WHAT IS ESSENTIAL? Mere Church
WHAT ABOUT LEADERSHIP? Christ is the Head
WHAT IS THE PATTERN TO FOLLOW? Learning from History
WHAT ARE THE PITFALLS? The World in the Church
WHAT ABOUT EVERGREEN AND GCM? Why We Left
(Notes as of 12/27/06)
The following post was originally offered in June of 2006 and caused something of a stir in our circle of acquaintance and beyond. In August it was taken down at the fairly impassioned request of an Evergreen pastor and his wife whom we considered to be our friends. The rationale for and explanation of that decision is covered in my 9/1/06 post.
Sadly, taking the post down accomplished little for the sake of “being at peace.” As a direct result of this post (up or down), two pastors’ families and one related family chose at the last minute to disassociate themselves with an organization we were all part of, and that my wife leads. Two of them held positions that had to be filled in an 11th hour scramble. To his credit, one of those pastors did show great consideration by paying his registration anyway so as to not leave the group in financial difficulty. Also, it should be added that three other GC pastors’ families chose to stay with us in the group. For that we were truly grateful.
In and around that whole process (again, more than a year after leaving their church), we received several communications in writing from Great Commission pastors describing us as “slanderous” and “divisive” among other things. In general these reactions, along with a couple of odd things that had happened earlier (around the time we resigned) were consistent with what many over the years have experienced with Great Commission and served to confirm our suspicions about the health of that organization and the wisdom of our decision.
After listening to the views of lot’s of people, I have decided at long last to put the original post back up where it was, content unedited, for what it’s worth, with the following notes:
1. It represents my best summary and analysis as of that date. I might write it a little differently now.
2. It was part 5 of a series of posts on The Church and some of the language is best understood as it follows up on those earlier installments
3. The most virulent reaction from GC pastors seems to have been to the use of the word “pride” in describing the GC approach to leadership. Draw whatever conclusions you may from that, but let me clarify:
a. Paragraph 4 was my attempt to anticipate that reaction and qualify the wording used.
b. Apparently I cannot overstate the idea that I was not identifying any person or the specific sin of pride in any person, but analyzing what I saw as a system and a sort of culture encouraging the undue elevation and isolation of leaders and a condescension toward the role of congregations. It was my assumption that GC pastors might well be gracious and humble individuals who have simply found themselves in a leadership system that by habit and tradition tended to communicate something else—a system sorely in need of reformation. I happen to personally know several GC pastors who are kind and good men and whose families I genuinely love and appreciate.
c. The 4th to the last paragraph is perhaps the most controversial example, so feel free to insert the adverb "corporately" in there, i.e. "corporately prideful, worldly..." etc.
d. GCM itself issued an apology statement in 1991 that clearly acknowledges corporate pride as a root of a number of practices that needed correction at that time. Current GC leaders who seem mystified by the distinction between the concepts of personal pride and corporate pride might want to re-read their own statement.
e. Before leaving Great Commission it had been our hope, right up to the last moment, that the good character of individual leaders would win out over the unfortunate teaching and practice that many of them were “born into,” and that they might embrace change rather than resist it.
4. Oddly enough, the post was written largely to finish something, not to start anything. It was in part an attempt, after more than 9 months of occasional reflection, to “put this experience away” and move on. I think I hoped, too, that it might serve as a gentle warning or an alert to others with similar observations and concerns. Way in the background was probably the faint idea that if I had been more clear at the time we were talking with GC leaders I might have accomplished more. Maybe somebody out there would yet be listening—that some good could come of it all within GC. My hope was that sooner than later I would have said what I had to say, and could just leave it there for whatever reaction it might get, and move on. In any case, I didn’t anticipate the need to write any more, but here we are. I'm done. I hope.
WHAT ABOUT EVERGREEN AND GCM? Why We Left
I’ve obviously been going somewhere with my recent posts. And where I’m headed here is to try to first summarize in my own mind and then explain to my Evergreen friends what lay behind our decision to leave the church last Summer. A handful of odd reactions and questions makes me think I needed to be more clear and forthright at the time.
