meeting out of my head.

You may reading this and saying to yourself, "I would never stand for being treated that way."  Believe me, I used to think that way too.  Think of the analogy of placing a frog in a pot of water and turning up the heat slowly versus throwing it in a pot of boiling water.  In that scenario these types of circumstances are possible. 

In the last years before I left the church, and in the few months after I left, I witnessed even more atrocities:

  • Official Membership in the church was only granted after your application was accepted.  One requirement was tithing 23.3% of your personal gross income (before taxes).  

  • I witnessed hidden microphones on greeters that were used to document information on visitors as they walked through the front door.  I attended Membership Meetings where the Lead Pastor spoke about using them.

  • I accidentally walked into an ushers meeting and when I heard what was being taught, I stood frozen in the back of the room dumb-founded.  A retired government official was giving a class on how to subdue members of the congregation or visitors.  He was describing painful grips to control people with, so that they could be moved to a private location without causing a scene.  One of the ushers volunteered to go up to the front and the official demonstrated the moves on the volunteer's hands, wrists, arms and shoulders.  I heard him say to the ushers that the moves work and that they are so painful you can completely control a person without them being able to make a sound or leaving a mark on their body.  He said you would be able to do it without anyone in the service ever noticing what was happening.  Many of the ushers laughed.  I'll never forget looking at them and the atmosphere in the room.  It was like a pack of drooling lions, anticipating their first chance to jump on innocent prey.  An usher saw me and came to the back.  He escorted me out of the room (pain free) and it was never mentioned again.

  • After I left the church a former usher gave me a copy of the ushers manual which used the word "covert" when describing duties, but it never went into detail of what the covert operations were.  There were other disturbing phrases in the manual.  I was informed that many of the ushers carried guns and had concealed weapon permits.  While I was still attending the Lead Pastor said in a Membership Meeting that some ushers did carry guns and that it was their constitutional right to do so if they wished.  He said that the ushers were very loyal, that he was very well protected and feared no threats from man.  I remember him comparing the ushers to the Secret Service and how they would be willing to take a bullet for him.

When I look back at the constant condemnation and pressure we were under, I'm surprised how many of us held it together on a daily basis.  The programs and teachings at church were a very important part of our Christian walk.  It was important to always be your best and put on a happy face, all the while being told you were so close to losing the grace of Christ.  You were told you deserved nothing good and that you had better watch every step you take because God is a just God and we all deserved to die.  With a chuckle, we were told many times that the church was accused of brain-washing, but that we needed to have our "brains washed".

Sermons were given on not living with a victim mentality or poor me attitude.  We were encouraged to see ourselves and live as victors in Christ.  Romans 8:37 which speaks of us being victorious and "more than conquerors" through Christ is magnificent and a truth to be lived by, but there is an aspect to this that is necessary to understand.  I've heard the "Victim Mentality" sermon many times, given by pastors that have never endured abuse.  I'm talking about real abuse like rape victims or physical abuse.  Living with abuse for years can include molestation from a relative, kicking/burning a child or an adult, repeated strangulation and other trauma.  Something imperative to recognize is that most individuals that have lived with abuse refuse to think of themselves as victims.  They hate that word and absolutely abhor the thought of considering themselves a victim.  They are either completely convinced that they brought it on themselves (and not in a poor me kind of way) or they internally refuse to be a victim of a violating act that someone else put upon them.  Usually it's a mixture of both.  Either way, a person that is not able to recognize that something terrible was done to them without consent hinders the tender compassion that God has for the victim and it hinders the gift of walking in Christ's healing, strength and victory.   High levels of emotional/mental control and distress can have the same effect as any type of physical abuse.  In this case we were being shored up in our minds with the truth of living in Christ's victory, but we were being victimized at the same time. 

I lived in fear, never knowing what was coming next.  And with the endless church programs, the duty of constant and adoring service to our leadership, with the never-ending self condemnation, mixed with the pressure to be perfect and live a life of excellence, Jesus was completely lost.  It was a desperate condemning cycle that never ended.

