Journey of a Former UPC Church

Our church began several years ago as a daughter work of a UPC affiliated church and our pastor considered the pastor of our former mother church to be his spiritual mentor. However, about a couple of years ago the pastor of the mother church began pressuring our pastor to preach and enforce UPC holiness standards in our church.

Our pastor had never done this previously for two reasons. The first couple of years it was mainly because there were so many new converts from challenging backgrounds in our church he figured it wasn't a priority and that eventually they'd get to that. He was just trying to get them to get jobs, stop doing drugs, stop abusing their families, etc… He figured that standards would come later. But then as time went on he began to see that these standards were not biblical so he wouldn't preach them for that reason either.

As the church grew this "problem" was noticed by the mother church and he was "counseled" to begin teaching them and enforcing them among the leadership. Of course, he wouldn't do this because he didn't believe it so eventually the mother church gave him the "Shape up or ship out" ultimatum. After discussing the situation with the church leadership we all opted to ship out and become independent. Not because we really wanted to do this but because the choice was a black or white choice with no room for compromise. From our position it was either preach and teach something that isn't biblical in order to preserve the relationship with the mother church or be true to the word of God and preach the truth as we understood it and be forced to leave our affiliation as a result.

Of course the pastor of the mother church was not at all happy with this decision and when informed of it by our pastor he verbally assaulted our pastor to the point that he left the meeting in tears. What followed in the next few months was a series of broken promises and abuse by the former pastor toward our church and our pastor in particular. It was capped by the pastor of our former mother church publicly humiliating our pastor from the pulpit.

We have heard firsthand since then that the pastor of the mother church advised his staff to pray against our church and to pray for our failure. Our pastor was devastated by the treatment he received from the man whom he viewed as his mentor and spiritual father. It wounded him deeply. But he had faith and courage and followed the leading of the Lord even in spite of his fear and pain.

We formally left the mother church and incorporated our church independently of the mother church and found a place to worship at another location. Our previous location is owned by the mother church and, of course, they wouldn't let us stay there. No matter, our new facility is less expensive and actually more practical and better suited for what we do. Ironically we're renting a church from another organization which is commonly disparaged by our UPC family. Reminds me of the story of the Good Samaritan.

95% of our church members came with us (much to the chagrin of the mother church who has accused us of sheep stealing). As a side note, it was somewhat humorous because some people stayed at the old building (the mother church moved another daughter work into the building) because that's where they got saved and the building held such sentimental value to them that they didn't want to worship in our new facility. I have to scratch my head at that one. Anyway, of the 5% or so that went back to the mother church, most of them have since returned to our church so our loss in membership was negligible. What is interesting about the people that have come back is they report that they weren't accepted any longer at the mother church because of their affiliation with us.

However, this was just the beginning of a very difficult first year of independency. We have worked through, and are continuing to work through, several different challenges.

First of all there has been a high level of anxiety as we now must try to figure out who we really are as a church. What is our identity? We had previously been in a different part of town and our target was the people in that sector. Now we're in a different part of town far removed from what previously was our core target group. Many people wondered what kind of people we would reach now and how that would change the dynamics of our church. As a result of this struggle various groups in the church became anxious and felt the need to vocalize their concern in public and in private. Of course, our pastor was trying to figure this out himself because it was on his mind as well.

A second struggle we've encountered is a heavy dose of fear. People are afraid of change. They were afraid that God is going to drop the other shoe eventually. The old mantras from our past haunted them: "Once you leave the UPC you begin sliding down the slippery slope to apostasy" or "Once you leave standards you remove the umbrella of God's protection from you" or "You can't be spiritual and not have standards" and other such lies.

This created in some people a high level of spiritual stress as they wondered when the sky was going to fall on them. They loved our church and wanted to be here and didn't want to go back to the mother church. But at the same time they wondered if God was still with them. Of course, it's difficult to touch God when you're in fear and some people had a difficult time sensing the presence of God and they weren't at peace and had little joy. This perceived "dryness" of the spirit was interpreted by some as confirmation that God had indeed left us and all the mantras were true.

