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Spiritual Manipulation: How To Spot It And What To Do About It

Spiritual Manipulation: How To Spot It And What To Do About It

You want to know one of the things I find most disheartening in this world?

If I walk into a church service pretty much anywhere in America and ask people to raise their hand if they have been hurt by a church (specifically the leadership of a church), nearly everyone will raise their hand.

Now, this isn’t to say that friction or conflict in churches are a sign of a church totally blowing their mission. Jesus teaches us how to resolve conflict in a church community. Surely, he wouldn’t do that unless we were going to need it.

No church is going to be perfect, I get that. In fact, I love how Nadia Bolz-Weber, the founding pastor of The House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado puts it. She tells people who want to join the church: “We will let you down.”

In my opinion, that phrase should be on the marquee of every church in America.

But there’s a flip-side to the reality that the church is made up of imperfect people who are gonna miss the mark sometimes. Jesus also says this:

“But Jesus called [the 12 disciples] together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” (Matthew 20:25-27)

We can be open about the fact that the Church isn’t perfect. But when we use that as an excuse to refuse to obey Jesus in the areas he wants to transform us (or our community of believers), that’s what noted theological experts call “a bad idea.”

Jesus doesn’t say, “it should be different” in church leadership, he says “it will be different.” This is non-negotiable.

If we in the Church don’t commit to being transformed into the likeness of Christ, why should anybody listen to us when we talk about the amazing power of the Holy Spirit in our lives or in our church gatherings?

While we cannot get caught up looking for a perfect church, what are habits of a church that is healthy?

Healthy churches have open and honest conversations.

If you bring concerns to church leadership and you are met with dismissal, prepared statements or excuses as to why information cannot be given, you should ask why.

There may be legitimate regulations and concerns for the privacy of others in some cases, and church leaders should be accountable for their actions. Those who are given power by the church should be happy to explain to the church community why authority is being used in the manner that it is.

I have a friend who was deciding on a church to attend when she moved into a new area. My wife and I had just started attending a church so we invited her to join us. Our friend set up a phone meeting with the lead pastor and asked questions about the vision and mission of the church. He refused to answer.

We didn’t last long at the church, mostly because of some moral failings that occurred within leadership staff. Secrecy is not a great habit for church leaders to overindulge in and avoiding transparency can be a huge warning flag for deeper seeded issues.

Healthy churches readily admit mistakes.

In The Next Generation Leader, Andy Stanley says that people will forgive a leader for making a mistake, but will not forgive a leader for failing to communicate. I believe that a leader who refuses to admit mistakes puts him or herself in the difficult situation of always having to spin what happens into being something good.

Sometimes, we just blow it.

Instead of putting lipstick on a pig and telling everyone it’s a princess, we gain credibility and humility when we own up to our failure. A big buzz word in churches today is authenticity. We don’t arrive at authentic community without letting people see the warts.

It’s best to be up front from the start.

If you see a recurring defensiveness in the leadership of a church when asked about mistakes, it should certainly be on your radar. Likewise, if a church tries to hide mistakes or craft seasons of failure into a ready-made public relations campaign, it’s a big warning sign.

Healthy churches embrace encouragement.

If you encounter a church that uses shame to influence you, run for your life.

Seriously. Shame about giving more money, shame about missing a Sunday, shame about your actions—shaming in any area of your life is toxic. The Holy Spirit does not transform us using shame. In fact, Paul specifically writes that “there is no condemnation to those for those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

Since Jesus doesn’t come out of the tomb saying, “There. I did it since you jerks couldn’t,” no church should ever use the Gospel message to make people feel shamed. The Gospel is the most uplifting message in history.

Don’t let anyone—not even church members—say it’s something it’s not.

No church, no minister will sit in the place of judgement at the end of this age.

If someone acts as if they have the final say about you “getting to heaven,” remember first that “getting to heaven” isn’t even the point of Christian faith, and second, that anybody using a carrot on a stick to manipulate your behaviors doesn’t follow the God who gives grace with crazy generosity. They don’t follow the God who transforms though the love of Christ.

Healthy churches aren’t selective.

If you have to dress a certain way, have a certain color skin or adhere to a predetermined set of regulations to be welcome at a church, you may wanna watch out. Any time people draw superficial lines to keep others away, they separate themselves from the Messiah who welcomed lepers, kids, beggars, prostitutes and thieves.

I’m not saying discipleship is unimportant. I’m simply saying that if a church starts excluding certain groups of people, there’s no reason the leadership can’t find a reason to put you on the exclusion list any time they want.

I believe that belonging to a faith community and being the body of Christ is critically important. It’s why I strive to call out the places where we fall short so that we don’t add more scorn onto our family, but rather so that we can invite the Holy Spirit into those places in order to see transformation.

The best way to avoid manipulative churches is to have leaders who recognize they are in place to serve others, not the other way around. Because the only way we’re going to succeed in our mission is if we’re different. Which is exactly what Jesus was telling us.

There is no plan B.

Either we commit to being different from the rest of the world in the transformation that happens within us and through us, or we fail.

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