Evangelicalism: We Promise This Totally Isn't a Cult
The Sunday after I was born, my parents took me to church. I was dedicated to God, I was raised in the basement nursery, and as I grew I worked my way through the various, developmentally appropriate, stages and programs that every good Evangelical went through. My family attended various churches throughout the years, ranging in denominations from Church of God to full-blown Pentecostal. If those names don't mean anything to you, don't worry. Their exact definitions aren't really important for today's story.
What is important is that one of the earliest churches I attended devolved into a full-blown cult.
It started with a Senior Pastor having an affair. I don't know the full details, but someone found out. They blackmailed the Pastor. Suddenly, one morning from the pulpit, the blackmailer was brought up to the stage and introduced to the congregation as the newest member of the church's leadership (I was 5, so I don't remember if they were called Elders, Deacons, or just “Brother Jones”/“Sister Margie”). They were “going to be helping” with the services from now on.
What followed was a series of bizarre, downward-spiraling choices that plunged the church into chaos and madness.
The Pastor was forced out early in the process. His affair became public, as they almost always do. He and his family left the church, and the neighboring parsonage, unceremoniously. They went on to become a “Touring Gospel Group,” which is Evangelical-speak for: they were homeless and had become migrant workers, traveling and living in an RV they couldn't afford while the Pastor plumbed his church network connections to shill for spare change so they could come and “bless churches across the United States with the message of Christ” (and sell homebrew CDs and T-Shirts, of course).
Meanwhile, the new church “leadership” began holding church services in the dark. I don't mean mood-lighting either, I mean pitch black.
People would stand up in the middle of service and run around the sanctuary, supposedly at the prompting of “The Holy Spirit.”
They began engaging in “laughing services,” where supposedly the Holy Spirit would come upon people and cause them to laugh uncontrollably. This would go on for hours, and was definitely not a case of induced mass-hysteria.
This was around the time that my family went “fuck this” and got the hell out of kool-aid-ville. We heard later that they started forbidding people to speak to family or friends that weren't part of their “church.”
My father disconnected from church for nearly 10 years after this. I don't blame him. I'm in a similar place myself. He was extremely disillusioned with the whole institution of church. It had failed him on every conceivable level.
But church was important to my mom, so she continued to take my brother and I to various churches around town. We church-hopped for a long time before we finally landed at a new “home church.” Interestingly, most of the people in attendance were refugees from the cult church I mentioned above. The church slogan was “A safe place to grow.” I felt very welcome and at home with them. We had a common cause and a common origin story. There was a deep sense of solidarity.
I spent 10 years in that particular church starting at the age of 10 or 11. For the most part, my memories of that time are positive. But, as is a theme for most Exvangelicals, things eventually soured.
Sometime around 2004 the Pastor got a “vision from God” to sell the church building and build a new one on a plot of land just south of town. The vision, of course, told him that he would have great success and that the church would “grow” tremendously (i.e. more people would attend).
I've noticed that Pastors rarely get prophetic visions of personal failure, or visions of “you'll have minor to moderate success.” Interesting, that.
In any event, the old church building was sold and we started renting space from the local High School to host our services while the new building was built. During this time the Pastor “prophesied” that we would finish within 1 year. The entire construction crew, aside from a few contractors hired for some key jobs like foundation laying and well-digging, were volunteers. The Pastor made impassioned pleas to the congregation to come and “serve on the construction team.”
The congregation wasn't there for it. Construction ended up taking closer to 2.5 years, after which everyone was exhausted from having to set up and tear down the sound equipment before and after service on Sundays, to say nothing of the manual labor the few on the construction team actually put in. We never did get an answer on whether God had gotten the time frame wrong or whether the Pastor had just made it up.
The church did grow though. There was a lot of emphasis placed on the worship services, something the Pastor's son was incredibly talented at. If you've never been to a charismatic church service, it's hard to explain what it's like. Things are incredibly emotional and expressive, and for the most part I'd say these services were the healthiest part of my attending this church, as they gave me a sense of inner-peace that sustained me through some very difficult personal crises. People, in general, loved the worship at the church, and kept coming back for it.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, however, I had my own personal “vision” from God on where he wanted my life to go. The Pastor was placing heavy emphasis in his sermons on “finding God's calling for your life.” This couldn't be something as simple or mundane as being an office worker. Oh no. “God's Calling” was almost always something sexy like being a missionary, pastor, or part of the worship team rotation. It always involved doing something specifically for the Pastor or his church.
I believed after sitting in many worship services and engaging in a lot of prayer and meditation that God was calling me to be a Pastor.
