A Critical Evaluation of a Church

Amy Cahill

Amy's friend in New York was thinking of attending a new church. Amy did some web investigation and found red flags. She wrote up her research in this article. On the whole, it is very helpful; in a few areas we think she overreacted a bit due to her Assembly experience. What do you think?


A friend of mine near Albany, NY recently posted that she was thinking of attending River of Life Church because they wanted "imperfect people" to attend their church, and provided this link. I believe River of Life might be a shepherding / discipling movement and here's why.

Just by looking at the website, you see they are marketing to people who feel like they're outcasts. As you know, such people are prime targets for shepherding / discipling groups.

They don't have solid information about what they teach, who their staff is, what their qualifications are, etc....Their pastor is apparently qualified to run a church on the sole basis that "God led him to."  His short bio says almost nothing about him, so I looked at his interests for clues. He likes hanging out at the beach or pool in lounge chairs and taking cruises. Cruises are expensive. Where is he getting the money to pay for them? Nothing is said about how he makes a living.

River Kids, their children's ministry, has some scary stuff in it for me.  The first thing that caught my eye was the word "shepherding," along with the seemingly innocent explanation.

"We believe that transformation occurs within small groups, so we have coaches that will care for and “shepherd” your child throughout the year. We believe it is important to teach children how to serve God as soon as they are ready." Not very innocent to MY eye, but I thought, it could be a fluke.  Also, their practice of turning in your child like a coat with a claim check and ONLY being able to retrieve your child with that stub is beyond weird. No school does that.  In normal situations, child caretakers get to KNOW the child's parents and identify them THAT way. To me, that's a control tactic.

Here's what they have to say about their Life Groups

Life Groups - These small groups, which consist of 4 to 12 people and are held in homes, parks, and other locations, will begin very soon [italics mine]. The Life Groups consist of relevant, interactive discussion from the study of the Bible, refreshments, and living in a loving community with others. If you are interested in hosting one of these dynamic groups please E-mail us.

Women's Life Group: Study of Ruth - Tuesday 6:30 p.m. Location: 12-A Allyson Ct, Albany, NY 12205.

Discovering God's Will - Wednesday 6:30 p.m. Location: 12-A Allyson Ct, Albany, NY 12205

Learning to Love - Friday 6:30 p.m. 66 Rapple Dr., Albany, NY 12205

Notice that on one hand, it says these groups "will begin very soon" and asks for hosts, but on the other hand lists ACTUAL ADDRESSES where these groups are meeting!  Because, in fact, they have been meeting for quite some time on a weekly basis!  In fact, ALL this church has listed as "official" activities on their OTHER website (yes, there IS another website!) is "gatherings" and "life groups!"Living in a loving community with others" particularly caught my eye.

Speaking of Gatherings, under "Service Times & Directions," nothing other than the click banner draws attention to the fact that "10:30" is the time of their WEEKLY service, because that's not what they're advertising. They're advertising their "Launch" (whatever that is; they've been going for quite some time now) and "Comeback Events" that they probably want to recruit you at. They ALSO don't tell you that the listed address is a middle school -- after all, people MIGHT not come if they knew that! (These people used to meet in a community rec center -- beginning to sound familiar?) 

Their Core Vision statement seems meant to be overtly unobjectionable ("Strategic Service" is a masterwork of "buzzword compliance"), but two parts disturb me: 

Authentic Community
Accountability, belonging, care and spiritual growth happen best with relationally-connected Christ followers.

Intentional Discipleship

We are responsible to pass along to others the knowledge, skills and opportunities that have been entrusted to us.

The use of "accountability" as the FIRST descriptive word in "community" is a HUGE red flag for me, and "Intentional Discipleship", while the description is totally bland, seems to confirm this impression. The use of "Christ followers" is also significant, as you shall see..

Well, all this was enough to make me start digging for more clues as to WHAT this church was really about. I found their old website and some very interesting things that did NOT make it to their new website. Really silly to have both websites up with almost identical URL's (one is .com and the other is .org) when you have stuff to hide. Tsk, tsk. They have mostly the same stuff on the old website with some glaring exceptions:

Mission

To show living proof of a loving God to a watching world by loving, living, and sharing.

Loving (worship) Loving means worshipping God. When we worship God, we express our love to Him. The only way we can express true love to God and worship Him is through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We call that person a Christ-follower. At River of Life, we believe that as Christ-followers, we should worship God.

