Practicing Discernment: Rich Maurer’s Grace Evangelical Free in Viroqua, Wisconsin

This is a discernment post from Grace Evangelical Free Church. Grace is an EFCA Church in Viroqua, Wisconsin in the western part of the state. What does this church vision statement say? Would you get involved in this EFCA church? Why or why not? 

“Intelligence is something we are born with. Thinking is a skill that must be learned.”

Edward De Bono

“To live is to think.”

Marcus Cicero

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. 12 As a result, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men.

Acts 17: 10-12 NLT 

Kansas sunset 

This is another discernment post from an Evangelical Free Church in Western Wisconsin. Grace Evangelical Free Church is in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Viroqua has a population of 4,262 people according to the 2010 census. Grace Evangelical Free is led by Rich Maurer. Rich worked in the medical field before attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago, Illinois. Its my understanding that he helped plant Grace Church in 2001 and has been the lead pastor since. When you see the statement below what does it tell you about Grace Evangelical Free? Is this a church you would attend? Why or why not? Feel free to discuss below. 


The local church is the God-ordained, Christ-driven, Holy Spirit-empowered strategy for reaching the world, fulfilling the Great Commission and building His Church. Therefore, it is necessary that we understand and apply all of the Biblical requirements of a healthy, local church body. The following principles have been taken from The Nine Marks of  a Healthy Church. They are the foundation for our Strategy and Ministries—everything we do as a local church.

16 thoughts on “Practicing Discernment: Rich Maurer’s Grace Evangelical Free in Viroqua, Wisconsin

  1. Immediate Red Flag:

    The following principles have been taken from The Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.

    “9 Marx” has been exposed in watchblog after watchblog as the Mein Kampf of so many control-freak Pastor-Dictators, bestowing Divine Right on their power trips..

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  2. The church membership requirements and associated church discipline are always areas of possible concern requiring discernment. Neither is a problem in and of itself, and could be addressed in a healthy way. However, what happens far too often is that it is a one-way street . . . strict requirements made of members and attenders to obey and not question leadership, but no implicit or explicit accountability of the leadership going back the other direction. If the environment is not a healthy one, the result can be that these conventions are simply used as tools to enforce obedience and disallow questions. True servant leadership is willing to lay out the requirements and expectations of leaders, and to provide measures which ensure accountability back to those who the leadership is supposed to be serving.

    When four of the nine “foundations for our Strategy and Ministries—EVERYTHING we do as a local church” (my emphasis added) revolve around those areas of leadership, membership, and discipline, that really suggests a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of leadership and a disproportionate focus on the expectations of the members to conform to certain expectations. For me that would be a warning sign that would say, “proceed with caution.” I would be concerned that this would be a very authoritarian dynamic.

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  3. Hi David,

    I have seen one or two of your blog posts in the past and recalled that you posted on EFCA churches before but did not realize you made a regular practice of it.

    I am so sorry for the spiritual abuse you experienced. It sounds like an awful season of your life and one that never resulted in Godly sorrow and repentance that should have been expressed to you. No one ever deserves to be treated as you were. Though you do not state it specifically, I assume that your blog has been somewhat borne out of this painful experience.

    I certainly agree with this sentiment.

    “The reason why much of evangelical Christianity is so profoundly sick and diseased is because Christians never say they are sorry and never admit mistakes. Then they wonder why the world doesn’t respect them or take them seriously.”

    We are seeing this list grow almost every day lately. Such a horrible mess yet we should all be glad for light being shined on these disgusting sins and pray that true repentance might one day be demonstrated by abusers or those complicit to the abuse.

    In regard to the Vision part of our website and the 9 Marks, I have removed that section. I have been studying church health for over two decades and have long considered the 9 Marks the best summary of solid church health principles. The EFCA had their own list of 10 church health principles but I preferred the 9 marks.

    However, in the past year I have begun to become aware of concerns associated with Dever and some of his followers. I have always tried to “eat the fish and spit out the bones” when good teaching comes with a mixed bag. If I tossed out every book/teacher with whom I disagreed on some points, my library would be slim indeed. But given the fact that our website was a de facto endorsement of Dever, I decided to remove that section. I had been contemplating it for a while and your blog post helped me to decide that it needed to be done. I still like the 9 Marks principlesd but I hate any application of the principles that would be heavy handed or abusive. Rachael Denhollander has become my new hero for this very reason.

    It saddens me that already two commenters have assumed that our church must be/may be awash with similar abuse and dictatorial pastors/leaders. I truly loathe even hints of such.

    I helped to plant our church over 17 years ago. We have an elder in our church who has experienced 3 church splits in our small town. And several more splits have occurred since I have lived here. Given the path of destruction caused by so many splits and the weighty responsibility of serving as a pastor, in the early years of the church I literally prayed, “Lord, if I or this church are going to cause more harm in this community, please kill this church before it happens.”

    I can’t prove the character of our church by merely commenting on your blog but I can see that we are at least guilty by association due to the endorsement of 9 Marks. Folks would have to want to get to know me or at least peruse some of my 17 years of sermons on our website to get a true taste of my teaching and practices. I would ask that people do that before drawing further conclusions without taking the time to know us more fully. I/we are an open book.

