Michelle Van Loon co-writes an article with Marlena Graves for Christianity Today on the power of blogging in dealing with spiritual abuse. I almost feel like Michelle and I have a shared past especially since we both had a presence in Wooded Hills Bible and Elmbrook. This is my reaction to her story and my encouragement to keep writing and keep discussing difficult topics. We need to discuss spiritual abuse, manipulation and bad theology as the Gospel must be contended for and the sheep need to be protected.
“There are far too many silent sufferers. Not because they don’t yearn to reach out, but because they’ve tried and found no one cares.”
Richelle E Goodrich
“…you don’t have to wait for someone to treat you bad repeatedly. All it takes is once, and if they get away with it that once, if they know they can treat you like that, then it sets the pattern for the future.”
“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.”
Exodus 22:21-22 NIV
I want to journal about Michelle Van Loon today. I read her post in Christianity Today and this alumni of Wooded Hill Bible Church wants to give a shout out to another alumni of Wooded Hills Bible. Its been awesome and encouraging to watch your career blossom and grow over time. My hope is that you will continue to write about the difficult aspects of Christianity that are not being discussed today. For the health of the church they must be tackled.
Wooded Hills Bible Church
When I was involved in a Bible study at Garfield Baptist (today Spring Creek Church) I had a guy that I loved named Jerome (IIRC). He was involved in Calvary Chapel in San Diego, was black and an all around great guy. I just loved him! The thing that made me laugh was when he referred to the story in Daniel as “Meshach, Shadrach and A Bad Negro Brother” (Abendego). In talking with him he told me of this church that had these exceptional worship events that drew people from across the state of Wisconsin. He told me of people he knew that would travel down from Green Bay to attend these worship events at this church called Wooded Hills Bible. I was taken back and asked to know when the next one was gong to be and in time I heard of it. When Wooded Hills’s Bible had their next “Winds of Worship” I attended. These were events that are hard to describe, and you had to see to believe. In these events you had singing and clapping that where intense. People face down on the ground in tears and a room packed with lots of emotional energy. After a couple of times attending I decided to get more involved. I got to know my Pastor Joe Jenkins who is a man that I loved and cared about. Hands down he was one of the best Pastors I had, he earned my trust by how he lived and led while always pointing toward Jesus. I wrote this post as a tribute to him, and I still mean every word. I also got to know others in the Wooded Hills congregation. It was a haul from downtown Milwaukee, and the Marquette University campus to attend Wooded Hills but I loved it. It was a 28 mile drive regularly but it was well worth it. At Wooded Hills there were a couple of retreats that were good, and I liked the elders there. To Jonathan Leeman’s pleasure and joy I became a member. To Jonathan Leeman’s disgust there was no membership covenant that owned my soul like some churches are doing these days. The church was a Third Wave church but not exactly as far as the Toronto Blessing. As a Third Wave church Wooded Hills was very creative with dance, skit, and music. I actually found a skit done at Wooded Hills on Youtube that I posted above. Watching this online brought back memories! When I was at Wooded Hills we also did Rick Warren’s “A Purpose Driven Life” campaign as a church together. One thing I especially appreciated about Joe Jenkins is that he asked questions, and he explained to me a few times his personal struggle with the charismatic theology and how scared he was at times. I think that made Joe Jenkins so gifted as a pastor. I’ve been in a lot of churches over the years and I have seen many pastors who are arrogant, controlling and brash. Seldom have I heard a pastor say, “I don’t know” which is one thing Joe Jenkins actually told me often. Wooded Hills was so blessed to have Joe look over the flock. While I was there I vaguely remember interacting with Michelle Van Loon a couple of times. I also remember sitting in the sanctuary when it was explained how she and her husband Bill were leaving. I’m rusty but I think she left Wooded Hills to eventually go work at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. While there are a lot of things about Wooded Hills that I loved, there are a couple of things that deeply troubled me. More so today than at the time as I was in the thick of the church. Wooded Hills had a couple of conferences or events with Mike Bickle’s International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Missouri. I didn’t know much about IHOP at the time, today I know more than I care to. What troubles me is the stories pouring out of IHOP today and how many people fomerly involved have called it a cult. Then there is this murder situation that also came out of IHOP which the New York Times picked up on and reported. All of these should be a red flag and something that evangelicals should be able to discern. Wooded Hills sent at least two people to join Kansas City IHOP if I remember correctly. Today that deeply troubles me, and from time to time I wondered what became of them. Another thing that troubled me today is that some of the charismatic theology I think went over the edge. What didn’t bother me then, and what does bother me now…is hearing about a high school youth group that went into a convenience store to engage in spiritual warfare. That bothers me today. Please understand I am not trying to be critical…I have a lot of fond memories of Wooded Hills that are going through my head as I write this post.