Living (discipleship and fellowship). Living starts with helping people understand that the Christian life involves more than just believing - it also includes belonging. We then strive to help Christ-followers grow in their spiritual maturity and become fully developed followers of Christ. Because the Christian life is one of constant growth and development, we are focused on providing Biblical principles that can be applied to every day life.

Sharing (evangelism & serving) Another key mission of River of Life is to reach out to people who do not attend a local church. We encourage River of Life people to invest in the lives of their friends, family, neighbors and co-workers, and then invite them to attend River of Life so that they will hear and understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. We also encourage our people to use their God given talents and abilities to serve others in some capacity whether it be inside or outside.

Vision

River of Life Church will be a loving community of transformed people demonstrating God’s love. We will be a reproducing church that seeks to empower people to make an eternal impact in Albany, North America, and the World.

This incredibly key information did NOT get onto the new website.  I found the following things significant:

1.  They came up with their very own name for Christians:  "Christ-followers."  Remember when we were the "saints" and that set us apart from all other Christians?

2.  Again, this "discipleship and fellowship" thing in relation to "belonging."

3.  Blatant encouragement to evangelize -- an expectation that you WILL drag your relatives, friends, acquaintances, and anybody you can to church with you. Obviously, they left that out because evangelizing is the LAST thing their disenfranchised target market wants to do, and it would obviously give them away as what they truly are: a fundamentalist Christian church. This is bad because they are trying to suck in people who, among other things, have probably REJECTED fundamentalist Christianity (my friend had) and are looking for alternatives.

4.  What is this "reproducing church" we're-going-to-take-over-the-world stuff anyway? Well, yeah, WE know what it is, but their readers probably don't!

If there was any doubt that they are ACTUALLY a fundamentalist Christian church, this book, which they're GIVING AWAY in exchange for your personal information and "learning a little more about you"(!!!) seals the deal.  (The book ALSO didn't make it to the new website.)  The author, Andy Stanley, is a prominent Christian minister educated at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was a Baptist minister for awhile before starting North Point Ministries. He seems solid enough, but his decidedly evangelical gospel, especially as set forth in his book, which was praised by a Calvinist, is NOT something this church wants to clearly identify itself with at the moment!

Well, there are thousands of evangelical churches across the country, but the vast majority of them identify themselves as such. This church is lying through its teeth and exhibiting other worrisome signs. Granted, all this is JUST from online information and no actual experience, but it seems pretty fishy to me.

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Readers' Comments

May 18, 2008, Dave Sable, formerly from the Fullerton Assembly, now employed in a well-known Christian ministry: "Probably my only flag would be the pastor’s own qualification that “God led him" to start the church. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad. I just don’t appreciate the term as the evangelical christian church banters around this cliché all the time. Most of the time it is just acceptable God-talk that Christians don't think about. In a few instances, the pastor may think he has a direct line with God so that he doesn’t need accountability from peers. In most cases, it is just a way of expressing that they felt a strong sense of mission in starting this new church.

Marketing the church to outcasts is actually more common than you may think. A local church plant here in town has tee shirts that say “Feeling disconnected? Visit us.” It isn’t necessarily trying to prey on the weak. It is a way of trying to find those who are, perhaps, disillusioned with traditional churches and might be willing to try their church. Whatever you might think about marketing one’s church to a target group, it is done all of the time and doesn’t necessarily mean there is malicious intent. This is part of the whole seeker-sensitive/church growth movement that took off in the 1980-1990’s

Cruises are expensive indeed but ministries have done it for years. Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll, and Chuck Smith are among a few examples. Generally, folks who go on these have to pay their own way. On a similar note, stage lights, sound systems, air conditioning, lavish Christmas decorations for the sanctuary etc. are expensive but mega-churches afford them. If that use of money bothers you, you should go to a smaller church.

The word "shepherding" is used quite often and does not have to mean a rigid shepherding-movement type of arrangement. It means that they are set up to have a more relational children’s program than old-style Sunday school. You will probably find that in these shepherding groups, they are reciting memory verses and answering age-appropriate questions relative to the lesson.

“We believe it is important to teach children how to serve God as soon as they are ready." Most Christian parents actually want this. I doubt it is like the Assembly where folks thought the kids ready as soon as they could lie still on a mat. Generally these programs are more along the line of “you can serve God by sharing with others”. I doubt if you will find them leading the first graders to the park to hand out tracts.

As for the practice of the stub or ticket to pick up your kids, many large churches do this out of necessity. With so many split homes, a church is liable if a mother drops off her kid and a stranger or an ex-husband comes and picks the kid up and something happens to that child. So for the church’s own protection, most have some form of check in/out system. This is actually a good thing. You will probably also find that they have a strong policy about what men can do (no changing diapers or taking to restroom), sick policy, etc.

