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Raising The Real Deal: Protecting Your Kids From A Toxic Church

            One of the greatest gifts that a godly parents can give to their children is a healthy perspective on the church and life within a community of believers.     As anyone who has been around the church for any period of time will tell you, this is no easy task because even though the church can provide great assets to help you raise godly children, there are also times when it can be a hindrance or a challenge to your children’s walk with God.     When the later circumstances occur, it becomes your responsibility to help your child sort through the questions, the quarrelling, and the politics and maintain their love and appreciation for the church as the body of Christ.     Not exactly an easy task---but a very, very important one!  


            As a former church kid and a minister, I believe it is every parent’s responsibility to take their child to a healthy church even if that means removing them from a toxic, unhealthy one. 


            To give that statement a moment to sink in, I’ll say it again:  I believe it is every parent’s responsibility to take their child to a healthy church even if that means removing them from a toxic, unhealthy one. 


            Think of it this way:  Suppose you are on the hunt for a house.   You’re searching for a home where your children will eat, sleep, play, and do all the things necessary to grow up.  


            Let’s say that the first place your realtor takes you to is beautiful on the outside, but right in front of the door is a big, angry dog---a neighborhood stray---that’s preventing you from coming inside.   When the realtor finally shoos him away, you walk inside and see that the walls are covered in mold.  You turn on the faucets and brown water comes out.   There are holes in the floor, no banisters on the staircase, and electrical wires openly exposed.   It’s close to where you work and it doesn’t cost much, but it comes with a warning that the previous owners developed some serious health issues.    You’re considering it, but you’re just not sure.


            Next, your realtor takes you to a second house.   This time it’s in a good, safe environment.   You notice that the neighbors have children the same age as yours and the animals all seem to be under control.   Inside the house, things aren’t extravagant or fancy, but they are clean.  The water’s crystal clear and everything seems to be well-maintained.   Of course, it is more expensive and you will have to commute further to work.     Is the sacrifice of your time and money really worth it?


            Looking at the two houses, which one would you choose? 


            Duh!!!   If you’ve got kids, there’s no way you’re moving them into a toxic dump where they will either be poisoned by the mold or water or bitten by the guard dog.   Any good parent would make the choice to sacrifice as much as possible to have their child grow up in a healthy environment.   It’s a no-brainer.


            Well, the same standard applies to choosing a spiritual home as choosing a physical home.   Just like you want to choose a safe, healthy environment for your family home, if you want your child to live a spiritually healthy life, you’re going to have to choose to take them to a safe, healthy, Bible-believing church.   Without a doubt, this is the first step in giving your child a healthy perspective on the church and life within a community of believers.   It’s also a key ingredient in keeping your church kid from leaving the church as a young adult.   Isn’t that the ultimate goal? 


            How can you tell if a church is toxic or healthy?  Here’s a list of a few things to look for in a healthy church.  


1.         A Healthy church preaches the salvation message and allows frequent opportunities for people to experience salvation.


2.         A Healthy church does not openly tolerate sin.


3.         A Healthy church handles conflict in a mature, Biblical manner.


4.         A Healthy church is led by a born again, spiritually mature pastor that you can trust.    


            He may not be the most charismatic guy, but is he a good man?  Does he love God?  Is he faithful to his wife?  Does he treat her and the children with respect?   Is he honest?   Does he have a heart that leans toward doing the right thing?   Does he have the heart of a servant or is he on a power trip?   Remember, the pastor is leading the flock.  Do you respect him as a person enough to follow?


5.         A Healthy Church has qualified, capable staff that you can trust to keep your children and teens physically, emotionally, and sexually safe.  


            Why would you trust your children to people who don’t meet these criteria when there are so many churches out there that would be thrilled to love, guide, teach and protect your children in their dynamic children and teen programs?


6.         A Healthy Church has an open system of financial accountability.


7.         A Healthy Church has a Bible-based code of conduct that it expects its leaders to follow.


8.         A Healthy Church has a strong emphasis on both evangelism and discipleship; they are about the mission of fulfilling both sides of the Great Commission.


9.         A Healthy Church does not grant any one person or group of people an inordinate amount of power or control.  I.E.  There’s no power player who controls the rest of the church through fear or manipulation.


10.       A Healthy Church does not allow one member or a group of members to abuse other members of the church.


11.       A Healthy Church will love and welcome children and teenagers and see them as an important part of the church community.   


12.       A Healthy Church welcomes the weak in our society and seeks to help meet their needs. 


13.       A Healthy Church should have no prejudice on the basis of race, gender or economic level.


14.       A Healthy Church will be a giving church.


15.       A Healthy church will provide Biblically Based preaching and teaching.


            Granted, this may not be a complete list, but it’s a good start.  There may be other things that you feel need to be added, but none of these things should be taken away.     These are all signs of health, and when it comes to choosing the church that will define “church” in your child’s mind, it’s incredibly important that these characteristics be included. 


