Frequently Asked Questions – If SGM Isn’t The Answer, How Do I Find What Is?

May 3, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Something that frequently pops up in email conversations I have with folks is the question of how to find a new church after they’ve decided to leave their Sovereign Grace Ministries church.  What do they do?  Where do they go?  Can I recommend another denomination that is both “Charismatic” AND “Reformed”?

Well, I’m no expert.  But I probably have learned a little bit over the past couple of years.  Here are a few of the things I typically share with those who write and ask:

  1. Broaden the scope of what you might be willing to overlook in a church.  A church doesn’t necessarily have to officially claim to be both “Charismatic” and “Reformed” in order to be a place where you can be nurtured in your faith and where you can serve.  It’s fully possible to find a wonderful church family in a congregation that has some disagreements with some of your own non-essential beliefs. 
     
    For instance, you may have to compromise a bit and be part of a church body that doesn’t actively pursue the more dramatic “gifts.”  But then…the truth is that SGM doesn’t actually do that either.  Not so much, not anymore.  Or, maybe you’ll stumble into a wonderfully embracing church that DOES do all the “sign gifts” but leans toward Arminianism.  You may be surprised at how clear it might be to you that the Lord isn’t so concerned about those particulars as He is about whether you’ll find a nurturing environment and be fed His Word.
     
    Along those same lines…
     
  2. Ditch the expectation of sameness.   In SGM, there seems to be a big push for everybody to be absolutely unified in their beliefs about all doctrines, major AND minor.  In other words, if a doctrine or belief or practice is taught at CLC, it seems to quickly trickle down through the ranks, and soon it will be at the other SGM churches around the country.  People will be instructed in the doctrine or practice, and everyone will pretty much be in lockstep…or keep their mouths shut about how they disagree. A good example of this would be SGM’s push for the English Standard Version of the Bible (the ESV).  How quickly and obviously did the ESV become the required translation within SGM, even though that “rule” remained a largely unspoken one?
     
    You simply will NOT find this type of homogenous behavior in other “normal” churches.  No other denomination keeps such tight rein on every little detail of church life.  (That’s another reason why it’s HIGHLY IRONIC that SGM presents itself as NOT a denomination but instead a loose “family of churches.”  SGM is more militant about sameness of church culture than any denomination!)
     
    How this translates practically is that if you attend…say…a church that is part of the Evangelical Free denomination, there will be HUGE variances from church to church.  You might find radically different music styles, totally different weekly Bible study groups, polar opposite styles of preaching, and an infinite variety of ways of doing things and, more importantly, THINKING ABOUT things.
     
    So…the ex-SGMer facing the “church shopping” process will have to shed their expectations about sameness and the way that the “authorities’” (pastors’) beliefs reflect the beliefs of everybody in the congregation.
     
    For example, with respect to how a church regards the more Charismatic gifts of the Spirit – it’s quite possible, actually quite common, for a denomination to take an “official” stance and be, on paper, cessationist.  But then, when you attend a particular church in that denomination, you’ll discover that the pastor is a closet continuationist.  Moreover, hang out for awhile, and you may also discover that some members of the congregation have never even given a thought to their own position on this subject.  They likely don’t even CARE that they may have different views on the subject than their pastor or their denomination.
     
    And this is NOT, as SGM might say, a sign of lack of concern for “sound doctrine.”  It’s simply about FREEDOM, freedom in Christ for the individual to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling and come to his own conclusions about non-essential subjects through his own prayerful Bible study.
     
    So when thinking about finding a church after leaving SGM, a person needs to ditch the expectation of sameness…of the idea that what comes down from “on high” will be the working reality for every member in the pews…
     
    For one thing, in “normal” churches, there IS no “on high,” because functionally, “on high” is elected or selected in some way by the members themselves, so that the leaders’ opinions tend to reflect – rather than dictate – the people’s opinions.
     
    The whole idea that what the leaders think and/or declare is so vitally important in the practical day-to-day reality of the average church member is one of those traits that make SGM seem odd to someone with experience in “normal” Christianity.  It was one of the “cultural oddities” that made us wary of SGM and think that it seemed, even, a little bit cultic. It was ODD to hear our pastors quote CJ over and over again in almost every sermon. Or Josh.
     
