When I discuss my recent memoir, Where the Light Fell, often I use the phrase toxic church to describe the extreme form of Southern fundamentalism I grew up under. I joke that I’ve been “in recovery,” a process of detoxing, ever since.
“Tell me,” asked one podcast interviewer, “What makes a church toxic?” Three characteristics immediately came to mind.
FEAR. Memories of church from my youth summon up feelings of fear and shame. It was hard to hear the gospel as good news when most sermons centered on sin and hell. Over the decades, churches have played on many fears: a Catholic president (JFK), Armageddon, communism, the Great Tribulation, Y2K, AIDS, secular humanism, homosexuals, socialism, the New World Order, COVID-19. Some of these fears have proved legitimate, but others border on conspiracy theories.
“Perfect love drives out fear,” says 1 John 4:18. A healthy church does not use scare tactics to manipulate emotions. Nor does it deny that we will face frightening situations. Rather, it directs fearful people toward a trustworthy God. The Psalms and the Prophets demonstrate the pattern clearly: again and again, a people facing catastrophe are reminded of a God who is not anxious. “Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46 advises, even when nations are in uproar and mountains are quaking.
Yes, we should battle injustice and respond to tragedy, but from a position of calm compassion. The world is still reeling from a pandemic that has affected nearly everyone on the planet. I have talked to pastors who describe congregations torn apart by anger and fear over vaccines and masks. Is this the best we can do in representing the One whom the apostle Paul describes as “the God of all comfort, the Father of compassion”?
EXCLUSION. My boyhood church in Atlanta stationed deacons at the door to turn away as “troublemakers” any people of color who tried to attend. Thank God, our society has moved beyond that kind of overt, legalized racism—and yet bias persists in other forms.
The apostle Paul, once a Pharisee who would not deign to touch a Gentile, slave, or woman, laid down this firm principle after his conversion: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In one fell swoop, he dismantled the walls separating race, class, and gender. Nonetheless, the church has never stopped struggling with these very issues.
“If you want to grow in love, the way to do it is not likely going to be by attending more Bible studies or prayer meetings; it will happen by getting close to people who are not like you,” writes the Canadian pastor Lee Beach. Grace gets tested when we find ourselves confronted with people who are different from us. Do we welcome them? I think of the people attracted to—and received by—Jesus: “heretics” (Samaritan women), foreigners (a Roman officer), outcasts (prostitutes, tax collectors, the disabled, those with leprosy).
I know of no churches who would actively exclude someone of a different race or social class, but I know many churches that just “happen” to comprise people of the same class, race, and political persuasion. What kind of welcome would a homeless person or immigrant receive in such a congregation? Perhaps in reaction to my racist upbringing, now when I walk into a new church, the more its members resemble each other, and resemble me, the more uncomfortable I feel.
RIGIDITY. Church rigidity can take many forms. In extreme cases, an authoritarian pastor can create a near-cultic atmosphere. A series of popular podcasts produced by Christianity Today traces the rise and fall of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which Mark Driscoll led to explosive growth, only to see it implode under his abusive style. A psychologist friend of mine who has studied pastors estimates that 80 percent of them have strong narcissistic tendencies. Why not? We elevate them, literally, on platforms, and assign them the lofty task of telling us what to believe and how to behave.
All too often, narcissistic leaders focus on minor points of doctrine and miss the main message, of God’s boundless love for estranged human beings. John’s gospel describes Jesus as “full of grace and truth.” Rigid churches tilt heavily toward the “truth” side of that balance scale, often piling on rules of behavior that the Bible never mentions.
Once again, the apostle Paul shows a more flexible style. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” he declared to the Galatians, vehemently opposing those who insisted that Jesus-followers undergo the Jewish practice of circumcision. Yet he voluntarily took a strict ritual vow (Acts 18, 21) in order to identify with Jewish believers. Similarly, depending on the spiritual maturity of the church he was addressing, he modified his counsel on such issues as pagan holidays and eating meat that had been offered to idols.
Paul summarized his approach: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” He knew which theological and ethical issues to emphasize and which ones to minimize. Rigidity over minor disagreements, he viewed as a serious threat to church unity. The existence of some 54,000 denominations in the world indicates that not everyone has followed Paul’s style.
