December 18, 2020

2020: The Year of Evangelical Exposures

It’s been the year of evangelical exposures. I have grown weary of opening social media or an online journal and reading of yet another trainwreck in “Big Eva”.

I finished this year as I began it, as a guest on the podcast of the admirable Julie Roys, a US Christian independent journalist who has been calling for evangelical ministries to get their houses in order around issues of bullying and abuse.

At the start of February the Christianity Today article around Steve Timmis, former CEO of Acts29, was published, and it highlighted a pattern of bullying behaviour at his former church network, The Crowded House, and within Acts29 itself.

I was on Julie’s podcast in February as the story broke (you can find that podcast here), and then again this week, along with former Acts29 staff worker who fell afoul of Steve, Casey Smith. You can find the follow up podcast here.

In the most positive move so far, The Crowded House network of churches voted to have an independent review of the situation, as they became aware that the number of those who had left having been bruised by their encounter with the network – and with Steve’s style in particular – was large. There was a desperate need for redress.

You can read the report here from the independent safeguarding authority, Thirtyone:eight. It’s a damning indictment of a leadership style – and a leader – who, although he called any who challenged him “a law unto themselves”, proved that this was true primarily of him. The network elders that remain have done a sterling job at ensuring the report was independent and unvarnished. And they affirmed its finding immediately. I think there’s a restoration story in the making there.

This did not stop Steve or those gathered around him from seeking to counter this narrative, with two closed session Zoom meetings established during which Steve presented his case with a highly selective account. I trust very few who were not already on board with him through thick or thin bought his narrative.

Of course this is not the only fall-out from this saga. Questions have been asked about the leadership of Acts29, and how they managed to not once (remember Driscoll?), but now twice, support a leader who was clearly unqualified in terms of character. I do not think this reflects the wider Acts29 community, – many are fine godly leaders -, but once again it seems that the church culture is aping secular culture in terms of what it seeks in a leader.

Of course the year is ending with another story altogether, that of Ravi Zacharias, which is a wrench for many who loved his apologetic style. While I was not a real fan of it, there are also many good leaders and speakers in that organisation caught up in the mess.

And all of this is not to mention the other high profile leadership fails around the evangelical world.

And none of that is to mention the no-profile ones, the phone calls and emails I receive on pretty much a daily basis this year about abuse issues in the church. It’s been dismaying hearing the stories. And I’m grateful for the likes of Julie Roys who takes the heat over these issues on a regular basis. Next year I just want to get on with other things!

Yet in the midst of this scorched earth, there are green shoots sprouting, including the personal restoration of relationships with those within The Crowded House who we had not been reconciled with. It does feel like the Lord killed something and then, in His inimitable way, brought something back to life. Gospel recovery is possible, even if the road towards it is painful. God will choose to resolve some of these traumas in this age, and to resolve others in the age to come. We need to trust his sovereignty, while endeavouring to be truth-tellers and lie-rejectors.

So what about going into 2021? If you are sitting in the ash heap of a difficult situation in which you have suffered bullying and abuse in a church setting, and you feel completely gas-lighted, then what?

Here are some take-home points I have learned this year:

  1. A bully or an abusive organisation will always double down when exposed. Ranks will be closed! Don’t assume a mea culpa on day one. Settle in for the long haul. And then don’t allow it to consume every moment of your life. You have other things to do too – so do them.
  2. A toxic culture will always sacrifice those who call for truth telling, no matter how long the truth teller was part of that culture. The sheer discombobulation of those who were either termed “family” or “gospel partners” who then find themselves shunned instantly, is sadly all too familiar to me. But if you know this is the case, then you can be prepared for it.
  3. There are probably more people in your own situation – or who back your version of events and are willing to go into bat for you – than you think. Organisations with a problem will always seek to isolate individuals in the hope that they assume they are a one-off person with no other support, and that the problem “might be them.”
  4. Brand protection is the initial knee jerk reaction. When we first discussed the need to say something about Steve Timmis, one of our number indicated that everything would be about brand protection. In the end Acts29 took action before the article we were quoted in even came out, and their first instinct was brand protection by merely saying “Steve was being let go”. That is, until they realised that this version would not fly.
  5. Just when you think the thing is settled, the abusive person will come back for a second round. This is especially the case if the person lacks empathy or has a narcissistic personality. However this usually backfires. Once the magic spell is broken there is generally no turning back. It’s what I call the “Kevin Spacey Christmas video moment”. After his conviction for sexual abuse, he released a Christmas video in the persona of President Frank Underwood from House of Cards. It was supposed to be an attempt at rehabilitation. All it was was creepy. Why? Because his spell had been broken. He was now powerless.
  6. Finally, don’t expect full justice in this age. If you do you run the risk of becoming bitter. God is no person’s debtor and he will repay everyone according to their deeds. There is a Day of Exposure coming in which God will judge the thoughts and intents of our hearts (including yours and mine!).

So I end the year – bookend the year – the way it began, with a podcast about abuse in a church. But not quite as it began. By God’s grace there has been repentance, reconciliation and restoration. And that’s a good way to end any year!

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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