Sunday, February 15, 2009

Five Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Church

Somone posted this link on a post, so i shall put this up : . Makes for an Interesting read

Five Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Church

By Mike Fehlauer

A familiar voice was on the other end of the line when Mark answered the phone late one evening. "Mark, can we talk? I'm really concerned that our church is becoming...well, it's almost...a cult."

Mark hadn't heard from his friend, Steve, in three years. They both had attended the same charismatic church until Mark's career required him to relocate to another state. Consequently they had lost touch with each other. Now, in desperation, Steve was reaching out to someone outside his closely knit world.

It was clear that Steve's apprehension was the result of personal observations and not just based on church gossip. Up to this point Steve had been careful not to discuss his thoughts with anyone. He was actually afraid to talk about the subject.

Steve was particularly bothered by an attitude of secrecy concerning the church's finances.

"If anyone dares to ask a question about how the money is used, the pastor accuses him of being 'distrustful' or 'disobedient,'" Steve explained. And for the last three years, he added, the pastor's sermons almost always focused on the topic of submission to spiritual authority.

"If anyone leaves the church," Steve told Mark, "the pastors label him 'rebellious,' or they tell us he was offended."

Mark grew more concerned as Steve nervously shared more details. "The pastor also told us that since God brought us to the church, he is our spiritual father, and we should never leave unless God tells him first," Steve said. "He even told us that if we ever left without pastoral permission, we would be vulnerable to Satan's destruction."

When their conversation ended, Mark realized that his friend was trapped in an extremely unhealthy spiritual situation. He urged his friend to set up an appointment with the pastor in order to confront him about his concerns. "You can't subject yourself or your family to that kind of control, Steve," Mark advised.

A week later, Mark talked with Steve again and discovered just how strong the pastor's influence was over this congregation. Steve had apologized to the pastor for talking with an outsider about his problems with the church, and he pledged that he would never talk with Mark again.

Mark has not heard from Steve since.

Deadly Traits of a Controlling Spirit

The scenario I just described is a true story--and it is much more typical than any of us would like to admit. The sad truth is that many churches today struggle with varying degrees of unhealthy control--which can lead to devastating spiritual abuse if not corrected. That abuse has resulted in untold thousands of wounded and disillusioned Christians who believe they've been burned by the one institution in the world that was supposed to help them.

Don't get me wrong. I believe in the local church. The local congregation is sacred, and it is God's idea. All believers should be in fellowship with a local church according to Hebrews 10:24-25. There is a dynamic of God's grace that is only found in a consistent relationship with a healthy local body.

God's intention all along has been for the local church to be healthy, life-giving and Christ-centered. But because He has chosen to use frail, sin-prone individuals to lead His church, there is always the possibility that a local congregation can fall into deception or unhealthy spiritual patterns.

So how do you know whether a church has come under the influence of a controlling spirit? Here are five clear warning signs:

1. Power positioning. There is certainly a place for biblical teaching on spiritual authority. But if a pastor preaches on this subject every Sunday, constantly reminding everyone that he is in charge, you can be sure that trouble is around the corner.

In an unhealthy church, the pastor actually begins to take the place of Jesus in our lives. In Steve's case, he was told that he couldn't leave his church with God's blessing unless the pastor approved the decision. The implication was that unless he received pastoral permission, God would not bless him. Controlling spiritual leaders use this kind of reasoning to manipulate people.

We must understand the process a church goes through to reach this point of deception. Because pastors have no way to measure their success except through church attendance, they may become disappointed if people leave their church. If they are insecure, they may actually develop a doctrine in order to stop people from leaving. They may preach sermons about unconditional loyalty, using the biblical stories of David and Jonathan, or Elisha and Elijah.

By using examples like this, the leader can actually gain "biblical" grounds to control even the personal areas of his parishioners. A controlling leader may also attempt to instill a sense of obligation by reminding his congregation of everything he has done for them.

This kind of preaching causes church members to seek a position of favor with the pastor rather than a proper desire to "please God and not man" (see Acts 5:29). Jesus also condemned such man-pleasing when he told the Pharisees: "'I have come in My Father's name, and you do not receive Me...How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?'" (John 5:43-44, NKJV).

When we pursue the honor of men, we do so at the expense of our relationship with Him. Gradually men will take the place of God in our lives. An unhealthy soul tie is created, and our sense of confidence is determined by our standing with those in leadership. This kind of control will destroy people spiritually!

A healthy church will not allow genuine pastoral concern to cross the line into manipulation or control. A true shepherd will use his influence to draw church members into a closer relationship with Jesus, who is the only "head of the church" (Eph. 5:23). A true shepherd realizes that the people in his congregation don't belong to him--they are God's flock.

2. An atmosphere of secrecy. When a church member surrenders to a system of control, the leader gives limited information to each individual, carefully monitoring each relationship. As a result, each member is only able to relate to other members based on the information he receives from the leader.

This way, if the pastor or church staff determines that one of the members has become a "threat," they have a strategy in place to maintain the control they believe is required. Consequently the church can sever relationships when necessary and keep this process cloaked behind a veil of secrecy.