It had nothing to do with megachurchiness, as tired as I am of that trend and as much as I smart off about it. It had nothing to do with governance per se, one precise set of bylaws over another. It had nothing to do with youth ministry changes or building programs. We did not find a new church that we liked better, we weren’t church shopping. We weren’t in conflict with anybody. It has been interesting to notice how many people have assumed that we were “hurt” in some way by the church. It’s as if personal conflict, not substance and content, is the only reason people might come to a parting of the ways. We were not hurt, but the decision was painful. We did not want to part in any way with friends. Moving our younger kids one notch away from their friends and familiar church surroundings was heartbreaking. So why did we do it?
It was a sharp disagreement over underlying principles, with what we now see as pretty significant flaws in what Evergreen pastors and GCAC/GCM believe about the nature of the Church and the leadership of it.
We came to believe that in Great Commission Association of Churches (Evergreen’s association) there was and still is something besides the gospel going on, a thread running through the DNA of the organization, so not right, that when we recognized it we could no longer be comfortable there. What is it? My blunt answer is a culture of pride. Sounds a little harsh, I know. I don’t know how else to describe it. A more complete explanation will take some digression and a few more paragraphs.
But before I go any further, let me qualify the bluntness and offer a disclaimer. I am not saying that Evergreen pastors are all proud men. I still count some of them as my friends (at least until this post) and would not want to be so strident and insulting as that. The same holds true for members. It has been observed that organizations in their corporate existence develop personalities of their own—characteristics and a culture that aren’t necessarily represented perfectly by any one individual. I operate on that assumption here as I attempt an analysis of Evergreen and Great Commission. I suppose you could say I’m challenging entrenched theology, philosophy, policy and assumptions, not people.
It seems to me that what has developed in Great Commission Churches, and the pitfall the GCM and GCC movement has been unable to climb out of, is essentially a kind of pride. Specifically, a misunderstanding of the nature of biblical leadership and of the church as the Body of Christ. It has resulted in an unduly elevated position of elders and in some cases heavy handed and controlling leadership. It has by its official structure excluded the congregation from it’s biblical role, and has produced a competitive system of leadership ambition inconsistent with true humility and grace. And then, from this leadership ethos flows a kind of exclusivism, elitism and exaggerated expectation of organization loyalty that seems to us unhealthy. So while the Gospel is preached, and much good comes from it, something is seriously missing—as a church.
That’s a mouthful. How did we come to this viewpoint? I’ll try to recap briefly.
There were some early red flags, isolated incidents and vague impressions. I remember being at the first couple of all-church gatherings, at the State Theatre maybe(?) in the mid-90s. I remember thinking “What is this?” The music was about the Gospel, the talks were sort of, but there wasn't much prayer, and the mood felt to me more like a multi-level sales conference, an Amway convention. It also seemed like this organization saw themselves as pretty much the only game in town. It troubled me some, but I was attracted by all the energy and strategizing too, and it was a lot of people, a growing concern. Looking back now, I think I was sensing exactly what later made me uneasy about the leadership culture in Great Commission.
I can remember in weekend services and Wednesday nights, frankly, a note of self-importance and even cockiness coming from the front, somewhat contemptuous of other churches and telling us that “everything you need is right here in this church.” We were frequently reminded of the uniqueness and particular biblical fidelity of this church and warned about reading too many books from “Northwestern Book Store” when we should be availing ourselves of the “gifted teaching here.” But, on the other hand the church participated with Billy Graham’s crusade and with Promise Keepers, so we gave it the benefit of the doubt.
There was some questionable biblical interpretation that concerned us, scripture twisting—bending a text out of shape to support a practice. One talk that really bothered us was a particularly unsound exposition of Proverbs in support of the Evergreen seeker strategy of “making Christ attractive.” Proverbs’ “Wisdom sending out her maidens” was offered as the basis for using attractive girls on the stage in the worship team. We heard it on a Friday, couldn’t believe our ears, came back Sunday and it was not repeated. We assumed it was a fluke, or at least had been corrected. I have heard I Timothy 3:1 “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer...” used to recommend a kind of “lust” for position that goes well beyond the intent of the passage, this in support of the Great Commission pastor development system.