A Healthy Church…
In the last full night with his disciples, Jesus set out a formula for healthy church leadership (John 13-17). First, he got up from the meal and washed their feet, much to their discomfort. He demonstrated that good leaders don’t cling to privilege narcissistically. Quite the opposite: they serve the very ones they lead.
Next, Jesus gave a paramount command that overcomes exclusion: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Finally, he prayed for unity—not only for the disciples but for everyone in history who would follow him. Nothing would bear a more powerful witness to his message. In his prayer, Jesus said, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Service, love, unity—Jesus named these as primary marks of his followers. Have you ever asked a stranger, “When I say the word Christian or evangelical, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?” I have, and not once, not once, have I heard anyone answer with one of those three words.
A few times I have visited a megachurch in a tiered auditorium. As I look at the spotlighted stage below, I feel as if I’m at an NBA game, with 10,000 spectators cheering ten professionals on the court. It strikes me, that’s the opposite of a biblical view of church. Worshipers gather together not as spectators to be entertained, but as active participants. While toxins work their way into the church seemingly without effort, a healthy church will require the vigilance of all its members.
Meanwhile, the real audience sits outside, waiting to see if we truly represent Jesus through our acts of service, love, and unity.
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Чому Христос не зупинив вбивство Івана Хрестителя? Чому не зупинив вбивство Апостолів? Чому необхідне зло? Чому в Україні урядує зло?
— Щоб це змінити, треба будувати себе та шукати (щоб будувати) Царство Боже, не переставати пошукувати Царство Боже (щоб царював Бог, а не людина), треба народжувати Правду на землі, як на Небі, щоб могла прийти справедливість і настати мир, треба щоб домінували: Ради праведних і правосуддя суддями святими; щоб не було беззаконня; а для цього треба впізнавати прибулих Ангелів і самим ними ставати та жати пшеницю, попередньо вибравши та пов’язавши в снопки для спалення, кукіль. Домінувати повинні християни! Всюди і скрізь! Геть сатану з життя!
Немилосердний суд на того, хто не вчиняє милосердя; для цього треба ненавидіти зло та любити Правду; треба чинити Правду та справедливість; треба навчати різниці між злом і добром.
Треба мати військо Ісуса Христа на землі, Його рабів і слуг. Треба ставати силою Божою. Треба вилучити з-поміж себе нечестивих. Треба ставати народом Божим.
— Так прийде благодать Божа.
— Як бачите, справа в тім, що Церкви тільки моляться та проповідують, але нічого не роблять із того,про що моляться. Як не було будівельників Царства Божого, так нема! Всіх влаштовує жити в царстві сатани! Хай воно згине!
Almost makes me want to write my own memoir, as we all have a story or our story, but it probably will not happen. One of the saddest parts happened before I was born, so the content is second hand. My oldest brother had learning disabilities, but my father thought he was just a goof-off, so severe punishment was administered in hopes of motivating more effort and hence better grades. Not Good. After serving in World War I, my brother worked as a stock person in a PX at a military base. He accept Christ at the age of 40 and died at the age of 50 in a car accident. His widow shared that we would focus on those 10 years and not the 20 years prior to his turn-around. Wise woman.
I just finished “Where the light fell”, and it was quite moving. I am now 63 years old, I would have thought that my childhood past would not be an active part of my daily life! Wrong, it is always with me, it is like a song you can’t turn off or tune out. I thank you for sharing your deeply personal story with me and all of us who have followed your works. Please carry on my friend!
I am a student of CIU who studies Chinese theology online. I have known you through books since college. My English is not good, so I study Chinese theology. In your book, I found that there are too many similarities between the American church and the Chinese Church，Anyway, I like you very much. I hope you can translate more books into Chinese。
Most of my books do get published in China, sometimes through Hong Kong or Taiwan. I’m glad to hear from you!
very interesting article. Most churches are like you described. The belivers are sometimes like in a cage of fear. The message of the gospel is there to set them free but they need to hear it clear
Your words remind me of what Dallas Willard claimed was essential to the health of the church: bigger Christians, not more Christians. Most churches aim their efforts at getting more in the doors and more in the coffers instead of helping people find their way to follow Jesus more deeply, more completely, more humbly. We become ‘bigger’ and better examples of Christ – more Christ-like – when we drop the dogma, stop checking the boxes and dismiss the performative aspects that pose as holding value and instead seek him, his word, and his face in all we are and do.