For the first six to seven months our services were good, but not great. There seemed to be something holding people back from what we like to call "an open heaven". We'd never been a particularly demonstrative group in worship but even so there was definitely a perceptible reluctance in worship. It was as if people hit a barrier and couldn't get past it. Of course this wasn't true for everyone. Personally I experienced more spiritual growth during this time than I had in recent memory. I didn't struggle with these irrational fears and was hopeful about the future. But other people struggled spiritually as a result of their insecurity and anxiety bred into them by their previous performance based religious past.

We didn't see very many people getting the Holy Ghost or getting baptized and it seemed we were generally stagnant as a church. Looking back I attribute this to the aforementioned fear and the fact that I feel our pastor was in emotional and spiritual shock over his mistreatment at the hands of his mentor. Shock is a defense mechanism that kicks in when the pain is too great to cope with. You become temporarily desensitized.

He struggled with the nagging questions of maybe he'd done the wrong thing and he missed the love and acceptance of his mentor and the mother church. He wondered if he could undo what had happened and go back "home". He considered resigning on several occasions. He tried to defend the mother church and their pastor and refused to say anything negative or allow anyone to say anything negative about them. This is good in one sense because it's not profitable or Christian to bash other people because that can quickly turn into a root of bitterness. But in another sense it was unhealthy because it was denial. It's better to be lovingly honest about what happened rather than enact a "no talk" rule and try to ignore the 800 lb. gorilla sitting in the middle of everyone's mind.

Another challenge we faced was internal division. The enemy has tried to defeat our church through the tactic of divide and conquer. As I mentioned previously, some people were fearful of us getting too far "out there" and "leaving the truth" because of elitist fear bred into them by their UPC past. They wanted us to stay exactly as we'd always been, a variation of the UPC.

Of course there is another segment of our church that is more progressively minded and wants to keep changing and retain less of what we were before. This segment felt that our relationship with the UPC had curtailed us and now that we're not obligated to the UPC we should continue to evolve into what they felt God really wanted us to be. For some this was mainly methodology and for others this included minute doctrinal positions as well.

This tug-of-war became obvious the more time went by. It got to the point that there were basically two churches in our congregation and both were subtly fighting for the identity and heart of our church. Both groups were appealing to the pastor for direction in this and he struggled with the same questions himself. The more radical elements of each group unwittingly began to pit both sides against the middle by triangulating people against each other through the pastor.

This situation continued until about two months ago when our pastor had a God encounter after prayer and fasting. But that was after he struggled for months trying to figure out the vision of the Lord for himself and our church. While we were affiliated with the UPC mother church he was a teacher/preacher that was progressive in his methods and management style and who strived for a seeker friendly church. It was this blend that attracted so many people to the church and helped the church grow.

However, due to fear and the pressure of the old guard thought he began to revert quite a bit back to the methods and ideology of our UPC past. This caused no small problem though within the people because many of them had come to this church because it was so different than what we'd come from. They'd left that behind for a reason and they certainly didn't want it back. He was torn and confused and in this confusion he reverted back to what was familiar in order to find validation and a comfort zone. He began to doubt and reject the vision he'd always had for our church thinking that maybe he'd missed the will of God. He went through a crisis of confidence for several months.

As a result he and others actively pursued a "move of God" for validation purposes, in my opinion, more than to meet the needs of the people. If they had a "move of God" they breathed an inward sigh of relief and said "Whew, God's still with us." Fear and anxiety caused them to revert to emotionalism which tends to breed judgmentalism as folks that do the shake and bake wag their fingers at the ones who won't. This division of thought affected even the pastoral staff as half wanted to keep progressing and half wanted to go back to what was comfortable and familiar. Had this continued it may have split the church.

