My itching ears: How not to choose a church

N.B: I’ve been flipflopping on whether to share this for some time. As I’ll explain later, I eventually decided to post for the sake of anyone reading who might need to hear it. This experience happened three years ago. I’m okay – sometimes you gotta learn the hard way. I just don’t want others to make the same mistakes I did.

You know that sinking feeling when you realise you were wrong about something? Ever cringe with embarrassment when you look back at your past behaviour? That’s been me for the past few weeks. On the flip side, what I’ve learned has helped me reconcile with a particularly painful church experience, which for some time I second guessed. 

Now, I believe that a) my misgivings were valid and b) it was my lack of discernment that led me into this mess in the first place. I was deceived and I paid for it.  

I considered doing a video on this but didn’t want to go off on a tangent or end up saying things that hinder rather than help. Forgive me if at any point I sound bitter, I don’t intend that at all. No names mentioned, and if you know the church I’m talking about, please don’t publicise it.

Boring necessary backstory

Here’s a brief background of my Christian ‘walk’ for context:

  • Until age 9 attended conservative, cessationist churches. It was through these and the teaching of my parents (who had also come to Christ through one of these churches) that I heard the gospel and was saved. 
  • Started attending a Pentecostal church at age 9 – nothing too wacky. Got baptised.
  • Attended church throughout my teens but didn’t grow much in my faith. Drifted a fair bit. 
  • Rededicated my life to God right before university. Moved to uni, joined the CU, made a bunch of Christian friends and started attending a Vineyard church.

I need to flesh this last point out a bit because this really is where it all started. I’d not been in a real Charismatic church before then and it was equal parts uncomfortable and exciting. It was ‘cool’. The music was great, and everyone kept talking about the presence of God, healing, prophecy – all stuff I had very little grid for. I felt I’d be challenged more in my faith if I stayed there. 

Some good came out of it. I experienced a hunger for God that I’d never had before. I read the Bible and prayed more and had a desire to share the gospel. But it was also where things started to get weird. This church played a lot of music from Bethel church and always seemed to be quoting their senior pastor Bill Johnson, so naturally I looked them up. I started listening to Bethel’s sermons and thought they must have so much ‘revelation’ because they talked about the Bible in ways that seemed new. They and my Vineyard leaders kept talking about the ‘Kingdom’. Soon enough I was obsessed with signs and wonders and the popular preachers that were teaching this stuff. 

How not to choose a church 

Fast forward a few years. I started working for a Christian organisation that defended the gospel in the public space. Yeah, we had some theological differences, but the staff really loved and valued the Word. I sometimes wonder if I’d still be a Christian if not for the solid teaching I got there. But though work was a front-line, full time ministry, I still needed a church. 

Before moving to London I’d seen a Facebook post shared by a friend who’d gone to the same church as me at uni. This friend, also now in London, was now going to another Vineyard – a new church plant – and the post was about one of their ministries. I ended up moving to the same area, and eager beaver me rocked up at this new church the very next day. 

People were nice, loved their community and were open to the Holy Spirit. That was my criteria for joining and I decided on the spot that this would be my new church. Smart, right?

At first, I couldn’t rave about it enough. I took my housemate to homegroup with me, which at that point was led by the pastor and his wife. I felt so loved by them, like they were father and mother figures. I got caught up in their ‘vision’ for the church. They cared about justice – so did I! I joined two rotas. Watched new people pour into the church every Sunday. Thought God was moving. 

Cognitive dissonance

Honeymoon periods always wear off, and the initial hype settled. But even then I kept missing red flags.  

I ignored the discomfort when in homegroup we were taught how to ‘prophesy’ on demand, using objects on the lounge table as ‘props’. I brushed off blatant condoning of sin within the church.  

The leaders did preach from the Bible, sometimes pretty well, and told us to read it, so I ignored that they never touched certain subjects. 

And this church family was so kind! When my housemate and I were burgled, they cared. When I started volunteering with an anti-trafficking charity they were affiliated with, I was publicy praised by the pastor. (When I started writing about abortion and later other contentious issues through work, radio silence. Ignored that too.)

The cycle continued. I’d gloss over the things I noticed, but inside I started feeling worse. Every Sunday they’d celebrate what Jesus can do for you by emphasising short testimonies. My own life wasn’t looking so great – I started having some health problems which left me feeling chronically ill, I was broke, work was crazy stressful, and a good friend through work was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. 

This friend came to my church a few times. One of the kindest and most Jesus-like people I’d ever known, my friend encouraged my leaders even in the midst of her own suffering. I thought they were a bit cold towards her – but again, I brushed it off, thinking I must be imagining things. I later found out that my parents felt the same coldness when they came to visit once. My pastor did pray for my friend once and gave her a prophetic word about her healing (which did not come to pass). 