When I first became a Christian, getting to know my God and my Savior was beautiful.  I don't think I can find the words to describe it.  Through Jesus the door is not only open, but completely ripped down when it comes to having access to God.  It changed everything in my life, and all those teachings in the bible were now alive and real.  His presence was so sweet and filling.  The amazing love of Jesus was everything my heart had been longing for.  Over time His calling in my life became clear to me.  He wanted me to remain single for Him and I wanted that too, more than anything.  As the years passed I eventually caved to my own weaknesses and to the pressure of the church.  I got married.  I lost my virginity.

I’d be leaving something out if I didn’t say the Holy Spirit didn’t try to guide me in this situation.  When I first started attending I remember Him speaking to my heart to be cautious about this church.  But I remember thinking, how could that be?  How could a church that was so influential in leading me to the Lord, such a beautiful and life-changing event, be a place of concern.  Over time I lost the capability to make my own decisions with His direction.  Over time it became almost impossible to leave.

Good churches can become corrupt.    

Almost six years later I finally did leave.  Two years later I was divorced.  I was a mess.  I had gained over 150 lbs through the years and even though I wasn't attending the same church anymore I was constantly in a mental battle of self condemnation and fear.

I loathed myself.

It was almost impossible to learn how to live again.  It was a relief to finally be free from the abusive control and degrading treatment, but I was also dealing with being broken hearted at leaving my calling to remain single for God.  I felt like I abandoned a beautiful precious gift that He wanted to give me.  There was no way I could get it back.  I blocked it out of my mind.  Even though I had kept my virginity before getting married, with the years of constant condemnation, it was easy to hate myself for this too.  At the core of my being, I was so ashamed.  I threw myself into different types of sexual situations.  I had nothing left.  I wanted to just keep defiling myself and any shred of dignity I had left.

Those years were very difficult.

Even though this was a confusing and incredibly hard time, Jesus never once abandoned me and He still was my everything.  Prayer was still a big part of my life and on a limited basis, church was too.  I attended different churches on and off over the years, always keeping my distance.  I wasn't capable of anything more.             

During this time I received news about a man I used to know that attended the church and left around the same time I did.  His life had taken a disturbing and destructive path since leaving.  In the end he killed two men, execution style.  He was caught and imprisoned.

I was sickened at what had happened.  There was no excuse for what he did.  I grieved for the men he killed, but I also grieved for the young man I knew.  I could partially understand what led him to those actions, even though they were inexcusable.  He kept up a face of arrogance and vindication for what he had done, but I knew it was just a show.  I knew he couldn't live with it. 

In the months that followed I learned that he had been on suicide watch while incarcerated, but had managed to swipe a pen.  Later that evening he hid behind a toilet and killed himself.

I always knew that I had to go back and visit the church at least one time.  I was always in a state of panic and fear while attending and I had the same feelings when I imagined going back in.  But I felt that if I couldn't walk through those doors and face my fears, then they had beaten me. 

Nine years passed and I did just that.  I walked in and attended one service.  I didn't go to confront anyone.  I just wanted to go in and walk out knowing that they didn't defeat me.  I sat in the car waiting to go in.  My heart was racing.  I watched others go in the building and I tried to see if I could recognize anyone I used to know.  As I sat in the car I had images of me taking my seat and the ushers putting me in some painful grip and escorting me to a private room.

I got out of the car and walked in.

It couldn't have been more uneventful.  First off, I looked completely different so no one recognized me.  I had lost a lot of weight and my hair was cut and dyed a different color.  During the service I noticed that many of the red flags of controlling behavior were gone.  People were much more relaxed and seemed happier.  I knew that from one service there was no way I could know if things had completely changed, but that wasn't why I was there. 

After church I walked around and tried to take everything in.  I noticed a woman that I used to know and she recognized me.  We talked for awhile and she began telling me that many things had changed.  She told me that people were free to follow God, spend more time with their families and it was better now.  She asked me to wait because she was sure the pastors would like to say hi to me.  As I waited, I nervously wondered what to expect.  It was a pleasant and casual conversation and when it was over I got in my car and left. 

As I drove away my heart was overwhelmed with emotion.  I went to church with many of these people for years.  I knew they loved Jesus with their entire being.  I watched many of them as they were treated in the most degrading ways in order to humble them into submission to church leadership.  I saw many lives destroyed because of this place. 

