Church of Christ

The State of the Churches of Christ: A Case Study

Photo taken at a small Church of Christ in rural Arkansas.

Photo taken at a small Church of Christ in rural Arkansas.

The 2015 Directory of Churches of Christ in the USA has recently been published with the first copies releasing any time now. As is typical, it is often an opportunity for reflection on "the state of the church". In 2008 the Christian Chronicle had a year long series about this question: "Are We Growing?" They again returned to the question in 2012: "By the Numbers: Growth & Decline of the Church". 

Too often the conversation about the "current" situation (whether that is 1945, 1980, 2008, or now) breaks down in one of two ways:

Response from the "Conservatives": (A caricature to make a point)
If people would simply stick to the "old paths" and stop going after all the new and unscriptural innovations we wouldn't be in this mess. We used to be (in the glory days of the 1940's and 1950's) the fastest growing group in America (which by the way, this has been debunked by one of the most thorough and theologically conservative members of our tribe, Flavil Yeakley in his book "Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ".) Short answer: Blame it on the liberals and the heretics. Diagnosis: Our decline is empirical proof that faithfulness = the faithful remnant. Remember, "narrow is the way!" 

Response from the "Liberals": (A caricature to make a point)
If people in the Churches of Christ weren't so dogmatic, legalistic, and fundamentalist our children wouldn't be leaving and our churches shrinking. If we could get past our oppression of women, lack of talk about grace, and fascination with living in Mayberry we wouldn't be in this mess. Short answer: Blame it on the conservatives and hypocrites. Diagnosis: Our decline is empirical proof that the "conservatives" are killing the church. That decline = vindication. Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees!

If you disagree with my analysis just go follow the comments section on this article posted yesterday at the Christian Chronicle: "165,000 fewer souls in the pews: Five questions to consider".  

Perhaps though there is a third response that has begun to more regularly emerge. One that isn't necessarily alarmist or that points the finger at those on the opposite side of the relatively small theological spectrum within Churches of Christ. 

It goes something like this:

We are living in a post-modern, post-Christian society in which all "churches" (meaning denominations other than the Churches of Christ) are shrinking. 

So we look for numbers that are "worse" than ours, or show that we are weathering just as well as other traditions who are not growing. We attempt to be dismissive by saying, "Times are tough. That's life. It is unavoidable." Ultimately, these people, perhaps attempting to be peacemakers, or in varying degrees of denial are trying to tell us: It's bad, but it's not that bad.

The 2015 directory this year contains information on all the known Churches of Christ in the United States. It is the best attempt to give a comprehensive and accurate assessment of the Churches of Christ in America. 

The Christian Chronicle reports it this way:

In the last quarter-century, total membership has fallen to 1,183,613, according to the 2015 edition of "Churches of Christ in the United States," published by Nashville, Tenn.-based 21st Century Christian. 

That's down 100,443 souls - or 7.8 percent - from a total membership of 1,284,056 in 1990...

Add in unbaptized children and spouses of members, and the numbers are even more stark: The "adherents" figure stood at 1,684,872 in 1990. That number has dropped to 1,519,695, a decline of 165,177 souls — or 9.8 percent — the 2015 directory reveals.

Meanwhile, the total number of U.S. congregations has slipped to 12,300, down from 13,174 in 1990. That means a net loss of 874 churches in the last quarter-century — an average of 35 per year. 

In the same 25-year period, the nation's total population rose to an estimated 320 million, up from 250 million in 1990. That's an increase of 70 million — or 28 percent.


So while the US population is soaring (70 million in the last 25 years) we are caught in the midst of a marked decline. But a quick glance at the numbers still causes many within our tradition to not feel a great sense of alarm. 

This is where this case study comes in...

Churches of Christ in the United States 2015 has posted the overall numbers by state from their most recent addition.

The statistics for Oklahoma are a helpful test case...

State of Oklahoma

Population: 3,878,051
Congregations: 569
Members: 56,528 (Defined in the directory as baptized individuals)
Adherents: 74,208 (Defined as both baptized and unbaptized individuals)
Attendance: 56.027 (Defined as average Sunday morning attendance)

Here are a few important and initial observations:

  • Churches of Christ in Oklahoma are common, particularly in rural areas. With congregations in all 77 counties there is significant "presence" throughout the state. 
  • On any given Sunday, 1.44% of Oklahomans are attending a Church of Christ. 
    • As context the ratio is the following in these surrounding states: Arkansas (2.21%), Tennessee (2.52%), and Texas (0.88%). 
  • The gap between membership (56,528) and adherents (74,208) is 17,680 or 23.82% of all adherents. Presumably, many of this number are children.
    • (From another source but still relevant) The average age of people in the Churches of Christ is approximately 54 with slightly more than 25% being college graduates. This means that the rate by which our tradition will grow merely by the growth of families will continue to rapidly decline. 
  • The general average size congregation in Oklahoma is just over 98 people. (Attendance divided by the number of congregations.)

This last number, that the average size of a congregation is approximately 98, would cause many to breathe a sigh of relief. A congregation of nearly 100 should be economically sustainable, large enough to have some form of eldership/leadership, and able to have a meaningful presence in their community. 

But the reality should be much more sobering...

I want to demonstrate this by looking at the size of four congregations located in the two primary metro areas in Oklahoma and their attendance. This radically reshapes the way we think about the "State of the Church" in Oklahoma. It is my hunch that these same kinds of results will be more or less true across the country where the Church of Christ has any real presence. 

Here are the four churches: Memorial Road Church of Christ (OKC, OK), Edmond Church of Christ (Edmond, OK), North MacArthur Church of Christ (OKC, OK), and Park Plaza Church of Christ (Tulsa, OK).

According to the most recent weekly bulletins posted on their website their attendance for the last Sunday or February was as follows:

  • Memorial Road Church of Christ - 2,175
  • Edmond Church of Christ - 1,182
  • North MacArthur Church of Christ - 511
  • Park Plaza Church of Christ - 1,395
  • Total Attendance: 5,263

These numbers are important for a number of reasons:

  1. These four congregations comprise 9.25% of all church attendance in the State of Oklahoma while making up 0.7% of the congregations in the state. 
  2. The average size of these four congregations is 1,316, which is more than thirteen times the size of the average congregation, each. 
  3. Simply removing these four congregations from the list produces the following results:
    1. Attendance: 50,764
    2. Number of Congregations: 565
    3. General Average Size: 89.84 (down form 98,5)

When all the data is processed (which will have to be a project for another time) my hunch is that we will discover the following results:

  • That less than 25% of the congregations in Oklahoma more than 50% of the attendants. 
  • That the average size of a congregation in a rural community (let's define this as a community with a population of less than 10,000 people) is closer to 40. 
  • That the number of congregations that are one (or two) funerals, fights, or withheld contributions from folding would be troubling. 

The implications of this are enormous for a lot of reasons. Here are few worth discussing...

How should our schools that train ministers react to the reality that many of the established congregations in Churches of Christ will struggle to financial support a paid minister? (This might be particularly of interest to people training for "extra" ministries like youth, college, and family ministry which typically require that person to be additional ministry staff.)

How might larger, more established churches aid and support these struggling congregations, and when necessary, help them to close their doors with dignity and thanksgiving for what God has done?

What kind of church do we anticipate leaving for our children and for our communities?

Might this kind of perspective on the gravity of our situation embolden us to make important and sometimes painful decisions for the sake of our local congregations?

There are so many other questions to be explored, but I believe that it is time to recognize that in some ways, the Churches of Christ are not sick with the flu, but possibly considering hospice care. 

But take heart, the Kingdom of God cannot be overcome. And as people who once knew what it meant to be "Christians only, not the only Christians" that is not a bad place to be. 