Fear, exclusion, and rigidity are three prominent factors in creating shallow Christians, not bigger ones. I feel for your detoxifying journey and empathize with you as well.
I was hoping that you would retell the story that you wrote about in a magazine many years ago. I probably have some details wrong, but I remember that you and Janet traveled to the Chicago area and were hopelessly lost at night. Yet in the morning, you found that you were mere steps from your destination. How kind of the Father to confirm his leading you to this new place of ministry – it seemed like a miracle to me!
And of course it was.
You got it mostly right. I wrote about that in Marriage Partnership some years ago. Glad you remembered!
I have enjoyed reading books and other stuff you’ve written over the years, and I just finished reading the article about your new book on the Relevant Magazine website, which led me to order a copy from Amazon. It should be here tomorrow!
I was raised in a very strict Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) family, church and school. Spent the first three years of my life as a missionary kid living on an a Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico, and went to IFB school from 1st grade through 8th grade, where the Bible became a text book to me. And Christianity was more about the long list of Do’s and Don’ts than it was about loving your neighbor.
I didn’t make a personal decision to give my life to Jesus until I was 17 years old, at the IFB Summer Camp that I had been attending every Summer since 2nd grade, by myself at about 2AM, outside under a big tree. I could see a change internally in my life, and in the way I thought and acted, but I still attended traditional church for the next 17 years, and even became a Youth Pastor later in life, because that is what I was supposed to do.
It was during my final years as a Youth Pastor around 2005 that I started the internal process of “deconstruction” or as you say, “reordering”. I had just finished an in depth study on the early church in Acts, to write some Sunday School curriculum, which led me to question much of what we do and call church today. This internal questioning, led me on a spiritual journey outside the walls of traditional church for the past 16 years, while working for a very conservative, Christian company that started getting very focused on being a voice for the religious right in the political world, that it was pushing away anyone who disagreed with their extreme political views. This only further opened my eyes to the toxicity of the IFB churches and schools I was raised in, and the toxicity of modern American Evangelicalism that has become more focused on building a Christian Nationalist nation that it is on following the teachings of Jesus Christ.
I hope and pray I will find more focus and direction for my future as I start reading your book tomorrow, and pray that God will continue to lead me in the way he wants me to go, regardless of what those around me do or say!
I am 72 and have not attended church for 50 years! I live in a conservative mid-west town and due to politics, the Covid vaccine, etc., I have chosen to detach myself from these self-righteous, judgy and moral high-horse ‘Christians’. Yeah, I know, I just judged big time. :/
I do not believe that those different than I (LGBTQ) are lost and will not be saved. I believe God made them exactly as they are. I refuse to compare their orientation to other sins because that in itself is no more a sin than my heterosexuality. I believe Jesus feels the same!
SO, do I fit here? I would love to buy some of your books, but will I ultimately be reading another ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ book? I worked at a Christian College and this was their mantra which I abhor. I will quietly go away and continue in my search for someone like me if you do not agree! I say this with utmost respect and gratitude.
We’re the same age, and it sounds like our backgrounds have much in common. This book simply tells a story, and I try to avoid commentary and judgments. I think you might identify.
I love your writing; I always have. It has blessed me beyond measure. It has helped keep me focused on the God of Scripture.
Unfortunately, I’ve found it almost impossible to find a church that proclaims the Gospel clearly and healthily these days. There always seems to be an agenda or multiple agendas afoot.
Shouldn’t church leaders preach a Gospel that strives to be equal parts Grace, Mercy, Love, Righteousness, Holiness, Justice as much as possible in a cursed world filled with sinful people!?
Not looking for perfection; just looking for a proper perspective as much as possible.
Seems this pandemic, political unrest and upheaval has revealed much about the church. It’s not necessarily the refuge I thought it was.
But I will continue to seek; God promises I will find.
Philip, thank you so much for this newest book. I have been a Jesus follower for sixty years, all of it in Evangelical churches, and have experienced some good as well as some pretty bad. I have deep concern for the willingness to trade all we say we stand for and believe for the sake of political power. What a dreadful trade. We seem to have lost our to think critically.
So many times it seems we hear people are not following Jesus today because they do not know enough compelling evidence. If we could just give them one more proof. Enough factswould so it, we are told. My experience today in my work as a chaplain is that the actual reason, or at least one big one, is that very few people who would identify as nonbelievers know Christians that they want to be like. When we can relax a bit and love on them as authentic believers, it helps.