Thankfully though, this didn't happen. The whole matter boiled to a head when our pastor met with a friend of his and in this meeting he had a God encounter. Our pastor had felt that something was wrong with our church and it was unhealthy but he couldn't put a finger on it. He figured it was a sin and consecration issue and he preached against sin and urged "revival" but didn't find the release from this uneasy feeling that something was missing in his outlook. It was as if he was looking through a camera that was unfocused and he couldn't quite discern what he was looking at.

But his friend met with him and they had a spiritual breakthrough when his friend told him two things. "1) You need to face the hurt and pain inflicted on you by your former pastor and get it under the blood. You've put that pain in a closet, shut the door, and refuse to admit that it's there. But it is there and it's destroying you. You can ignore it but you can't hide from it. If you don't face it, admit it for what it is, and forgive that man it'll destroy you, your family and this church. 2) The people in this church, including you, come from a legalistic, spiritually abusive religious system. This church is full of legalists and neo-Pharisees and neither you nor they even know it. They've been abused spiritually for years and need to be delivered from this fear and the judgmental spirit that comes with legalism. They need recovery. They are in bondage to fear and fear is not of God. This must be faced honestly and combated aggressively (but wisely and gently) with the truth of God's word. If you don't this church will not be what God wants it to be."

Of course this was hard for our pastor to accept but he is an honest man with integrity and a heart warm after God and he recognized that this was God speaking to him through his friend. The picture became focused so to speak and  he saw things clearly now. He accepted this message and they cried and prayed together asking the Lord to help the church through this gigantic, long term task.

That was almost two months ago and our pastor is a changed man. He had heard from God and had confirmation that he was going in the right direction. He began to follow his heart instead of his fear. His preaching changed to that of authority and conviction whereas before it was laced with desperation and confusion. He began speaking clearly the vision that had always been in his heart whereas before he was afraid to speak this frankly because of the controversy it would engender among certain segments of the church. He began speaking gently yet openly about the negative aspects of our past church experience in the UPC whereas before he'd never mention it. As a result we've seen more people get the Holy Ghost and get baptized in the last several weeks than we did the entire previous year. People have commented to me privately that they like the change they see in the pastor and it's had a positive affect on the church.

Not to say though that everyone is happy. Some of the folks in our congregation have become agitated and have "counseled" with the pastor for several hours at a time over some of the things he's said and preached in the last several weeks. But, he's held his ground and has been getting stronger as time goes by. God has confirmed his word by specific prophecies from visiting ministers and it has given him, and us, courage to continue into the unknown.

We are now talking about our past honestly and working as a team to separate the meat from the bone as it relates to our past. We're aiming our spiritual attacks at fear and legalistic thinking and helping people to come to a realization of the truth of their lives and their beliefs. "Know the truth and the truth will set you free" is our new motto. Hopefully people will listen and be liberated.

We don't know what the future holds for us as a church. We very well may succeed and blossom into the flower in our community that God intends for us to be. We may wither under the heat and die. But, for now, we are following the voice of God as we understand it and trusting that it'll all be ok. We have learned that there is much fear involved in leaving the UPC and this fear causes people to do strange and drastic things.

To anyone who is planning to take a group of people out of a controlling religious system we say be wise, be vigilant, look for the signs of fear and anxiety and be proactive in nipping them in the bud with the word of truth. Don't ignore people's fears. Listen to them and ask God to help you defeat fear with truth. Don't overreact to perceived spiritual "dryness" if it comes. Don't overreact to an identity crisis because these things are normal and part of the transition process. Don't feel as if you must have all the answers and know the next five steps of the process. I've spoken with several pastors who also have left the UPC and they all attest that these things are normal and will happen. Just keep your ear tuned to Him and follow the vision he's placed in your heart.

Most of all, realize that God is bigger than the UPC, he is still with you and that no man-made organization can claim a corner on the protection and power of God. God is everywhere and he is with you wherever you are if you're following his voice. Don't be afraid, have faith and listen to his voice. He'll not let you down.

Duane


Posted March 12, 2003

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