 

Churches of Christ: Quick to Speak and (Too Often) Absent to Listen...

A screenshot of the metrics on my website for the days after I originally posted An Open CONFESSION to the Churches of Christ

The last couple weeks have been interesting here. I typically write for a handful of people who actually read my writings. My writing for me is usually more a cathartic experience that enables me to try and articulate something that has been on my mind for quite a while. Most of my writings never leave the draft folder, either because I don't think they are of the kind of quality that I expect of myself, because they are underdeveloped, or sometimes even because they should never be made public. 

So a couple of weeks ago when I wrote An Open CONFESSION to the Churches of ChristI expected that the few readers that I have might read it, but I ultimately didn't care. It was important for me to attempt to articulate what I was feeling in the wake of all the nasty, uncharitable, character maligning that I was reading. Now, that post has been read by more than 45,000 people, by far the most "popular" thing I have ever published here. (I say "popular" because you don't need to spend long in the comments to see that it really wasn't all that popular.) But it was what happened after that in the following days that has fascinated me. 

I spent a couple of days trying to respond to each and every comment submitted. I wanted to make clear that there was no bait-and-switch here. That people of all convictions on this issue (and any other that I discuss here) are welcome to hold to and even advocate their understanding of a particular issue, granted that they do it in a way that is honest, loving, and seeks to address the issue without maligning one's character or fast-tracking their eternal destiny. (You should see the private emails from people unwilling to post their comments on the blog. "Glorious" I tell you.)

Then I began to repost an edited version of some work I had done previously on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. This is one of the "trump cards" that is often played in this conversation. It is one of the texts people run to in order to say, "There is no conversation...it is forbidden. Move on. Stop talking about it. Repent of your wrong interpretations.)

Side Note: If you (actually) read 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in any English translation you will see that the text says absolutely nothing about teaching or preaching. It speaks only to learning. This in itself, is a great illustration of how we (mis)use texts in order to fit our already pre-determined interpretive positions.

But the thing that I noticed that was so stunning was this:

Thousands of people stopped by the share their reaction to the rather open-ended confession that I had posted and a small, small, small fraction of them actually stayed to engage in an exploration (whether or not they agreed with my conclusions) of the actual biblical text. 

This is what I have called in my academic work, The Silencing of the Voice of Dissent. (I have an enhanced form of this paper originally delivered at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference in 2013 being prepared for submission for publication.) This is the phenomenon in which groups, individuals, and perspectives in any religious tradition that are aberrant experience a threefold movement from marginalization, to removal/expulsion/silencing, to a revisionist history to deny that they (whoever that is) were never a part of that religious tradition. This is exactly what has happened in the Churches of Christ. 

And in this season, where this conversation is re-emerging we are learning two things that I think are the result of the kind of paradigm that I suggested in that paper:

  1. Most people in our tradition are fundamentally unaware of the diversity that has long been a part of our movement on this question, even in our beginnings, and that a number of women made massive contributions to our movement and to the Kingdom of God as preachers, teachers, and missionaries. 
  2. We find ways in our revisionist history to also make sense of the present. This is why we have single women as missionaries all over the world who can serve "over there" but could never do so at home. We are able to learn from, read, and even share with our congregations the insights of women from books and other resources though it would be "sinful" for the author herself to get up and do so. 
  3. And finally, in order to authorize the revisionist history we must draw the lines even harder than they were before. This is why we don't allow women in many Churches of Christ to do things in our worship gatherings that they were clearly doing in the first century church, such a reading Scripture and praying! 

I think that this issue in the Churches of Christ has the potential to be more fragmentary than any in the history of our particular branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement. In my opinion there are three reasons for this:

  1. As a movement, we have become so polarized, and for so long have abandoned or maligned others within our tribe that have significant and sometimes important interpretive differences that we simply don't know how to speak to one another. 
  2. Our (unhealthy in my opinion) focus on congregational autonomy has translated into an extreme sense of isolation unless there emerges a common enemy. This means that the possibilities of constructive, generative engagement of people with different interpretive understandings of any issue is excruciatingly limited. 
  3. These things simply take time, and our culture, our churches, and our lives simply aren't willing to make that kind of sacrifice that is fundamental to the hard work of asking serious questions about God, the church, and the life that we live together for the sake of the world. 

Is it possible? With God all things are possible. Will it be difficult? Absolutely. Will it happen? I don't know. But if there is a movement that has the resources within its own history to have these kinds of engagements with one another and who are unwilling to be merely the next denomination (yes, I used the "D" word) to break up over theological issues... it is the Churches of Christ. 

Maybe we should take to heart one of the fundamental statements from Alexander Campbell as our marching orders for the near future:

"The spirit of all reformation, is free discussion."
-- Alexander Campbell

#SilentCofC: It's (Past) Time to Have This Conversation

Today it was announced that another former minister in our tribe was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. The victim reported to investigators that the abuse occurred over a period of years as she was living with the family as a foster child. 

The simple truth is this... 

This is not the first time that revelations like this have come out in the Churches of Christ. 

But maybe, this is finally the time that we can have some constructive conversation and tangible action about this problem in our tribe. 

Here is the series that has resulted so far from myself and a number of highly qualified guest contributors...

#SilentCofC: Child Sexual Abuse and Churches of Christ

This is the introductory post of the series covers the following: 

  • The prevalence of child sexual abuse,
  • The particular realities of this problem in communities of faith,
  • Myths about child sexual abuse
  • Notable incidents of CSA in Churches of Christ

#SilentCofC: Our Theological Assumptions About Children are Dangerous

Here I begin to explore the consequences of the way in which children are sidelined in the life and practices of the church. I suggest that our "segregation" of children minimizes the ability to expose children to positive adult interaction and increases the likelihood of predators engaging our children. 

#SilentCofC: Autonomy and the Culture of Silence

Here I explore this fundamental challenge and risk to one of our most celebrated "values": hat congregational autonomy has served to enable sexual predators to move from congregation to congregation with impunity. 

#SilentCofC: Church Practices for Prevention (Guest Post by Dr. David Duncan)

David Duncan, minister at the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston, offers an insight into some of the strategies and expectations that are in place in the congregation he serves to protect children and prevent abuse. 

#SilentCofC: The "Victim" and the Church (Guest Post by Dr. Ron Clark)

Ron Clark, church planter and minister at the Agape Church of Christ in Gresham, Oregon brings an insightful post about how the church should think about and respond to victims of abuse. 

#SilentCofC: The Trust Deception (Guest Post by Jimmy Hinton)

Jimmy Hinton is the minister of the Somerset Church of Christ in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He leads a ministry called Church Protect which is born out of his journey to help churches after his own father's conviction (a former Church of Christ minister) of child sexual abuse. This is his personal narrative and warning about the ways in which trust is too easily earned and kept in our churches when it comes to protecting our children. 

#SilentCofC: Changing Our Response (Guest Post by Gina South)

Gina South is the State Director for the Alabama Network of Children's Advocacy Centers and former professor of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at Faulkner University. She offers a number of tangible ways that our churches can move from secretive and fearful to proactive and bold in our protection of our children. 

#SilentCofC: The Mission - A Story of Abuse from the Mission Field

A first-hand account from a missionary (identities have been obscured to protect the innocent) about the uncovering of an abusive individual from their supporting congregation abusing a child on the mission field. This is their struggle with the confrontation and the fallout from their supporting church. An important narrative that is not unique to our tribe, but that no longer allows us to think of it as a problem only in other Christian tradition. 

There is more to be said and more to be written, but for now, this is a resource for all churches who are serious about protecting their children. 

We cannot remain silent any more. 