Dear Philip …
My husband and I just finished “Where the Light Fell”.
While it was a very difficult read, it was one of the most necessary one on grace and suffering. While reading, I saw myself as if in a mirror. I felt my heart melt with each time I wanted to accuse or throw blame. Thank you for unearthing what true grace looks like and what un-grace can destroy. THANK YOU for investing in the Body of Christ at such a high cost.
Service, love, unity – just grace in lavish amounts, it would seem to me….
Oh, it is all so very true. Well said. And I love the last sentence. It is perfect fitting.
Remembering your child this weekend, Charla, and most particularly on Tuesday, All Souls Day, when after a festive weekend we pause for those we love who are no longer with us. Four years is so short a time–little more than a few days in our calendar of grief, or so it seems.
Halloween was my daughter’s favorite holiday. The day of Wounded in Spirit’s release, October 30, I was spending a quite morning alone with Jessica’s memorial brick at our local botanical gardens. Such small moments of connection help to ease a difficult season. May you have moments of quiet, gentle memory amid your many tears.
I have just finished reading your memoir. Thank you for your honesty in sharing what must have hurt you deeply.
I read your memoir with these thoughts :
1. its very scary to me how well intentioned faith in God can lead to “man-contrived” selfs-binding vows or committments that were never God’s intentions to begin with. Marshall and you lived under the weight of a mother’s vow your entire lives, and one that was beyond her prerogative to invoke ..
2. as i grow older as a Christian, indeed the phrase ” what is real and what is fake ” is so true. My first Church was an Evangelical Free Church that emphasized the Pulpit preaching ministry, and I was exposed later to the more “supernatural” ministry – deliverance, healing, prophecy etc ministry. What i saw on Youtube, prohecies claiming the victory of Trump and seeing the disconnections and inconsistencies in his life, leave me wondering the same question, which of these claims or prophecies are truly from the Lord ?
3. your sharing about how nature, music, romantic love .. the “gifts” from the Lord softens you and leads you back to Grace and God is so comforting. How many well intentioned Churches , Christians attempt to get the world out of Christians end up pushing us away from Church / God ? Despite the cynical writtings in the Book of Eccleciastes, the message that impresses upon me is that God wants us to enjoy the gifts of life, the wonders of His world, the simple pleasures of life ( food, friends, family ) and not the deny yourself every good gifts from God, grit your teeth through life, bleak existence of living
4. your attempts to be the bridge of reconciliation between your Mom and Marshall moved me. As much as we want to see our loved ones reconcile and forgive one another in love, we have to realize that its their own self-will and choices they make and have to live with till their deaths and be accountable before God one day. I think this applies also to the choices that our kids make with their own lives, as much as we want to steer them in certain directions, they have their own choices to make. I pray that your Mom and Marshall will somehow be reconciled before their leaving this world in regrets one day
5. how sad that even in Christian homes or churches, there are so much unforgiveness and self-righeousness that blinds us .. your sentence “ i have to flee this place .. righteous evil unleashed in the name of God “ so aptly describes so many so called God led churches / Christians .. something that I pray we will be kept away from
6. having been exposed to deliverance ministry and the consequences of generational curses .. the threat of you Mother’s prayer over Marshall is indeed chilling. The curses or blessings of people in authority over us does indeed have powers over us, and it is a warning for us to be careful of the “curses” that we may invoke over our children, especially those that are spoken in anger
Thank you Phillip, for all your wonderful books and encouragement that they bring to so many millions across the world. You may not be a missionary fulfilling your Mother’s vow, but your books have influenced and bless many, i am sure your Dad and Heavenly Father is smiling over you and your body of works.
These are such wise and affirming words, Surjadi. I thank you for them, and for the careful reading that prompted them. I told a story; you identified the strands behind the story. And even since I turned in my final draft, there has been some movement toward reconciliation in my family.
There are a lot of felons in the USA since we put more in prison than all the other countries combined.
Try remind your self that Jesus and the apostles were incarcerated and made felons, some even got the death penalty, Jesus being one.
To help overcome is to do good and use your being a felon to council and study with other felons that are thinking as you are. Start a bible class for released felons in your home town. A lot of places will volunteer the space if you just ask.
