Good comes from bad church experience

Some people are scared to death of church, either because they fear getting turned into boring, suit-laden zealot zombies, or more often because of some horrific experience they had or someone close to them had.

I can identify with that. I recently went back to a church where I once served as pastor and was soundly brutalized.

The place was a developing suburb of Memphis, Tenn., a location close to a military base, where new home construction was erupting in every abandoned cotton field and businesses were sprawling everywhere. The traditional denominations in the area (I will leave the label off to protect the guilty) saw it as a great opportunity to start a “new and different” kind of church, and in September 1992 I came as the minister and coordinator of the little group. Seventeen of us met in my home, and soon we began to grow.

Grow is a mild understatement. Before too long, the large living room was jammed with about 50 people, many of whom had never been to church or had come for the first time in many years. Six acres of land already given to our new group lay less than 400 yards away, and soon construction began on a building capable of housing about 150 people easily.

This was the point in which things began to go a little sour. The “wrong kind of people” were coming, and I even heard one very self-righteous parent cringe at their children seeing “those” people at church with them. I even had one church member come into my office at home and pretty much tear me to pieces verbally. Trying to keep the peace, I just bit my lip and tried to find ways to work with the people that were fighting me the hardest.

Pretty soon it became clear that the old-guard pretty much wanted it only their way, and that my idea of having a church attractive and appealing to those not from a church background was not in their plans. And as it turned out, neither was I. Keep in mind that a little over two years later, that little church was seeing about 120 people coming to hear what great and positive things God wanted to do in their lives. People were excited about God and making a new start. As I read the Bible, this is exactly what Jesus did, and it got him into trouble, too.

Through some brilliant but unethical political maneuvering, even with the old-guard being a tiny minority, I found myself ousted with no semblance of a fair hearing. To make matters even more insulting, my last message was on forgiveness, which the powers-that-be somehow were so threatened by that I was ordered never to come back. Apparently, narrow minds have narrow thresholds of feeling threatened.

Most of those people so excited about God left. The “winners” remade the church in their image, and any vestige of anything I had tried to do was scoured away like residue from the dinner dishes.

About a year and a half later, we moved to Washington but carried with us the wounds and angry feelings of having been treated in such an ungodly manner.

Over time, some of those feelings healed, but in July we decided to take a trip to see some people we still counted as friends. Almost on a whim, my wife and I decided to visit the church. I honestly tried to think of something clever yet honest to say when some of those not-so-nice people came up to make nice to me, but nothing good ever came to mind.

As I walked into the building that morning, it became clear that the people we did not look forward to seeing were strangely not there. No one knew we were coming, so it wasn’t like we were being avoided. Most of them were on a mission trip.

The current pastor introduced me very graciously and gave me the full credit for starting the church, and the existing folks heartily applauded and spoke very kindly to us before and after the service. One fellow almost knocked over several people to get to talk to me. He explained that every time I had visited his mother and stepfather (who only had come one time), he’d been listening and that his life changed because of my work there.

That helped me put a real sense of closure on a difficult and unfair experience. It all had a purpose after all. Now when I meet those who’ve had a bad church experience, I can confidently say, “Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.” But even more, I can assure them that good can come out of it.

Joe Rinehart, a former pastor, lives in Federal Way.

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