I'll give you an option to skip this next paragraph because I'm going to talk about some very adult topics, but I think it's important to be honest about how bad a situation like this can get.  I have decided to hold back some details. 

A gentleman I knew who had issues with homosexuality was screamed at for hours, asking if he liked "having dicks shoved up his ass."  Many parishioners, in order to cope with their personal dignity being stripped away, completely walked away from God and some resorted to murder and suicide.  Some started physically abusing others and some engaged in physically abusing themselves in the most disturbing ways.  These types of behaviors are not always easy to recognize and in times of intense abuse and trauma the mind will start to compartmentalize so that a person can continue functioning.  This is a very unhealthy way to live and when it is over it can be difficult to accept God's forgiveness and forgive yourself.       

As I drove away I wanted to believe things had changed, but I knew I would never know for sure and it was time for me to start living again. 

And now here we are, back where we started this post. 

About three years ago I woke up in the middle of the night, knowing that it was time to go back to church.  It was one of those moments when God gets your attention and you know you had better get moving on it. 

I felt ready for this new journey.  I knew it would be difficult, but going back to church was something that had I wanted for a long time.  Even when I wasn't attending church regularly, I still strongly believed in Hebrews 10:25, that as believers we should not forsake gathering together.  We need each other.  As members of the Body of Christ, He designed us to need one another.  I wanted that back in my life.

I had a different idea of how this journey would play out then God did.  For starters I just assumed He had a church in mind that He wanted me to go to and He would make it clear which one it was.  That isn't remotely close to what happened.

I spent a lot of time in prayer about what would be important characteristics of the church that I would go to.  No one agrees on absolutely everything, there's nothing wrong with that.  Hey, even Peter and Paul had disagreements.  But what was I willing to compromise on?  What things shouldn't I compromise on?  I was excited to start this new life and meet other believers.  I was looking forward to having people in my life that I could share the life of Christ with.  People that I could call and say, "Hey, I just read this scripture and this is so cool!" or "I was praying and Jesus showed me this amazing thing and..."  I really missed that.  I wanted to worship God with my brothers and sisters again.

As I started visiting, believe or not, I was shocked to realize that I had become cynical of organized churches.  You would think I would have noticed this about myself and that I would have understood this would be a natural reaction after everything that had happened, but it really caught me off guard.  And I thought when Jesus saw how determined I was to find a church, that I wasn't taking this endeavor lightly, He would make it abundantly clear, this is it, this is the one you should go to!  But like I said, it didn't happen like that.

Weeks turned into months.  I would pick a new church or attend the same one a few times.  Some I attended much longer.  I met amazing people along the way.  I was humbled at the gentle and gracious love at many congregations.  It would get to the point where I knew, even though it was a wonderful place, it wasn't where God wanted me.  I kept praying, telling Him I would gladly stay wherever He wanted, but He remained silent on the subject.  I couldn't understand why and my feelings started to get a little hurt.  I wanted to find my new church.

How wonderfully faithful God is.  The way He teaches us is always perfect, complete and full of love.  I kept up my search and finally something clicked.  It took visiting a lot of different churches, but I finally understood something.  Harmful churches may be the ones that stand out, but they are not the majority of churches out there.  The vast number of congregations are behind the scenes, drawing no attention to themselves.  They serve the homeless and poor.  They spend countless hours and amounts of money helping those that cannot help themselves.  They honor those that have been forgotten in prison.  They love those that think they are unlovable.  The greater part of churches are doing all these things and more without asking for thanks or tooting their own horn.  It took me a long time to understand this but once I did all my cynical feelings melted away.          

When I first started visiting churches I understood that it would cause feelings and memories to surface that would be difficult to deal with.  I could see what some would be and I knew there would be things that I couldn't see coming.  I was okay with that.  I wanted to face those things.  I wanted to let God complete this healing process.