Attend or start a class in a jail or prison nearby, the welcome will surprise you.
Spreading the word will relieve your stress more than anything and you will sure be looked up to instead of down!
Reading your new book aloud to my family has generated many tearful memories. Today’s post just really sums it up.
I somehow escaped my Holiness upbringing, only to end up in a huge and powerful California Baptist Church.
The brilliant senior pastor had grown the church from 300 to 4000
The success was hugely admired.
The mantra of leadership was that any negative comment condemned you to having a “Critical Spirit” The unwritten creed of the church.
Two volunteer youth leaders ended up in prison for molesting little boys
Then many years later it was disclosed that two top young graduates of the intern program had regularly slept with numerous teen age girls in their programs (And my daughters were contemporaries, but apparently unharmed by these monsters) It was further disclosed that the top leadership had counseled the girls to “Just let it go, don’t ruin these guys lives” Perhaps a paraphrase of Mark 8:36 is in order, “For what shall it profit a church, if it win the entire community, and lose its own soul?”
Phil, many years ago your book on Grace basically got me back on track and has been a guidepost for me over the years. I have given away literally dozens of copies.
i’ve read that you mentioned Mars Hill podcast. there have really been more and more narcissistic pastors for the last couple of years and that we often notice that because we can sense it that something’s off with somebody yet that isn’t for us to judge but God.
also, one toxic trait you also forgot to mention was the presence of codependency within a church. codependency is not good because it always violates personal boundaries of people. maybe you mentioned it earlier by way of saying “having a cult atmosphere.” and yes that’s how codependent pastors and churches appear. they become like practicing cults. God bless.
“Service, love, unity—Jesus named these as primary marks of his followers. Have you ever asked a stranger, “When I say the word Christian or evangelical, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?” I have, and not once, not once, have I heard anyone answer with one of those three words.”
This is absolutely tragic — and so very true.
It breaks my heart. Thank you for proving over and over again throughout the years that someone else out there notices and cares. Your words matter. They minister. They help mend.
David, thank you so much for taking the time to craft a response, especially when it comes from a place of such pain and sorrow. I am so very sorry this has been the reaction to you and your family.
I want you to know your book, Wounded in Spirit – Advent Art and Meditations, has been THE most influential resource outside of the Bible to provide healing to my soul. It was released a couple of months after the death of my oldest child, just in time for the first Advent season without him. I bought it at the newsletter recommendation of Philip Yancey (whose forward to the book is therapeutic in its own right).
All of the other resources recommended to me proved to be fluff and dribble — kindly intended, but missing the mark. Your book is different, and I attribute that to the path of pain you have also hobbled along. To quote the first quote from your book:
The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. He is, and always will be now, with us in our sin, in our suffering, and at our death. We are no longer alone. God is with us and we are no longer homeless.
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Advent Sunday, December 2, 1928
I think Mr. Bonhoeffer would agree that last word — homeless — could just as easily be the word ‘churchless’.
That being said, I am deeply sorry the response from the churches you have attended has been less than Christlike. This is tragically typical of the type of response so many of us receive. Your comment helps provide validation to so many who are themselves churchless/homeless.
This will be my fourth December to settle in each day with the beauty and wisdom of your book. Your hurts are ministering to my wounds. Thank you for not keeping them hidden away, which would also have been understandable.
Thanks Yancey for your forthright views. In my pursuit for the treasure I did struggle with lot of dirt that covered the treasure. However the treasure is more than the expectations. The Anabaptist convictions helped me to connect the dots. We are Christians because Jesus was Both God and Man and He is the centre of our relationship with God and not any human led church. Jesus model of leadership is sacrificial love that empowers the disciples to do greater things than what He did. He also warned against the yeast of hypocrisy of the Sadducees and the Pharisees. No human is worthy of the pedestal because other than Jesus we are all flawed and can only be treated as a brother transitioning to friend to each other while encouraging us to follow Jesus modelling among us. If you love God with all then God will lead you to the truth and the truth will set you free. Truth from Jesus will never leave you thirsty again. But as Jesus said “it is not that truth did not come into the world but the world loved evil is the problem. The lazy Sheep are the source of the problem who still want a king to bottle feed them without wanting to meet God in person and be subject to transformation by God.