            Straight talk:  I don’t care how long your family has been going to a particular church, how much time or money you’ve invested, what position of honor you’ll have to give up, who you’ll offend, how inconvenient it is, or how far you have to travel to find a healthy church.    If you are attending a toxic church that is poisoning your child’s spiritual life, then it is your responsibility to find a new church that will feed your child’s spiritual life.   I’m not saying you have to find a perfect church (because that doesn’t exist).  I’m talking about the difference between a toxic church and a healthy church.


            You see, it’s tragic, but true:  If a child grows up in a toxic church, 9 times out of 10, they’re going to develop an “I can’t wait to get out of here” attitude.  I know I did!


            If I’m going to be completely honest with you, I’ll admit that this is an area where my parents had both defeats and victories.   You see, I was almost 2 years old when my Mom became a born again Christian.    After she was saved, she immediately dove into the local Pentecostal church in our area, eager to grow in God and experience as much of the Christian life as possible.    When my Dad began attending the church a few months later, he loved the sense of community and acceptance that he was experiencing for the first time in his life.    They believed they’d found a new family and a new home.


            For a year or two, things seemed really good.   The senior pastor was a dynamic man, full of life and vision.    My Mom and Dad quickly became involved in many aspects of the church.  As a family, we were there for Sunday School, Sunday Morning Service, Sunday Night Service, and Mid-week service.   If anything else was going on during the week, we’d probably be attending that, too.    At this point, our lives were pretty much centered on the church and our friends at church.   


            Then at the end of my first year of school, everything began to change very quickly and very dramatically.   The very young pastor who had recently inherited the church from the experienced senior pastor was accused of some very scandalous activities.    It seemed like almost immediately the entire church erupted into the most vicious, malicious split that I’ve ever seen in my 35 years of church life. 


            Quickly, the revelation of one scandal led to the revelation of another.   Everyone had to choose a side: were you with the pastor or against him?


            To be honest, I don’t remember all of the details because I was so young.  All I remember was the intense pain and the extraordinarily cruel actions that church members were taking against each other.    As a child, I remember hearing people telling emotional stories of hate mail they received from other church members gloating that they’d lost the position they formerly held in the church.   I watched as friends that we once invited to our home for dinner or joined us on family outings would no longer even look at my parents in church or acknowledge their existence.  


            To be honest, I saw and heard much more than I should have.   Having a child’s mentality, I villainized people in my mind, completely astounded that people we had once called friends and trusted could secretly be so evil.   It wasn’t until I was much older that I could set some of these childish images aside and begin to see the people involved as human beings who were prone to fail rather than hateful monsters.     All I knew at a young age was that there was definitely an ugly side to the church and I’d just seen it up close and personal. 


            Well, eventually, the pastor did leave the church as did many members of the congregation.   Unfortunately, our family did not.   Even though things eventually quieted down under the new pastor, they were never the same again.   The church continued to function, but not in a vibrant, healthy manner.   We were no longer an influence on the community.   Instead, we were just another church---fighting within rather than ministering without.


            Again, as a church kid, I had a front row seat to the action.  By this time, my Dad, not because of his spiritual maturity but rather his job as an accountant, had earned a position on the church board.   Now we knew all the dirt that was going on in the church.   What a privilege!   Not! 

            Even though my family still attended pretty regularly and was fairly involved, by this time my views of church life were pretty tainted by the constant bickering, hypocrisy, scandals, and just all around garbage of a toxic church.   


            By the time I was 11 years old, I was really struggling with my genuine heartfelt desire to love and serve God, and the feelings of disgust I held toward the church where I grew up.   Even now, I can clearly remember standing in church on a Sunday morning and thinking, “I would love to raise my hands and worship, but I don’t want to be a hypocrite like so many of the people around me.”   Then I’d look around at the people who were putting on a good Pentecostal show during Sunday service and think, “I know what you did last week; I know how you treat your wife and kids; we all know what you’re going to do when you leave here today, who do you think you’re fooling?”


            Even as I write this I think, “That sounds pretty self-righteous.   Nobody’s perfect.”    Still, I want you to understand that my thoughts really weren’t self-righteous or judgmental as much as they were the thoughts of a child whose maturity level could not yet process or decipher though the complexities of how a person can live an openly sinful life or be cruel toward the members of their family during the week and yet be super-Christian on Sunday.    I also hope that my honesty helps you to see into the mind of a child and realize that children do not handle church conflicts or hypocrisy the way that adults do, nor do they have the tools to properly bring resolve to the situations and injustices they see.


            After all, church kids are just kids.   


            As children, they don’t look at a situation and say, “Oh, I can see that this person is struggling with issues in their lives that are caused by their past that cause them to act out in abnormal ways that damage relationships and cause tension within the church.   Hence, I need to love them and help them find a better path in life while at the same time I protect myself and my family from their poor behavioral choices.” 


           Kids don’t think like that!   They think, “They are mean!   They hurt Mom and Dad!   They treated me badly.  I don’t like them.” 