Churches of Christ and Racism: Time to Listen

There is a long history of racial tension in Churches of Christ. And today perhaps more than ever, the black Churches of Christ and white Churches of Christ are separated in a way that seems intractable. Consider this an exercise in listening, first to a prominent voice from the past, and finally a great conversation from someone who is on the forefront of this conversation in our tribe.

Listen. Mourn. Repent.

Listen. Open your hearts and your tables.

We've got a lot of work to do, and we have to do it together.


  Foy E. Wallace Jr.

  Foy E. Wallace Jr.

First we need to listen to a voice from the past.

Foy E. Wallace Jr. was a prominent voice in the vast majority of our movement spanning from his editorship at the Gospel Advocate in 1909 to just before his death in 1975.

One of the more polarizing figures in our movement he commanded both deep respect and deep criticism. Few were able to withstand his opposition and his influence on both the white Churches of Christ and the relationship of the white and black Churches of Christ can still be felt today. This article, written by Wallace in 1941 embodies his position well.


NEGRO MEETINGS FOR WHITE PEOPLE

Foy E. Wallace Jr., Bible Banner (March 1941): 7.

"The manner in which the brethren in some quarters are going in for the negro meetings leads one to wonder whether they are trying to make white folks out of the negroes or negroes out of the white folks. The trend of the general mix-up seems to be toward the latter. Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs. That kind of thing will turn the head of most white preachers, and sometimes affect their conduct, and anybody ought to know that it will make fools out of the negroes. For any woman in the church to so far forget her dignity, and lower herself so, just because a negro has learned enough about the gospel to preach it to his race, is pitiable indeed. Her husband should take her in charge unless he has gone crazy, too. In that case somebody ought to take both of them in charge.

       R. N. Hogan

       R. N. Hogan

"Reliable brethren in the Valley have reported the definite inclinations of the negro man and his wife in charge of the orphan home for colored children at Combes toward social equality. They are supposed to be members of the church, and some of the white brethren are apparently encouraging them. It is said that these two negroes have privately stated that they favor social equality and are working for it. The young editor of Christian Soldier, in the valley, admits that he roomed with the negro preacher, R. N. Hogan, and slept in the same bed with him two nights!And he seemed to be proud of it! Aside from being an infringement on the Jim Crow law, it is a violation of Christianity itself, and of all common decency. Such conduct forfeits the respect of right-thinking people, and would be calculated to stir up demonstrations in most any community if it should become generally known.

"It has gained considerable currency that the colored preacher Hogan has been too much inclined to mix with the white people and to favor, in attitude, a social equality. Hogan should have had too much sense, if not self-respect, to have permitted the young white preacher to sleep with him, if the young preacher did not have that much sense or self-respect. But Hogan has been under the sponsorship of Jimmie Lovell and cannot be expected to have any too much sense about anything. I have always said that Marshall Keeble and Luke Miller could not be spoiled, but if I ever hear of them doing anything akin to such as this I will take back every good thing I have ever said of them. Keeble should teach these negro preachers better than that, even if we cannot teach some young upstart among the white preachers. Their practices will degrade the negroes themselves. It is abominable.

    N. B. Hardeman

    N. B. Hardeman

"When N. B. Hardeman held the valley-wide meeting at Harlingen, Texas, some misguided brethren brought a group of negroes up to the front to be introduced to and shake hands with him. Brother Hardeman told them publicly that he could see all of the colored brethren he cared to see on the outside after services, and that he could say everything to them that he wanted to say without the formality of shaking hands. I think he was right. He told of a prominent brother in the church who went wild over the negroes and showed them such social courtesies that one day one of the negroes asked him if he might marry his daughter. That gave the brother a jolt and he changed his attitude!

"In one of my own meetings a young negro preacher was engaged by the church as a janitor. He made it a point to stand out in the vestibule of the church-building to shake hands with the white people. When I insisted that it be discontinued some of the white brethren were offended. Such as this proves that the white brethren are ruining the negroes and defeating the very work that they should be sent to do, that is, preach the gospel to the negroes, their own people.

"I saw a letter the other day from the colored preacher, R. N. Hogan, to a certain white brother stating that there were very few negroes in the section where he was preaching at the time, and that he was holding the meeting for the white brethren!

"When negro meetings are held in most of the places now, the white brethren over-run the premises. They herald these negro preachers as the greatest preachers in the world, when as a matter of fact if any of the white preachers should say everything they say to a word, it would sound so common that the brethren would stop it. But when a negro says it, in negro manner, the brethren paw up the ground over it.

"I was preaching in a certain city where Marshall Keeble had held a successful meeting. In usual style he had poured it on the negroes and it had run on the white people. One brother who was against hard preaching went wild over Keeble's hard preaching. Keeble preached it hard, calling names and giving the sectarians Hail Columbia! [T]his brother thought it was the greatest stuff he had ever heard. Later, when I was preaching in the same city, he squirmed until he polished the seat of a good pair of trousers because I drew the line on denominationalism. One night while he was squirming, I diverted attention by referring to one of Keeble's hard sayings. Immediately this brother sat erect, smiled and nodded in approval of Keeble's hard saying. I smiled back at him and said: Get yourself a negro preacher!

"I am very much in favor of negro meetings for the negroes, but I am just as much opposed to negro meetings for white people, and I am against white brethren taking the meetings away from the negroes and the general mixing that has become entirely too much of a practice in these negro meetings. Such a thing not only lowers the church in the eyes of the world but it is definitely against the interest of the negroes. If any negro preacher says that this is not true, that will be the evidence that it is true, and that he has been spoiled by the white brethren and wants to preach to white audiences. And if any of the white brethren get worked up over what I have said, and want to accuse me of being jealous of the negro preachers, I will just tell them now that I don't even want to hold a meeting for any bunch of brethren who think that any negro is a better preacher than I am! So that we can just call that argument off before it starts--and the meeting, too."                                                            

-- F. E. W.


Now for an alternative voice...

      Don McLaughlin

      Don McLaughlin

Don McLaughlin serves as the Senior Minister at the North Atlanta Church of Christ and is a leader in helping our tribe to talk about the realities of our culture and our tradition and the way that it impedes our ability to be reconciled across racial boundaries.

He recently had a fascinating conversation with Luke Norsworthy about Ferguson, white privilege, and ways in which we need to learn both the practice of hospitality and the ability to ask the response, "Tell me more."

Listen to the podcast here:

UPDATE: Justin Ardrey submitted the following video involving Don McLaughlin, Jerry Taylor, Josh Ross, and Eric Wilson. This is a great introduction to the conversation. Watch and engage. 

#SilentCofC: The Mission - A Story of Abuse from the Mission Field

The following is an actual narrative from current missionaries on the field in the Churches of Christ. These details are accurate but the names of all people in this narrative have been changed to protect both the victims and the missionaries who themselves were threatened with the revocation of funding and received death threats because of their bold and God-honoring response in opposing the perpetrator and serving the victims.

THIS IS REAL. LISTEN CLOSELY.


Introduction

The Mission is a corporation formed under the laws of the state of Texas. The Mission is recognized by the IRS as a registered 501C(3) nonprofit organization. For Missionary A and his wife Missionary B, there is no separation between ministry and business, and that sound Christian ministry practices and sound Christian business practices go hand in hand. From day one Missionary A’s business background and entrepreneurial drive coupled with a conviction of excellence that both Missionary A and Missionary B share are what have set the The Mission approach to ministry apart from many others. The convictions that are shared by Missionary A and Missionary B to make the tough right decisions, all the time, even when it does not feel like it will work out, are undoubtedly one of the major reasons that God has blessed this ministry the way he has.