I have found great help in getting to know God and his plan for the church from the writings of Prof D W Gooding. they can be found on Myrtlefield House web site, I am presently enjoying his ‘Bird’s eye view of Ephesians’.
I’m really interested to hear more from your psychologist friend about the narcissistic trend in pastors. I’ve been wanting to research this and would like to know if your friend is doing any research or if it’s just anecdotal etc.
Try “The Pandora Problem: Facing Narcissism in Leaders & Ourselves” by James Wilder
I used to believe in Paul’s gospel and practice it, especially the service, absolute love, and unity. My heart got ripped out by a bad Christian family and ultimately I lost my faith in Paul. I wish it could be restored. Paul is a good man.
David, keep in mind that Jesus and all his apostles all served time, most even got the death penalty.
I found that there are a lot of felons that are looking for someone they can relate to that will have a special service and bible study just for felons. Its amazing when the word is passed around the encouragement of one another will mean to them and you, both.
Do it in your community. Many will provide the place to meet if you ask.
Prisons are starving for those that will volunteer to do this for the inmates. Only thing that will be different is baptism is not allowed to be done anytime and not by anybody. The prison usually has it done once or twice a year by some local church but those you taught will be baptized, or if they die before that set time, thats where grace, mercy and forgiveness will come in.
Phillip, I have really enjoyed reading your new book “Where the Light Fell.” Why did you not include the name of Bible College that you and your wife attended, just a small Bible College in South Carolina. You named that you then went to Wheaton College. I can’t imagine all the trouble you and Marshall went through in your lives going up living in a trailer and going to so many schools. Wonderful writing, very enjoyable reading, excellent book. Got three more chapters to read. Have you and your wife any children?
I didn’t name the Bible College because it is an entirely different place now than when I was there, a transition time between presidents. Since some of my comments were negative, I left it unnamed. No, my wife and I have no children, “unless you count your books,” Janet says
On the bright side, there are amazing, humble people who work to make churches open to all. My mom was one of those. I would be happy to send you her story.
Philip Yancey, Joe Bailey, Francis Schaeffer–all “mentors from afar.” (Bailey I met twice–one-on-one. Yancey and Schaeffer must wait until we are mercifully seated at the feet of Jesus. All three observe(d) life from an oblique angle. Perhaps, more rightly, I was the one at the angle; they encouraged me to view life straight-on from the Jesus perspective. I (we) need these men–not as objects to worship, but as mentors. Thank you, Philip.
I’m not sure “enjoy” is how I would describe my experience reading “Where the Light Fell.” My church experience very much mirrored yours as a child and adolescent. I thank you for your unvarnished perspective, and I can imagine how wrenching the process of documenting those days must have been for you. Thank you for sharing your gifts, and your pain.
Thank you, Philip. I couldn’t agree more – reading your work has taught me so much about grace down the years and this is no exception.
As fallible humans we are sometimes prone to embrace one extreme or the other.
A wise ‘philosopher’ once observed that the only appropriate thing in the middle of the road is a Yellow Stripe.
So be careful which extreme you adopt!!!!
Fifteen years ago I was convicted on felony charges. I confessed my crime. I did my time. I paid what I owed. My daughter forgave me before she died in 2015. I believe that the Lord has shown me mercy and compassion. I am moving forward.
Many churches seem unable to do so. After my “time served,” I spent three years in weekly, then monthly, reports at the probation office. Waiting in the foyer, we would often compare our stories. Where did we do time? How long we been out? And so forth.
Church came up much more often than you might think.
“Oh, you’re welcome in church,” one African-American nodded. “So long as you don’t got no dignity.”
“Yeah, they seem to want me to grovel,” I said. “It doesn’t seem to matter how long it’s been.”
“You the felon,” he said. “You keep your place, you okay. The minute you anything else, they shut you down.”
I have attended many churches over the years. Alas, my crime was well publicized and so is easy to find for those who value Internet searches over the man in front of them. Inevitably, much to the pain of my wife, sooner or later, each church has found ways to assure us that we are welcome while simultaneously hinting that we most assuredly are not. One church even went to the trouble of cancelling the bible study group we attended, informing us via telephone—then restarting the group two weeks later without us.
In 2019, I attended services with my sister the day after my father’s funeral. A man stood up to speak. Twelve years earlier he had been convicted on felony charges. As he spoke, he wept openly that the church had not turned him away. My sister held up his example of a reformed soul.
