Sex Abuse in the Megachurch

I have made the extraordinary claim that the megachurch movement is dangerous, so where is my proof?  I have talked about the origins of the bad ideology of the men that founded the organization that has helped almost every single megachurch form. I have talked about the dangers of manipulation and control and of a lack of accountability but what of proofs?  I suggest that the frequency, brazenness, severity and egregious nature of sexual assaults and pedophilia in the megachurch is not run of the mill evil, it exists inside an organization that creates power differences and enables this behavior, by default, not design.

First to the inevitable counter-arguments:

  1. ‘mega’ means big, more people, and people are fallible, so of course, these things should happen more often in mega-churches.
  2. This happens in ‘other’ megachurches, not mine, we have good people
  3. This gets more publicity because it happens in a mega-church

To point #1, I agree, however, the stories below point to something different, not just the statistical variation of events that ought to be expected. Point #2 is naive, many parents that trusted their children to leaders that were later abused thought the same thing. Point #3 is perhaps true, I cannot argue against it, I only have the stories we can see and those are ugly.

I think that these cases of abuse in the megachurch are different precisely because the megachurch is different.  It is based upon communitarianism, it has a language of control, it is designed to create obedience and submission of the individual to the collective and to the leaders of the collective. That sort of combination has proven to almost always be dangerous, throughout history. We could list the examples, but you already know this to be true.  Since history has proven the danger, we can reasonably conclude that there is also a danger in the megachurch.

As I was researching and preparing to begin this series of articles, I watched a lot of megachurch sermons online.  One subject I saw pop up across several churches was sermons on parental authority.  Often these sermons represented parental authority as a pyramid, with more authority over say toddlers, relaxing over time toward the teenage years.  Oddly enough, in the megachurch model, this is precisely the time when the church, through small-groups and small-group leaders begin to exert greater authority. Who one dates, where one wants to go to college, who one calls friends - all are subject to ‘conversations in community’.  These conversations are mechanisms of control.  If the teenager resists and goes their own way in these choices, they are said to have a ‘heart problem’ - another form of control, one that borders on serious error at that, for only God can know what is in another’s heart (Jeremiah 17:9-10, Acts 1:24, 1 Samuel 16:7 and many others)

‘Parent wounds’ is another subject that comes up. Sometimes in sermons in various megachurches that you can find online but more specifically in the context of small-group sessions.  Here tweens and teenagers are encouraged to talk about how their parents have hurt them or disappointed them. I have been told stories of some that simply believe they have nothing to tell being pressured over several sessions to come up with something. This is another form of control and manipulation, all with the outward appearance of helping heal wounds.  It reinforces that authority has passed from the parent to the community - the community and the leaders can help, they can be trusted.

What does this have to do with sexual abuse? Almost everything. Many of the examples of recent abuse occurred between adult pastors and leaders and children and teenagers between 11 and 18 years old. Right about the time the community was telling them that these youngsters have a different authority they need to trust and listen to.

Look, I am not suggesting that this goes on in every megachurch nor that every pastor or leader is out to prey on the vulnerable. I am saying that it does not make a lot of sense to hand one’s children over to a group that will tell your kids to trust the community and its leaders more than any other thing in their lives.  It is dangerous to place a child in an environment where they talk about ‘wounds’, real or imagined, in one on one counseling sessions with a new authority figure.

Psychologists and counselors have known for years the danger of displaced emotions in vulnerable patients and a pastor friend of mine told me horrible stories that lead him to never counsel women alone.  People are weak in such situations, vulnerable and act out or accept things they normally would not. The communitarian nature of the megachurch exacerbates this danger.

So what sort of abuse have we seen? (Search Google for Megachurch Sex Abuse to see a much more complete list)

And the list goes on…

I find the NewSpring cases interesting because I know some people that have attended there as I know the history of the church, after four incidents in three years, NewSpring Church denies responsibility. When I have returned to Powdersville to visit, the NewSpring campus is still full. This despite their former pastor and his board using church money to ensure his book made the New York Times bestseller list, him attempting to rewrite the 10 commandments and finally him having to resign for alcohol abuse.

Continued attendance is a case of cognitive dissonance.  The organization is flawed, far beyond the individual people that acted poorly. The organization selected them, gave them access and accepted them. Changing leadership cannot fix deep foundational flaws. Yet, this is the sort of naivety that persist in many megachurches - blind trust because it is fun, exciting and everyone seems so good.

NewSpring, Willow Creek and Village are unique only because they are mega-megachurches and their pastors figured prominently in the movement. The error of Perry Noble was easier to spot because more people were looking. How many smaller megachurches out there, organizations that were built on the same model from the same organization, have similar problems? Problems not highlighted by high-profile discernment ministry guys keeping an eye on what is going on?

Dangerous? Yes, too much control, too much loyalty to the group, not enough accountability.

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Author: Barry

Southerner, father, husband, Christian and a retired Army field grade officer. Author of five books and of several papers and articles on ethics, culture, history, geopolitics and military affairs.

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