Independent Missionary Background

Missionary A had known Independent Missionary all of his life. He grew up at the church that Independent Missionary’s family attended. Independent Missionary’s wife taught Missionary A in Sunday school and Independent Missionary also had 3 children who grew up there with Missionary A. Independent Missionary worked in law enforcement and was a respected member of the community. Independent Missionary and Missionary A were a part of a mission trip to Developing Nation. This trip impacted both of their lives.  Finally Missionary A quit his consulting job and moved to Developing Nation to work full time in ministry and about the same time Independent Missionary, now retired, also began spending extended periods in Developing Nation, 2 – 3 months at a time. 

It became apparent within just a few months of Independent Missionary’s arrival in Developing Nation that some of the interactions that he was engaging in with young ladies, ages 12–16, from the local church of Christ were not appropriate. After rumors started going around that were affecting the church that Missionary A was working with at the time Missionary A decided he need to talk with Independent Missionary. On a trip back to the US, Missionary A asked to meet with Independent Missionary. In this meeting Missionary A confronted Independent Missionary about his interactions, the rumors, and that as Christians we need to flee from the appearance of evil. Independent Missionary did not receive the observation well, he became very agitated and said that he was doing nothing wrong and so therefore he did not need to change anything just because there were rumors going around.

After this interaction Missionary A decided that it was no longer wise to be associated with Independent Missionary. Up until this point they had partnered together on some projects in different communities. Independent Missionary had a long list of churches, donors and civic clubs in the US from whom he was able to pull resources. However, the risk seemed to be too great.

By 2003 there was one family in particular that Independent Missionary had taken a liking to, the Perez family, 5 orphaned kids, ages 5–15. Their mother, a member of the church where Missionary A & Missionary B’s efforts had been focused early on, had recently passed away. The only thing that the children now had was a house that she had left them but no way to provide for themselves. Independent Missionary took it upon himself to take care of the family. This appeared innocent early on. When the oldest sibling, Juana, began cleaning Independent Missionary’s house and spending extended periods of time there, everyone at the local church began to wonder what might be going on. In late 2005 Juana became pregnant. Now with no income and no one to take care of her she approached The Mission for medical assistance. The Mission provided prenatal care and was present when the healthy baby girl was born. Juana has dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion. The baby girl has strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, and a very light, Caucasian complexion. The resemblance of the little girl to Independent Missionary was obvious to everyone who saw her. Juana, the mother, however stuck to her story, that the father was a local boy who had run off. By now, it was a common knowledge among all of the local Christians that Independent Missionary was the father of this child, regardless of whether or not Juana would admit it. The little girl was the spitting image of her father.  Unfortunately, it’s not a crime to commit adultery, and unfortunately by the time Juana had become pregnant she was 18. As disgusted as Missionary A and Missionary B were there was not much that could be done other than to distance themselves from this man as much as possible. 

Shortly afterwards Juana’s younger sister Sonia, only 15 years old, came to Missionary A & Missionary B and asked to talk. What she had to share was a heart breaking story. When Juana, in her third trimester, told Sonia that she needed to go to Independent Missionary’s house, and to do whatever he wanted to do. That their family depended on his support, that he had taken good care of them, and they needed to take care of him. Sonia hesitantly went to Independent Missionary’s house, not fully understanding what her sister was talking about. The ensuing rape, which was described in detail, had traumatized Sonia severely but she did not feel like there was anyone who she could go to. Many families in her community and in her church respected Independent Missionary because he gave so many gifts to so many families. No one would believe Sonia or if they did they would probably not support her since this man had given them so many gifts. 

Missionary A & Missionary B did not hesitate in their decision to take Sonia to child protective services. There she was interviewed by the social worker and taken for a forensic physical exam. The findings of the exam supported the details of Sonia’s story. Sonia was then placed in a foster home. 

Independent Missionary was actually in the country while these initial interviews with Sonia were taking place but since the justice system moves slowly and it would take a long time for the DA’s office to act on the information Independent Missionary was not at risk of being arrested. Missionary A was compelled to confront Independent Missionary, as a Christian brother, in Developing Nation, but after discussing with Missionary B they decided against it, fearing that he might harm Sonia after finding out what she had reported. Shortly thereafter Independent Missionary returned to the US. Once the formal investigation was completed a warrant for Independent Missionary’s arrest was issued. A board member of The Mission, also a member of the same church as Independent Missionary, met with Independent Missionary face to face to confront him on the charges in Developing Nation. Independent Missionary, as expected, adamantly denied the allegations. Independent Missionary was informed that if he returned to Developing Nation that he would be arrested. Soon The Mission board member, Independent Missionary, and a few other men familiar with the situation were asked to meet with the elders of Independent Missionary’s church. This meeting did not go as expected. Independent Missionary’s long time relationship with the eldership, his well respected presence in his community, and his law enforcement background influenced the elders. The elders believed his story that this was nothing but a little, poor, orphan girl in Developing Nation out to get some money and that Missionary A had no idea what he was talking about and he had fallen for the scam. 

Unfortunately this is a defense that has been used before by pedophiles that have abused children in third world countries around the world. It’s a very easy explanation, the victim must be lying, they must be after money, and unfortunately many Americans have given the benefit of the doubt to the accused instead of investing just a little bit of time to do some due diligence about the situation and the victims rarely see justice and the predators continue to attack children. 

By late summer of that year Independent Missionary was ready to return to Developing Nation, defying all logic and advice of his friends. This time he was indeed arrested by the police only a few days after his arrival. Videos of Independent Missionary handcuffed and shackled and being led into the police station filled the evening news. However, within 24 hours he was free, and placed under house arrest to await a hearing. Independent Missionary hired the best that money could buy in this small town, and that meant a very shady lawyer. Sonia & Juana were now both at risk as well as Missionary A and Missionary B’s family. Both Missionary A and Missionary B were subpoenaed to testify in a court in a small town in a third world country. The missionaries did not get much support and encouragement from the US, that they had done the right thing. One “mentor” even told Missionary A, “this is not your fight.”  However, Missionary A and Missionary B believed wholeheartedly that if it was not “their” fight then whose fight was it? Who was there to “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy" (Psalms 82:3)?

The Verdict

The shady lawyer’s defense was that this was a “gringo” power struggle and that it had nothing to do with the young girl. The lawyer, after discovering where Sonia was living, approached her and intimidated her into signing a document stating that the whole story had been made up. Then the lawyer went to work to try and cast doubt about the family. However, the evidence was quite compelling, a former house keeper with a baby girl with a striking resemblance of Independent Missionary, and physical exam that backed up the rape charges, however poor families who’d been recipients of Independent Missionary's gifts showed up in droves to support this man. In the end the judge found that there was not enough evidence for the case to proceed and Independent Missionary was released.

In the parking lot of the court Independent Missionary’s lawyer boasted to the government attorney, “You see, in our country money talks, my client is guilty, and my client walks free”.

In the End

  • Sonia was left with severe trauma and no justice.
  • Juana was left with trauma, a child, and no way to support her family.
  • Christians in a small community were misguided to learn that what is wrong might not always be wrong if you can get something from it.
  • Missionary A and Missionary B were threatened with a slander lawsuit if the details were made public in the US.
  • Missionary A and Missionary B were labeled as naïve and ignorant by Independent Missionary’s elders, major financial supporters of The Mission, for having believed the report and for not having handled the situation directly with Independent Missionary.
  • Long time relationship with these elders and their church were strained and eventually they parted ways.
  • A precedent was set across the ministry of The Mission that sexual misconduct, by anyone, would not be tolerated.
  • Operations manual of The Mission children’s homes directly reflects Missionary A and Missionary B’s commitment to protecting children.

