This is a guest post about someone’s experiences in two separate Evangelical Free churches in the La Crosse, Wisconsin area. In this post you will see two churches through a younger person’s perspective. From dealing with authoritarianism, favoritism, to observing how her Mom was treated and much more. This made an impact on her and not in a positive way. She hopes that in telling this that a discussion can be started about church culture and corruption because in the end this person cares enough to share what transpired
“Youth is such a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children.”
George Bernard Shaw
“You are only young once, and if you work it right, once is enough.”
Joe E Lewis
5 I am writing to remind you, dear friends,[c] that we should love one another. This is not a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning. 6 Love means doing what God has commanded us, and he has commanded us to love one another, just as you heard from the beginning.
2 John 5-6 NLT
Glacier National Park in Montana
Recently I had someone who was Googling the Evangelical Free Church of America in La Crosse, Wisconsin area . In researching the EFCA she found me. Behind the scenes we had a discussion. I asked if she could share her story in two Evangelical Free churches. She wants to communicate what is was like to be involved in them and the issues that came about in both churches. However, she also has connections in both places of worship with family and friends and she does not want them to be hurt. I told her I would be honored if she told her story and that it can be done anonymously. She agreed and that is what this post today is about.
Her story deals with a lot of issues inside two EFCA churches. The story deals with the following:
- Authoritarianism in the youth group.
- Favoritism towards those in home schools and how those in public schools were treated differently.
- Wasted money in renovation as the congregation in one Evangelical Free is leaving.
- The shaming of someone before the church for being pregnant.
- Observing how her Mom was treated inside the church.
- Then being in another Evangelical Free church that tries to act cool.
- How that church treated someone who is gay, who is a friend.
- Again how money was wasted on remodeling and expansion.
This person is no longer involved but she wants to see the system change. She hopes that people can respond in love and realize that people like her who doubted or asked questions did so because they care. Christians should not live out of fear and they should be known for their love. This person is sharing about some of these issues inside the Evangelical Free church in La Crosse, Wisconsin because she cares. This is the message that is to be communicated to the Forest Lakes District and the greater EFCA so that some of what she endured does not happen to others. This is a brave person and she has my deepest respect. Having written all that I will turn over this post to the this individual and let her explain her EFCA experience.
I came across this site after a long late night reflection of my experience of Evangelical churches, community and my individual experiences as a Christian. I was involved in a couple of Evangelical Free churches in the La Crosse, Wisconsin area. My reflection led me to pick up the phone and search the internet to see if anyone felt the same way I did. Now I want to share my small story. I have chosen to omit church names, individual names and also my own name because it would hurt old friends still in the church and especially my parents if any puzzle pieces were to come together. I just want to shine a light on corruption, abuse, authoritarian and oppressive systems, people and more in the Evangelical Church world. I think many people have these experiences and are really wounded by them, especially when they are denied, erased, and spiritually bypassed using scripture. It has an effect on our spiritualities and so much more too. Even though you and I might be so different or have different beliefs, thank you for reading.
I grew up in an Evangelical Free Church, I will call “Church B.” I loved growing up with my church friends as a child. My parents always talked about the community that brought them into the evangelical church. But as soon as my shy self was (forced and pressured by church Moms) to attend the youth program, I shed that shyness and became really self-empowered to question. The deadliest sin of them all. I felt uncomfortable when as an elementary schooler my mother was met with resistance from church elders for participating as an usher. What did my Mom do wrong that disqualified her? She was a woman. What also happened was that in middle school and high school adult men felt the need to tug on my hair or inappropriately comment on my way of dressing. After all I always stressed about being seen as dressing appropriately, which I now see as a result of church oppression too. For example its the girls fault if a boy is objectifying her. I began to realise that the effects of the aggressive witnessing culture is harmful. People don’t see the individual in front of them, often pushing and preaching, and even using scare tactics to “save them.” It becomes not about the person in front of them, but about their own fears of not being a good enough Christian. The focus is the end goal, the win. My questioning of the system started off internally and by the beginning of high school, it was impossible to hold back.
In middle school, I had a great open minded and caring leader who really truly cared about each kid and their thriving in the church, the world and in their individuality. I can’t state the effect that this person had on so many individuals. He was of course forced out. His replacement ended up being one of the reasons why the congregation numbers faltered due to kids voicing concerns to their parents. I witnessed this youth pastor move his family in order “to be closer to church members”. Of course, this house he moved into was a cul de sac that just happened to be inhabited by a few families that were almost like the “in” clique at the church. These same families all homeschooled their kids. The youth pastor set up a morning coffee bible study that was at 9am on school days. As a result anyone in a public school could not be in attendance. And after doing that each and every Sunday that pastor praised those kids who came. He named names and scolded all that didn’t show. He bought with church budget money a Wii (video game player) for the youth group that only was accessible from his own living room of course! I once consoled a girl who was crying in the stairwell worried that she was a bad Christian based on his rants/teachings/scolding sessions. He often used scripture to shame and control us. I many times marched myself down to his office and confronted him straight on with as much power I could muster. Trying to hide my nervously shaking hands, knowing that I was the only one willing to do it. I had to stand up to the way that he was pushing others down in order to accumulate authority and power in the church, because this was not the way I believed “Christianity” was supposed to be. So often I was met with intimidation, spiritual bypassing (reciting scripture or saying that I was not being a good Christian or being too negative). Plus I was often called out in front of the whole youth group. I spent so many nights crying and worrying about who I was as a Christian, because of what he had said to me.
