"Melli, you're too cerebral."
I remember these words vividly, as they came sprinting out of the mouth of the youth pastor I was working for in my first paid ministry job after graduating from Bible college with a freshly pressed youth ministry degree. I remember my internal reaction, which was much different than the calm, cool external reaction I was conveying. In my mind, I was screaming "Hold the phone...in your opinion, my biggest weakness is that I use my brain too much?!"
For months, the lead pastor of the youth department had been talking about hiring another full time youth pastor to add to the staff. I had been hired after graduation under the guise that I would pay my dues doing administrative tasks, earning a meager $7.00 per hour while also being the caretaker of the house on church property. In addition, I would also take on the responsibilities of a pastor, and when the time came, I would just move right into the role.
I got along very well with the youth pastor. We had similar backgrounds and were both unique in that we had never let the fact that we were female stand in the way of accomplishing our goals. She was a trailblazer in youth ministry, being one of the better known female youth pastors in the nation. The only glaring difference was our personalities, she being the definitive extrovert fun pastor that could turn Wednesday night service into an updated version of Double Dare, and I was the introvert pseudo-pastor that focused on creating deep, meaningful messages that would help make church and their faith mean more than just a weekly social event. I always saw our differences as a great way to balance our team.
The shock that I felt after being told that I use my brain too much, and the implication that my sermons were too brainy, made me question why I even bothered getting an education (a very expensive one) and why I bothered taking advanced theology and Biblical study classes. Apparently, I would have been more valuable to our team had I just sat around and watched shows like Wipeout, re-runs of Double Dare, and Survivor. The focus of the youth ministry program at this church was getting kids in the door and entertaining them, then sneaking in a Christian-lite message. And it’s not that this is a wrong approach to youth ministry, but in this case, it was the only approach. When I questioned this, I was told that the reason that the ministry focused so intently on creating a fun-park atmosphere is because it would appeal to the majority of teenagers in the area. And this was absolutely true. There was nothing wrong with creating an atmosphere to get kids in the door. What I took issue with was that in absence of meaningful messages and thought-provoking teachings, we were nothing more than a Boys & Girls Club, or after school program. What about the teenagers that had been coming for years, who often expressed their boredom with the same entertainment over and over? What about the kids that were committed to coming to church, but wanted deeper teaching and wanted to know why prayer was important?
What bothered me the most about this ministry was that it was stuck on step one – getting people in the doors. This youth ministry was so good at that, but its greatest weakness was what to do after that. And that surprised me, because a number of us on staff had degrees in Biblical study. We were all capable of delivering meaningful messages…but why weren’t we doing that? Why weren’t we challenging the youth to think about their faith?
I recently read “The Great Derangement,” by Matt Taibbi, a book that calls out our political and religious institutions for their back room, cultish dealings. As I read about Taibbi’s experiences in Pastor John Hagee’s megachurch in Texas, I continually found myself checking off a list of shared experiences. One of the main aspects of Taibbi’s book is exposing the crowd manipulation tactics used on people who are new to church. In short, the American Evangelical church encourages it’s congregation to not think for themselves, even going so far as to, as one chapter of Taibbi’s book shows, exorcising the demon spirit of “Intellect.” Pastors get up every Sunday and in some ways, manipulate the Bible to push a certain brand of political belief. In Taibbi’s experience, he often writes of the church’s firm stance on embracing Israeli statehood and all of the complicated aspects that come with it, but exposes how the church never really offers a sound explanation as to why the congregation should support it. The only explanation is rooted in a certain interpretation of the book of Revelation, in conjunction with a faulty theological theory called Dispensationalism. In one chapter, Taibbi writes of how Pastor Hagee’s son preached against climate change and environmental awareness, by telling the congregation that it was nothing more than a devious liberal plan to force people to have abortions, and that it was all a conspiracy to curb the population. He writes in detail of how this brand of church, which stands as the prime example of the Conservative Evangelical movement, operates as a sort of Christian boot camp, where newcomers are stripped of their identity and initiated into a group of Christian soldiers, who all think alike, talk alike, and await instruction from their mega-rich celebrity pastors.
As I was continually told from that day forward that I was too brainy for the position of youth pastor, I never stopped wondering why it was so taboo to do more than entertain people who came to church. I eventually came to realize that the modern Evangelical megachurch isn’t interested in growing people’s faith or helping them develop beliefs that can’t be summed up by those cheesy Christian decals. You know the ones…the fancy script fonts that decorate the walls of every church mom’s home. Today’s Evangelical movement has become one with Conservatism, and only seeks to ingrain their followers with political principles that require no deep thought, empathy, or even remotely resemble the Christ they claim to follow. By actively hindering the congregation’s ability to think critically, the church has purposefully stunted the growth of their people. Anyone with a dissenting opinion about reproductive rights, prayer in schools, or even the budget for the Department of Defense is not welcome in the club, and becomes the pariah for not being lockstep in line with the Conservative point of view.
For “Christian Thinkers” like me, the problem is not that you won’t find differing political opinions in the church; the problem is that many Christians don’t know why they hold their opinions when asked. They offer up some form of “That’s what Christians are supposed to believe” or “That’s what our pastor told us the Bible says”. The political beliefs of many Christians are rarely backed up by fact or their own thoughtful examination of the issue. Pastors have created a flock that lacks all motivation for critical thinking about political viewpoints and Biblical principles. They have created a perfect following, that seemingly would leap off a cliff if they were told it’s what the Bible said was the “right” way to be a Christian, or the one way to ensure their salvation.
It is indeed, a derangement, as Matt Taibbi, writes. And what continues to astound me, especially in this political climate, is how blind and vapid the sheep are…to the point that they now believe that Donald Trump is the man of God that will lead our country back to Christianity. I refuse to accept this as the new normal.
*Seriously, do yourself a favor and read The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi. I’ve never read a book that resonated in such a humorous and dark way with my experiences in the Evangelical church. Thanks, Matt…you did an astounding job of exposing the monster that has been living under the surface of the church for quite some time.*