Stumbling Across Michelle Van Loon Online Years Later…
From 2009 until 2013 I was in a deep and prolonged faith crisis. My faith had imploded and I was left picking up the pieces of my life. I was overcome by doubts and broken by such issues as the problem of evil, and what happens to those who never heard the Gospel because of when and where they lived? I was angry, fried, disillusioned and profoundly lost. My faith crisis was hell. Against all that I also had a 2005 Air Force Academy graduate, an Air Force Captain who was pressuring me to attend Sovereign Grace. At this time Redeemer Arlington had not broken away from SGM. I was horrified by all the abuse hemorrhaging out of the organization and it was something that I did not need. I needed help, I needed someone to love me, not peddle a church at high pressure. It was during this time that one night late past midnight I was sitting at my computer reading I believe a Scott McKnight post. I saw a comment if I remember correctly by a Michelle Van Loon, and it led me to a blog at Christianity Today that she was writing. I remember thinking to myself…”Is this the same Michelle Van Loon from Wooded Hills?” When I realized it was I told the Air Force Captain pressuring me to attend Sovereign Grace that someone who I knew was writing a column for Christianity Today. As I recall he didn’t say anything to that at all. A couple of years later when I was working at rebuilding my shattered life which came from both a faith crisis and a false accusation given birth to by an Air Force Captain I had approached Joe Jenkins and his wife in a Bob Evans in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The purpose of the meeting was for me to seek forgiveness from the Jenkins to make sure that there was no bad blood or problems between us. As a former pastor Joe knew exactly what I was doing and why. During the conversation over breakfast I asked Joe if he knew that Michelle Van Loon was writing a column for Christianity Today, and Joe told me that he was not surprised as she was quite talented and gifted in her communication skills. Having said all that let me spend some time commenting on some of what Michelle Van Loon said in her post in Christianity Today. As a heads up I am not going to focus on Marlena Graves too much as I am trying to tie this into a common connection from Wooded Hills. In some ways I feel a bond with her as we both were involved in two churches in Wisconsin so I feel like our paths covered similar ground. After writing about what Michelle Van Loon has written I want to write about some of the issues that trouble me about evangelical Christianity today which I believe threaten it, and are making it unhealthy.
Blogging about Spiritual Abuse
In an article that was written by both Michelle Van Loon and Marlena Graves they discussed spiritual abuse and the importance of speaking out. In her article Michelle writes the following:
I’ve watched from afar as similar scenarios play out as whistleblowers decry leaders-gone-bad in organizations and congregations across the country: Doug Phillips, Bill Gothard, Mark Driscoll. Especially online, we hear from these voices long before the pastor finally makes a grudging public admission of his wrongdoing.
In addition to the stories hemorrhaging out of the organization that is hurting what also alarms and disturbs me is how some of this material has influenced churches that I looked into, denominations that I care about and friends and loved ones in my midst. I saw this happen the most with Mark Driscoll. When I had rejected Christianity for years I read on the internet all the stories pouring out of Mars Hill Seattle and was baffled. I was also troubled to know people who were witnessing to me who wanted me to listen to Mark Driscoll or recommended him. I couldn’t believe the level of cognitive dissonance that was playing out. Getting back to the discussion Michelle says the following:
But I do believe that some whistleblowers among us are exercising their gifts of prophecy and discernment when they raise their voices for the abused, marginalized, silenced, and disenfranchised for the good of the body. Whining can be the fruit of pride or immaturity, and tends to be focused on our individual, consumerist preferences. Whistleblowing is meant to awaken and protect others. As hearers, can we trust the Holy Spirit to sift wheat from chaff when we listen to their words?