    Thank you for helping me to make the decision to remove the 9 Marks endorsement. I believe this process could have been helped had you contacted me prior to posting your blog but nevertheless, it did prod me to action.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rich, thank you for your comments here. I appreciate the openness and gracious spirit with which you share them.

      I obviously don’t know your church and so I want to make clear that in my comment above, I was not concluding that yours is an authoritarian church. I was saying that the usage of the 9Marks list as the “foundation” for “everything” the church does would be a warning sign for me to proceed with caution and carefully check things out. As I said in regards to membership expectations and church discipline, “neither is a problem in and of itself, and could be addressed in a healthy way.” For me, if I were looking for a church, the 9Marks material wouldn’t absolutely rule your church out, but it would make me want to proceed slowly, examine carefully, and ask a good number of questions before becoming involved. For many people, the 9Marks have become associated with a heavy-handed leadership approach, and so that would make me tread cautiously. I am glad that your comments indicate that you are sensitive to this concern, and this does speak well of your approach.

      I’ll mention that I attended an EFCA church for 27 years, almost all of my adult life, and raised my family there. I was very active in teaching and in leading small groups, and was the church’s treasurer for quite a few of those years. I experienced many good things there (especially in the areas of teaching and fellowship) and I have a positive overall view of the EFCA denomination (while recognizing that with the congregationally-governed model, there can be a wide variation in approach and environment and ethos from congregation to congregation). While there we did experience one split in the early 1990’s (congregational differences over the personality/leadership style of the then-recently hired pastor). We then experienced a very tumultuous time in more recent years which sadly led to the departure of about 2/3 of the congregation, which ultimately included me and my family. Those difficulties were not over one single issue, but rather were the result of an environment which had grown over time where there was no positive process or mechanism set up to address legitimate concerns or questions, and instead any concerns or questions were viewed as suspect and were suppressed and pushed under the surface, where they did not go away, but instead simmered away until a point where they boiled over and erupted in unhealthy fashion. (If you are familiar with any of the resources on church abuse, we had some aspects of the unwritten “can’t talk” rule, where people are not supposed to talk about any concern or problem, and if they did so, then THEY were viewed as the problem, rather than the problem they were addressing.) It was sad to leave the church, but without recognition of this problem dynamic by the leadership, it was clear that the dynamic would continue to repeat itself, and unfortunately it has indeed continued to do so in the time since we left.

      I wish you and your church well. I know that there is a heavy weight of responsibility on the shoulders of the leadership, and especially the pastor, and that even with the best of intentions some degree of criticism is inevitable. My advice, from my experiences, to any church leadership would be to make sure there is an environment of appropriate transparency where people feel involved and invested in what is taking place there, and there are avenues provided to positively address and resolve legitimate concerns and questions which will arise in the normal course of any group and any ministry. God bless!

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      • Hi Dave, thanks for your follow up. I did notice that your comment was merely a recognition of potential problems, but thanks for making that clear.

        Man, I so hate to hear stories like yours. I have been reading a few of the watchblogs in the past year. They can be a source of distraction but they have also helped me to continually live out (among others) 1 Peter 5:3–“not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” The potential for heavy handed leadership is ever present. Even though I loathe it I could still become it if I am not diligent.

        One of my longtime mantras has been. “as go the leaders, so goes the church.” This is true in every arena: doctrine, practice, leadership, etc. Yes there are disgruntled church folks and there always will be but how we handle each of them is crucial, even down to each email we write and each conversation we have. I also LOVE 1 Tim 2:24-25. There is such a clear call to gentleness, patience and endurance on the part of “the Lord’s servant.”

        I appreciate that the EFCA has so often been a place for refugees from legalism and liberalism. Most of our new folks have come from these backgrounds. But we do not speak often enough about the more subtle forms of spiritual abuse.

        I hope you have found a healthy church home. Too many give up on the local church after such experiences. May God give you grace.

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      • Dave H,

        It sounds as if you and I have traveled a similar
        path in many, many ways. Your eloquent thoughts
        mirror many of my own.

        Best to you, sir.

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    • I have always tried to “eat the fish and spit out the bones” when good teaching comes with a mixed bag.

      Any time somebody exhorts you to “eat the meat and spit out the bones”, check FIRST to be sure he’s not trying to unload a bag of dry bones on you.

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      • I do understand what is being said there by Rich, that none of us are perfect, and there is no perfect system, so by definition everything we encounter requires discernment and sorting out the good and the bad. I also understand what I think you are getting at, HUG, which is that there is there needs to be sufficient meat on the bones to make the sorting worthwhile in the first place.

        I think our individual experiences have a great deal to do with how we go about discerning these things, where we draw the line between what is worthwhile sorting through and what is not, and how quickly we each see caution flags in any given situation. I know that my experiences with church hurt have made me far more sensitive to some things than I was for many years. I actually count that as a good thing, in part because I feel that it has taught me empathy in understanding where others are coming from, and not dismissing their perspective and their concerns out of hand.

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    • Pastor Maurer,

      This is the most remarkable response I have ever seen
      from a pastor or elder regarding any type of “spiritual
      abuse” post. I sincerely stand and applaud you, sir.