    This does NOT occur in the same way in “normal” Christian churches.  And when one goes hunting for a new church after one leaves SGM, one has to understand this and adjust one’s expectations.
     
    It can seem a little bit scary.  But it’s also very freeing.
     
  3. Do your “due diligence.”  And then observe and investigate some more.  It’s very important to thoroughly investigate the church you’re leaning toward joining, and it’s OK to take as much time as you need to do this.  Pay special attention to how a church’s “daily life” stacks up to what they claim to believe.  I think a lot of folks would probably have saved themselves a lot of grief if they’d paid attention to a church’s ACTUAL doctrines, their PRACTICES, rather than what they SAY in their statement of faith.
     
    For instance, SGM claims to be “Reformed” – to believe in things like man’s total depravity and the priesthood of all believers.  But in actuality, when leaders have to spell it out in so many words, they don’t truly hold to the priesthood of all believers.  We can see in their statements about polity that they don’t truly see themselves as occupying the same place in God’s plan as “average” members – they see themselves as “first among equals,” as “standing in the very stead of God” over members; they see themselves as being endowed with special abilities that enable them to have a superior perspective on members’ hearts, superior to what the members would know about themselves; and when it comes to accountability, they believe that only other leaders should be able to hold them accountable.
     
    SGM’s polity also does not reflect a real belief in the total depravity of all people.  Otherwise, leaders who truly believe that they are the “worst sinners they know” would have no issue with making themselves formally accountable to the people whom they serve.  They would know that they are prone to sin, prone to fall into the trap of believing their own press, prone to surrounding themselves with “yes-men,” and they would want those who are most aware of their job performance (and not just their region’s apostle “A-Team” leader from some far-off city) to have some way to make sure that they were doing their jobs with integrity.  Leaders who honestly believed in their own innate sinfulness would know that they could not regularly keep financial details and decision-making processes secret from their congregations.
     
    In SGM, despite what they claim to believe doctrinally, leaders embrace and defend church governance structures and policies which enforce their own practical infallibility.  
      
    I’d be on high alert for any such inconsistencies when looking for a new church.  When a church’s practices and policies are in conflict with their officially stated doctrine, then it’s clear that their doctrinal statements do not reflect what they truly believe.  After all, actions speak louder than words.
      
  4. Don’t expect to feel comfortable in a new church immediately.   A big part of people’s post-SGM angst has to do with the way they feel when they visit non-SGM churches.   They often report feeling so cold and lonely and detached at the new church – even after attending for 3 weeks in a row, they still don’t know anybody. Or, even after attending a small group for a few months, they just haven’t made any “real” connections.  They feel like the conversations are “shallow,” that there’s not enough “give and take.” 
     
    I write them back and try to assure them that in most cases, this is NORMAL, and I always urge them to give the process loads more time than they initially think it will take.   Truly deep and intimate relationships take way more time than a month or two to develop.  In “normal” churches, deep exchanges of correction, or of stories about one’s struggles with a particular sin or of some other vulnerability don’t happen automatically, just because it’s part of the meeting format…and if they do happen, it’s almost never in a GROUP setting. Those things unfold in the context of friendships that have developed naturally over time.
     
    It was our experience that SGM produces a lot of manufactured intimacy – instant intimacy.  SGM is set up that way, with the small groups and the formulaic, confrontational, rip-the-Bandaid-off approach to sin and confession of weaknesses. 
     
    But normal people have much better boundaries than what you may find in a dysfunctional church.  Normal people will not, as brand-new acquaintances, immediately launch into all their deepest secrets and problems.  If you find yourself in a situation where folks are doing this and you don’t even know what their parents look like, or what color carpet they have in their homes, or what their specific occupation is, then they likely have issues with boundaries.  Real friendships take time, sometimes years, to grow and deepen.
     
    I tell folks to stick with the process…that if they remain committed and re-think their expectations of what “fellowship” looks like, they may just discover some truly deep relationships that will be able to survive even if the shared commitment to a particular denomination family of churches is taken out of the equation.
      