While I do believe some people can be bitter I think many people on the blogs you referenced above are hurting and have been harmed by those individuals that you referenced and more. One other person I would put on your list of leaders gone bad is none other than CJ Mahaney of Sovereign Grace. What puzzles me today is how much spiritual abuse is in our midst and how many people just don’t want to hear about it. No one wants to hear about child sex abuse, or spiritual abuse from the shepherding movement. Its hard and exceptionally difficult as your writing partner says that standing up can be costly and a person can lose a lot. They can lose livelihood, reputation and community. Its not easy speaking out and those who you referenced deserve our support and love for the courage in speaking out. There is one other thing that I find fascinating and its that many of those speaking out the most are women. Many women I believe can have more discernment than men at tines. For me its refreshing to see Julie Anne Smith or Dee Parsons write away. I’ve been privileged to get to know Julie Anne, and interact frequently with Dee Parsons. When I had my faith crisis and my brush with Sovereign Grace Dee Parsons was the first person I called after being sent home from work on May 8, 2013 on a false accusation. I had stayed away and out of Sovereign Grace but the cost was high. Speaking up and out can be costly…especially when it involves standing up to pastors or friends. What deeply concerns me is that some of this stuff forces people to chose sides and it divides in ways I have never seen before. Sovereign Grace was so controversial and had so many red flags I couldn’t believe I was being invited to the organization. It led to conflict, friction and tension in ways that I never saw before and I never want to see again. But its been encouraging to see the courage of both brave men and women stand up and speak out. I’ve said this before and I will say it again, the love and care and time Dee Parsons invested in me in helping me walk through the darkest season of my life amazed me. I don’t think I would be where I am today had it not been for Dee Parson’s helping me get through the a particular bleak time. Part of the reason why I write here is that I am still healing. There are times I still cry, and am saddened that this even happened. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I think today he is weeping over the amount of spiritual abuse that exists and is pouring out of the church. My gut is telling me that what we are seeing today is but a fraction of what really is playing out.
What Troubles Me About American Evangelicalism Today….
While Michelle spoke about spiritual abuse there are a number of issues that I have either encountered or observed in evangelical Christianity today that I would like to reflect upon. During this time of journaling I would like to put down a few on paper, or more appropriately cyber space. This is in no particular order as its just writing about what weighs on me in many churches and the evangelical Christian movement.
- I’m amazed as to how much of evangelicalism struggles with child sex abuse. I came to one church, Elmbrook in Brookfield, Wisconsin a couple of years after the Youth Pastor committed suicide after sexually abusing a number of teenage boys. It hung over Elmbrook as I later learned. I was involved in a couple of other churches that struggled with how to deal with a sexual offender and both help him, and protect the congregation simultaneously. Then I was invited to Sovereign Grace against the largest lawsuit in evangelical Christian history. I believe evangelical Christianity struggles with child sex abuse more so than the Roman Catholic faith. The authority issue in Protestantism especially with the nature of many churches just breaking off or having no accountability actually greatly enables the problem of child sex abuse. Again I can’t believe how many churches I have been involved which have struggled with this issue. And one child that is hurt is one too many.
- I see churches that can be more enamored with growth than ministering and feeding the sheep. I also have seen churches that treat the members and attenders like a personal ATM, and just a number. It breaks my heart and is frustrating to see people treated in this manner.
- Today I am a refugee from the Evangelical Free Church of America. I have been aware and followed how many Evangelical Free have been theologically hijacked by Neo-Calvinists coming out of Trinity. To invade, and do so deceitfully at times, and treat a church as a conquered possession in the same way the British treated colonial Kenya troubles me deeply. In the end Neo-Calvinism in the Evangelical Free has forced people out of the church, divided families, destroyed relationships, friendships and some people’s faith. A number of Evangelical Free in the DC area have gone the Neo-Calvinist route and in the spirit of Josh Harris, “I Have Kissed the Evangelical Free Church” goodbye. The Evangelical Free played a key role in my faith at one point in my life, and if there was one denomination I would love to be involved in, its the Evangelical Free, however that is not going to happen due to Neo-Calvinism. My prediction is that the Evangelical Free is going to be split by Neo-Calvinism in the course of time.
- I see more churches use membership covenants which I believe are legal documents which are both manipulating and controlling. They are the first step for a church to sue and go after a congruent. In the process membership covenants disrespect scripture at the same time.
- I see many evangelicals honestly struggle with discernment and cognitive dissonance who can’t see the wolfs out there who are devouring the flock and bringing harm to so many people. Who are the wolves you ask? They are individuals like Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Seattle and CJ Mahaney from Sovereign Grace Ministries. Neither Mark Driscoll or CJ Mahaney should be teaching, nor should be they in a position of leadership. Not only do they need to repent but they need to be held accountable for their past activity especially as a leader. Mark Driscoll needs to be held accountable for the pain, and harm he did at Mars Hill Seattle. In the historic Battle of San Jacinto the rallying cry by forces under Sam Houston was “Remember the Alamo!” In World War II the rallying cry that helped propel the war machine in the Pacific Theater was “Remember the Arizona.” As long as Mark Driscoll is preaching and teaching in light of the atrocities he has committed the rallying cry needs to be, “Remember Paul Petry and Bent Meyer“. Until Mark Driscoll stops teaching and repents to those in Seattle those of us in the church need to be vocal about it and hold his feet to the fire. The same is true with CJ Mahaney who allegedly oversaw the cover up of child sexual abuse. He needs to be held accountable for his actions as well.
