April 16, 2020

External review of The Crowded House network to commence

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It seems sadly ironic that the national review announced today into the history of abuse by leadership within The Crowded House church network contains ten points.

Why so?

Because The Crowded House itself has historically had a list of ten values that it claimed shaped its life and ministry. The list of ten – a lower case “d” decalogue if you like – was routinely championed as the template for all of its ministry and life.

The review comes in the wake of the explosive revelations surrounding former Acts29 CEO Steve Timmis, during his time at the US church planting network, and his time as founder and leader of The Crowded House.

Kate Shellnutt of Christianity Today wrote the original piece, and it’s been viewed thousands of times.  The excellent Julie Roys has also done in-depth follow up work into the matter.  This, however is the first time I have specifically written about the matter on my own blog since the allegations came to light. I don’t intend to be a crusader about this matter, but the announcement of the review cannot be left to moulder in the shadow of COVID-19.

The Crowded House network has moved on somewhat from those ten values in the years since I was part of it, but for a long while it used them to determine whether people who wished to be part of their network were worthy of such a desire.

Kinda like the Ten Commandments. But without the grace bit at the start.  The bit that begins: “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. (Exodus 20:2)

You see, without a gospel foundation to give shape and meaning to a list of ten values, then any list of ten values – church or otherwise – will become a legalistic cudgel with which you can batter anyone into submission, and get them to do what you want.  And that is exactly what happened.  The lower case “d” decalogue becomes a capital “D” Decalogue in intent, reach and requirement, though everyone is too polite and evangelical to say that of course.

And sadly such a list of values that you devise, – devoid of the grace-fuelled foundation that empowered the original Decalogue – also allows you to do what you want too!

If you are smart enough with your words and your intelligence, you can gaslight just about anybody and show how it’s really them at fault for question your non-adherence to your own values list. They come to you with a concern that you in the leadership are displaying an opposite value to the one listed, and lo and behold you leave that meeting having been shown how you were the one who had failed to keep that value.

For the other thing about a legalistic cudgel of course, is that as with all legalism, the boundary fence around such laws can be shifted in order to ensure that non-adherence to those values by the leaders of the group, or anyone upon whom the leadership shines its favour, can find a way around the law.

In fact, one of the frustrating things about those values, when people did push back on them was to hear the claim ‘They are aspirational.”  To which I would often say “Then aspire to them, don’t do the opposite!”

Now maybe those values have changed over time, and certainly since the time I was in The Crowded House, but they were writ large in the now de-listed Total Church, the book that was the explanation of the model that The Crowded House espoused.

One of the central values noted was that The Crowded House would always work hard to resolve conflict, and would not leave it unexamined where it occurred.

Yet here we are. Why? Because Precisely the opposite was the case. Time and time again. Any hint of dissent was snuffed out. Any challenge to what was being done – even if it conflicted with those values – was treated with disdain, gaslighting and isolation. Conflict was never resolved.  It was pushed away.  More to the point the people who raised the issues were pushed away. That’s not close to aspirational. But that’s exactly how graceless values work. So be careful with how you put values lists together (if you do at all). Better to let outsiders who watch you tell you what your values are.

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Oh, this is the list of ten review points that the national safeguarding body in the UK Thirtyone.eight will be investigating.

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It’s encouraging to see that the remaining elders of The Crowded House have called for a review.  But honestly, the question needs to be asked:

Shouldn’t the gospel that the leaders purportedly espoused for so many years, and in which they are well steeped on the basis of Steve’s and Tim’s biblical teaching, have already given them the tools to map a way out of the mess themselves?

Either the gospel kicks in here at the critical moment and they pull the right levers and sort it out, or they have to admit they have precious little about the gospel informing anything the do at all. Either they lean back on all that knowledge and learning that they were privy to from Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, or they lean back and find out that there is nothing actually to lean on.  Which is exactly the case.  Which is exactly why an outside body is conducting a review into a church group that was suspicious, almost hostile, towards any outside body, including neighbouring churches in the city of Sheffield.

I could go on after looking at that list. I could ask the remaining leaders why they even need to query why it took so long for the abuse allegations to come to light. All they need to do is read Abuse 101, or Toxic Churches For Dummies.  It’s all in there.

Yet the review must happen.  That it’s been commissioned by the remaining leaders is a good start. But that the remaining leaders believe that the situation is salvageable is questionable.

Church culture is hard to change. Institutional culture is hard to change (that’s why Acts29 has found itself in this mess again with Steve Timmis). When the DNA is that bad, often the best thing to do would be to condemn the house and knock it down.

Why do I say that? Well just remember the words of Jesus:

When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-26).

A national review is a good place to start. But if all it does is sweep the house clean, pare it down to order, then it will have failed. That’s all a legalistic process can do. It will simply prep the house for even greater problems.  Do the leaders have the stomach to go the really dark, honest, self revealing places that they have learned to avoid over the past two decades? That will take a seismic shift in their collective will.

The fact is that only the gospel can refill the house. Only the Holy Spirit can crowd out the house enough to make it a safe place for the sheep of God to once again reside. Only true repentance, regardless of what a review process determines, can crowd out the toxicity and impurity that led to this disaster happening in the first place. And if the review determines that the house should be shut down because the culture is too entrenched to do otherwise?  Could the leaders make that costly decision?

And if the leadership can’t find a way through the mess and create a safe place to live for God’s people, then the house stands condemned. And it won’t be the first time that a purported place of worship has been bereft of God long before it totters and falls.



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