In general, I would say that most churches (even the large ones) don't have good web writers on staff so they often do a poor job of communication on their website. Most church websites are poorly done. The best way is to go to the church, observe, and talk to the actual people.

I would say some questions would be:

1. Does the church allow and encourage parents to visit and be a part of the children’s program?

2. Is there accountability of funds? Can you get the church’s annual statement?

3. Is the pastor willing to discuss the funding of the cruise? Can you go if you want?

4. Is the pastor willing to discuss his theological credentials? Does the church have a statement of faith?

5. What type of church government do they have? Are the elders willing to talk to you? How do you feel when you talk with them? Do they listen?

6. Are you comfortable with their doctrine or emphasis. Are you more comfortable with tighter, rigorous Bible exposition or are you comfortable with the more spontaneous, “the Lord led me to say this” style?

7. Is there a children's minister who is willing to discuss the children's ministry philosophy and policy?"


May 18, 2008, Editor's two cents:  We think Dave may be a bit too laid back. First, although this type of marketing may be common among evangelical churches, I would want to investigate whether in this case it belies a high-demand culture. Secondly, "Living in a loving community with others" is a red flag for me, especially in combination with "the Christian life involves more than just believing - it also includes belonging." I would want to find out up front if this group practices communal living. So my concerns center more around the question of whether this is a cult, rather than whether it is fundamentalist. What do you think?


May 19, 2008, Joanna:  When Christian groups use the phrase "loving community" they mean that the people care about each other. The "community" is not a house, but the people of the church.

The sentence, "The Christian life involves more than just believing - it also includes belonging," would be understood by most Christians to mean that the people are (or try to be, or are encouraged to be) accepting and nonjudgmental. "Belonging" can convey possession - "We own you" - or it can convey acceptance. I can see how someone hurt by the Assembly version of "belonging" would react negatively to this word, but I doubt it is used in the controlling sense.

Although the church is not one I would choose to go to, I don't think it is anything unusual or dangerous.


May 21, 2008, Gordon W.:  I think Amy's article brings up a great point for former assembly members.

Fortunately, Betty Geftaky's spirituality hasn't soiled my value of Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. Steven Covey said when we describe our world, or a person, or, in this case a church, we really are projecting ourselves. We are giving OUR perspective through our own experiences, values and emotions.

The moment you become a parent, how different was the world to you then? Issues about children become more important, finances were a bit more heavy on you mind because each of us were exposed to NEW information and experiences. OUR ROLES changed. I firmly believe in this perspective. If a million dollars came into your life, your ROLE changes. If you were president - how would you feel about the media and people critiquing you? In other words, what if you were in those shoes?

The same with River Life Church - from our past Assembly experience we can take 'life groups', 'discipline', 'childrens' coach' as buzz words that have negative connotations because of our experience (might be warranted and might not). Imagine if each of us heard a preacher mention, "Heavenly Vision" and our reaction. I would immediately get a chill and red alert in my head! What if, theoretically, one Assembly member did go River Life Church and found it to be contrary to our guessing? We would have new info and find there has been a paradigm shift of our perspectives immediately.

Jack and I recently debated about some things he heard about a pastor recently involving a recent firing of a an elder. As far as we know there is a bit of controversy surrounding this - with bloggers and some clippings of YouTube videos citing some 'spiritual bullying' by this pastor. We both personally don't go to the church so we don't know the whole story, but I can see how 'spiritual discipline' became a hot iron to us. The Geftakys ministry took biblical discipline and made it an ugly word to us; but biblical discipline is still biblical.

It's a natural journey for all of us to find our 'spiritual PARADIGM'. That PARADIGM might mean shedding off certain things from our Assembly experience only to find pieces we pull back into that foundation.

I didn't read my bible or find a church for a whole year after the SLO Assembly dissolved. I found bits of the PARADIGM had to be filtered. Threw some things out, validated some and put them back in. Slowly, over a course of a year, my PARADIGM of Christianity was coming back and I am still on that journey. I still value prayer greatly, and attend prayer meetings. I am more cautious about who I give money too, but have learned to trust pastors again, but with a degree of wisdom. Found out seminars are good with guys named Billy Graham, not George G.

