How It Happens…

December 19, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

The following was originally posted as a comment, in response to a question about what it is that might motivate people to join Sovereign Grace Ministries churches. With the way that SGM churches structure their polity, are people somehow coerced into joining?

A couple of readers said that they found this comment helpful and requested that I re-post it, so here it is…

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I don’t think anyone became a member of SGM by coersion…but I do think people have become members without fully grasping what SGM is all about, how “the movement” has morphed and changed so dramatically over the years, and how certain key terms have been subtly redefined to mean something extra or different than they do out in ordinary Bible-based Christianity.

When we were at our own SGM church, I kept feeling so puzzled by a lot of little things that I couldn’t articulate. I spent HOURS hunting for information that would somehow validate my own observations. Yet there was quite literally nothing out there that would explain how it was that everyone was so “like-minded” about certain lifestyle issues…or why SGM sang mostly its own in-house music…or why SGM’s version of “Charismatic” was totally unlike other Charismatic churches that Guy and I had attended…or why SGM’s version of “Reformed” was nothing like the “Reformed” I’d known in the past.

When I was in the midst of my digging around, I finally stumbled upon a blog one day where the comments had happened onto the topic of SGM…and that’s when the fur began to fly. I seem to remember there were a couple of people who vehemently argued that SGM was a cult, that SGM had harmed people…and then there was another person who had posted lengthy summaries of SGM’s history. I was SHOCKED to learn that CJ Mahaney had not been the only founder. I also found it odd that SGM had gone through more than one name change. I’d known about the PDI-to-SGM change, but I hadn’t known about the earliest names (GOB, TAG).

While those were not hugely momentous discoveries, the omission of Larry T from SGM’s official history started to nag at me. I got the distinct feeling that SGM was presenting itself to the outside world as something other than it truly was, and if they were willing to do that over a relatively small piece of information (neglecting to say something to the effect of “Hey, one of our founders departed in the 1990s”), I had to assume that they were hiding or trying to change people’s perceptions of other things as well.

I have a hunch that most people who have joined SGM churches in recent times – say from 1999 to 2008 or so, when the blogs began to have a broader audience – only knew the version of SGM that their pastors and leaders wanted them to see. In other words, if they came to SGM because they were looking for “Reformed” doctrine, they did not learn much about SGM’s beginnings as a Catholic Charismatic group.

So I would say that a significant number of members joined under essentially false or less-than-informed impressions.

Then I think a lot of people did not have a working understanding of SGM’s polity. I believe SGM is purposefully vague about its mission. If you go to SGM’s website, this is the closest thing you can find to a mission statement:

We are a family of churches passionate about advancing the Great Commission through church planting. In support of that mission we facilitate partnerships among pastors, operate a Pastors College, host events, and publish books, music, and other resources.

If you tried, you almost could not come up with a less clear explanation for what SGM’s role is. The sentence about “advancing the Great Commission” sounds at first blush like SGM is into missions…but of course we know that their definition of missions is to open SGM churches in the midst of already-churched areas, where there will be any number of other Bible-based gospel-proclaiming congregations within a 5-mile radius.

And truly, “facilitating partnerships among pastors” could mean almost anything, too. What do they do, hook up pastors as pen pals? What does it mean to have one of these “partnerships”? Are these spiritual mentoring relationships?

The entire statement about what SGM does tells us basically NOTHING about how SGM really operates. For instance, why would it be necessary for adopted churches to change their constitutions (or other documents of incorporation) in order to become part of the organization? Why do members of about-to-be-adopted churches have to vote one last time to rescind their right to vote and ever again have a voice in church governance, in order to become SGM churches? If all SGM is doing is “facilitating partnerships among pastors” and publishing books and running a pastors college, why would churches need to agree to answer to SGM Corporate?

Once again, if SGM Corporate is not at all forthcoming in its mission statement (or description of itself and what it actually does, the role it actually plays in the life of local churches), I think people very likely join without a clear understanding of what they’re getting themselves into.

They come in to SGM churches, often disillusioned with the wimpy seeker-friendly 40 Days Of Purpose Evangelicalism of their previous churches, and they find SGM’s harsh talk about sin and about being both Reformed and Charismatic bracing and refreshing. They are impressed with the outpourings of friendliness, and often find themselves embraced into a social world they had only dreamed was possible at church. They like what they are told about accountability (again, this is refreshing after how other wimpy churches shy away from talking about sin), and they like how orderly the families seem. Especially if they’ve already adopted SGM’s prevailing homeschooling lifestyle, they are excited about being with other “like-minded” Christians.

Coming to SGM is almost like getting born again again. Even down to the new music and the new non-churchy terminology (calling what happens on a Sunday a “meeting” or “gathering” rather than “service,” for one silly example).

People are impressed and overwhelmed and happy and buy into the glossy outward appearances. (After all, we already know how open dissent and honest opinion-sharing do not exist, so the congregation looks to be in lockstep unity.) They can’t find any organization-sponsored information to indicate any other reality.

So they join. Without really knowing what it is they’re getting into.

And often, if people cruise along without making waves or asking too many pesky questions, they will continue in this bliss for a very long while. Often, they may never see SGM’s dark side. They might catch a glimpse from time to time – they might encounter some little disquieting fact or learn of some issue that nags at them – but it’s easy for them to assure themselves that “no church is perfect” and not ask any further questions.

That’s how (in my opinion) SGM manages to appeal to so many people, who all join happily and willingly.

© 2011 – 2012, Kris. All rights reserved.