We overlooked a lot of things because there were so many things we were impressed by. Who could not like the music, the energy, the growing crowds of young families and singles, the emphasis on evangelism? And to be fair, we met some very nice people whom we still count as friends. Not the least, we ended up “acquiring” a wonderful son-in-law!
We also knew something about the GC style of governance early on. I wondered about it a little, but decided maybe it didn’t matter. The proof would be in the pudding. The practice of bringing up pastors from within seemed like a good idea, and with qualifications, still does. We joined a small group, began teaching Sunday School, I began playing in the band, my wife served in the money counting ministry, and our kids got involved in the youth program. We helped start the Lakeville location and after a few years came back to Bloomington. We asked a few questions over those years, but procrastinated most.
Then came kind of a wake-up call. Big changes were suddenly afoot. Youth Ministry was to be dismantled and re-configured in an unwise way. The church schedule was suddenly changed to accommodate a major building campaign. All of this came down from the pastors. There was no congregational involvement in the decision making process. Ministry and small group leaders were hit with a preemptive strike at the next monthly meeting: God speaks His plans through the pastors. People need to follow. If you disagree with the plans, you’re out of step with God, not hearing from God, and may well be an obstacle and a tool of the devil. Whew! Then a weekend sermon during the ramp-up to fundraising. We need unity. The enemy of unity is complaining. Remember Korah’s rebellion? And so on.
We decided we needed to talk to some people and look into this organization a little deeper. We talked to four of the pastors over the next few weeks to follow up on some of our impressions. They were kind and generally reassured us that they believed in listening to the congregation, that the above ideas didn’t represent all the pastors’ actual thinking, and that we had been hit with “friendly fire.”
Somewhere in the middle of this process came another all-location gathering, Fanning the Flame. There we were told that we were the speaker’s “bride”, that we were meeting in the house of “another man’s bride” (Hosanna Church) and that as in a marriage, we ought to make a life-time commitment to our church, that leaving a church is tantamount to divorce.
We then met immediately with two pastors who acknowledged that while there were some points overstated in that message, overall it was effective. The CD of the message continued to be promoted and distributed in the following weeks. In the conversation on leadership that followed, one of them likened the authority/submission relationship between pastors and people to that of husband and wife, deliberating together, with the husband (pastors) having final authority. It occurred to me later that the blindingly obvious problem there is that the Bible does use the husband/wife picture...for Christ and His Church! Not the pastor and his church. I think that was a significant slip, and explains a lot about the foundations of GC polity. (And even using his premise, the leaders and the congregation had done very little deliberating together.)
Up to this point we had almost no information about the founding and history of Great Commission and the only negative was a reference somewhere to an apology issued by them in the early nineties. There had been some heavy handed practices in some of their early campus churches. We asked about that and one the pastors said he was aware of it and would try to dig one up for us, though he thought it wasn’t exactly an apology statement. For whatever reason, he did not get that document to us. He may have simply forgotten about it.
We began to do some research. We wanted to know where these ideas had come from. What are the roots and origins that might explain what we’ve been hearing. We knew a group had come up here from Ames, Iowa in the mid-80s and we had asked a few questions about that over the years. Maybe I’m lapsing into “black helicopter” conspiracy theory here, but looking back it seems on that topic people were ominously quiet and short on specifics. It made me wonder if there had been something embarrassing or difficult about the Ames group in those days. And yet the Ames alumni were undoubtedly on the inside track of the church, and clearly had a special bond with each other and their common heritage. I would hear quotes from “my pastor in Ames” without a name indicated. I later found out in one oft-quoted case it was Jim McCotter, the founder who had left the movement in the late 80’s. The question was this: Do the practices and ideas about leadership and church that worry us now have roots in the organization’ history, and is there information out there that does not come from the organization itself?