There was always pressure to be involved in ‘extracurricular’ stuff and it never seemed enough. If it wasn’t serving on rotas it was being pressured to go to homegroup (which switched every term). I lived in a perpetual state of guilt for not doing enough. They outright said whenever outlining their ‘vision’ that they didn’t want people to come to the church unless they were going to get stuck in. They also told you what books they wanted you to read and ran courses in homegroup (one by Bill Johnson of course), but there was little actual Bible study. 

Definitely, maybe not ok 

My job contract ended and I found myself out of work for a while. My health was poor so it may have been for the best, though anyone who’s been on Universal Credit will understand the struggle. 

My mental health spiralled a bit. I cried a lot at church. I kept being told I needed to ‘forgive’ people. I kept being given random prophetic words. I was told my a homegroup leader to go get a SOZO so I travelled to some random place in Croydon to get one. Felt worse afterwards.

Eventually my dear friend with cancer died. Having believed Vineyard/Bethel theology on sickness and healing all these years, I’d been praying and contending for her healing for many months. I kept thinking ‘if I just had more faith!’ 

When she died, I had not a word, a call or even a text from my leaders – the same leaders who had spoken to her and prayed for her. 

In fact, at this point, these same pastors, who had told me I was ‘amazing’ and initially treated me like a daughter, now barely acknowledged my existence. For months I’d been asking myself what I’d done wrong. I was writing and posting about abortion on my social media – I didn’t want to believe it was because of that.

I’ll never know the truth, but the Sunday after my friend’s funeral was my last Sunday there. I won’t go into specifics of what happened but let’s just say I’m glad I never returned. I actually moved out of my flat and moved back to my parents’. I had emailed my pastors to let them know in writing that I was leaving and to thank them. Their brief response made it clear they were not sad to see me go.

Simple gospel

For months afterwards I continued to second guess myself, asking myself if I was crazy and just imagining this feeling that I’d been pushed out of my own church. I still hope I’m wrong. 

Anyway, being away from all of the hype there, something strange happened. My faith suddenly felt ‘simple’ again. I had no desire anymore for worship nights or sermons from wacky preachers. I just read the Bible and listened to old hymns, and found joy in the depths of truths in those songs. Turns out I didn’t need ‘more faith’ or ‘more inner healing’ or ‘to let go of unforgiveness’. It took some time but I recovered, in every way. 

But in the past few weeks I discovered some disturbing things about Bethel church and many of their affiliates, which brought some of these memories flooding back. If you really want to know the truth, please check out the below. Bottom line is, for years I’d accepted some downright heresies. I’d not known that Bethel church was dabbling in the New Age. That’s pretty serious.

Bill Johnson’s Theology and Movement Examined Biblically

Bethel Church: Incorporating New Age Mysticism, Spirit Guides, Auras, Angels, Revival,Healing Energy

12 False Teachings of Bethel

Beware of the New Apostolic Reformation (still looking into the NAR, seems to be credible evidence out there for it being an actual thing). 

Former Bethel Prophecy Teacher Reveals Inside Information about BSSM (some of this guy’s story sounded painfully familiar)

As I said, it was my lack of discernment that led to all this. 

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” 2 Timothy 4:3

Theology matters

I’m sorry to have to say it, but I went to a church that ultimately repackaged the true gospel to downplay the unsavoury bits and make it sound more attractive. That’s why it grew so fast. I used to ask myself how many would remain if they took away the worship band, the doughnuts and all the attractive young people. 

They had little grid for suffering because their emphasis was always ‘Kingdom now’ – a theology that I’m struggling to find in Scripture. It’s little wonder I constantly felt like I must be doing something wrong.  

If there’s anything you take away from my experience, let it be this: Right understanding of the Bible matters. Please don’t do what I did and just get swept up in good feelings and hype. Read your Bible, in context, and test everything you see and hear according to what Scripture says. If a church is promoting a particular leader or theology, check out those leaders yourself.

I think of my own pride back then. I used to be so defensive if anyone ever criticised Bethel, Vineyard or anything else I followed. I used to think I was somehow a better Christian; that others had a ‘religious spirit’. If anyone reading this was on the receiving end, I’m so sorry. 

Just in case you made it this far (well done) and wondering where I’m at now: No, I didn’t become a cessationist 😉 I still believe God heals today and speaks today! I don’t ‘despise prophecy’. I just want to move forward with more discernment. 

If you go to/went to this church or something similar, please know I’m not attacking you. I remember some wonderful people there who truly love Jesus; some of you showed me a lot of kindness and I still appreciate that. God is merciful, and just as He’s used me when I got things wrong, He still worked in that church despite all the imperfections. I hope things have improved since I left. 

Anyway, enough from me. People getting hurt by the church is common – my story is likely one of thousands. God’s still good, and there are still good churches out there.

Hope this helps someone. Love to all.

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