This is not limited to members of the congregation. I know a pastor who did this with his staff. In casual conversations he would make a comment that would result in one staff member becoming suspicious of another. Or he would say something to cause one staff member to feel superior.

This atmosphere fueled selfish ambition and competition among the staff. Yet it became the pastor's way of maintaining control and ensuring that his staff could never challenge his authority. In time, the assistant pastors discovered what was happening, and they all eventually left.

In an unhealthy congregation, secrecy also may cloak the area of finances. Pastors may make brazen appeals for money, yet they offer no assurance that the finances of the church are handled with accountability and integrity.

I have actually heard pastors tell their congregations that they don't make the financial decisions of the church a public matter because "the congregation doesn't have the spiritual insight or maturity to understand the dynamics of church finances." Have you heard this line of reasoning before?

Some pastors actually preach: "It doesn't matter what we do with your money. Your responsibility is simply to give." However, the Bible commands us to be good stewards--and part of good stewardship is making sure that proper systems of accountability are established to handle tithes and offerings.

When we become aware of financial mismanagement, then as stewards we are responsible for where we sow our financial seed. I can't imagine anyone who continues to give after becoming aware of the misuse of funds. Yet they might still feel compelled to give if their desire for the approval of those in leadership is more important than financial integrity.

3. An elitist attitude. This deadly trait produces an "us and them" mentality. This is the church that believes no one is really preaching the gospel but them. Or at least, no one is preaching it as effectively as they are!

An elitist spirit discourages church members from visiting other churches or receiving counsel from anyone who doesn't attend their church. If anyone visits another church, he is viewed as a dissident.

"Everything you need can be found within the framework of our group," this spirit says, adding, "Everything you need to know, you will receive from the pastor and his teachings." Consequently there is little respect, if any, for other denominations.

A healthy church respects and celebrates the other expressions of Christ's many-membered body. A Jesus-centered church realizes that no one denomination or local church can win a city, regardless of how large it is. Christ-centered leaders, who are clothed with humility, recognize that the small church is as significant as the large church, the Baptists are as vital as the charismatics and every racial group has a place at the Lord's table.

A healthy church will promote other churches in the city, rather than simply promote its own events and agendas all the time. A healthy church will promote spiritual renewal in all churches rather than further the idea that it has some kind of doctrinal superiority. A healthy church will exude the attitude described in Philippians 2:3-4: "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also the interest of others."

4. Performance emphasis. Opportunities to minister are abundant in most churches. Yet in a controlling church, these areas of ministry are no longer opportunities to serve. They become necessary in order to prove one's commitment to the organization. Whether it's faithful attendance to worship services or working in some department, loyalty becomes the key.

Obviously church attendance is vital to our spiritual growth. But if we find ourselves attending church so we can win favor with the pastor or to earn his trust, then we have missed the point.

Galatians 2:16 tells us that "a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ." We cannot earn heaven or God's love. The message of God's grace doesn't cancel the need to serve, it just exposes the "why" of our service.

Even though we are instructed to engage in certain disciplines in the Christian life, these disciplines are not a means of gaining God's acceptance. They are meant to be a celebration of His unconditional love and mercy.

5. Fear motivation. When a pastor tells his congregation that those who leave his church or disobey his authority are in danger of God's wrath, you can be sure this man is operating in a spirit of control. He is attempting to use fear as a carnal means of keeping people in his church. The line usually goes like this: "If you leave our church, the blessing of God will be lifted from your life, and you will miss God's will." Another version says, "If you leave our church, you will be in rebellion, and Satan will be free to bring havoc into your life."

Fear is the motivation here--not love. You can be sure that this type of reasoning is not from God. Jesus never motivated men out of fear. In a controlling church, fear is a form of manipulation. What wasn't accomplished through love and servanthood, a controlling church tries to accomplish through manipulation. This is a direct contradiction to 1 John 4:18, which says, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear."

How should you respond if your church displays one or more of these unhealthy traits? Here's some advice:

· Talk with your pastor about your concerns, keeping in mind that if he is truly motivated by a spirit of control you may encounter some manipulation during the conversation. Stay in a humble attitude rather than getting angry or defensive.

· A controlling church leader will discourage you from speaking with anyone else about your concerns. However the Bible says that "in the multitude of counselors there is safety" (Prov. 11:14). Seek counsel from a mature, objective leader in another church or another mature Christian. It is possible that what you have perceived as a controlling attitude may be genuine concern--so pray for discernment.

· If after receiving counsel you are convinced that your church is in the grip of a controlling spirit, then you are free to leave. You are not responsible for anyone else who is still loyal to the church, so don't try to rescue them. Pray for those people to discern the situation.

· At first you may feel like you can't trust another pastor again, but resist those thoughts and find a healthy church where the life of God is flowing, where the Bible is preached without compromise and where love is evident.

God has a healthy church for you. The Good Shepherd is fully able to lead you into a green pasture (Psalm 23:2) where you can grow in your relationship with Him. As you allow Him to lead you, He will also anoint your head with oil (vs. 5)--healing any wounds you encountered in an abusive environment. *


Mike Fehlauer has written a book on this important subject available from Charisma Press at the following internet address:

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