Fifteen years ago my wife and I experienced a traumatic spiritual shakedown. The growing network of churches we had belonged to for more than 10 years began unraveling after the senior leaders were accused of authoritarianism. A once-thriving national ministry to university students was reduced to rubble in a few weeks--as pastors resigned, congregations closed and Christian friends stopped talking to one another.
All of us felt the heartache caused by broken promises and unfulfilled dreams. The pain of seeing a ministry blown apart by human failure was too much for some people to bear. Many became bitter.
Some marriages fell apart because of the stress of the organization's breakup. A few of the most wounded people vowed to never again join any type of church. Some even rejected faith altogether.
It took me a year to recover from the shell shock. I vented my frustration to a few friends over coffee, stayed intimate with the Lord and read my Bible often--especially the psalms of David, which are brutally honest prayers written by a guy who experienced a lot more disappointment and heartache than you or I ever will.
Part of my healing also came when I got connected to a healthy church. I had to learn to trust again, even though a whiny voice in my head kept saying: "Just forget about church. They're all the same."
That's what the devil wanted me to believe because his strategy is to isolate people and sour them with cynicism. I resisted his onslaught and grew stronger. What was meant to take me out of the battle ended up making me a tougher warrior--and giving me compassion for my wounded commrades.
Since my experience in 1989 I have met many injured Christians. Some were lured by Christian friends (or even home-group leaders) to participate in financial deals that ended up being illegal Ponzi schemes. Some were pulled into embarrassing religious deception--as in the case of the people who bought rural property in Arkansas in 1999 because their pastor predicted a Y2K disaster.
Others trusted a spiritual leader only to find out he was hiding sexual immorality. And others were simply browbeaten and manipulated by insecure, untested people who never should have been placed in church leadership.
There's no way to eliminate all risks of being hurt in church. Stuff happens. Even the apostle Paul had to deal with religious opportunists, abusive heretics and two-faced church splitters.
God is perfect, but He always uses flawed people to carry out His mission. However, there are a few key steps we can take to provide better safeguards and minimize church casualties:
1. Demand accountability. We live in a day of freelance Christianity. It seems anyone can slap a ministerial title on a business card and incorporate a nonprofit organization. Then--voila!--he opens a church in a hotel ballroom.
I'm not against people having such freedoms. Some of the best churches in the world started in hotels or strip malls. But would you blindly trust a doctor who opened a makeshift operating room in a shopping center after buying a bogus medical license from a diploma mill on the Internet?
The new church on the block may turn out to be a great place. But before you join, find out if the pastor is accountable to a denomination or reputable church network. God's ministers are not self-appointed, and spiritual authority can't be bought with a credit card. Yellow lights should begin flashing when you find out that any minister is a lone ranger.
2. Value character more than charisma. People join churches for many reasons. Some love the music. Others are stirred by the preaching. In charismatic circles we often judge a church by its "anointing level," which apparently is determined by measuring the volume of the pastor's sermon, then multiplying this by the number of times people fall on the floor at the altar.
We should expect the Holy Spirit's gifts to flow in church. But the biblical recipe for the anointing is not a haphazard mixture of shouting, emotional highs and spiritual quick fixes. It requires that church leaders walk in humility, integrity, marital faithfulness and theological soundness (see 1 Tim. 3:1-7). Any "anointing" without these ingredients is suspect.
3. Reset our priorities. The word love appears in the Bible more than 500 times. Love for God and others was the key theme of Jesus' sermons, and this is echoed in the epistles of Peter, Paul, James and John. Yet we seem to major on everything but the main thing!
For many people today, church is about (1) obtaining financial prosperity; (2) securing a personal "breakthrough"; and (3) finding the key to answered prayer. I'm amazed we don't end every service by singing four verses of "It's All About Me, Lord."