I didn’t see it that way. Twelve years ago he made a terrible mistake and he paid for it. For twelve long years, he has groveled, begged, cap-in-hand, for scraps from the table of communion and joy. Here I pause. Twelve years and still he feels constrained to grovel.
How much is enough? Less than we seem to think.
After I was released, I spoke with a beloved, devout aunt on the phone. “How long has it been,” she asked, delighted. “Five years?” I told her that it had been a while.
“Well, you confessed and that’s that,” she said, moving onto another topic. “How are you NOW?”
I, yes I, am the one who blots out your offenses for my own sake; I will not remember your sins.
Phillip, I am an Executive Coach and Facilitator who has worked with churches for a few years now. What you describe is so true. I find that this toxicity can flow from both ordained and lay leaders. The common root seems to be a desire to control rooted in a sense of ownership. I keep my ears open for language like “MY church” or “we built [funded] this church X years ago” because these phrases, I find, are frequently an indicator of a fearful desire for control.
Thank you Philip for bringing this to the front.
I too was raised in the COC cult. No bible was allowed but the King James version.
What I realized as time went on is we didn’t go by what Jesus said, but what Paul the lawyer said. How many time we heard this is what Jesus said but go to here in your bibles and see what Jesus really meant by this. Finally it became obvious that we were making Jesus seem stupid and could not make himself clear.
I like so many others finally left and will always regret how we preached we were the only ones on earth going to heaven.
Today that is why the COC is dying and I am glad for it.
OUT ! ! ! STANDING ! ! !
DURING THE PANDEMIC, MOST ALL CHURCHES COMPLIED WITH THE SHUT-DOWN ORDERS. BUT ONLY A DEFIANT FEW CHOSE TO CONTINUE THEIR OPEN DOOR CALLING, EVEN SUBMITTING TO ARREST.
I CAN’T IMAGINE JESUS SAYING TO HIS FOLLOWERS OR TO THOSE HE’S TRYING TO SAVE, THAT FOR THE NEXT MONTH OR WEEK YOU CAN’T COME NEAR ME OR MY HOUSE OF PRAYER.
YES, THERE’S “ZOOM” AND THE INTERNET, BUT THE ELDERLY AND THE LOST SOULS ARE TOTALLY DISCONNECTED, AREN’T THEY?
PLEASE PROVIDE YOUR VIEWS AND HELP ME UNDERSTAND.
Bravo, your three characteristics of toxic religion. Those several TV preachers, who remain on the air and who you properly call narcissistic, perpetuate that view of Christianity and ought to be ashamed of themselves — the way they lure and solicit like carnival barkers; preen like wanna-be movie stars; and exhibit the very opposite of Jesus’s ideal humility and inclusion. At the very least, they resemble several unctuous characters in Dickens; at the worst, they pretend religion but preach politics. Fortunately, I grew up in a fairly welcoming church of the American Baptist Convention (tough they could have done more direct Bible study) and, so, the fundamentalism you describe so carefully in WHERE THE LIGHT FELL is foreign to me. Was not surprised to find your new book so well-told, well-paced, since your other books on Christian living are so clear and rational. Can’t say it was a pleasant read: so much family turmoil to unpack and that discouraging portrait of hard-line religion. I’ll bet many readers can identify as much with your brother’s hopelessness as with your readiness to accept where the light fell. But I found the last chapter to be a thrilling summation of what the central issues are for wanna-be believers (of any religion) and where Belief can prosper. In a couple of ways, the book reminds me of last year’s memoir by Pulitzer winner Philip Kennicott, COUNTERPOINT: A MEMOIR OF BACH AND MOURNING. He had his mother-problems, too, and struggles with absolutism — although he wants nothing to do with religion. His description of the search reminded me of yours. Anyway, our thanks for your many books. I believe I’ve read them all of them, and own ten. Ultimately, it’s not global warming, corporate crimes, class disparity, or even greedy preachers that threaten modern life the most: it’s soullessness. Your new book can help.
Excellent. Thank you so much.
Thank you for your timely, Christ-centered, sensitive message. I’m a firm believer who is convinced that we tend to look in the wrong direction for guidance as we navigate cultural traditions that lead us away from Jesus. I needed this reminder!
