Yesterday I read the first true-crime book I’ve picked up in over a year. It was a genre I used to love because of the anthropological and atmospheric nature of the earliest works such as _In Cold Blood_ and _Helter Skelter_. But when the market was flooded with junky, prurient titles that emphasised gore over human nature I got sick of trying to glean the better stuff. I also got sick of every marriage I read about ending in a murder for insurance money.
So I was a bit surprised to find myself compelled to read Gregg Olsen’s A Twisted Faith: A Minister’s Obsession and the Murder That Destroyed A Church. I suppose something about the current discussions I’ve found myself in about the nature of Christianity and the culture of the modern church had something to do with it.
It was interesting to see an outsider’s take on a church family and the church-centered world so much like the one I grew up in. Granted, Assemblies Of God are quite a bit different from Evangelical Mennonite Churches both in belief and worship style. But the core type of people, devout and devoted, are very much the same.
Part way through, though, I was struck by the saddest of thoughts. Purportedly about the murder of the youth pastor’s wife, the book was as much the story of a church split resulting from ingroup/outgroup politics, the details of which were painstakingly recorded from several points of view. And all of a sudden I realised that I had heard this story, lived this story, dozens of times.
The first church split I lived through was when I was around eight years old. Even then it was emotionally draining, as my Christian School friends were also church friends and the children of parents on the opposite side of the split. (My parents are very much of the “stay and work out the problems in your church family just like your marriage” philosophy.) I didn’t know the background as my parents didn’t think an eight year old needed to be told gossip about the pastor’s wife and the song leader. Then there were other mini-splits as pastoral search committees brought in new preachers that old members couldn’t agree on. And of course we had the obligatory “youth pastor has an affair with youth lay leader” shake-up. That one shook my aunt, uncle and cousins loose. And this isn’t even going into all the splits I heard about from friends at school who went to other churches around town. I think by the time I went to college I’d heard this story–the one Olsen’s book blurb says is “shocking”–at least two dozen times. I actually think modern congregations spend more time falling apart than being together.
And of course I’m married to a Preacher’s Kid (PK for short) and that means that I get to see first hand the scarring that church splits have on a young boy whose father is cast as the villain in petty dramas. If there’s no sex scandal there’s sure to be a fight over hymnals or carpeting or communion methods.
I can’t imagine we’re the only two people, my husband and I, who grew up in this environment and are now leery of church politics in the extreme. We love going to church. We are scared, though, to be too much a part of any church. I suspect all this mess is why.