January 27, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Over at sgmrefuge, commenter Wanda asked the following:

I have read through all of these comments, and the question that keeps coming up in my mind is ”Why?”

Why do people join a SGM church in the first place?

Why do the members want to be “controlled”?

Why do they tolerate the obvious abuse by pastors?

Why do parents raise their children in such an unhealthy church environment?

Why don’t SGMers just leave and go find a healthy church? 

Why, why, why???

I just don’t understand . . .

Would someone please help me make sense of it all?

I’ve had occasion to ask these same questions myself, many times over the past year-and-some, and I have some ideas about the answers.   Let’s take Wanda’s questions one at a time.

1.  Why do people join a SGM church in the first place?

If we start with why someone VISITS a Sovereign Grace church for the first time, I think we’d get a bunch of really different answers, depending upon the era when the person initially darkened the door of his or her SGM (or PDI, as the case may be) church.   SGM has morphed and changed a LOT over the years, so what drew someone to the movement in the early 1980s is probably not what would draw someone today.  Folks who showed up at PDI in its early years were attracted to its unabashedly Charismatic practices and teachings, while newer members often first visited because they were told that SGM is “Reformed.” 

We also cannot ignore the lure of SGM’s reputation as a “homeschooling church.”  No matter how much gum-flapping they do to the contrary, the fact remains that the majority of SGMers do indeed homeschool, and many visitors are drawn by the promise of a church community that understands and supports homeschooling.

But no matter what era a person first visited SGM, I believe the reasons for joining – for making a commitment to membership – are probably essentially the same.  People become part of Sovereign Grace churches because they believe that SGM represents the best way for them to “do Christianity.”

To be fair, most people believe this about whatever church they join, be it SGM or Methodist or Assemblies of God.  But because of SGM’s “distinctives,” choosing SGM represents a bit more than denominational loyalty.  If we dig a little deeper, we typically find that a SGMer thinks that there is no other church that gets it right quite like SGM.  No other church, first of all, is both “Reformed” and “Charismatic.”  No other church does youth group in quite the same way.  No other church offers such rich soil for deep relationships and times of fellowship. 

But I’m speaking in generalities, so I will issue this invitation:  those of you who have been SGM members, or those of you who are currently SGM members, how about you tackle Wanda’s question?  Share with us what drew you to your SGM church.  If you’re still there, share what makes you hang around.

2.  Why do the members want to be “controlled”?

First of all, no SGM member currently happy with his church situation sees himself as being controlled.  A lot of the “control” issues within SGM are very subtle, too.  It’s not as though SGM pastors proclaim from their pulpits every Sunday what goes on behind the scenes in counseling sessions, or that they view themselves as their people’s “authorities.”  This stuff happens behind the scenes, and members may not even be aware of when it is happening to them.

I will say, though, that subconsciously, SGM members may find that an authoritarian church recreates relational patterns that are familiar and therefore comfortable for them.  I’m not going to make blanket statements here, but I have noticed that a lot of SGM members who have had bad experiences with their SGM “authorities” tend to come from backgrounds where they had already been conditioned to deal with other kinds of abuse.  Obviously this is anecdotal and not scientific, but from all the stories that have been shared with me, it seems that a common trait of SGM members is that they often have firsthand experience with dysfunctional (alcoholic, abusive) relationships, often with their parents.  An armchair psychologist would say that something within SGM strikes a chord with these folks and feels familiar and “safe,” even though it may not be safe.

So…while the simple answer is that SGMers are not actively wishing and choosing to be controlled by their leaders – and most of them, in fact, would think that this is a simply ridiculous suggestion – the real answer may not be so clear.

3.  Why do they tolerate the obvious abuse by pastors?

Because of SGM’s “don’t pass on ‘bad reports'” rule, as well as the SGM teaching that ANY expression of ANY disagreement or ANY questioning of one’s pastors to ANYONE who is not the pastor is considered “gossip” or “slander” and is therefore sinful, most SGMers remain blissfully unaware of the abuse.  Also, since this abuse happens most often to people who then go on to have their SGM membership revoked or choose to leave, and since SGM folks who leave are essentially treated as though they no longer exist, it is a rare thing for a current SGMer to be aware of what REALLY happened in counseling sessions and meetings between their pastors and the people who left.