- Another thing that troubles me are theological organizations which have blurred denominational lines and bringing chaos into churches. The biggest one is The Gospel Coalition. First of all while I find their name to be exceedingly arrogant what troubles me the most is finding churches that affiliate themselves with The Gospel Coalition without consent of their members or notifying their members that they are joining a Neo-Calvinist organization which is tainted by scandal and corruption. This issue so troubles me that it is my principle to not attend a church that is affiliated with The Gospel Coalition.
- Another thing I have seen harm evangelical Christianity is that of fads. I entered evangelical Christianity during the “Left Behind” fad and struggled with the rapture craze. Next to come was the Prayer of Jabez, the Third Wave movement, Purpose Driven Life movement, and the current one Neo-Calvinism. What is next I wonder? All these fads are causing deep harm to the faith. Plus I would also suggest many of them are needless.
- I’ve also seen Pastors who act with entitlement and privilege. They don’t feed their sheep or visit the ill in the hospital or care for the broken in their congregation because some are too busy writing books, hitting the conference circuit and speaking. While other pastors believe the people at the bottom of the totem pole should be taken care of by others below them, after all they are above it. Since when did Christianity become so elitist and privileged? Whatever happened to the meek will inherit the earth?
- I’ve also seen the rise of the Celebrity pastor and the harm that has brought to the Christian faith. I am disturbed by seeing Pastors being treated as rock stars and go unchecked in their teaching. While many will actually deny this I’ve noticed people identifying more with a particular celebrity pastor than I would suggest Jesus. I wrote about the personality cult of John Piper and his followers here. Another problem that stunned me is when John Piper taught that women should submit to domestic abuse in a marriage. If you don’t believe me you can hear it from him directly here. Why was this unchallenged by many? Domestic abuse is a crime. Why have organizations like Cru or other para church ministries had John Piper speak and teach despite horrific teachings like this? Which leaves me to ask this question as well….since when did John Piper become the fourth member of the trinity?
- I’m troubled by the culture of evangelicalism especially one that is hostile to both science and intellectualism. Now before I continue let me state that while I believe in an Old Earth I am not opposed to people believing in Young Earth. Actually I believe diversity can be a strength in Christianity. One of the guys who helped bring me back to the Christian faith believes in a Young Earth, but he also knew the differences between primary and secondary issues. As such Scott never pressured me on YEC. So while I am not opposed to people believing in YEC, I am opposed to some people making it primary doctrine and hinging all of the Christian faith on it. 95% of a person’s faith should not hinge on 5% that is a recipe for spiritual suicide. I am equally troubled that individuals like Ken Ham are promoted. I am deeply troubled by the promotion by evangelicals like David Barton. I did grad work at Marquette University, and David Barton’s work is seriously flawed and would never be allowed in schools such as University of Wisconsin – Madison, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Marquette or Alverno. Evangelical Christianity needs more Francis Collins and Warren Throckmortons. Here is the sad part that is going to happen if evangelicals can’t work past creationism. The day is coming in the future when science is going to start to do ethically questionable research, or the door will be opened to aspects of human cloning or issues that today we can’t comprehend. When this happens and at a time when people need to be able to speak up and address the ethical concerns many evangelicals are not going to be able to stand up and speak intelligently to the issues at hand. Why? Because they shot down science and don’t have individuals like Francis Collins that can speak out. Plus many evangelicals will still be stuck on the creationist issue and will be unable to move beyond it.
- The other thing that troubles me is how pervasive prosperity theology is in many churches. It can be overwhelming and people are waiting to be stung and bitten by it. Prosperity theology can be so cruel to someone in a season of life dealing with pain. Yet I am astounded as how to wide spread it can be.
- In the Neo-Reformed camp it deeply troubles me that a form of theology is being advocated where you can’t even have a serious discussion and raise the issues of John Calvin’s involvement in the execution of Michael Servetus. It also troubles me that John Piper is advocating and teaching a form of sovereignty that really is nothing but determinism. At its core it reminds me of an approach to God that is more reminiscent of Sunni Islam, and is part of the reason why some are calling this the “Islamization of Christianity.”
- I see churches abusing and using church discipline which has been horrifying. The story of Karen Hinkley at Matt Chandler’s The Village Church in Dallas, Fort Worth is outright horrifying. And if this is happening at ground zero of the Acts 29 network what does that say about other Acts 29 churches in Wisconsin, Illinois, California or beyond? Karen who learns that her husband is addicted to child pornography and is sexually attracted to young children files for an annulment and the church disciplines and goes after her while claiming her husband is walking in repentance. Unbelievable….
