MY STORY OF SURVIVING AN ABUSIVE PENTECOSTAL CHURCH

by David J. Thrower

Human nature is imperfect, perhaps too much so. And, despite the fact the Church is of Christ, it still has its imperfect human element. The story that follows is an example of how this concept affected me, and I tell you, it is not something I'd want to relive, this is for sure!

Before I begin, however, let me first say something. The information contained here does not attack a particular denomination, as in most cases Pentecostal leadership is a lot more mainstream and orthodox in its approach, and would recoil in horror at what some churches carrying the denominational name are doing. And although I am wary of the so-called "nondenominational" charismatic congregations, some of which are noted for false doctrines and abusive practices, it is not them I am concerned with in this case as I've had no personal involvement with any such groups. Hopefully, this will clear up any misunderstanding that may arise from reading this story. At any rate, let us move on.

In January of 1990, I was in the middle of my freshman year at Florida Baptist Theological College in Graceville, FL. Earlier, in the summer of 1989, I had experienced a spiritual renewal at a revival held in a little Pentecostal Holiness church in Brunswick, GA, and was hungry for renewal. As a result, I eagerly fed, like a hungry kid at a candy store, on all the charismatic teaching I could find; you name it--Ken Hagin, Benny Hinn...all of it! Only later did I realize how false those things were.

However, one person, a lot more orthodox in doctrine but also a true man of integrity, inspired me the most and even now I still hold this man in high regard. His name is Jack Hayford, and based out of Van Nuys, CA, he pastors what I soon discovered to be the largest church in the Foursquare denomination. As a Baptist, I found my newfound charismatic experience was not too well-received by the classmates I had at the college, and so I began my search for a new church.

Knowing my mentor Jack Hayford was Foursquare, I opted eventually to affiliate with it myself, and began a search for the nearest congregation. My search led me to a nearby city of AL, and in January 1990 I visited New Life Tabernacle Foursquare Church for the first time.

The rather rustic pastor of the church, a man in his mid-50's originally from Missouri with a portly Chicago-born wife, seemed all right at first; he had a sense of humor, was really outgoing, and seemed "spiritual" enough, although he was a bit rough in his preaching. But, I figured what the hey; he never promised to be a Jack Hayford, and I wasn't expecting it either. A month later, I joined the church.

At first, I was not able to get to the church as I had no transportation. I did get to go every so often, and when I did I relished it. After going home for the summer and coming back, I met my future wife, and she expressed a desire to go to church with me and so I went almost every Sunday then. After the beginning of 1991, though, I began to see a change, as the "honeymoon stage" of my acquaintance with this church would come to an abrupt end.

The more I got involved, the more things became unpleasant. The pastor grew more controlling, for one thing, and was not open to differences of opinion. Also, there was this emphasis from the beginning on demonstrative worship, and the pastor's wife was into this whole idea of "dancing before the Lord," and soon it got to where your spirituality was based solely on how much you participated in this.

Now, I myself am, and always have been, a quiet worshipper, and was not prone to such activities. That made me suspect, along with my intellectual pursuits, which were seen by many of the church folk as supposedly "hindering what God wants to do."

Later, I realized that the pastor was insecure about his own intellectual limitations, and that those who could think on their own were a threat to his authority. To complicate things even more, it was around this time that a group of people in the church got themselves involved in so-called "deliverance ministry," and this group, with the pastor's full endorsement, had a "prayer group" every Monday night headed by a very emotionally unstable woman who, as I also learned later, was engaging in what is called "charismatic witchcraft" (that is, using supposed spiritual gifts to manipulate others).

This group was flared-up even further by the prolific circulation of two books, put out by the heterodox fundamentalist Jack Chick, authored by Rebecca Brown (this Brown, it was discovered later, was a fraud), that propagated a belief that Christians can be possessed by devils (something I have yet to find substantiation for in Scripture, by the way!). From then on, services became witch hunts, and at random the pastor and others would point people out of the audience, via a "word of knowledge," and PUBLICLY embarrass them by saying they had "demons" of this or that.

As I began to see what was going on, I began to question some things, although not publicly for fear of the pastor. It was a fateful trip to California, which to follow what I believed my pastor to think was the "will of the Lord," that eventually capped things for me. My pastor said he felt I should leave my Baptist college and attend the Foursquare school out west, and like an idiot I listened; I ended up coming home a month later, broke financially and broken spiritually.

Instead of having compassion on me, the church persecuted me more, saying that I was rebelling against God by not being allowed to stay, and that I was possessed and needed "deliverance". At around the same time, my fiancee was set up in a compromising position by some members of the church, who fixed it so a man almost raped her. Luckily, God's protection was with her, and it never happened.

Eventually, it got to be so much we left the church. When we did, we were slandered, and branded "enemies of the church," meaning no members could even talk to us. I was afraid I would be slandered to other Foursquare pastors also, and in time also grew too scared to even make friends or ask for prayer, in fear I'd either be judged or targeted for some idiotic "deliverance session." To this day, I still have some problems with these areas, although the Lord is good and has been helping me.

Barbara, my wife, was even affected more so, as she felt used by these people. In time, though, we got word that the pastor had retired, and shortly before he did the church suffered a split in which the associate pastor took over 50% of the membership with him. As for us, we eventually left behind all the baggage associated with Charismania, and I am now in preparation for being received into the Maronite rite of the Catholic Church. For once, things are again coming into focus, and I feel as if I'm where my tired spirit needs to be in order to rest. That is my story.

I wish to encourage anyone going through similar circumstances to take heart. For one, don't be afraid to question things you see as deserving of scrutiny. Two, learn to know for yourself what YOU believe, and be able to think for yourself; after all, God gifted us with intelligence for a reason, and we should use it. Finally, always commit yourself to the Lord, as he's there for you. It will be hard, and it will shake your faith hard too; I can tell you from experience that this is the hardest part of recovery, because for most of us that were involved in these type of situations, we seen God as some bully that we had to do this or that for in order for him to accept us.

Truth is, though, God already loves and accepts us, and it grieves him, I'm sure, to see his children so hurt by bully pastors, and I honestly feel that if these pastors don't repent, a lot of innocent blood will be required of their hands. At any rate, that's my experience, and God bless.


Posted April 13, 2000

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