Even though I was now living over a thousand miles away from the church I attended when I first became a Christian, I knew there was a good chance I would run into churches that were influenced by the Shepherding Movement or ones that used the same type of techniques I had experienced long ago.  One Sunday I walked into a new place and a stack of flyers on a table in the lobby caught my attention.  They were encouraging members to sign up for a personality testing class.  I sat in my seat and read through the flyer as it spoke of the benefits of personality testing and how it helps believers interact with each other.  I was very sad reading the flyer, but also anxious.  I thought about walking out.  From what I had experienced I felt strongly that personality testing did not belong in the Body of Christ.  Nothing good can come of it and it opens the door to controlling acts of behavior. Church started and I decided to stay even though I had no intention of walking back through the doors again.  The sermon was more like a personality seminar rather than a teaching from scripture.  The pastor spent so much time selling the concept of personality testing that I finally had to walk out.  I gathered my courage, quietly got up and went out the back.  Emotions and memories overwhelmed me as I left.  I was upset and angry, and even though I didn't make the slightest scene when I left, I felt guilty that I walked out.  I had to keep telling myself that it was okay to leave.  I had to keep telling myself that it was okay to take an internal stand and say that a teaching is wrong and that I do not have to participate in it or subject myself to it.

Before I had visited this church I had emailed them asking about specific teachings and beliefs.  From the pastor's email, I was looking forward to visiting.  The next day after walking out of the service, I had an email from the pastor in my inbox.  He asked if I was the one who had walked out and left.  He said that he was disappointed that he did not have a chance to meet me.  As I read his letter I couldn't understand how he knew it was I that walked out.  It was a big church.  I'm sure they had several visitors every Sunday.  How did he know?   My mind raced and I wondered if they used hidden microphones.  Did they use surveillance cameras?  Did he look up my name from the email I first sent and search for my picture on facebook?  The last thing I wanted to do was find another church to visit the following week, but I kept going.

The point of this story is not the church I visited, but what it can be like for a person coming out of a traumatic situation and trying to re-connect with the Body of Christ.

You would think it would be easy, but leaving an abusive church is not.  There's a feeling of entrapment.  We were told many times that our church was the best church in town.  We were told that if it is a very narrow path to enter the kingdom of God, and if we barely had a chance now, then it was almost a certainty we would burn in hell on our own if we left.  We were often told stories of people that stood up against the church and were struck by deadly diseases at the hand of God for doing so.  I remember thinking many times in the first few years that I didn't agree with some things that were taught, but after hearing them repeatedly, it became impossible to protect my mind.

I was still visiting different places and I had my first anxiety attack during a service.  Each time I visited a new church I would scope out all the exits.  It gave me a feeling of security during a service if I had a plan of how to get out if I needed to.  Here it was, Sunday again, and I was checking out a new place.  Worship ended and I sat down.  During the message I glanced over at the exit and an usher was standing in front of the doors, completely blocking them.  I blanked out and the room started spinning.  I began to get dizzy and then I started to panic.  I didn't know if he would let me out if I tried to leave.  I kept trying to calm myself and stop myself from breathing so fast.  I've never had anxiety problems, so I was caught off guard how quickly the feelings started to overwhelm me.   He looked very stern.  I wondered if he was carrying a gun.  As I watched him, someone finally got up to leave the room.  He stepped aside and pushed open the door for her.   I wanted to break down in tears and it took everything to hold it in until I left.

With each new church that I visited God brought more healing and the messages were always what I needed to hear. He was guiding me every step of the way and healing parts of me that I didn't even know were in desperate need of repair.  Every week He bound up my wounds in the most gentle ways.  I never disclosed what I was going through to the churches I visited.  I was accused of "church shopping" on more than one occasion.  Some pastors thought I stopped coming to their church because I didn't take my Christian walk seriously or because I was living with some sort of sin in my life and didn't want to face it.  I didn't care.  I knew I was following God's plan for me.  My Savior's concern and attentiveness to what I had gone through kept making me fall in love with Him over and over again.  Each week I thought there could be no way I could love Him anymore and then He would tenderly and graciously heal another part of me and my love for Him would grow deeper.

I had been attending the same church now for approximately 8 months.  It had been over a year since I had experienced any serious issues or flashbacks during a church service.  Without warning, problems started up again.  Something would happen during a service that would remind me of the church I used to go to and I would begin to hyperventilate.  As the weeks progressed, it got worse.  I had to start walking out and taking breaks in the lobby to get myself under control.  Everything was intensified because I was still struggling with the concept that it was okay to walk out during a service.  I would go home and cry uncontrollably.  God had brought so much healing to my life.  I couldn't understand why this was starting up again, and even worse than before.  Each week I kept going to church, hyperventilating, sobbing and seeking God about what was happening, but nothing changed.  I wondered if I should start bringing a paper bag.  I was extremely frustrated. 