With that aside, on to BUZZ WORDS that have some concern to me regarding River of Life (from their core values page). Core Values are the PARADIGM of this church - so I read it and my thoughts:

THE FIRST POINT OF CONCERN FROM THE CORE VALUES PAGE: "BIBLICAL AUTHORITY. "God has spoken to us through the Bible and we recognize it as the final authority for our lives." Shouldn't the core value be JESUS? Ironic. Awfully strange, suspicious that a church must bring this across don't you think? There are only a FEW, FEW reasons why a church would say this:

1) The church has encountered many, many individuals who have been spiritually crazy, and the church has to remind people to live their lives according to the Bible (sort of a Christians Gone Wild - a'la 1 Corinthians).

2) The leadership at the church really wants to say, "We believe in the bible and WE - THE LEADERSHIP - live under the authority of the bible". Wouldn't that be refreshing? Permission to remind leadership as a member, "Christ is the head of this church".

Or from our assembly experiences 3) The church leadership is slowly integrating the idea of putting a value of the Bible above Christ, therefore, if a member accept this paradigm, it opens the door to potential authoritarian leadership. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

THE SECOND POINT OF CONCERN FROM THE CORE VALUES PAGE : "Authentic Community. "Accountability, belonging, care and spiritual growth happen best with relationally-connected Christ followers."

ACCOUNTABILITY -
Again, a very strange FIRST word to introduce potentially new participants to a church about community. ACCOUNTABILITY, shouldn't this be LOVE? This does give me the willies to a degree. Are we Christians so undisciplined that the FIRST THING about COMMUNITY is ACCOUNTABILITY? I would venture to say, as Paul commended churches it should be, "FAITH AND LOVE".

A leader's first trait should be a love for Christ and his people. We don't need a 'tell-you-what-to-do' pastor in any church, but a pastor who models the love of Christ. The last thing this world needs is another pastor and church that thinks a "TELL YOU WHAT YOU ARE DOING WRONG" attitude is the main characteristic of community. The Spirit of God alone will do that job . ( I do recall - last I checked it was still in John - about the Spirit doing the conviction and not a man.)

John Maxwell said, "People don't care how much you know as to how much you love." Jesus won my heart because of His love, not his authority. By knowing his love, I am willing to open the door to his authority because I know He loves me. I think if a person wants to go to this church, ask why are these values so high in priority? Why ACCOUNTABILITY ABOVE LOVE? Directly talking and challenging a potential pastor is good.

My wife and I take the perspective, "WE ARE INTERVIEWING you for a job and we'll look for the character of love, faith first, then we will evaluate on preaching the word and then slowly integrate ourselves into community life." Don't feel bad 'grilling' a pastor a bit after you explained the assembly experience.

Our past experience is a journey with Christ. Listen to His voice and his leading. Take your time. Some of might recover faster, some slower, but the thing is, we're each different and we are wearing different shoes, but walking the same road to be with our LORD.


Mark Campbell, August 19:  I want to "believe the best", and certainly we can't really tell what the words in the advertisement of this church actually mean in the practice of the church. Dave and Joanna make some good points re. not automatically taking the meaning of the words and phrases used in the way the Assembly twisted them to our demise. The only way to really know is to ask the pastor what he means by saying "belonging to the community", etc. It may just be the "God talk" that Dave speaks of and completely innocent of any overt bad motives.

However, "bad motives" surrounding a church ministry can develop without a minister or church being consciously aware that they are developing. The kind of vapid "God talk" that Dave alludes to can demonstrate a lack of care re. the dangers of not being aware of ones own sinful dispositions toward being self centered vs. a love for God and his people. Those pastors who lack the humility to understand their own human weakness in re. to the dangers of being in a place of authority may never have planned to fall into the practices of abusive control, but without such "taking heed to yourself" problems will occur that could spring from such neglect.

The response of a church leader (leaders, or the church as a group) to being questioned will tell us more than anything else. If the pastor becomes defensive in any manner while being asked, (as in being dismissive of the questions, etc.) it is a big red flag.

This is one great service we as former cult members can provide to leaders in the above mode. We can't slip into our old Assembly behavior of supporting leaders like this by making excuses for them----- if a pastor/ministry refuses to honestly receive critical evaluation of his/their teaching and practices he is in a very dangerous place.

A spiritual leader is an extremely important position to occupy and must be practiced with great humility and genuine concern for the members of the church. Those pastors who are "my ministry, my group, etc." focused will not be serving God or his children---- rather their own needs. A healthy ministry / church / pastor will be Gospel centered and will be intent on "building up" the faith of the members----- vs. self centered and controlling.

So, I say let's look these leaders right in the eye and ask them what they mean by what they say and try to help them think carefully about what it truly means to serve God and to strengthen His children.


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