There is a growing number of excellent books and website today that offer the reader first-rate scholarship and discussion about abusive churches and cults. Most of them clearly describe the attributes of such destructive groups, and give some great information for those recovering from membership in them. In this short piece I am not intending to offer such extensive information, as much as to provide three, short questions to a person who is genuinely wondering if the church they belong to is a healthy church that is good for them and their family, or is perhaps a church that has become (or has always been) abusive, and is therefore a bad place to be. I crafted the following three questions as a means of helping member to think through their feelings and beliefs about the church, and perhaps gain strength to leave churches that are, in fact, destructive and harmful to their members.

What got you in? What keeps you in? and What would happen if you left? 

These questions form a pretty small launch pad for the discussion, but perhaps they can be a first step. I am a survivor of any abusive church, and believe the following three questions, though buried deeply in consciousness while I was a member, would have been very helpful to me had someone clearly, pointblank, asked me to consider them.

  1. What got you in?

Members of abusive churches did not join them with a full knowledge of the damage and pain that membership in the church would cause them.  Instead, they joined with some notion of good, blessing, or benefit that they expected to find in the church.  For some, it was the promise of quality, genuine relationships with other, and like-minded people. The culture around us can seem a very cold and superficial place, full of Happy Hours that don’t make anyone happy, Facebook friends whom one never meets face to face, and a perpetual stream of short-term, casual relationships that never seem to meet any deep needs.  Friendship in our world is often a moving target. To find a group of people that share one’s faith and values, and promise friendship and commitment—that can be a very powerful draw!

Others are drawn to a church because it promises to meet their desires for advanced growth in their faith, perhaps even to the point of vocational preparation for some form of Christian ministry. The abusive church that I joined as a young man promised me academic training greater than that of a seminary, along with the “character training” I knew I required if I were to ever succeed in ministry.  Along with that personal expectation, the church itself boasted of a plan to “plant churches up and down the I-5 corridor.” I envisioned my wife and I arriving in Salem, or Ashland, Tacoma or Seattle and starting our own church.

Destructive, abusive churches always offer something to the recruit that is attractive and personally desirable.  Such churches are invariably easy to join, and very difficult to leave. They promise to meet needs that have gone unmet in the recruit’s life so far—to have the “answers” he or she is looking for in life.

Therefore, a valid question to ask yourself, if you are questioning whether or not you are a member of an abusive church, is “What got me in to this church? What was the promise, agreement, or expectation that made it seem so good at the time? Is that promise or agreement being kept, as it was conveyed to me when I joined, or does it remain distant, future, or has it been altered or ignored, now that I’m a member?” In my case, the I-5 dream was exposed over time for what it was—simply a recruitment tool designed to appeal to young, idealistic, ambitious young people like me.  As I write today, that church, over 35 years old, has yet to train anyone for ministry anywhere other than in its own, tiny congregation—and has never come remotely close to planting a new church.

What led you to join your church, and how has it worked out for you today?

  • Did you expect to find friendship in a non-judgmental, free, relaxed church, only to find that friendship is based on your commitment to keeping the standards and rules of the church? Are the friendships you have in your church actually very conditional, despite what was suggested or promised to you when you first looked into joining the church? If so, it is likely that you are in an abusive church, or at least one that is very, very unhealthy. If you are willing to communicate with the leaders of the church, than by all means do so.  But, if you are simply to intimidated, hurt, or uncertain of their receptivity of your input, then it is best that you leave the church, at least for a time, so that you can heal and think through whether your church is a good fit for you.
  • Did you expect to receive a level of academic or professional training in the church that has yet to materialize, or to result in your placement in ministry?
  • Did you anticipate growing to a deeper level of spirituality and character formation, a level that you never seem to come close to attaining?
  1. What keeps you in?

People stay in harmful situations in many other areas of life than churches. Sadly, they remain in hurtful marriage relationships, family systems, jobs and schools that are clearly destructive. With abusive churches, members remain in them, despite the growing, negative costs, and diminishing returns—because they believe it too costly to leave, that leaving the church will prove to be more emotionally painful than the discomfort and joylessness of remaining.  Once a person has become a committed member of any abusive church system he or she has made significant investments in the church, usually on many levels.  He may have given much money to the church, expecting to be a part of its growth and gain. He may have passed up promotions and educational opportunities that would have enhanced his income and career, all to be more available for the programs and ministries of the church. His marriage may have become so identified with the church that his spouse may insist on staying in the church, even if he left it. His children’s best friends might be their fellow church kids. He may have lost many of his friendships and family relationships as he gave his preference, time, and emotional energies to fellow church members above all others.