As a Christian, knowing who you are in Christ is very important.  This was part of my frustration.  I was angry at myself that I couldn't control these panic attacks when I truly believed who I was in Jesus.  I believed with all my heart that He had set me free and healed me from the past.  I knew it and I had undeniably experienced it.  I understood and wholly believed in Romans 8:11, that the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead was alive in me.  I believed and loved all the promises in the book of Ephesians.  The victory of His death and resurrection is a precious gift given to all believers.  I was so angry at myself for not being able to walk in faith and who I was in Him.  I could not understand why.

During this time in prayer God kept bringing a specific topic up and I just didn't see how it related to my current troubles.  So I kept begging Him to help me and He kept talking about something else.  One day it finally clicked.

The topic was dignity.

For starters, I hadn't realized how deeply the church I attended for 6 years had affected my relationship with God.  We were in constant fear of our leadership.  We were always on edge, never knowing what was going to happen next.  Our leadership represented God.  If we didn't represent the pastors in an exemplary manor at all times, while living in the most stressful conditions, there was a big price to be paid.  I was trying to do everything perfect.  I was trying to BE perfect as I worked a full-time job, served countless hours at the church and in the homes of the leadership, all the while being subjected to humiliating treatment in the name of God.  That spilled over into my relationship with Jesus.  Fear of leadership can turn into an unhealthy fear of God and keep us from the deep relationship He wants with us.  There is evil in this world and Satan wants to separate us from God and from the Body of Christ.

I came out of everything with a very skewed image of myself and God.  He began to teach me the most beautiful things about dignity and how He saw me.  I wasn't a disappointment to Him.  He wasn't sitting on His throne, eagerly waiting to strike me with bolts of lightning if I turned right, when I should have turned left.  He didn't see me as a broken failure.  He showed me that in Matthew 7:6 I am not the swine, but the pearl. 

As Jesus taught me about the dignity and value He bestows on each one of us personally, the panic attacks completely ceased.  I found I could walk in the promises talked about in Romans and Ephesians in a deeper way.  I found I could walk into church with a new confidence and the ability to reach out in love to my brothers and sisters in the Lord.

There was another valuable lesson I learned on my journey.  The church I had left routinely boasted that they were the best church in town, favored by God and the most dedicated when it came to doing God's work.  When it was time to start going back to church I wanted God to just show me which congregation to attend and I would obediently go.  As I said in the beginning, He had a much different plan than I did.  With the plethora of churches I visited I realized there is no "best church in town."  God is alive and well and moving in a multitude of congregations in each city, state and country, valuing all of us as members of His body.  I experienced God's presence and power in countless churches, spanning many denominations.  Is it wrong to be excited about the church we attend?  Not at all.  We should love the church we go to.  But we should also see all members of His body as indispensable.  We should treat each member with honor and love despite our differences.  God loves no one church more than He loves another.

The atrocities I witnessed and experienced at my first church are rare when compared to how many churches there are in the world, but it does still happen and it shouldn't be dismissed.  Beautiful followers of God have suffered physical, sexual, financial, mental and emotional exploitation and live in fear with no one to turn to.  If you have been through something similar I want you to know how much your God values you.  You may think you are worthless and broken, but you are ESSENTIAL to the Body of Christ.  You are valuable and priceless to God.  He loves you deeply and cares about the pain this has caused.  You are a unique, precious jewel to Him.  He sees you in Christ as someone strong and vibrant, not someone beaten down and ruined.

If you've tried going back to church and it has been difficult, know that not everyone is going to understand and that is okay.  Your pastors, your friends and family, they may not understand what you are going through, but your loving Savior understands.  Stay in His loving arms and he will care for you with all the gentle tenderness you need.  He wants to be your hero.

In the beginning of this post I shared a story about giving up my calling to stay single for God.  I shared how I hated myself for giving into my own fears and giving into pressure from the leadership.  I got married, I lost my virginity and I felt like I lost everything.  It's a very personal story and not something I normally talk about.  I wanted to share it with you because maybe you feel like you've lost something that you can't get back.  Here's something that happened one golden, sunny afternoon.