Today, Independent Missionary is now single. At 65 his wife left him. He now lives in Developing Nation and continues to have teenage girlfriends and continues to “help” churches of Christ that fall victims to the US Dollars that he has to give away. 


Rather than offer immediate answers, I think it is important for us to sit with the tension that this true story naturally creates.

We need to think about the ways in which we engage in ministry both within our congregations and in other contexts. What protections are in place both for the children of our congregation, but also for those to whom we minister, particularly in places where the power imbalance is deeply exacerbated by poverty, illness, or cultural difference?

This same pair of missionaries who brought us this heart-wrenching narrative will soon be sharing with us some important and practical ways in which this kind of horrific story can be prevented in the future. Along with some other reflections, their contribution will be an invaluable resource for this conversation.

Please lift them and all the others (and there are other missionaries with the same experiences whom I have heard from because of this series!) who have given their lives to serving far from their homes who must confront and protect the innocent to whom they have dedicated their lives, even with great consequences. God will not fail to reward them for what they have done on behalf of the innocent.

#SilentCofC: Changing Our Response (Gina South)

Today's guest post in the #SilentCofC conversation is from my new friend Gina South. Here is a little bit about her, and you will see quickly that her voice is both informed and generative. Let those who have ears to hear...


Gina M. (Tur) South is the State Director for the Alabama Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers, and a member of the Alabama State Bar Association. Mrs. South is committed to advocating for children, and works with legislators to protect children in her capacity as State Director. Additionally, she provides education/awareness for both professionals and members of the community. Prior to her work with the CACs, Mrs. South taught Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at Faulkner University for 8 years. Mrs. South graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, from Freed-Hardeman University, and from Mars Hill Bible School in Florence, Alabama. Mrs. South is married to Jason South, the Children’s Minister at Vaughn Park Church of Christ, and a Theatre Professor at Faulkner University. Together they have four children. The Souths are also current foster and adoptive parents for Agape of Central Alabama.


People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, He was indignant. He said to them, “let the little children come to me,
and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”[i]
 

Did you see that Jesus was indignant – regarding a children’s issue? Children are our some of our most precious treasures in this life. Our Lord did not want children to be treated as though they were less important, as though they had no business being placed in front of the Savior, as though there were far more important matters to be brought to the feet of Jesus. 

My heart is heavy when I consider that many of our churches are doing this very thing today. When our church leaders would rather discuss praise teams or event planning than address the direction of our children’s ministry, when paying down the church debt is more important than prioritizing child safety, when worship styles or church décor is more of a hot topic than the focus of our children’s hearts, I believe that we grieve the Holy Spirit, disappoint God, and bring Jesus to a place where He is indignant. With us. With how petty and short-sighted we are. Surely we can do better.

In my line of work, I see the aftermath of when we fail to protect children. I see the numbers of children, the cost to society, the hours of counseling needed to induce healing; I see the insidious way that it spreads, silently, secretly, and from generation to generation. Do you truly believe the statistics? Do you believe that one in four girls, and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18? Do you believe that only one in ten will actually disclose the abuse?[ii] Before my work with children’s advocacy centers, I did not. I was naïve. I assumed that the church cases were few and far between; I assumed that the statistics applied to the world, not to the church – not to any church I’d ever attended. But statistics are real, no matter what building you are in. Please do not believe for a second that because we are part of a small church family, or a close church family that we are insulated from it.

I grew up in the Church of Christ, and graduated from a Church of Christ high school and college. The Church of Christ values and the importance of God’s Holy Word have been deeply instilled from my childhood. These are my people; these are my roots. But just as most families have a skeleton in a closet, I have seen what I believe to be our skeleton, and it is the way we deal with accusations of child sex abuse, and the subsequent way that we treat the offender.

 In the situations that I have known about, the victim is told to stop talking about it, and the offender’s “record” is sealed shut. We silence the child because we do not want it to be true, or we think the child must be mistaken, or we do not want to ruin the lives of the offender, or the offender’s family. We seal shut the record of the offender and allow the offender to move on to another congregation, to molest more children, or we allow the offender to quietly resign, and seek employment in yet another place where he or she will have contact with children. Despite the fact that a sex offender molests on average, 117 children before being caught[iii], we do not press charges, or seek prosecution. We think that by not making a child face prosecution, we save them from public humiliation, or somehow protect them. We do not seek counseling for the child.

In doing so, our actions teach the child that it does not matter who touches them. It does not matter what happens to their bodies. Our actions highlight the truth: that we do not want to talk about the uncomfortable, that we will not discuss the painful topics, and that we will protect other adults to the detriment of our children’s safety. Is that really what we want to teach children?

It is remarkable that in Matthew 18, Jesus actually states, “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea,”[iv] and almost directly after that, He begins to address what to do when your brother sins against you.[v] The statements go together: it is our Savior’s desire that we protect children from evil behaviors. It is our Savior’s desire that we get to the truth of the matter.

Additionally, there is one small phrase we overlook. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…”[vi] When we have enough reasons to know that a person actually committed a crime, there is a Biblical mechanism in place to warn our church family. Are we doing what God has instructed of us? Are we warning our brothers and sisters? Keep in mind that you are not committing slander against an individual when you state the truth.[vii]

We must improve the way we deal with child sex abuse in the church of Christ.

The counselors who work with abused children tell me this: some Church of Christ children (and many other church-going children) are raised in such conservative homes that they are gravely unequipped. They lack the actual tools that children need to protect themselves. They do not receive the message “my body belongs to me,” and “it’s ok to tell someone NO.” Oftentimes, the children even lack the vocabulary needed to explain what has happened to them.

What can we do to improve? For parents, the following steps would be a good step in the right direction.

  1. Equip your preschooler. Teach them the actual names of their body parts, and teach them that nobody is allowed to touch them in a way that makes them feel bad, or uncomfortable unless it is the doctor, and is medically necessary. Make sure they understand that other children (not just adults) cannot have access to their bodies.
  2. Keep the lines of communication open. Tell them explicitly that they can tell you anything or ask you anything. Ask them if anyone is touching them, or doing anything inappropriate. Revisit the topic frequently enough so that as they grow, and get older, that they will always feel like they can talk to you about their bodies, or about sex, or about inappropriate situations they may have encountered.
  3. Educate yourself. Download the free McGruff Mobile smartphone app, where you can view an interactive map displaying crimes and sex offenders in your neighborhood. Actively seek information about how to talk to your child about body safety.
  4. Find out what your congregation is doing to protect children, and join in and assist.

What can churches do to improve?

  1. Give all members of the congregation (men, women and children) a voice in contributing to and implementing child safety policies. Seek the input of child safety professionals in your congregation. Create an environment where knowledgeable, qualified women and men can both advise and make policy decisions about child safety.
  2. Implement policies and procedures for child safety. Most church insurance plans have a model child safety policy that the congregation can implement. The Methodist churches have an impressive child safety plans (Safe Sanctuaries) in place today, and it is an excellent program that is a model for other religious groups.
  3. Hold regular seminars for both church staff and parents to teach them the signs and indicators of child sex abuse, and about how to identify individuals that are “grooming” children for abuse.
  4. Conduct background checks of all members who will have direct access to children.
  5. Make certain that your congregation has a policy of 2 workers for every class. No teacher should ever be alone with a child, regardless of whether the teacher is male or female.

Do not be naïve about the facts of child sex abuse. Do not neglect the children in your church family. Do not turn a blind eye, and do not fail to give your child the tools he or she needs, for who among us would dare to send an innocent, unarmed lamb into a battlefield, without so much as a warning? “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”[viii]


ENDNOTES

[i] Mark 10:14 NIV

[ii] Theresa Harvard Johnson, Angela Williams, Courage to Speak (Marietta: Voice Today, 2013), 20.

