Of Christ, People and surviving the human Church
[CONFIDENTIAL – PLEASE DO NOT SHARE]
If you attend human organized churches for long enough you’re likely to have a bad experience or few. And hopefully also have many good experiences and some people to help you through the rough patches.
Three churches we’ve attended have eventually had survivors groups – support for those who were harmed by that church or its leaders. That’s not right.
God vs Humans
Perhaps one of the most important things I’ve learned through my journey is how critical it is to keep God separate from human christianity, christian culture, and organized church. Humans, including EVERY follower of Christ, are exceptionally imperfect. It’s quite easy to toss God and his word out with the detritus that is the human world. We shouldn’t do that.
And sometimes it’s really really tough. Sometimes people who claim to be Christ followers cause so much harm that all I want to do is get away from anything having anything to do with God or religion. Fortunately I’ve had family and friends, and God, to help me through these times.
Abraham Piper, son of John Piper, has struggled with this. And understandably so given what I know he’s gone through. He’s also done so quite publicly so why I mention his name. He’s far from the only PK or MK I know in this boat.
5 years in to her marriage a friend was diagnosed with MS. Her husband, a solid Christ follower and rising leader in our church, hung on gallantly for a few years but eventually the prospect of a lifetime of celibacy and taking care of his wife and child became too much for him. He didn’t leave them so much as their marriage simply fell apart from stress.
In the end he was ostracized by christians near and far for not accepting this mantle of lifelong celibacy and caretaker that had been placed on him and so he turned his back on ‘christianity’ …and on God as he conflated the two as one.
Churches I’ve been involved with have included; three youth pastors convicted of sexual abuse of minors, numerous pastors and other church leaders who’ve had affairs, a few who were emotionally/spiritually abusive, one embezzlement …and a plethora of people covering things up to protect the guilty church.
FWIW, I’m fairly forgiving on many things. If adults have a consensual adult affair or someone was emotional abusive but changed once it was pointed out to them then I’m fine with them, including their continuing in ministry. I don’t expect anyone to be any more perfect than David. God still used David and he can still use any of us with all of our faults. People who call themselves christians perfected cancel culture long before it was a twinkle in the eye of others.
It’s easy to become cynical. We just should’t become cynical of God. What makes us cynical of humans is exactly what should make us desire God all the more.
We will be let down by people. We will not be let down by God. Remembering that is critical.
The Great Gulf
There seems a much greater distance between popular culture and christianity than between popular culture and God. And an even greater gulf between popular culture and evangelical christianity.
We create a gob of sins, rules, expectations and judgements – that are not from God, but that we attribute to God, and then wonder why people are rejecting our wonderful version of god.
Then as more moderate (more Biblical?) folks leave our churches, these churches become further from culture… and from God.
God is the authority on sin
Some decades ago when I was searching and trying to figure out if there was a god, one thing really struck me – The Bible, God’s Word, is humanly impossible.
Every other text I read from other religions or christianity was clearly created by humans and every one had the flaws of humans all over them.
The Bible is exceptionally different. No single human nor any group of humans could have produced it. There is far too much detail that is all internally consistent.
Regarding sin I take a quite conservative approach. If something is not very clearly spelled out in the Bible as sin then I do not view it as sin. God and his Word is the authority on sin. He doesn’t need our help.
That said, there is a lot of stuff in the Bible that falls in to the ‘this is a really really good idea’ zone. Doing something might not be a sin but it may still be quite stupid.
I think we do great harm when we invent sins. When we think that we know better than God. As much as we might want something to be a sin, if God didn’t think it important enough to be a sin then we shouldn’t either.
C.S. Lewis said “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”
I’ve found it quite difficult to forgive some things and that’s something that I need to work on. It is quite easy for our un-forgiveness to become bitterness and to the extent that we become enslaved to this bitterness.
Mathew 18:21-35 lays out God’s expectations for how we should forgive others. And he’s not very forgiving on this.
Mat 18:34 “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.
Mat 18:35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
There are however some critical differences in forgiving, forgetting, restoration and wisdom. If a young girl is molested by her uncle, she should forgive him. This doesn’t mean that she should pal around with him or even be friendly towards him. It doesn’t mean that others in the family shouldn’t be made aware of what happened so that others aren’t abused. It doesn’t mean that the issue shouldn’t be discussed to avoid future similar problems. And it may mean that he can’t attend some family functions, at least for a while.
Restoration is good and can or should be a goal, but it should not necessarily be an expectation. He should still be shown love, especially if he’s truly repentant.