It had been years since I had left the church but I wasn't even close to going back and finding another church yet.  I may have been out of an abusive situation, but I was still very good at degrading myself.  Then one afternoon something beautiful happened.  I was praying and God spoke very gently to my heart.  In an instant I knew that I could still have the life that He wanted me to have.  I could live single for Him and have all that came with that life.  It didn't matter to Him that I had gotten married.  It saddened Him that I was full of so much self loathing.  His arms had been wide open the entire time and He had already forgiven me.  In that moment I knew I had a second chance.  I ended the relationship I was in and never looked back.  Over time He brought me to a place where I could accept His forgiveness and He taught me how to forgive myself.   He graciously gave me a wonderful life that I could have never dreamed of and He healed me in many ways.  I do not have words to describe my gratefulness.

No matter what you've lost, I promise in Christ all things are possible. 

If you are reading this and find that you belong to a church that is similar to what I've described, it is not wrong to leave.  Leaving a church does not mean that you are leaving God.  Leaving a church is not sinning against God.  As members of His body we are the bride of Christ.  You deserve to be treated as such.  I understand it is a complex situation where even the thought of leaving can be almost impossible.  Take time to seek God.  Trust and follow Him.  His loving-kindness is abundant and the dignity that comes from Him can never be taken away. 

As believers it is crucial to have our foundation in Christ and not a pastor or a church.  It is important to value God's approval over leadership's approval.  With that said, I cannot imagine how difficult it is to be a pastor.  We all have issues.  We all make mistakes, grow and change.  A pastor has to go through that center stage, with all eyes watching.  If we have endured abuse in the name of God, we cannot fully be healed unless there is forgiveness in our hearts towards those leaders.  God is more than able to help us walk in that type of compassion and grace.

If a church or pastor has been involved in these types of practices, but has come to understand the corruptness of it and the damage it has caused, I can't express the importance of being open about it.  If one makes a sincere decision to walk away from control and power-abuse, it has to be brought to light by the offender.  If it is just swept under the rug, either out of fear of exposure or genuine change of heart, it is an ugly pit that is too easy to fall back into.   I've seen that happen.  An honest and humble apology to a mistreated current or former member can start the inner healing an individual needs.   It can also repair relationships in the Body of Christ that are in desperate need of mending.

During the journey of visiting a vast amount of churches in this city I have found Christians that have left damaging churches and have gone to their new pastors for guidance with little or no support.  I feel it is important for pastors to listen and give great care to these precious members that have endured humiliating treatment.  In the beginning they may want to share what they've gone through, but they may not be able to express it.  These people need to know that they can open their heart to a pastor and be treated with respect and honor as Christ honors them.  Patience is important though, because they may not know how to receive it. 

Let's be honest, pastors of good churches may not want to get involved.  It's a messy subject matter.  But we have to realize that ignoring this type of mistreatment is no different than turning a blind eye to a child or an adult trapped in an abusive secular relationship.  Subconsciously we may not want to deal with it because we do not want the church on a whole to look bad.  Pastors may not want to have this discussion with another pastor because they may be friends.  Burying it doesn't strengthen the church, it weakens it.  If leaders of stable churches cannot go to the leadership of a church, where they have received numerous accounts of power-abuse and degrading conduct, then what does that say about us and how we take care of each other?  The question of "Am I my brother's keeper?" has already been answered.  Can we really go to pastoral lunches, look a friend in the eye and forget about the stories we didn't want to hear about in the first place?  I'm not talking about angry accusations, but prayerful meetings based on the love of Jesus and seeking God for future guidance.  I ask this out of a passionate desire not to see another Christian lost.

I often think about the violent actions carried out by the young man I knew from my former church.  I think of the two innocent men he murdered.  I think of the victims of that horrible crime and execution.  I think of my friend.  I think of him planning how to end it all, finding a pen, hiding and slashing at himself.  I think of him bleeding and dying behind a toilet.  I clearly recognize his accountability but I can't help wonder if it goes deeper than that and I think of Matthew 18:6

"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea."

This post is prayerfully dedicated to those that have lost their faith, to those that have lost their lives and to those that have lost their spiritual family and are trying to find a way back.

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