[iii] Nancy E. Grabe, et al., The Grooming Mystery (Marietta: Voice Today, 2013), 4.

[iv] Matthew 18:6 NIV

[v] Matthew 18:15-17 NIV

[vi]  Matthew 18:17 NIV

[vii] Disclaimer: the contents of this article are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice.

[viii] Matthew 10:16 NIV

#SilentCofC: The Trust Deception (Jimmy Hinton)

Today's guest post is from my new friend Jimmy Hinton. He serves as the minister at the Somerset Church of Christ in Somerset, Pennsylvania. He writes often about issues of abuse at his blog and is in the initial launch of his new ministry, Church Protect. Jimmy's journey into helping the Church think about the scope and cost of child sexual abuse came in the aftermath of learning that his father, a Church of Christ minister, was a pedophile with dozens of victims. His voice is important in our fellowship and I am thankful for his contribution today.

WARNING: Jimmy doesn't sugar-coat the nature of abuse. This is important, but for some, especially those who have been victimized in the past, it may serve as a trigger. For the rest of us, please consider Jimmy's honest and unsanitized perspective as an exercise in learning empathy for victims of this horrific evil.


I had just spoken as a keynote at a large conference for professionals who deal with abuse.  For many theological and psychological reasons that I won’t unpack here, I take a strong stance that pedophiles should not have access to our children, even (especially!) in worship.  A man came up to me after my speech and said, “You’re a preacher and you say that pedophiles and children should be separated.”  “Yep,” I said unflinchingly.  “Let me just ask you, where is the trust and forgiveness in that?”  I assured him that mistaking forgiveness and trust is a grave mistake.  They are not the same thing.  We can forgive people who should never be trusted again.  It’s a strange notion that we somehow magically believe that people who say, “Sorry” will never struggle with temptation again.   

This man’s response is not uncommon among church leaders.  I regularly get challenged by people who have never spent time either with a pedophile or with their victims.  They haven’t had to face the reality of witnessing the lies, manipulation, and denial from pedophiles.  Nor have they heard the horror stories from survivors who were humiliated, stripped naked, poked, prodded, and caressed with the tongues and fingers of their perpetrators.  I have.  And I acknowledge what the Bible and psychologists both agree upon—Children need responsible adults to protect them.

When I shared this man’s response with my ministry partner, who happens to counsel incarcerated sex offenders, without hesitation he offered me the following advice. 

“Always keep a 3x5 notecard and a pen in your pocket.  Next time someone is adamant that you are ‘unfair’ and need to integrate pedophiles into your church, take down their name and personal number.  Write down their home address as well as their church address, number, times of service, etc.  And just tell them, ‘You know what?  You’re right and I’m wrong.  Pedophiles do need a place to worship among children.  We are not equipped to make that happen but we are willing to pay for the flight, bus ticket, gas, or whatever to send the next pedophile we meet directly to your home.  Thank you so much for agreeing to integrate them into your own home and church.’” 

Now before anyone draws too harsh a judgment, let me be clear.  I want pedophiles to be redeemed.  I’m not arguing that we ban them from church unless, of course, they show no signs of remorse or repentance.  What I’m arguing is that, according to the Bible, we have the highest calling to protect our children and so, pedophiles who have repeatedly perpetrated upon children have no business being surrounded by them.  We should offer an alternative worship service without kids where temptation does not cause a repentant pedophile to stumble.  We do it with drug addicts.  We don’t serve booze to alcoholics.  So why do we insist that we serve our children on a platter to someone whose appetite is so insatiable that he or she has repeatedly stripped a child of their clothes, innocence, and decency?  God “does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), so why do we? 

The most common cliché I hear from churches who insist on not taking any precautions to protect their children is this—“We have a group of volunteers we trust so why would we upset them by demanding background checks and watching over them every time they want to serve?”  Great question.  Let me tell you about a story of a man who trusted his own father. . . who happened to be a well-respected father and preacher!  My dad has dozens of victims who all have dramatic stories of shame, pain, and humiliation.  He was able to gain access to children precisely because everybody trusted him.  Let me also tell you about hundreds of other people who have shared similar stories with me as I listen to their painful stories.  They all tell a similar story: “Nobody questioned my abuser because he was the guy everyone loved and trusted.” 

I can assure you that if you are, like I was at one time, looking for the creepy guy standing behind the bushes by the ice cream truck, you’re looking in the wrong place.  A successful pedophile is not someone who offended a child and got away with it.  No, a successful pedophile is someone who offended children over and over while gaining the love, respect, and trust from those closest to him.  The successful pedophile is the last person anyone would suspect as an abuser and the first person someone would choose to care for their kids.  And there is a lot of success out there, especially in our churches.  My dad once wrote me from prison, “Churches and Christian daycares are the easiest places to offend.”  Touché. 

I call this the “trust deception.”  We Christians are deceived precisely because we want to trust.  Dr. Gene Abel did a massive study among over 1,000 pedophiles and found that 93% of them identified themselves as religious.  That’s a huge deal!  We picture pedophiles as monsters with 3 heads who deny God and mock Jesus.  It’s simply not true.  The vast majority of them believe in God and identify as Christians.  The reason I make such a huge deal about this is because religious people typically go to church!  If 93% of pedophiles are religious, that means the majority of pedophiles are frequenting your churches.  It gets worse. 

The reason churches are among the highest risk for sex offenses to occur is that we have created the perfect storm.  As the famed Dr. Anna Salter once told me, “They (churches) are such inviting targets.”  There are 3 main ingredients to our Molotov concoction: 

  1. Christians by nature are generally naïve.  Quite honestly, we don’t want to know what kinds of things happen outside our own happy bubbles.  It disrupts our happy time and forces us to think about something tragic and actually do something about it.  Let’s be honest—prophets like Jeremiah weren’t exactly known for gaining converts through uplifting sermons. 
  2. Churches are desperate for volunteers.  When someone—heck when anyone—volunteers to help out, especially with kids, we describe them as “gifts from heaven.” 
  3. We wrongly trust everyone because “church folk” are safe people and church is a safe place.  Wrong!  Going to church makes a person a trusted individual no more than standing in a garage makes them a car.  The only way church will be a safe place is if we make it a safe place.  And this can be done.  The refusal by many church leaders to adopt healthy policies to protect their kids is mind-numbing. 

There are 42 million survivors of child sex abuse in the United States alone.  As someone who does church consulting and regularly conducts workshops on abuse in the Churches of Christ across the nation, let me tell you, it is an epidemic.  Am I an alarmist?  No, I’m a realist.  Just in the last few months, I’ve had somewhere around 100 survivors of child sex abuse share their stories of churches either actively covering up accusations of abuse or just flat out denying that it happens.  Shame on us.  We can do better than this for the very children Jesus called us to imitate.  Christ became indignant when his disciples blocked them from coming near him.  How much more indignant should we become when church leaders deny children a safe environment to worship?  Children should not have to cower in fear every time they enter an assembly to worship.  Let’s vow to do better at preventing abuse.

#SilentCofC: The "Victim" and the Church (Ron Clark)

Ron and Lori Clark

Ron and Lori Clark

Today I have the privilege of sharing with you a contribution from Dr. Ron Clark. Ron is a church planter and minister at the Agape Church of Christ in Gresham, Oregon. Ron has served in numerous capacities related to abuse and violence including the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force, The Engaging Men Project (TEMP), and the co-founder of Community Against Domestic Violence. He is the author of numerous books and articles, and is a leading voice in Churches of Christ about how we engage issues of abuse and violence both in our churches and our communities.


Victim.