4.  Why do parents raise their children in such an unhealthy church environment?

Ah, here’s the rub:  SGM parents actually see their church environment as incredibly HEALTHY for their children, the healthiest environment they could ever hope to find.  A lot of SGMers are attracted to the way that SGM does its youth ministry in particular, as they find themselves uncomfortable with the idea of their children’s teen years spent in a less-parentally-supervised traditional church youth group.  These parents typically also appreciate SGM’s support for homeschooling and courtship as well.

The beautiful thing about our freedom in Christ is that of course parents can choose to homeschool and teach their children to engage in “purposeful dating.”

But something I have noticed anecdotally is that all too often, parents who find themselves particularly attracted to providing their kids with a highly controlled, structured, and parentally-directed childhood might actually do well to ask themselves what is really going on.  In my experience, the parents most sold on micromanaging their children are way too hung up on absolutely preventing their children from making the same wild and loose choices that they themselves made as they grew up in homes that were perhaps chaotic and less idyllic.

But rather than dealing with the roots of their desires to try too hard to control their children, sometimes these parents find themselves drawn to churches like SGM instead, churches that are more supportive of fear-based and controlling parenting.

This is one reason why many SGMers are convinced that SGM is the best spiritual environment for their children, even as an outsider can see  how SGM’s approach often leaves little room for a young person’s individuality and, more importantly, the Holy Spirit’s work in the young person’s life.

5.  Why don’t SGMers just leave and go find a healthy church?

I think there are lots of answers to this question.  The first answer – the most obvious answer – is that a lot of SGMers have absolutely no desire to go anywhere else.  They believe that they ARE in a “healthy” church.  They don’t see the control or the abuse, and they think the fellowship they’re experiencing is the best thing since sliced bread.  Most SGMers feel a great deal of love for their pastors and fellow members, too.

But beneath the surface there may be other things going on.  I can’t even begin to estimate how many people have written me, often under the cloak of heavy secrecy and total anonymity, to share how miserable they are but how they can’t even begin to think of leaving, as all their family and friends are SGMers.  They are so deeply embedded in SGM’s social system that they can’t imagine life apart from that system.  Many of these folks are parents with teen children, and they are afraid that their kids would lose the only friends they’ve ever known.  Sometimes, an unhappy SGMer may be employed by or work with his fellow church members and thus fear losing his job, or at the very least, being forced into a very awkward position in his career.

Also, because SGM sells itself as the unusual (if not practically impossible) hybrid of “Reformed” AND “Charismatic,” a lot of current members are completely stymied when they think of looking for a new church home.  Where else could they go where “sound doctrine” was so valued and yet where the “gifts of the Spirit” were welcomed?  Since SGMers are often completely unaware of how this whole “Reformed AND Charismatic” thing is actually a false bill of goods, they conclude – wrongly – that they could never find a replacement church home.

Somewhat related to the faulty thinking of, “I’ll never find another Charismatic Reformed church,” is what happens if a former SGMer ever actually does dare to step outside his SGM box and go a-visitin’ other churches.

One thing most Sovereign Grace churches have going for themselves is that SGMers are some of the most unbelievably friendly, warm, and open people that anyone could ever hope to meet.  SGM fosters an instant intimacy that can – especially for a lonely soul weary of today’s impersonal megachurch – feel quite literally like coming home. 

But…the reality is that this instant intimacy isn’t actually about the individuals themselves.  Rather, it is fostered by the individuals’ mutual interest in SGM.  And unfortunately, it’s not real.  Remove the common denominator of SGM, and you’re left with…not much.

Unfortunately, though, this can make it difficult for a current SGM member to surreptitiously go “church shopping” at a non-SGM church and feel very comfortable about the experience. 

The current SGM member is likely still defining “normal” by what he knows, which is the easy fellowship and tight community that he has with people who have been conditioned to “let it all hang out” spiritually, people who expect to bond quickly with one another.

Put the current SGM member in a “church shopping” situation, and everything he has ever been taught about SGM’s superiority will come rushing back to him.  If you’re a committed Christian and believe that church membership is important, and you also believe that your SGM church is the only viable game in town, how likely is it that you’ll ever leave except under duress?

Finally, of course, we can’t underestimate the power of SGM’s own teachings about church membership.  If Josh Harris’ book urges his audience to Stop Dating The Church, what is Harris’ alternative to “dating”?  If it’s not “dating” the church, then it must be either “courting,” or more likely, “marrying” the church, right? 

The clear implication is that church membership in SGM is as binding as a marriage in God’s eyes.

And we all know how difficult it can be for a deeply committed Christian to leave an abusive marriage.

© 2009, Kris. All rights reserved.