    And oh yeah – one other thing.  If you’re an ex-SGMer struggling right now to make new friends outside of SGM, you might want to take a closer look at your own behavior in social situations.  If you’re constantly either talking about your own sins or honing in on the shortcomings of others and trying to correct others, then it’s little wonder you’re struggling.  Again, ditch the SGM training.  In “normal” Christianity, people don’t interact with others like that.  In “normal” Christianity, people are not constantly casting about with an evaluating eye, assessing and judging others – judging others either in good ways or bad ways.  (Even the act of “commending” someone means that you’ve been secretly evaluating their performance.  If people sense that they’re being watched and judged, even if it’s in a positive way, it can make them feel uncomfortable to be around you.)
     
    Instead, take some time, kick back, watch, and keep your “observations” (and even your “commendations”) to yourself.  Reach out to people for who they are.  Instead of thinking and talking about sin – both your own and that of others – try to focus instead on just enjoying these new brothers and sisters in Christ.
     
    Most importantly, as I said – give it time.
     
  5. Don’t feel pressured to immediately dive in and start serving.   I think this is another piece of the SGM pie that makes people feel paralyzed at the thought of leaving SGM.  They’ve been trained to believe that “real Christians” – people who are “serious” about their faith – will always always always be participating in church life by working somewhere within their “local” church.  Whether it’s serving on a worship team or teaching in the kids’ ministry, SGMers have been taught that they absolutely must be DOING something within the church, or they’re not really functioning as part of the Body of Christ. 
     
    When a person leaves SGM, he is often already facing the cluck-clucking concern of his SGM friends (those whom he’s managed to hang onto, anyway).  He is very aware that they’re likely to say he’s “not doing well” since leaving SGM, and he can easily feel a sense of urgency to settle in somewhere and quickly volunteer to serve – just so he can have something to offer up in his defense, when people ask him about his post-SGM spiritual life.
     
    But it seems to me that we’d be hard-pressed to find this sort of performance anxiety advocated anywhere in the Bible.  While yes, it is desirable to serve, and yes, it’s good to be an integral part of a church body, and sure, we all have been equipped by God with something we should be contributing to our church’s life, I think a Scriptural case could be made that there is grace enough – and that God is big enough – to hold and keep us when we end one church relationship and embrace another.  Especially if you’ve emerged from a time of spiritual abuse, it’s vitally important to give yourself the grace to rest solely in what Jesus has accomplished on your behalf, rather than to feel the need to “prove” that your faith is still healthy because you can point to serving in the nursery
     
    My goodness, Jesus understands what you’ve gone through, and certainly He’ll be perfectly OK if you take some time to heal.  Attend church and sit in the back row.  Take some time to scope people out. You don’t have to feel compelled to dive right in. 
     
    Aside from giving yourself time to heal, I think being cautious about service in your new church is also a wise thing to do because it’s quite likely that your new church will have different approaches to how people serve and what they’re asked to do and what they are able to volunteer to do.  Every church is different in this respect, and you will probably find it to your advantage, especially in the long run, to sit back and allow yourself to become absorbed into your new church community in a more gradual, natural way, rather than barreling right in.
     
  6. Remember that you’re not alone.  It is NORMAL to have issues with trust if your trust was abused.  It is NORMAL to be wary of authority if you’ve had bad experiences with someone who has overstepped their authority.  I would heartily recommend Van Vonderen’s book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.  You will be amazed at how well-documented many of SGM’s practices and tactics are, and how they follow the patterns of spiritual abuse to a “T”. It’s sad to realize that your experience at SGM was almost “generic” or “typical,” but it’s also good to know that others have walked through this and have come out on the other side with their faith intact and stronger than ever.
     
    God does have a church home for you, and He will lead you there.  Take heart, and trust Him to do this.  I believe that ultimately, you will look back on your journey through a dysfunctional church or through spiritual abuse as a time in which God was equipping you to be of even more service to Him, because you will have even more to share with and to others you meet in your new church who have been through similar experiences.

So there you have it.  If someone writes and asks for advice on finding a new church, that is typically what I will tell them.  But I’m sure I’ve left something out.  If you have successfully navigated this church-finding process yourself, please share with us what you’ve learned.

© 2010, Kris. All rights reserved.