Good blog, and I loved your book, “Where the Light Fell.”
Thank you for this superb piece of writing, Philip. Clarity of mind and economy of words. Full of Grace and Truth. For me, your last sentence had very particular potency. Heart-breakingly so.
Very real and honest message.
I am definitely going to truly examine my own heart because I need too.
“Meanwhile, the real audience sits outside”….I love that….thank you Philip.
I have struggled with evangelicalism and what you say is v true.
I have, sadly, experienced periods of bullying and emotional abuse at several churches.
Having followed Jesus for 60 years, I am now hanging on by a very thin thread.
Leaving the Catholic church to become a Pentecostal has caused mental health issues and caused severe pain in my marriage(I am now divorced.
Both my husband n I were Catholics, but when I was brainwashed about ” being saved” and tried to influence him, which only resulted in dissonance and emotional distance…..I was so afraid of being unevenly yoked and he couldnt have cared less.
This affected our 3 daughters who all eventually stopped attending chuch….but what saddens n shocks me, is that I am v relieved they had too common sense to get sucked in to the Pentecostal system…..they were /are still, sensible, kind and caring young ladies.
I regret ever setting foot in a Pentecostal church…..I know you will also be sad, at this, but will understand.
Yor book “Disappointment with God” saved my spiritual life when I was desperate in the 1980/90s….thank you so much for remaining grounded.
Bye for now
Teresa Dexter u.k.
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying your memoir, Philip. I wish to write you directly, but I seem to have lost your direct email! 🤷♂️ (Let me know, if you’re able.) God bless.
Amen to your feelings of a spotlighted stage in church. Members should not be spectators but worshipping together. I’m praying our church will not head down that road as some want it too.
Thank you for this discussion. My adult children are not all involved in church but have good memories of our healthy church which may lead to them returning .
Am reading your memoir- painful at times but so insightful and inspirational
I have just read your latest book and can identify because I grew up in The Worldwide Church of God with many similar restrictions etc and attended one of the Colleges Although I live in the UK I did attend a Summer Camp in the US and experienced those military type dorm inspections. After the death of the founder – many of the past beliefs were challenged and eventually changed to understanding about grace, which led to the mass exodus of many members and leaders. Your book “The Jesus I never Knew” was an eye opener to me and I’ve been learning about God’s unconditional love for me ever since. For me coming from that background makes that understanding even more profound. Grace truly is amazing! Thank you for the books you have written which have helped me immensely over the years. Wendy
Vintage Yancey ! How the church of 2021 needs his voice to be heard and applied.
Frances Schaeffer said that the corollary of the world knowing the Father had sent the Son if we have love for one another is that if we do not have love for one another the world will NOT know the Father has sent the Son.
We need to get on with loving and serving ‘the least of these’.
Thanks very much, Philip, for this gracious wisdom.
Well said! I too have been “in recovery” for the longest time. The only thing that kept me believing was God’s grace, and His love.
Thank you ever so much for this message!
I want to share this with several people, and hope it speaks to them, too!
You never fail to inspire souls and touch hearts, Philip. What a treasure you are! I will share this with our little community… Many of us need to hear this… a lot!
Thank you for sharing what the church of Jesus Christ should be! I have been so encouraged by your words of truth in the books you have written. They have helped me so greatly in my journey with God! Please continue to be the light in this dark world!!
My experience of church has been pretty average, very rarely exceptional, ranging from legalistic and spiritually dead to spiritually alive but dead to the word. It is difficult to discover a church that is balanced in its approach to display all Christian attributes that will attract people to the Salavation of Christ and the Glory of God.
Churches are made up of frail, imperfect human beings, but sometimes I have witnessed some very bad behaviour that would make non-believers better Christians.
At the present time I have read accounts of fellow Christians where I live that have been told by their churches that unless they are fully vaccinated they are not to attend as those who have do not want to be near them. It begs the question where is the Love of Jesus and Grace, Compassion and Care in these so-called followers who are more or less excommunicating a fellow brother and sister in Christ?
If you are looking for a spiritual home pray about it to God and ask him to lead and guide you.
God bless and protect each and every brother/sister in Christ and those in the ministries as well as in the missionary fields.
Thanks for this post. Recovery from decades of church dogma & hurt ain’t easy. Finding a healthy church to settle into is a challenge…