Escaping a Bad Church

John ArmstrongThe Church

Thousands of small congregations dot the spiritual landscape of American Christianity. They are still the backbone of much serious, faithful Christian faith and practice. It has been said that the average church has 65 people in attendance on Sunday morning. I like small churches. They can do things relationally that are missed by almost all larger churches. I pastored a church of 75-100 people for sixteen years. I am now, very happily, a member of a church of 100 or less people on Sunday morning. My wife and I know and love the flock and feel the warmth of God’s love in our church.

But small churches can be easily tyannized in rather unique ways. One such tyranny that I have witnessed over the past twenty-five years or so occurs in small Reformed churches. These congregations are always male dominated. Accordingly, they crush female spirituality by turning women into what one brother has appropriately called, "Stepford wives." These churches almost always adopt a strong "elder rule" pattern of leadership. The elders, who answer to no one else, control the life of the flock very directly, often quite beyond healthy pastoral patterns of care. Life in these churches revolves around biblical principles, so-called. Theology, as rigid confessionalism, is central to everything the church thinks and does. And the person of Christ is often diminished, though no one realizes it in most cases. Stress is placed upon listening to sermons, and learning from adult Bible classes, as the primary reason for the church to gather in public. Little else matters in comparison to learning and being faithful to "the tradition." Doctrine, understood in these very narrow ways, becomes everything.

In such churches real conversion rarely happens. Leaders celebrate the addition of Christians who join from other ("bankrupt") Christian traditions. When people join such a church from other "non-biblical" groups this is seen as a great spiritual blessing and evidence of God’s approval. The arrogance that goes with this is staggering when seen from any distance at all.

The life of such churches generally grows out of opposition to many other evangelical beliefs and practices. Altar calls and Arminian theology are often cited by these churches as harmful and thus they are systematically attacked. The problem in this kind of church is all too common and quite sad–it produces an academic and lifeless theology that can never replace human warmth and spiritual reality in a vital community of living faith.

Many such churches are more like "cults" than Chrstian churches, at least in terms of their sociology. This tragic virus runs wildly in many small churches but then some larger churches are not entirely immune either. (Several come to my mind even as I write!) If you are in such a church, or know someone who is, pray that you and/or they will get out. Your soul will expand in real love much sooner if you follow this difficult pastoral advice learned through some very hard lessons.