      You’ve given me some hope today.
      God bless you and your church.

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      • ejj, wow, such kind words–thank you.

        And I always encourage folks to just call me Rich and drop the “pastor”, though some prefer the title, which is fine.

        I have a steep learning curve in front of me. “Spiritual abuse” is a somewhat new category for me but I have long been sensitive to the sins and extremes of bad shepherds, a la Ezekiel 34:1-10 and Matthew 18:6.

        We are in perilous times! But again, we should be grateful for judgment in the household of God. God’s Fatherly discipline is for the good of all believers and for every church.

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  4. Thank you so much for your follow-up to my follow-up. Yes, the 1 Peter and Timothy — I think you mean 2 Tim, not 1 Tim ; ) — verses are good admonitions to leaders. I appreciate the spirit that your words convey.

    I think it is a great idea that you are reading some of the “watchblogs,” not to dwell in discouragement but rather to hear the experiences of some who have been hurt, in the hopes of helping to guard against the types of situations which led to hurt. If you are recognizing that legitimate hurt can occur, and are trying to hear those who have been hurt, then you are already several steps ahead in the game.

    As for me, it was a long and painful process leaving our longtime church and dealing with the hurts. We bounced around to several different churches over the next couple years. I had work through some things through professional counseling. But we did eventually land in another church home, an independent evangelical church. We were drawn to the church’s ethos, which is “we are all messed up people, trying to live this life and support each other and follow the Lord together.” The pastors both regularly speak of their own struggles, failings, and the difficult “life lessons” they have had to learn and continue to experience. Hearing this, I realized for the first time how we never heard that message in all the years in our previous church. In fact, to my recollection, our pastor never shared a single personal struggle or failure in any sermon or teaching in all those years. Everything was presented as, “if you do A, B, C, and D, it will all go well and God will bless you.” I began to understand how this message created a culture where if you were struggling or experiencing a difficult time, or had questions, the implication was that it was your fault, and you must be doing something wrong, unlike the people who “had it together.” Stepping away from that environment into a different environment really put a spotlight on that difference.

    Again, thank you for your reply and concern, and thank you for the thoughts you have shared, which are encouraging to hear. May God bless you and your church family.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave, yes, 2 Tim! 😉

    I am saddened to hear that an EFCA church would be so lacking in authenticity. That is a denial of the gospel, IMO–not to mention potentially manipulative and guilt-inducing. Well, we are all “autonomous” so that will happen.

    So glad to hear that you found a healthy–though still imperfect–church.

    You seem like a balanced, compassionate believer, Dave. It is difficult to be balanced in the areas of: thick skin/tender heart; discerning/trusting. But the pursuit of such is well worth the effort and I believe, most honors the Lord and ministers to His flock. Perhaps we’ll bum into one another on another blog!

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    • Thank you for your kind words, and thank you for the spirit of concern that shows through your words. That is good to hear.

      As I mentioned, I still hold a positive overall view of the EFCA. There is just a lot of variation from church to church with the largely autonomous structure. Each tends to take on the flavor of its pastor and leadership. It probably didn’t help that ours tended to not interact much with other churches, EFCA or otherwise, in our vicinity. Still, I also have a lot of good things to say about positive things that happened there over our many years. There was just some deeper-rooted issues that seemed to grow over time until they took over. I was certainly very slow to see them developing, and it was a shock when recognition set in.

      If I am compassionate, it is only because I have been hurt, and so now I can better understand hurt. That is one of the positives I can take from a situation that did result in a lot of hurt. God allowed that to open my heart more to understand and empathize with the hurting.

      I appreciate the care your words exhibit and I hope that bears much fruit in your ministry. Thank you!

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  6. Dave H:
    > There was just some deeper-rooted issues that seemed to
    > grow over time until they took over. I was certainly very
    > slow to see them developing, and it was a shock when
    > recognition set in.

    I experienced the same.
    I call it the “boiling frog” syndrome.
    I kept waiting for the pendulum to swing back for things
    to return to “normal”, rather than realizing that a “new
    normal” had set in.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog

    “The boiling frog is a fable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.”

    Hindsight is usually more clear and 20/20.
    But I’d like to believe that people who have experienced
    what we have are now better equipped to recognize the
    warning signs when if/when it happens again.

    Best to you, sir.
    You’ve given voice to many of my own thoughts & experiences.

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    • @ejj
      Thanks so much for your words! My wife and I used exactly that same phrase numerous times during the period of confusion and hurt: that we were being faced with a “new normal” and things were never ever going to go back to the “old normal” again. It was very hard facing that reality, and it really turned our world upside down. It took a long time, but we did eventually get to a place where we could gain some perspective.

      And you are spot-on with the observation about being “better equipped to recognize the warning signs.” Nowadays there are certain things I encounter or words that I hear that immediately trip the radar, so to speak.

      As I mentioned above, one good thing is that I am more able to understand others and empathize with their experiences and their situations. It is true, you truly can’t understand it fully until you have gone through it yourself. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but the experience does bear some positive fruit.

      Best to you, as well.

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