And I still have a lot of forgiveness that I need to do. C.S. Lewis was right.
We know some wonderful people who attended Bethel University in Arden Hills MN as well as several who teach there. But sadly we’ve also learned to be careful with trusting anyone associated with Bethel as our experiences include:
- A financial planner who was convicted of embezzling funds.
- A Ramsey County commissioner who borrowed funds from us to purchase a house for disabled veterans. That’s not where the money went and we are out the funds. And this was not an insignificant amount.
- One that we are currently dealing with the quite costly fallout from and that we hope will not prove to be another like those above. But it’s not looking good.
Given how small Bethel is this is statistically way outside of the bounds of any kind of unfortunate coincidence.
And then there are these Bethel folk;
- A Sr Pastor who lied to us about sharing a confidential document and then lied about the coverup. The fallout from this, mostly from the coverup being exposed, was quite considerable including harm to us and our son, three pastors resigning and numerous people leaving the church.
- An executive at Bethel who was church chair and spearheaded the coverup.
- Nicholas Firkus and his wife who went to our church. She’s dead, he’s accused of the murder with a trial scheduled for late 2022.
- A Bethel professor who hit me while I was riding my bicycle. Besides hitting me, he never apologized nor came by the hospital nor even just called to see how I was doing. Yeah, comparatively quite minor but when a pastor friend asked me about it he joked ‘and let me guess, the guy who hit you went to Bethel’.
- A Bethel football player accused or raping at least three other Bethel students including one I know quite well.
None of this means that all or even many Bethel folk are untrustworthy. Being extra cautious, at least for us, may be wise though.
When I look back on my life I realize what a hugely important roll a number of people have played in it. Sometimes simply by just being there as a friend and sometimes much more. Don’t ever underestimate your impact on people’s lives. Even simple things like saying something uplifting or inviting someone to lunch can have a huge positive impact.
A highlight of every week for me is lunch with a pastor friend. I don’t know that I could ever convey to him what a positive impact his friendship has had on my life.
One day I was having a really bad terrible no good day. Several bad things that piled on top of each other. I went through a Hardie’s drive thru to grab a quick lunch and the attitude of the gal who took my order and gave me my food totally turned my day around. It was an extremely simple thing on her part but had a quite huge impact on me that day. And I later found out she was a student at Bethel. 🙂
One additional element that I feel I should mention. I have Aspergers (and ADHD). The way that most people experience my Aspergers is that I can be quite direct. Nice, but direct. I don’t sugar coat things nor rephrase something to make it sound extra tactful. And this isn’t a choice. What is for most people a natural executive neural function, is nearly non-existent for those of us with Aspergers. What is largely automatic for most people requires considerable time and manual effort on our part.
Similarly, on the receiving end we often don’t get nuance, inuendo, implied meanings or stuff hidden between the lines – we take things quite literally. This one I’ve improved on a little. If someone says “he’s on fire today” I no longer think that we need to find a fire extinguisher.
We (Aspies) are exceptionally logical and honest, often to a fault and likewise can have difficulty when lied to (it’s not logical). We have a deep sense of justice (justice is logical) and go bonkers when others are misled (misleading people is illogical). To many people I think we might seem to over-react to these things.
I mention this because I think that in some ways I am more difficult for non-Aspies, Neurotypicals, to be friends with. So all the more reason I am extremely appreciative of the many people who have befriended me throughout my life and helped me along this journey. (and for those wondering, I have been moderately successful in life, held sr executive positions in a couple of companies, have served on a couple of non-profit boards, and most of all have a wonderful wife, kids, and close group of friends who have all somehow found a way to put up with me).
People and Churches
——- Lynn, Jean, Sam and Dawson Memorial Baptist Church
I became a Christ follower in November of 1976. Over the years I’ve heard a lot of negative comments about missionary dating. Well, I’m the product of it. I got up the nerve to ask Lynn to a Birmingham Bulls hockey game and much to my surprise and delight she accepted.
Just so you get the picture. Lynn was a quite nice, popular and intelligent girl from a prominent Baptist family. And she genuinely walked the talk. I had hair hanging down a bit below my shoulders, was involved in the local rock scene, was not unfamiliar with alcohol & drugs, and had recently dropped out of school near the beginning of 9th grade.
After the game we went back to her house and joined her sister Jean and a couple of others home from uni (ORU). At one point in the conversation Jean said to the other two guys “have you heard what the Lord has done for Sam?” Sam was a drinking buddy of mine. Sam was Greek from a very Greek family that partied like Greeks. ‘The Lord’ doing something for Sam was intriguing.