Googling "Great Commission International, Jim McCotter and cults" (and at this point we were beginning to worry about that) put us in touch with more information, most of it critical. We got information from Wellspring Retreat Center in Ohio, founded in the mid-80s by Dr. Paul Martin, a former Great Commission elder. Begun while helping others get over their experience in the Great Commission movement, it currently maintains a large research library and treats people from all sorts of cults and abusive groups. His book, Cultproofing Your Kids Zondervan 1993, includes his own experience with Great Commission. I bought the book. His colleague, Larry Pile, also a former GC member and leader in the early days, talked with me at length about the history and development of GC. He sent me a 200-plus page research paper devoted to this movement. His opinion was unequivocal.
The beginning of Great Commission (The Blitz) was marked by aggressive, successful outreach on a number of college campuses across the country. Founder Jim McCotter was a charismatic and influential evangelist who along with a handful of co-workers recruited a sizeable following in a few short years. The blessing of God was on these young people as they witnessed boldly for the Lord in the early 70s.
According to Pile, it was a little later when “assemblies” began to organize that some dark clouds began to form around the ideas of leadership, authority, and the Body of Christ. His account of what followed includes story after story of excesses, excommunications (in one case, from the worldwide Body of Christ!), and errant teaching around the theme of Our Strategy, Authority, Our Cause and so on. The founder seems to have exercised a controlling style and formed a sort of theology of it culminating in his book co-authored with Dennis Clark, Leadership: Apostles and Elders 1984 GCI. I have the book. It’s not very well written, more like a stream-of-consciousness rant (like this blog?), but includes some highly questionable stuff—very authoritarian, exclusivistic. Even while dismissive of other Christian groups and most of Christian history, at one point it shouts, “There must be unity at all cost [sic.]. When believers divide over so-called doctrine, they are always trampling under foot the cardinal doctrine—UNITY.” (Emphasis theirs) I suppose truth had to take a back seat.
One of the most interesting analyses of the development of thinking in GCI is a series of questions and statements regarding this shift addressed to Blitz leaders in 1977 by a group of men in Albuquerque. One incisive excerpt included in Pile’s book:
“Such practices and attitudes [regarding elders] we feel amount to spiritual bigotry and pride, based upon an improper concept of authority and leadership, and an underdeveloped concept of the body of Christ.”(italics mine)
If that 30-year-old assessment were not so eerily similar to what we thought we were picking up, we wouldn’t have noticed.
So what does all this have to do with today? Do these things persist in any widespread way? Is there any consistency with what we thought we were seeing here in our church?
There was indeed a statement of apology in 1991 (I now have a copy) including many of the afore-mentioned issues—prideful attitude, elitism, harsh discipline, misapplication of scripture, misuse of authority. It was done in consultation with men from Wellspring. It was genuinely intended, I’m sure, to clear up the damaged reputation of the movement. It was a step in the right direction. But questions remained. How universally was it endorsed by GC leaders? How widely was it disseminated? Were all the errors truly abandoned? Would these changes of heart find their way into actual teaching and organizational structure?
We began to listen to everything we could find on relevant topics—the history of GC, leadership, church, authority etc. available from Great Commission. We listened to pastors’ conference tapes, Faithwalkers conference messages, leadership retreats and more. There is evidence that past errors have not all been abandoned. In 2005 one of the messages to pastors at the pastors’ conference describes that 1991 apology as maybe “too self-deprecating.” And then on the subject of Unity and Loyalty his published notes suggest “Could it have been an honor to be accused of being a cult, those many years ago? Did we have something then, that may have been lost over the years?.” That sort of thing combined with what we had been hearing locally, drove us to this conclusion, summarized in an excerpt from our letter to the Bloomington pastors in August of 2005:
"That was a long time ago. A big part of the question for us has been whether or not Evergreen and the association have truly moved beyond those ideas and toward a healthier, more biblical approach to church. In some ways they have, but frankly, in some important ways, they have not; and that what we regard as an authoritarian government style, and an unscriptural approach to member loyalty, are still not only acceptable, but part of the core values of this movement, even enjoying a kind of resurgence."
Our conclusion was this: The fruit here was mixed. There were some good things happening in ministry, there was real skill and resourcefulness in speaking to the unchurched, but the unhealthy church legacy continued.