But that is just a sampling and I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. Here’s what troubles me in the long run. I am afraid that in the course of time I will become either a “none” or a “done.” Here’s why…I’m watching people get hurt in evangelicalism as I age. I’ve been watching friends and others push back from the Christian faith in time. I had my faith crisis which was hell and I spent half my thirties pushing back from Christianity. What helped bring me back is love, but it can be so hard to find love in evangelical Christianity today. The church I was baptized at in the course of I’ve time I eventually parted. It was both a combination of an authoritarian situation that stunned me as well as a church pursuing church growth that is reckless. For the last few months I have been trying another church in Arlington, Virginia but I am honestly fearful. If I become a “none” or a “done” it will not be by my choice. In the end it will be because the church today has closed many doors and leaves a person with no options of where to go. I used to be involved in the Evangelical Free but I strongly disagree with the Neo-Calvinists and I see a denomination going the way of the SBC. In other churches I see seeker sensitive and prosperity theology that I equally disagree. The other thing that deeply troubles is when I consider what I learned from my faith crisis. There are churches popping up like weeds in the DC area yet I am amazed as to how many churches lack the capability to both teach and intellectually engage with people. In my faith crisis I went from church to church asking many questions but one in particular – why does a loving God allow evil? And I was amazed when an agnostic came to the church, actually sought it out, and the church really couldn’t intellectually engage me in return.
The other thing that troubles me is some of the people or stories I heard in my faith crisis. I wish many pastors or Christians could have heard some of he stories I heard. Some people were hurt and walked away in pain from the church. Others had deep and serious questions or issues that they had. They were not trying to be difficult they just had intellectual doubts and problems that the church really couldn’t speak. Personally I can empathize with both camps today. Again some of the emails that I have received behind the scenes have troubled me. Don’t get me wrong I am okay with it, it just troubles me that so many people are getting hurt today. What troubles me the most if the following. We evangelicals are needlessly hurting and creating our own enemies. When I think back and read a lot about atheism today what stuns me is that many atheists aren’t mocking the fact that a man was crucified, died, and rose again in 3 days time. What is driving a lot of atheists and keeping people away from God are churches covering up child sex abuse. Corrupt pastors and ministries that are manipulating and destroying people with Christians remaining silent about it. Or pastors that teach that women should submit to domestic abuse and endure it, and have no to little regard for the value of life of a woman. This is the reason why I get so upset about John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Sovereign Grace, and questionable churches. I’m still throbbing in pain and still trying to get some of this stuff out of my system. Heck, it took me 15 years to get Mormonism out of my system, how long is it going to take me to get all the crap from John Piper out of my system? I can’t believe how some of this stuff I brushed against deeply affected me. On the Facebook page for “Repeal the Bylaws” which is a community of people from Mars Hill Seattle and people hurt by Mark Driscoll, I read a story of two friends who stood out in the drive away of a home at 2 in the morning yelling at each other. One professed his love for Mars Hill while the other person who was spiritually abused was screaming it was a cult. Do you want to know my story or incident that I can relate to? Its almost similar to that incident. It dealt with me lost in a faith crisis trying to figure am I going to be a Christian again or will my life go the atheist route permanently? Then I was being invited to Sovereign Grace and I couldn’t believe the stories I read online of child sex abuse cover-up, spiritual abuse, shunning, divided and destroyed families. So then there were two adult males, me and Andrew White standing in the lobby at work. Here was a 37 year old man and a 30 year old man at the time who were inches away from each other practically yelling. I was under so much pressure to attend Redeemer Arlington that I could physically feel the pressure. Andrew was almost yelling at me with this blind devotion that Sovereign Grace is “the healthiest church he has ever known” and me yelling in return, “It’s a cult! You’re treating Eric Simmons in the same way the Mormons worshipping Joseph Smith.” I didn’t need Sovereign Grace amidst a faith crisis, it didn’t help my faith crisis at all. Actually evangelical corruption and organizations like SGM feed my faith crisis and justified atheism.
Part of the reason why I am writing so much is to get all this out of my system or try to get it out. But against that I read your article Michelle Van Loon and I want to say well done! Also give a high five to Marlena Graves. There are a lot of people who love and care for you Michelle. Its with that from one former member of Wooded Hills Bible to another, carry on, and keep writing. You have someone in the DC area actively following your writing with both passion and interest! In closing I wanted to leave with a couple of songs that we used to sing in “Winds of Worship” at Wooded Hills Bible. The first one is called “Now is the Time to Worship” followed by “Precious Jesus”. Even today I remember being so sore from singing and clapping to these songs that I was hoarse for a couple of days.