In my innocence I went to the Senior Pastor and told him about this. I was 17. I told him that I was going to withdraw my application to college and asked him to start training me to be a Pastor like he had with his own sons. In my mind it should have been extremely straight-forward. After all, hadn't he preached that God's word could not be countermanded by anyone, and that we should follow the word of God no matter what? And hadn't he spent the past 5 years training all 3 of his sons to be Pastors in various capacities? Obviously the next thing to happen would be him training me to become a Pastor.
He apparently didn't see things that way.
He visibly panicked and told me that, with my grades, I shouldn't throw away an education (probably the truest thing he ever said), but that if I wanted to become a Pastor he would accept me after I completed my degree at a local Christian College. At the time he was requiring his sons to get degrees if they wanted to be on staff, so this seemed fair to me.
None of them lasted longer than a year in school. He made them staff anyway.
4 years and $40,000 later, when I tried to hold him to his word, the Pastor claimed he had no recollection of this conversation but that he would “let me know” if an opportunity came up. He never did, though it didn't stop him from adding someone with no college education, experience, or character to the staff as “Men's Pastor” a month later.
By this point I was married, and my wife and I ended up leaving the church shortly after, and my attempts to reconnect with the Pastor/Staff professionally over the years have been met with silence and indifference (although the Pastor's wife did recently sign us up for email spam for her real estate business and try to sell us a house, even though we expressed zero interest in buying from her or anyone else).
Within the last few years it came out that one of the Elders was having an affair with the wife of the other Elder, his best friend. The two couples divorced, and the two cheaters got married and moved to Florida.
There's a million other stories I could tell, and likely will someday, but for the sake of brevity I'll state my point: there is no functional difference between the first church I discussed and the second.
While the first example was far more dramatic, the underlying principles, the way they got there, is exactly the same. Ultimate authority is placed in the word of God. This authority is subtly shifted away from a personal, lived experience of God to a man (it's always a man) in authority, who is given titles such as “Prophet,” “Pastor,” “Reverend,” or “Apostle.” This man becomes the source of authority, because only he can accurately divine what God is saying. God chose him, after all.
Some Evangelical churches try to deflect from this reality by saying “We just do what the Bible tells us to,” but this is a lie. It is impossible to “read the Bible literally.” You will always bring your own biases and interpretive lenses with you to anything you read. The question is how honest will you be about this, and where did you get these interpretive lenses from?
After graduation I tried to bring what I had learned in Bible College back to the churches I attended, for free, because I felt that people were misrepresenting scripture and that an education on how the Bible was created and how it should be read (yes, I roll my eyes at this too now) shouldn't cost someone $40,000.
I spent years trying to let people know “You aren't doing what the Bible says,” only to be met with indifference. I offered classes to the church free of charge. I talked with people one on one. I spoke with the Pastors about my concerns regarding their congregation, and in some cases people that were serving in leadership positions.
No one was the least bit concerned about what the book actually said, or whether their hermeneutic was logically consistent. This is because it was never about the written text to them, but about the Pastor's interpretation of the text. If the Pastor didn't preach on it, then it wasn't worth knowing. If there was a debate or question about something in scripture, they would say “Bring it to the Pastor, he'll tell us what to do.”
This is how cults form: When one man, or a small handful of people, are given license to dictate the thoughts, feelings, and actions of an entire group. When their word is beyond critique, and when challenging them leads to ostracizing, hostility, and shaming/shunning.
When one person can tell you “don't speak to your family, they don't believe like we do,” and you seriously consider it.
This is how cults form.
The fact of the matter is that every Evangelical Church in America is either a socially-sanctioned cult, or a few short steps away from being one. Even the “good” ECs are one bad decision away from causing irreparable harm to their congregation. The power structure of their denomination will always pose a danger to those beneath the anointed leader, and without this power structure the tenets of their faith fall apart under the weight of scrutiny, which threatens both the wealth and power of the anointed leader. This is a classic conflict-of-interest, where the interests and well-being of the Pastor are in direct conflict with those of his congregants.
Is it any wonder this keeps happening?
All told I spent nearly 30 years of my life in Evangelical Churches. I met some genuinely wonderful people who really were trying to make the world a better place. A few them I still count as among my closest friends. But my overall experience with ECs is that, from top to bottom, they are dangerous. Not always intentionally, but dangerous nonetheless.
I write about this because America still sees Evangelicalism as “wholesome,” “American,” and “family-friendly.” Bad experiences are downplayed, shushed, and gaslit away.
But my voice will not be silenced. Like my fellow Exvangelicals, I have a story. I have perspective. I've been behind the literal and figurative curtain, and I know what goes on in “God's house” after everyone leaves on Sunday.
For every good story you hear, there is an untold tragedy and horror story. For every person that finds meaning, another's life is torn to shreds. At some point you have to start weighing the scales and asking whether an institution is actually doing more harm than good.
I'm done asking. I have my answer. You should too.