“Yes, This Really Happened,” by Mo Spheric

Some time ago, I began a season of life at what is now a well-known Southern California mega-church.building-the-church

The church had five services every weekend and I served on the worship team at least one weekend a month for 6 1/2 years. I was a much younger man then, but five services over two days is grueling. Between personal practice, rehearsals and services, you basically sacrifice an entire weekend.

I remember one weekend Pastor Jim (not his real name) was trying to get more musicians to serve on the worship team. He tells the congregation, “Why, you don’t even have to be that good. Take ‘Mo Spheric’ for example. He’s no Jimmy Page, but he does an OK job for us. If he can do it, you can do it.”

I suppose in hindsight that should have been the big tip off to how little I was actually valued. But I wasn’t quite grokking the gestalt at that point.

A few years later, the church buys some property and starts a building campaign. Pastor Jim calls me up and asks if he can come over and speak with my wife and me.

The big night arrives. Pastor Jim sits at my dinner table and proceeds to tell me, “You and your wife are among the top 1% of all givers. I am personally meeting with every one of the top 1% to ask them to give sacrificially to the building campaign. My wife and I are going to pledge $40,000 on faith. Some church members are taking second mortgages out on their homes to help us out. How much can I count on you to give, in addition to your regular tithes and offerings? This is a matter of faith. Don’t just pledge from what you already have. I want you to believe God for a miracle. Make it a big one. God will come through, you’ll see.”

Yeah well…I told ol’ Pastor Jim that I’d have to talk it over with my wife before we could make any specific commitment. I also told him that I believed in being a good steward of what God had already given me and that pledging more than I knew my family could comfortably give just didn’t seem wise. I could see the disappointment on Pastor Jim’s face.

My wife and I did eventually decide to give to the building campaign. I recall it being about half of what we had in savings at the time. It was many thousands of dollars, which was a lot for us at the time (heck, it still is a lot). But hey, Pastor Jim had honored us by asking us personally. It seemed like the least we could do.

A few years later, the church hired a very young worship leader. He was fresh out of college and had married the daughter of another high-profile Southern California Pastor. He was the golden boy, the heir apparent… and he knew it. Warren (not his real name) was generally abusive to anyone who didn’t belong to his inner circle, and for some reason, Warren took an almost instant dislike to me. It was a pretty dreadful time in my life. It wasn’t long before I felt God prodding me to move on. So we did. We didn’t raise a stink about things. We just stopped attending and serving.

At the time, it hurt me that Pastor Jim, the guy who had sat at my dinner table asking for money, never so much as called or sent me an email saying, “Hey, I haven’t seen you in church lately… Is everything OK?”

OK, so here’s where the story gets err…”revealing.” Flash forward another 6-7 years and I get an email from ol’ Pastor Jim. It seems that the church has embarked on another building campaign. The email began by saying, “You matter to God and you matter to me.”

Obviously, I had been left on some fund-raising list. But I couldn’t resist having a bit of fun with ol’ Pastor Jim, so I emailed him back. I said something like, “Wow, I matter to you? Who knew? I haven’t set foot in your church in over 6 years. You once personally sat at my dinner table and asked me for money (which I gave you), yet you never once called or emailed after I stopped attending. If we matter so much to you, haven’t you wondered what happened to us?”

So Pastor Jim replies, “If I have offended you in any way, I’m sorry. What can I do to make this up to you?”

I replied that I would just like to talk things through a bit and perhaps try to gain some closure.

Well, I never did hear back from ol’ Pastor Jim. I guess he felt that tepid apology got him off the hook. After all, it sure did sound like a spiritual thing to say. I hear he got that new building.

But I know some things about Pastor Jim. I know that while he might be concerned with people as a group, compassion and empathy on a personal level are merely abstract concepts to him. He’s too busy saving the city to be bothered very much about how any one person might be hurt by his actions. Individuals are just so much acceptable collateral damage. You gotta break eggs to make omelets, right? I also know that Pastor Jim treats people differently according to what they give to his church. He is what the Bible calls “a respecter of persons.” The Bible condemns such behavior. I know that Pastor Jim routinely hires people for part-time positions, then works them 50+ hours per week. I know that there are broken marriages and broken people in the wake of his grand vision.

While it is a very painful chapter in my life, I don’t really think about it much. When most folks hear this story, they usually tell me that Pastor Jim’s behavior is especially callous and egregious. The funny thing is, I don’t think it’s egregious at all. I think it’s pretty much the cultural norm for successful “professional Christians” these days. What used to be called “church” has morphed into the modern-day “business of selling Jesus,” and God help you if you get in the way of the mega-church juggernaut. These men are going about doing great things for the Kingdom of God thank-you very much. Just step aside and you won’t get hurt (much).

One of the lessons I take away from the Book of Job is that letting earthly success be a referendum on whether or not God approves of your life is neither accurate nor wise. I’m sure Pastor Jim sleeps well at night. He lives in a nice home in a fashionable upscale neighborhood. His church is many times the size it was when I attended, there’s plenty of money to go around, and after all the church does many worthwhile things for the community. But does that necessarily mean that God is pleased with Pastor Jim? Maybe. Maybe not. For in the same way that Job’s trials and hardships in no way meant that God was displeased with him, I believe that earthly success, status, fame, notoriety and influence don’t necessarily mean that God approves of what you are doing or how you are doing it.

Mo Spheric is the pen name of a man who writes about his emergence from what James Fowler called “Stage Three Faith.” This piece is from a collection of essays entitled “The Apostate Chronicles,” available on Amazon here.

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