The word seems to strike fear in us not only as we say it, but as we think about those we know who are victims, have been victimized, or have family members who suffered as victims. It also seems logical to us that we remove the word from our vocabulary by empowering the word so that we can be “victors.” Victors has a better sound, connotation, and memory. However we forget that whenever there is a victor, typically there is or are victims. Yet for us it is a matter of avoiding that which is uncomfortable. Since victim connotes helplessness, suffering, and vulnerability—we opt to be victors instead. In addition to this we become, like the many other humans researched who observe an act of bullying and side with the bully or do nothing, people who collude with and empower the oppression of victims. Whether or not it is intentional, we side with the victors rather than the victims.

As Christians and people of faith this seems contrary to the God we serve. Since the beginning of time Yahweh and, later Jesus, seemed to stand opposite the oppressors and for the victims.

“Your brother’s (Abel) blood cries out to me…” Genesis 4:10

“I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt, I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering…” Exodus 3:7

“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” Exodus 22:21-23

“Yahweh is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble…who does not ignore the cry of the afflicted…” Psalm 9:9, 12

“If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered…” Proverbs 21:13

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the empire of God…” Luke 6:20

“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers/sisters of mine, you did for me…” Matthew 25:40

“The Son of Man has no place to lay his head… (meaning that Jesus was homeless).” Luke 9: 58

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and drowned in the deepest lake/sea…” Matthew 18:6

The crucifixion of Jesus was an act of “humiliation” (not humility), a word used for sexual assault victims, the oppressed, and marginalized people of this world.

Throughout the Biblical text God is the god of the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering, and those society has deemed unworthy. Additionally this group is also silenced. They have no voice, no one to represent them, and no one to understand their pain. Those who marginalize them do so because they have chosen the path of oppression, affliction, and a display of power over others. However, these “privileged” classes of people are also the groups confronted directly by Yahweh, the prophets, apostles, and Jesus himself. Their only hope of salvation is to hear the cries of the marginalized (victims) as the prophets exclaimed to their kings.

“Therefore O king (Nebuchadnezzer), please accept my advice. Renounce your sins by doing what is right and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed (poor). It may be then that your prosperity will continue.” Daniel 4:27

“’Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father (Josiah) have food and drink? He did what was right and just and all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares Yahweh.” Jeremiah 22:15-16

When we ignore the cries of the oppressed, marginalized, poor, or victims we collude with their oppressors. First, we assume that they deserve to be oppressed.

Homeless people are viewed as lazy and unwilling to work, rather than being part of a system that prevents them from receiving help.

Rape victims are blamed for being over sexual, underdressed, or sexually expressive and therefore responsible for this sin. We assume that every male is incapable of self control and must have been tempted by them. “Boys will be boys…” Boys who are raped are seen as deserving it because the must have communicated effeminate signals to “real boys.”

Abuse victims are considered to be women who over exaggerate their suffering. Those with bruises “must have pushed his buttons,” while those abused and controlled verbally and emotionally are considered “too sensitive.”

Does it amaze us that the most common age of sexual abuse victims are young girls age 10-15? How many times do we circulate rumors about “school girls” and young girls making up stories and false accusations? Is it possible that they are targeted because offenders know we wont believe them? Is it surprising that many of them, when sharing their story, state that they felt that no one would believe them?

Women in prostitution and pornography are believed to be fully in control and in charge of their own futures. They are seen as the aggressors, rather than the pimps who brutalize them and their customers who also exploit them.

Male violence victims are told that they need to “man up” and victimize other males.

Boys who cry are also told to “man up” and be stronger. They are also given female or gay labels if they don’t “man up.”

Trauma survivors are told that they need to “get over it” and move on.

Victims suffer unjustly. There is no valid reason for people to be oppressed, tortured, terrorized, or ignored in their victimization. Those victims who experience horrible acts of human oppression many times find acceptance and solitude by being intoxicated, high, or under the influence of various substances. Substance abuse exists among them because they hate living in reality and believe that people will not accept them.

The sad news concerning this—they all have a God who hears their cries, feels their pain, and suffered the same humiliation, shame, and rejection. Jesus also was homeless, poor, humiliated, and a victim of unjust suffering. Before Jesus became the Lord of the upper class—he was the Savior of the marginalized.

Unfortunately the Church, for centuries, has tried to dissect the Biblical text to find meaning for the oppressors, victors, and those with privilege. We worry about their forgiveness, their healing, and making a community where they can move forward and enter leadership again. For the victims we say, “Forgive, Forget, Move On, and Get Over It.” If they are revictimized, it is considered a small price for a community to be viewed as forgiving and loving the sinner. In doing this we ignore the voice of the ones among whom Jesus lived, ate and drank, and cry out for justice. We also silence their voice so that they will not speak up. Who would blame them, no one wants to be known as a “nagger” or “prophetic.” However, this is how oppression, privilege, and injustice thrive in communities. If we remove the voice of the victim, then we can all move forward and be victors.

When we listen to the voice of the marginalized we should find the empathy and compassion to respond to their needs. If we are allowing the Spirit of Jesus to live within us, we naturally move toward their voice and turn our ears to their suffering. We see ourselves not as oppressors but family who also suffers victimization. To be a victim introduces us to a community in which we are family and have each other’s best interest in mind. We also become more sensitive in our outreach and ministry:

Each time we discuss pre-marital sex there are a percentage of people who were molested by a family member, or coerced into sex by a male in their church. They believe that they are guilty because their victor told them they were.

When we speak negatively concerning divorce there are a large number of people who left an abusive or dysfunctional marriage to establish peace and safety in their family. There are also men and women who divorced their spouse because they wanted their children to live in a peaceful, healthy, and non-addictive home. For them it was not only an option God gave them, but an act Yahweh practiced during the Babylonian captivity. Sometimes divorce has to happen.

When we call people to turn their victimization into a victory we ignore the fact that Jesus/God, like them, was victimized on the cross, during the Babylonian captivity, and the violation of the Hebrew covenant. Victory came through justice, and the repentance of the offender, not the victim. The resurrection is new life and a new kingdom—where peace and justice reign.

When we push victims to forgive, without discussing the repentance of the offender, they are forced into a unhealthy relationship. Repentance precedes forgiveness. Forgiveness is the act of a victim who has been validated, given amends, and feels a sense of healing through the words of the oppressor. They also feel safe because a community names the oppression and offense as a sin, not their victimization.

When we talk as if victims enjoy living as victims we have not heard their story—their stories involve a desire to heal and get better.

When we assume young girls are exaggerating sexual assault, coercion, or clergy misconduct we tell them that victims’ testimonies are not as credible as offenders. We also assume that young girls (and sometimes boys) enjoy the shame of being a victim to horrible acts of male violence, oppression, and infliction of pain. History teaches us two things concerning this issue:

1.     Offenders are not open and honest with the truth. They often lie.
2.     Males tend to lie as well when it comes to sex

Our response as a faith community is to not only imitate Jesus/God, but to understand that a major quality of God involves “hearing the cries of the little people.” The voices of the victims are being silenced in churches, synagogues, and other communities of faith. Continually victims tell us that no one cares, not even God. However, the spiritual community has a powerful opportunity to advocate for the voiceless by giving them a voice.

When we say, “I believe you…” we empower their testimony.

When we understand that some people have different moral codes, not because they are rebellious, but because they have been taught by their oppressors that this behavior is desirable, we help them to move to change.

When we realize that victims will only speak in a safe environment, we create safe spaces where language is used to encourage rather than shame, hugs and intimacy involve compassion and holiness, and oppression/oppressors is/are confronted and called to repentance.