Two weeks and some gentle witnessing later I was a Christ follower.
I don’t know if God would have sent someone else my way but he sent Lynn and Jean and I’m quite thankful.
I began attending Dawson Memorial Baptist Church with them and even joined the high school choir.
Looking back I’m thankful the leaders there put up with me as long as they did. I don’t know how much they knew about me and my music industry connections but I assume they had to have known something. Most Fri & Sat nights I was running sound or occasionally playing guitar for some heathen band somewhere in town and often at a bar.
But it wasn’t my hair or rock and roll that got me in trouble with them. Nor was it drugs or alcohol as I’d dutifully stopped those since I was told they were sins. It was inviting some friends from the choir to go to …an AG church. That, inviting some friends to Huffman Assembly of God church, is what got me kicked out of the Baptist choir and made me feel unwelcome enough that I stopped going to church altogether.
Welcome to Christianity.
——- Ralph and Liberty Bible Church
One day soon after my exit from Dawson I met Ralph. Ralph had been the lighting guy for Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and other bands. He’d become a Christ follower some years prior and had heard about this kid. I soon moved in to Ralph’s House for Wayward Hippies.
Redemption for what happened at Dawson wasn’t long in coming. A group of us began visiting various churches. We were all long hair bearded hippies (mine was nearly waist length by this point) and did not blend in with any of the people at any church we visited. Welcomed was not what we usually felt.
All changed one wonderful day. We walked in to Liberty Bible Church and while more than a few people stared we were also genuinely warmly greeted and welcomed. We’d found our home.
——— Carl & Fuzz
The guys in our group joked that Liberty was a rich environment for young 16yo me and that I had the choice of a pastor’s daughter, a rich guys daughter or the daughter of Carl – the sternest church elder who’d ever walked the face of this earth.
I had interest in only one. I know that Carl and his wife, whom we’d begun calling ‘Fuzz’, had more than a little heartburn over their daughter and me. But they put up with me and welcomed me in to their family. Carl never left any doubt what would happen to me if I stepped out of line though.
While they were far from perfect, they also exhibited the love of God (even to me for what i think for them were three very long anxious years) and how to live a daily life as a follower of Christ which was something I was desperately trying to figure out. Their example has had a huge impact on me to this day.
——— Dan and The Community
My early years following Christ were greatly influenced by a bunch of ragamuffin rock and roll people who made for a quite wonderful community.
There were a number of people in the rock industry at that time who were earnestly searching, wondering if there was a god, if so then who is he. And many of these found their way to Christ. Nationally were people like Barry McGuire, John and Terry Talbot, John Elefante and Kerry Livgren from Kansas, Ritchie Furray, Ben Kyle, Beeb Birtles and Graeham Goble from Little River Band, BJ Thomas and even Ozzy Osbourne was very seriously searching.
Along with Ralph our local community included Jim Pollard, Craig Morse, Richard Souther, Joe Pfau, Chuck Leavell, Marc Phillips, Don and Faith Peters, Hugh Carpenter and others.
I was a bit of an oddball among this group as they were all 5 to 15 years older than me. I’m thankful they welcomed me as I was not going to fit well in to any church youth group nor for the most part among any christian kids my age.
I doubt any of them realize how much they impacted my life. Often simply by observing how they lived out their searching and growing and struggling faith.
They had one really huge positive influence on me – independence. These were not a bunch of followers. They didn’t swallow whatever was preached and didn’t hesitate to question. This was the ‘never trust anyone over thirty’ generation and everyone in leadership in churches was over thirty. We had some bad theology and made some bad decisions but one thing we got right was seeking after God with all of our being.
And then there was Dan. Dan owned the local sound production company doing everything from rock to ballet. He wasn’t part of the local community of searchers but he still had a huge impact on my life.
I don’t know where Dan was at with God but he in many ways exhibited the life that I believe Christ wanted us to live better than most professed Christ followers did. He is one of the most genuine, caring, generous, forgiving and non-judgemental people I’ve ever known.
Those who know me know that I am kind of all over the map. There is nothing that doesn’t fascinate me.
Reggie owned Psalm 150 which was a local christian music store. Most of his revenue came from selling sheet music to churches but the bulk of the store was albums and tapes. Very cool place. Psalm 150 is where Ralph and I first met formerly and it’s where he and I met before I embarked on my drive to Minneapolis.