My wife and I became so embroiled in the life of our (abusive) church that we hardly had any aspect of our relationship that wasn’t in some way affected by the church. We spoke of little else than church-related issues, and subjugated time, finances, even our child-raising practices, to the good of the church, and never our marriage.  In short, it seemed too costly, on too many levels, to leave the abusive church, so I stayed in it long after I became disillusioned with it.

What about you? Have you found yourself in the position of being held IN the church, rather than attracted TO it, as you were when you first joined? Do you stay in the church in order to keep the peace at home, to keep your friends, or to avoid the feared I-told-you-so’s of friends and family that may have shared their concerns about the health of the church? Are you staying in the church, despite growing, privately held concerns over its health, out of a hope that perhaps better days are coming, and needed repentance on the part of its leaders is just around the corner? Do you stay because you want to stay, or because you are afraid to leave? Have the leaders of the church suggested that terrible things might happen to you if you leave? (Do you suspect they might be right about that? See the next point!)

Tough questions to ask, but if you are willing to at least consider them—even in the privacy of your own thoughts—you will be taking some of the first steps to freedom and genuine joy in your faith!

  1. What would happen if you left?

You might think that I’ve asked that question in order to argue that nothing bad will happen in you leave, and that your fears and pessimism regarding life away from the abusive church are all unfounded. That is not my desire at all. I would like to simply ask you to consider what you believe would happen to you if you left, and I mean what you really do believe. Abusive churches always have some sort of running narrative that promises varying degrees of failure, loss, and doom to those who leave them, or at least those who don’t leave in the “right” way, with the blessing of the leaders of the church. They keep their members from actively exploring leaving the church with doomsday predictions, along with their claims to be the best church, or the only church, or perhaps the only church that is God’s will for the member to belong to. After opening up the issue of my desire to leave the church, our senior pastor soon preached a sermon focused on exposing the “evils of leaving the place God has called you to for training” along with a vivid description of the horrible life that awaited such a “defecting disciple.” (The congregation knew exactly who that sermon was aimed at!) I imagined the mockery of my co-workers if I left the abusive church I was a member of: Looks like Ken’s a wash-out—and the religion he’s been trying to sell us for ten years is a bust! I wondered if I would be accepted by any other churches, coming from such a strident, abusive church. Would anyone understand? Would anyone want to include me in their church? And there were deeper concerns, too. Would my children be okay? Would they make new friends? Would there be anything left to rebuild my marriage on, since the abusive church had demanded such a role in it? Our pastor promised a life of meaninglessness, and zero impact for the kingdom of Christ, should anyone leave the church. Of course, I was wrong in every prediction I’d made regarding what I could expect if I were to leave the church.

But in posing the question, What would happen if you left? I am asking you to do something that is very serious and powerful.  You see, to begin to envision leaving, to the point of actively thinking through issues of what you fear life would be like, versus what you know life would be like—opens the door to imagination, possibility, and even faith and hope.

What would happen if you left?

  • Would you suffer loss in your marriage? (Have you spoken with your spouse about that?)
  • Would your children suffer? (How do you know that to be true?)
  • Would you be shamed by friends and family? (Why not ask them if that is true?)
  • Would you become irrevocably unhinged, a wandering, miserable spiritual reprobate whom God could never use? (Does that idea square up with how God treats His children, and with the broken saints Scripture who go on to be used by God in marvelous ways, as He heals mends their broken hearts?)

I don’t think anyone really has the answers to those questions before they finally leave their abusive church.

However. . .

To simply ask the question, and to work through finding honest answers to it—is in itself an act of spiritual empowerment, and opens a door for the Lord to speak to the soul in some powerful, private ways. Your willingness to simply ask these three questions, and to interact with your answers, can prove to be life-altering, and might even be the first step towards a deeper, more satisfying, healthy faith.

May you hear the voice of our Good Shepherd,

Pastor Ken