In the UK, Church membership is on the decline but there is a handful of growing evangelical churches with thriving congregations. Many of those offer a supportive community for their members but the evangelical Christian community hasn't been without controversy. Some churches have taken inspiration from the US 'mega-churches' (think Glasto levels of 'mega'); expensive operations which rely on donations and voluntary work. If you'd like to understand more about these communities, watch these documentaries:
Hillsong Church: God Goes Viral - A critical look at the Hillsong church
Hillsong Rise - A documentary produced by Hillsong
This is the story of Anna* who joined a UK based church that has recently been criticised for taking advantage of its congregation.
1. How did you get involved in the church?
I got involved through friends at school - I was previously in a smaller, more traditional church and they invited me to try theirs. They talked about it a lot and it did sound quite exciting and interesting, and pretty different to my church at the time.
2. What appealed to you at the start? What was the culture like?
My first experience was quite intense and almost overwhelming. There was a rock band for worship (I was used to a choir of elderly women in pastel suits, and while they sung beautifully it wasn't really my vibe), intense and super modern lighting and staging, and very charismatic leaders. Looking back, a lot of it was very emotionally manipulative.
The people I met were friendly and seemed just like me - they were young, they had similar interests. They wanted to get to know me and bent over backwards to make sure I had a way of getting back to the church the next week - it was quite far from where I lived but they made arrangements for me. I confided in some of them about some of the things that were going on at home with my family falling apart and my own poor mental health, and I suspect now that they used that as a crutch to keep me coming back - they had a habit of preying on people who have fallen on hard times or are struggling with something and offering them "refuge", only to demand time and money in return.
I quickly learned that the culture was very much an "all or nothing" approach - you either fully committed yourself to the church (which saw you gain favour with senior leadership and get opportunities to be "visible" and known) or you were ousted slowly. Their expectation was that everyone there should serve the church in some capacity.
3. When did the money come into it? Did you volunteer?
Conversations about money came up instantly. Every single service had a 10 minute "offering" where the pastor or MC for the service would get up and talk about money, the importance of giving to the church, and typically would talk about the people in need nearby they wanted to help, which is obviously very admirable but over time it transpired that helping them meant getting them into the church. There were envelopes put on every seat, and the expectation was that you gave 10% of your income back to the church (a largely Old Testament practice known as tithing), which is particularly outrageous when you realise that the churches are in working-class areas with a lot of poverty - if you're familiar with the Bible, you'll know of the story of the widow who gave all she had and the rich people gave in greater amounts than she did, but because the woman gave everything she had she was viewed as more faithful because she sacrificed more... that story came out constantly. There was also an annual offering where people were expected to give a large one-off sum on top of their weekly giving, and when they were opening one of their "campuses" the congregation there were expected to donate more money - think "buy your own seat".
In terms of time, the expectations were unbelievable - I think at the peak of my time there I was at church maybe 4 days per week, despite living/working 45 mins away. The hours I was expected to give were almost equivalent to a full-time job. I was a member of their youth outreach team which meant I was expected to be on call for all the young people at any time if they needed me, and because I had a car I was expected to drive around the city on Friday and Sunday nights to pick people up from their homes and drop them back again - needless to say, I received no reimbursement for my petrol money despite a lot of this taking place when I was a student with just a part-time job as income.
What about leadership?
The leadership was largely the root of the issue, particularly the lead pastors for the church. They controlled everything and you could see their mark on how people spoke, acted and treated others. They also weren't shy about their personal wealth - think designer clothes, large home, always a very flashy car, opulent holidays, travelling around the world to speak at conferences, always carrying the latest tech. It takes serious audacity to get up in front of a congregation in a city renowned for its poverty in a pair of Gucci trainers and preach about money from a brand new iPad. I think they tried to frame themselves as something to aspire to - as if your faith could get you what they had. I can only speak to my story, but I did hear other stories of them asking students at the college associated with the church to come round and clean their large, decadent home when they were having guests, framing it as an "act of service".
How much did you lose in total and how?
It's difficult to quantify but I would put the number at between £2,500 - £3,000 in the 3ish years I was there, without accounting for my time and the hundreds of gallons of petrol I put into my car. I started out there as a secondary school student and gave money from my part-time job, then when I went to uni I again paid in from my part-time job but also gave from my student loan and some savings put aside for me when I was very little, and then after I dropped out of uni and started working full time I gave from my full-time salary too.
When did you leave and how?
I left when I moved away for university. I was placed into a "network church" in a city near uni (which, it has since transpired, were practising similar behaviours as my church) and I remember having a real moment of clarity where I thought, "this is a bit like a cult... and this is exactly like my church...". I left that new church that night and never went back near it or my old church again, with the exception of one service after I came home for Christmas after my first semester of uni - having had the time and distance to think clearly and process what had happened to me there without the brainwashing and emotional manipulation meant that I saw it in a stark new light, and I realised what I had been a part of.
How do you feel about it today?
I feel a lot of emotions when I think about it now - I've now been out of the church for over 7 years and a lot of it still sticks with me. I'm mostly angry - angry at what they took from me and from hundreds (if not thousands) of other people, angry that they manipulated me and used my personal struggles as a weapon to keep me close, and angry that they're still getting away with it. Beyond the financial aspect, there are a lot of stories from other previous congregation members coming out about other shameful behaviour that goes on at that church and it makes me even more thankful every day that I was able to escape it because truthfully that is what it feels like - a lucky escape. I think about my life now and what I've been able to experience and achieve and feel so grateful that I got out when I did. I'm also very much agnostic now, I don't believe in God at all in any capacity.
I did meet some really amazing people there, most of whom have also left after realising how toxic that church is. We share our stories with each other and knowing that you aren't alone in your experience makes it easier to live with.
*name has been changed
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