            As a parent, you need to take time to see things through your kids eyes so that you can help them deal with difficult situations in the church, and so that church issues don’t become a barrier in your child’s relationship with God.  


            That’s one thing that my Mom did successfully.   She was very good at helping my sister and I understand that no matter what happened in the church, it was the result of human choices.  Jesus was not the church; and it was important that we maintain our personal relationship with Him above all else.   But back to the story….


            So, like I said, I was about 11-12 years old when my parents decided it was time for a change.   The church had never fully recovered from the original split and it seemed to be on a generally downward spiral interrupted only by mini-splits and scandals in the interim years.   Finally coming to the end of her rope, my Mom said she was done.   She was finding another church, and reluctantly, my Dad followed. 


            That decision initiated a turning point in my life.   I will always, always, always, be grateful to my Mom for taking a stand and saying, “We’re finding a healthy church” and starting the church search.   After a few months of looking, our family began attending a spiritually healthy, dynamic, spirit-filled church about an hour from our home.  (By the way, I give my parents major props for being willing to make the trip twice a week---Even all of these years later, I know that their sacrifice of time, energy, and gasoline made a tremendously positive impact on my life.)


            Needless to say, I loved the new church!   For the first time in my life, I felt like I was seeing church done right.    Immediately, I was drawn to the pastor and his wife, a couple who held themselves, their church, and their ministry up to the highest standards.    Everything they did was quality, including the sermons which were open, honest, and Biblically-based.  


            The focus of the church was two-fold:  Evangelism and Discipleship.   They had lots of programs in both directions.   On the evangelism side, they always seemed to be doing something in the form of outreach, including: a prison ministry, a television ministry broadcasting all over our region, outreaches in the form of top-quality productions or community outreaches.   On the other side of the coin, they had discipleship programs available for every age group including a thriving children’s ministry, an active, relevant youth group, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, and relevant Sunday School classes and Wednesday night services.  


            Coming from my former church, one thing that I really admired was that you could trust the staff.   These men and their spouses were godly, tried and tested, responsible people who were wholeheartedly dedicated to ministry.   As the new kid in the youth group, it was really scary being in a new environment.   However, having met the youth pastor, I knew that it would be a safe environment and that he had the entire situation under control.   


            There wasn’t a member of that staff that I didn’t admire or trust.   Even 20 years later, I can see that my trust wasn’t misplaced because all of these men and their wives are still serving God and ministering.   The senior pastor and his wife that made such an impression on me then are still actively pursuing their passion of spreading the Gospel throughout the world and teaching Christians how to properly live as disciples of Christ.


            Without gushing too much about how much I loved this church, I would like to tell you one more thing that stood out to me, as a child, about this new healthy church.   That was:  it was a giving church.    There were constantly opportunities to help people in need or give toward advancing the kingdom of God.  Rather than the staff complaining about how poor they were because they made the sacrifice to be ministers, they led the example by constantly giving and pouring into others.   Being the polar opposite of what I saw as a child, this was one of the many things I observed at this church that I have tried to carry forward into my own life and ministry.  


            This church set an example that I wanted to follow and it changed my opinion of church and church people forever.  When my parents moved us to a healthy church, everything changed.   For the first time, I saw a version of Christianity that I wanted.   Attending this church reopened my mind to the possibility becoming a minister.   Probably most importantly, attending a healthy church inspired and challenged me to keep my own spiritual life growing and healthy.   Even though I know it required tremendous sacrifices on their part, I can say without question, that travelling to this church was one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me because it gave me a good, positive perspective of the church.  


            You see, in my early childhood years, I had a really bad opinion of the church.   I honestly believe that had my parents stayed at that church, I would not be in the ministry today.    Even though I really did love Jesus and want to spend my life serving Him, that church with all of its problems created a stumbling block in my life.


            However, after spending years in a good, healthy church, I began to see things from a different perspective.   Finally, I began to understand that all churches are not toxic.   There are very strong, healthy, vibrant, Bible-believing churches that are fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.   Even though all churches have problems because they are filled with flawed human beings, not all churches are unhealthy or toxic like the one where I spent my early years.   As my perspective broadened, I was able to see that the church of Jesus Christ is alive and thriving, and it is wrong to judge the entity by its weakest link.    Instead, it is the responsibility of mature, godly Christians to try to restore health to the churches that are sick and remove the poison that is trying to destroy them.  (After all, that’s what the Apostle Paul did).   However, if the church is unwilling to change or become healthy but prefers to stay in its toxic state, then it’s the responsibility of the godly and mature to move on to a church that is healthy and concerned about fulfilling the Great Commission.


            The last statement is especially true if you are a parent, in which case you’re child’s spiritual health needs to be your top priority.  


            The question now is “What perspective are you going to give your children of church life?”  


            Will you choose a toxic church that will poison their spiritual lives or a healthy church that will strengthen and feed it?

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