One thing that really stands out in my memory is something that I see as a perfect example of my experiences in this Evangelical Free church. We had two types of services at Church B. One traditional and one more casual. The traditional had more classic church music, you could dress up a bit for Sunday service etc. The other service was much more casual. You could wear jeans, eat donuts and coffee at collapsible tables in the back, sitting in fold out chairs watching the services on a projector after music with electric guitar and drums. I usually went to this service after youth service because my parents would go to one service and usher or volunteer in other ways during the second sermons. The woman who often sang during the casual service one day was ushered up by the male worship organiser. She hung her head and stood slightly behind him, crying, while he explained that she needed all our forgiveness and permission to keep singing for worship. She was not married and was pregnant. I remember feeling horrified by this public shaming. Everyone was patting their backs and basically praising themselves for being such good Christians for letting her continue to sing. What?! It just felt so icky to me. That whole culture of gossiping and then tossing out a “so pray for them” just wore me out.
My parents eventually left Church B because of the behavior of the youth pastor and also some crazy mismanagement of church budget… mega church stuff…l mean millions of dollars for a remodel in the middle of falling attendance.
That’s how we ended up at Evangelical Free Church “F.” By now, I was long convinced that leaders are oppressors and I could still use my experience, the good and the bad, to shape who I was spiritually without the confines of the church. To be honest I have nothing against Christianity, I truly believe it has many gifts to offer. My Dad often says that it saved him. I know his faith makes him a better person. I don’t want to come off sounding like a wounded church/Christian hater at all because this is NOT the case even though I am not associated with it anymore. At Church F, my parents were very excited by the pastor there, and felt right at home as many of the people there were Church B transplants. I didn’t attend long..growing up, more freedom to choose, etc. Anyway, a few years later, my parents often talked about the church’s online streaming of church service and that they post the sermons online so you can watch whenever you want. Curious about some of the titles they mentioned (“what can women do?”) I mean are you kidding me? I watched a few and they seemed so manipulative. It seemed as if he chose to interpret them in whatever way gave HIM what he wanted, new tattoos or a work out room in the church so he could be as buff as possible, or to reinforce this pedestal he had been placed on by EVERYONE. He spoke in a way to reinforce what made him look good, oh he is “progressive” because he’s inked or wears jeans and says women can have rights in the church…maybe. One of these videos was of a member (a beloved old friend) who was interviewed by this pastor. It broke my heart. He came out to the pastor and spoke on camera about his “struggles” with “same sex attraction.” Basically it felt like the video’s message was the churches slogan “come as you are” with a fine print asterisk “as long as you actively deny the parts we don’t like or accept.” Knowing that at the age he would have realized his sexuality, his brother was kicked out of the house for being gay. I was, at the time, the only one he told about what was going on with his family. There is so much that makes me grieve for him, that I know he must be scared to lose his relationship with his family, his church community, and most of all God. I think this was the only way he knew to save it all. However, I can’t read his mind and haven’t talked to him about any of this. This is just my understanding from my view point. At one point he says I wouldn’t be this way, it’s not a choice, and he talks about trying to pray it away and says he won’t live his life as a gay man. The pastor encourages it and has that same vibe about him that I remember from years before when the congregation at church B “forgave” that young woman for being pregnant and still wanting to sing at worship. I’m scared that this is basically an endorsement of a milder gay conversion type thing, that gay people are only accepted if they deny who they are and work with the pastor to pray it away.
Church F just went through a multi million dollar remodel, complete with empty unused rooms and full on McDonald’s style play place. A month or so ago my Mom gave me a tour. It was such a waste of money. Think of what all that money could be used for and the good it could do! What a shame. Also, the youth pastor from Church B no longer works there but his son did marry Church F’ s pastor’s daughter, so I suppose he got what he wanted.
I was a better Christian when I was questioning and prying into the ways the church acted like a capitalist corporation more than a community of spiritual seekers. I wasn’t following Jesus’s example when I, out of a place of fear, blindly defended and spiritually bypassed others concerns. I think Christians and all people in any belief system, need to see people who raise concerns about systems and leaders to be acting from a place of love. Because they are. Instead of reacting to your fear and feelings of being threatened, allow your self to shift and recognize where these feelings are coming from. Act from a place of love instead of trying to place yourself on a higher pedistol and spiritually by passing them by tossing a bible verse their way. Instead of using prayer as a way to bypass your individual responsibility or “all in God’s plan” hear out these real concerns when people voice them. Work together, in community, to heal them and be honest about them. I was the “trouble maker” and that’s why I’m not apart of the church anymore. There wasn’t room for me unless I was quiet. My “trouble making” lead me to the rotting roots of the church that they so desperately tried to cover up. I learned that leaders are oppressors. That pastors are human, and if your pastor likes his pedestal to the point of actively trying to preserve it, then he is all the more dangerous. I realized that churches are big businesses. This was hard for me to realize. It was painful and I did not come to these conclusions without fear of what that meant for me as a Christian. Today, I do not identify with that label and it’s been years since I have. I have done a lot of inner work to heal the ways the church damaged me and to also allow myself to recognize the good it had done. I believe that those experiences helped shape who I am as a spiritual person today.
These stories do not have to be registered as a threat to you. If they are, examine them, sit with the uncomfortable feelings and allow yourself to see where you take part in the role of building a system that hurts and oppressed instead of heals and grows. And then change it! You can work to make it a better system! I believe that I was apart of good change in the church before I left. Christians in the church should be healers and growers and not blindly loyal to a system. Instead of acting from a place of fear, let’s change the system with love!