Reggie wanted to automate some of his sales and inventory so in 1978 he sort of hired me to help with that. Systems from companies such as NCR were much too expensive so we decided to try developing something on the new Apple II that had just come out a few months prior and also got two of the first floppy drives. We actually had people drive from Atlanta to see how it worked with the floppy drives.
Many evenings were spent in the back office eating pizza and discussing christianity, theology, music and culture. This was my first introduction to serious theological study and debate.
——- Jesus People Church
Over time I’d slowly become more heathen than Christ follower. I hadn’t stopped believing in God but a number of things, particularly a lot of hypocrisy I was seeing, had me questioning christianity.
I’d moved my production company in with Dan and had fully overloaded myself. Finding the cost of dimmers and control systems more than I wanted to spend, with help from my friend Rick I began building my own and eventually also built systems for others. I was thoroughly overloaded.
During this time Ralph came by to see me just about every single week. He never guilt tripped me for my waining faith and church attendance, just let me know that he cared about me and was there for me.
When I recommitted my life to Christ, Ralph knew that I needed to get away from Birmingham to some place where I didn’t know anyone (e.g., let’s get this guy away from the bars, rock industry, drug dealers, and others). He’d heard about Jesus People Church (JP) in Minneapolis, and in the spring of 1981 I drove up to Minneapolis with plans to spend a few weeks helping them with their sound, lighting and media.
This proved to be insightful on Ralph’s part. I was surrounded by people who wanted to follow Christ and importantly didn’t know anyone in the local music or drug industry.
While in hindsight JP and its leadership proved to be quite flawed, it and many of the people there were hugely beneficial to me for that time in my life.
Over the ensuing months there were more than a few times that I was ready to give up on this whole God and Christ thing. Part of this was my increasingly locking horns with the leadership of JP and part was increasing hypocrisy from that same leadership.
One major event was learning that our senior pastor Dennis had been having a number of affairs with women in the church. Then there was youth pastor Bob having sex with some of the youth.
Eddie was the drummer for the worship band and became a friend and a brother to me. He understood my frustrations and spent a lot of time listening to me and helping guide me through. I would likely have abandoned God for good were it not for Ed.
After leaving JP a hodgepodge of us wandered for a couple of years. Bloomington Church of God and Open Door were probably the most frequented. Eddie and a few others eventually settled down at Open Door.
Perhaps God knew that the turmoil that was to engulf Open Door a few years later was not the thing for me so provided me another path.
—— Praise Assembly
Tom Elie had been the worship pastor at JP and had begun a Bible study with a small group of us. This group eventually grew in to what became Praise Assembly of God church.
My girlfriend began attending and Tom eventually married us.
Praise was a great home for us during the first 5 years of our marriage.
—— Homebuilders and Lakewood Free Church
After our son was born we decided that we wanted a church closer to home and where he might make some neighborhood friends. We didn’t really want to leave Praise but felt that more of a neighborhood church was important.
The church services at Lakewood weren’t great. Neither the preaching nor worship were near the quality we’d both experienced in prior churches. What Lakewood did have was Homebuilders.
Homebuilders was a true mini-congregation. It functioned like a community. We all lived life together and for the next 14 years was one of if not the best church experiences we’ve ever had.
While we were all roughly 30’s and early 40’s, we often did things with a very similar group in our church called Founders who were a generation ahead of us (literally in some cases as some were parents of some in Homebuilders).
There was a problem though. Some people in Homebuilders and Founders would only come for Homebuilders and Founders, and not attend church services.
—— The Remnant
Many of us who left Lakewood weren’t really ready to go church shopping. We were kind of burned out on ‘church’ and our trust of those leading churches was not high. Instead we began meeting at our homes and eventually at a local community center. This wasn’t a church so much as a gathering and in many ways was perhaps far more biblical than organized churches.
—— Eagle Brook Church
When we first visited EBC it was First Baptist of White Bear, had about 250 people, and a new pastor who was a quite excellent speaker and with whom we became friends.
Our first 7 years at EBC were quite good. Our last 5 months the worst and most painful church experience we’ve ever had.
—— Sid, Dave and Calvary Baptist
Calvary became a good church home for us for about 17 years. Rich, the senior pastor, was intelligent, articulate, caring and focused on God and his word.
One downside is that we never experienced anything like Homebuilders at Calvary.
Sid was the associate pastor and chief marriage and relationship counselor. Sid has not only become one of my best friends but has helped me through some quite difficult issues.
—— Pandemic & Bridgetown
—— Emmanuel Covenant