We were newlyweds, in our first apartment, performing the dreaded church-shopping. We visited nearby churches, each one similar to the ones I attended as a child. Pews, pianos, choirs. They were sparsely attended, and though it was obvious we were visitors, very few people greeted us. So we moved on.
I had heard of a church that was a 20-minute drive from our new home. We decided to try it. On the way my husband grumbled, “I can’t see making this drive every week.” We were alerted to our arrival by policemen directing traffic into the lot and volunteers waving us into our parking space. This place was different.
We found a filled auditorium, a few singers, a drama, and a message given by a dynamic young pastor. Within a few weeks, we were involved in a small group, a midweek service, and as volunteers. We did not make the drive every week; we made it three times a week.
There was an excitement in this church that I had never before experienced. It was attractive and modern—not churchy. And this was the first church I had ever attended that I was not embarrassed to invite my unchurched friends to. I was not alone in that. When we first attended, there were about 4,000 people at the weekend services and 1,000 at the midweek service. It grew and grew.
We were a young congregation, just like Pastor. The doctrine was conservative, but the church was far from traditional. The elders and leaders included women—unheard of, in my experience. The ministry opportunities grew as fast as the leaders could come up with ideas.
We were young, and we were overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and suburban. Pastor became impassioned to serve the under-resourced and the international attenders. He was eager to incorporate racial reconciliation. He had a desire to equip ministers in Third World countries. Everything Pastor put his hands to prospered. Satellite campuses were planted throughout the area. And the church grew and grew.
Pastor kept to himself, walking the halls (only if it was necessary) accompanied by his security detail. He had little patience for complainers, reminding them that there were many churches to choose from. Admirers were thrilled to catch a glimpse of him. I used to joke that no one could accuse Pastor of humility. He was vulnerable on stage, but it was a measured vulnerability.
Ministries popped up, and staff was added. Ministries ended, apparently according to Pastor’s wishes, and staff was laid off. Recruiters snapped up anyone in a staff role. Our church was a “model” that many others tried to emulate.
There were ministries for single mothers, the divorced, those with special needs, those in addiction recovery, the grieving. The church was huge, growing in numbers, still attractive to the previously unchurched, and most important, people were meeting a God who loved them. Lives were changed.
There were the obvious flaws: disgruntled staff members left; the church itself was attractive to those who wanted to be anonymous (and at times, not accountable); smaller area churches suffered.
Then, one day, a local newspaper disclosed that Pastor had been accused of inappropriate behavior toward women—even an affair. The church addressed it publicly. We found that this accusation was not new and had been thoroughly investigated.
Pastor complained of being targeted, his legacy sullied. Near retirement age, he chose to walk away for the sake of the church. The church was left in turmoil. More women joined the accusers, coming forward with stories too similar to discount. His abuse of women and his misuse of power were undeniable. Still, Pastor was silent. And we grieved.
The aftermath continues to be ugly, painful, confusing.
Everyone seems to have an opinion. A popular Christian news blogger said, “The megachurch has to die.” But megachurches aren’t planted; churches grow to be mega-sized because there is something attractive about them that draws people in.
No person, no organization, is pure. Evil is quiet, insistent, and insidious. And here, evil planted its seed, and it took root and slowly grew underground until it reared its ugly, massive head and overtook the garden.
Does that mean the church was built on sand, destined to be washed away? Was God not glorified? Was it all a sham?
Lives were still changed. People were reengaged in the fellowship of believers. In hindsight, it’s clear that accountability was sacrificed for success. Diane Langberg says, “We confuse gifts with character. They’re not the same.”
But the pain is palpable— for the congregation, and especially for the women who were abused, broken by power, and then doubted. No amount of goodness in ministries can make up for that. For now, darkness seems to have overcome the light. The Church has yet another black eye. I can only hope that good will come of this—that God will redeem the incalculable loss and have the final word.
Some leave, some stay, but we all grieve.
Marcia Thomas lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband of 41 years. She has raised four handsome, self-actualizing sons. She has found healing in exploring her story in the presence of others and treasures the opportunities she has to be that presence for others. She is surprised and pleased to find that the glad work of healing does not have a retirement age.