What is the Great Commission church leadership legacy? There are impressions and there are facts. People can debate whether they feel “controlled” or not, whether they sense an attitude of pride and whether the heavy-handedness of the early years is still around. Many would say none of those things are, others will tell you they have left the group for those very reasons.
What are not debatable are the quantitative facts about governance. Remember, every decision, including strategy decisions, staffing decisions, and the way in which every penny of church money is spent, is left finally in the hands of the pastors. There is a trustee board overseeing money—a fact which is offered as assurance that there is safety and objective oversight. But remember that this board consists of pastors, office staff and pastor-chosen members. As dull and seemingly unimportant a subject as it is, church government matters. If for no other reason than that it reveals the actual view of the body of Christ that the organization holds. It’s sort of a barometer.
Here the congregation has no authority in the selection process of elders and trustees. Final authority rests in the board of elders, which is the pastors. These men have been chosen (with the exception of the first two who were appointed by somebody in Ames) by one another. Yes, the congregation is invited to offer input prior to installation, but the decision is made by the existing pastors (and, of course, the decision whether to even open a position and hire somebody).
This is an unusual arrangement which apparently is the practice in all Great Commission churches. I occasionally read the blog of a very bright young guy at the Evergreen Rock location in Minneapolis. I happened to notice that in his bio he mentions his church, and that it is a GCM church “much like an Evangelical Free Church or General Conference Baptist church.” Not at all! Whether you like it or don’t, it’s drastically different. The statement of faith might be nearly identical, but nothing about structure, leadership or governance is even close. I wonder if this misunderstanding is common among members.
The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit leads and speaks to the Church through a variety of gifts distributed broadly through the ranks. Whatever operational bylaws are adopted, this principle must be honored. Historically, most solid post-Reformation church thinking has been based on these ideas. When leaders arrogate final authority to themselves, and tacitly assume that all necessary gifts are to be found among themselves, and leave the congregation “out in the hall” while they make decisions in executive session, something critical is lost, for the leaders and for the congregation.
In short, as all this came into focus, we knew we needed to again address our pastors and make a final decision. We were hopeful that change was possible. We were not interested in holding anybody hostage to the past. After 10 years we were committed to sticking it out and helping in any way we could if there was willingness on the part of leaders even to consider a shift toward what we thought would be a healthier model of church.
After yet another encounter with doubtful teaching, this time at our daughter’s summer youth trip (HSLT in Colorado 2005) on the subject of commitment to your local church “for the rest of your life,” we sat down with the Evergreen founding pastor who spoke at that event. That had been a common theme in 2005. While backing down from and apologizing for some of the specifics in that teaching, he listened to our larger concerns and gave us the response that I guess we needed. He was kind, soft-spoken but unequivocal. There would be no possibility of change within Evergreen or Great Commission with regard to its leadership philosophy, and it would be better for us to leave rather than stay and try to change things. So we did.
This is extreme, but this is what I think. In Great Commission, what is going on besides the Gospel, what taints, twists and colors all that is done, is a prideful, worldly, hierarchical view of leadership and an underdeveloped concept of the body of Christ. While all the good work and service and proclamation of the Gospel goes on, it persists in the culture of the organization and tangibly in its structure and governance.
Evergreeners are not bad people, or even bad Christians. Some are our dearest friends. In fact, there are many intelligent, wonderful people there, and if ever the error could have been rooted out and the leadership culture changed, we thought it could have become a wonderful expression of the local church, and a long-term home for us. It would have required one last top-down decision—radical, wrenching and complicated to be sure—with leadership divesting itself of it’s current authority and reconfiguring in submission to the Holy Spirit through the congregation, still leading and equipping, but now functioning in proper order, as one with the whole body.
Pulling the thread of teaching on leadership and the body would have unraveled much. It would have required enormous humility, the rethinking of 30 year old premises, a lot of work, and very possibly a break with the national organization. We sincerely believed that if it could be done, enormous freedom, growth and blessing would be the result. It was not to be.
There are my thoughts. To my ECC friends who might read this and think I've "lost it" or take any offense at these words, feel free to respond in any way you wish and please accept my apology. I've been procrastinating this post for a while but thought I needed to offer it, whatever it's worth.