When we hear the voice of the marginalized, and allow God’s Spirit to live in us, we not only feel compassion and empathy, we feel anger at the injustice we see. We understand the anger of Yahweh and the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, and those throughout Christian history who have advocated against racism, economic oppression, gender discrimination, and human affliction.

When we stand beside them we not only suffer with them, but we understand the heart of Jesus who was criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors (Luke 5:30; 7:34). We become as they are, humans in the image of God needing acceptance, support, and justice. We see their ministry and speak to Pharaoh, “Let my people go…”

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are oppressed. Speak up and judge fairly by defending the rights of the poor and afflicted.” Proverbs 31:8-9

10 Things I Love About the Churches of Christ

A congregation in rural Arkansas that I pass when visiting my sister-in-law and her family.

A congregation in rural Arkansas that I pass when visiting my sister-in-law and her family.

Someone recently called me and said, "I've been reading your blog and you never have anything positive to say about the Church of Christ, it's always negative." Fair enough. 

I can understand how this perception is possible, particularly if you don't see me in my church context or some of my other writings (particularly in my A People's History of Churches of Christ work and my series of Table meditations). I identify with the segment of our tradition who believes that there is deep value and possibility in many of the fundamental convictions of our tradition, among others:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, charity; and in all things, love. 

Let the unity of Christians be our Polar Star.  

For more see this six-hour series from Dr. Leroy Garrett.

I deeply resonate with the metaphor employed by Leroy Garrett about his place in Churches of Christ: A Lover's Quarrel

He describes it this way: 

"I love the Churches of Christ too much to leave, and too much to leave them alone." 

I couldn't have said it better myself. 

So here are 10 things that I love about the tradition of which I am a part and which I love too much to leave alone.  

(1) The desire to read, interpret, and apply Scripture.  

We have a long history of exploring, interpreting, and articulating our understanding of Scripture. We have done so with diversity from our earliest days, and we continue to value the place of the biblical text in our life and practice.  

(2) An appreciation for congregational singing.  

While I do not believe that acappella music is a theological mandate (a.k.a. that instrumental music is a "sin"), I believe that it has immense formative power and should not be changed or discarded lightly.  

(3) A desire to make Communion a regular part of the life of the church.  

This is a gift that our tradition has given us, and that should not be taken lightly.  

(4) An intrinsic commitment to simplicity of worship.  

By and large our tradition has sought to engage in worship without an undue emphasis on "production".  

(5) The ability for significant diversity by way of congregational autonomy. 

Each congregation doesn't need to appeal to a central authority or prescribed set of rules in their decisions of faith and practice.  

(6) The desire to engage in critical scholarship across disciplines.  

For the relatively small size of our tradition we have produced a disproportionate number of recognized scholars in a wide-range of fields. We are not afraid to love God with our minds.  

(7) Our value of the practice of Baptism.  

While much of the Evangelical and Pentecostal world has made little of baptism, our tradition has continued to value this central Christian practice.  

(8) Our desire for good preaching.  

I have heard and seen from others outside of our tradition, that Churches of Christ have some of the finest preaching in the American/Evangelical scene. With people like Mike Cope, Josh Graves, Rick Atchley, Jerry Taylor, Fate Hagood III, Lawrence Murray, Sara Barton, Jen Christy, Noami Walters, and others I am quick to agree.  

(9) Churches of Christ have a deep love for missions.

I have seen this to be true both in the congregations that I have been a part of, and in my own family.  

(10) That our story is unfinished.  

We have a deep recognition that God is not done with us yet, that there is more work to be done, and a new horizon to see. We know that we are to do more than maintain the machine and speak of the "glory days". 

Do I love the Churches of Christ? Absolutely.

Will I stay in Churches of Christ? I believe it is my family, and you don't abandon your family.  

Are there things that I would like to see be different? Yes. And when God looks at me, there are things he sees which he desires to change as well.  

Do I look like I am "always hating" on Churches of Christ? Only if you don't know me.

So if this is your perception of me, send me an email or buy me a cup of coffee. I am an open book, looking to honor God and serve his mission in the world.

And if you and I don't agree on how that is/should be done, let's talk, as brothers and sisters in Christ, for that is what we are. 

That willingness to walk together even in our diversity and particularity...I couldn't think of a better way to honor God and the beauty of our Tradition.  

 

#SilentCofC: Church Practices for Prevention (David Duncan)

David Duncan.jpg

Today I want to introduce you to a dear friend who is one of my favorite ministers, David DuncanI met David while growing up and came to know him better in my time as an undergrad. I have found him to be thoughtful, courageous, and often willing to say what everyone else knows but is afraid to articulate. David contacted me almost immediately after the first post in this series went live to share information about what his congregation, Memorial Church of Christ in Houston, does to protect their kids from abuse. He has graciously shared his heart and some practical tools for this important conversation.


Christianity seems to be in a precarious position among many in the United States. Just a few decades ago it seemed that some form of pseudo-Christian culture would dominate schools, neighborhoods and thought in most sections of the country for as long as anyone could imagine. For those of us living in America’s largest cities, it is obvious that a great number of people would like Christian ideals to be moved to the nether regions or even entirely disintegrate.

In such an environment we should not be surprised when those hurt by church people go to the police or even the media. Although I am embarrassed each time a sexual or physical abuse case makes its way on to the evening news, I know it is a good thing that it is being reported. Christians, of all people, should care for children and all of society’s most vulnerable.  We should also be the first to admit our sins.

As far as I know, the congregation I work in has never had an incident of any type of abuse of anyone in any type of church setting or relationship. We are also committed to doing all we can to make sure our children and adults will always be safe in our care. Like many congregations, we have instituted several safety procedures to protect our children and adults. We believe that is better to be proactive rather than reactive.

First, every person that works with our children or youth submit to a background check. Every class teacher, assistant, nursery worker, trip sponsor, bus driver, minister, and even puppeteer is screened before allowed to volunteer for any activity with youth 18 years old or younger.

Second, every person working with youth or children undergoes a two-hour safety training course before being permitted to volunteer. The training and background checks are also mandatory for every elder and minister, regardless of ministry assignments.

As may be expected, implementing the program received some resistance. Wonderful volunteers that had been giving their time for years were a little surprised that they would be asked to undergo the same scrutiny as new people to the program. While understandable, there were some reasons that they were asked to participate.

First, we did not want anyone think favoritism was being shown to any particular person. Second, if there was a current or past problem, we need to be made aware of the situation. Third, background checks and safety training actually protects the volunteers. If they were ever accused of a horrible action, they would be able to show their past willingness to be properly instructed and screened.

The material we use to train our volunteers is popular among churches. We used the Reducing the Risk curriculum promoted by Church Law and Tax and Christianity Today. The video series costs $69.95. We also use some of our own information for our particular setting.

A two hour presentation made by workers serving our children and youth was initially made to the majority of our volunteers and offered at four separate times. A test over the videos was completed by each participant. Because we add volunteers on a fairly regular basis, all of the information has been recorded and is required viewing for all future volunteers.

We cannot make up for mistakes that might have happened in the past. We can, however, do everything we know possible today to ensure the children, youth and adults in our care for the future are dealt with properly. God has given us great responsibility and we plan to use it in a way that honors Him.


No doubt there are other churches doing things to protect their children. If your church is doing something would you share it with the rest of us? Leave a comment or share it on social media using #SilentCofC. We are better in this when we are together.

#SilentCofC: Autonomy and the Culture of Silence

Yesterday we explored this idea:

ALL OF OUR PRACTICES ARE EMBODIMENTS OF OUR THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS (ABOUT GOD AND THE WORLD) EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN ARTICULATED.

Today I want to briefly explore one of the most treasured (and misused!) elements of our ecclesiology: Congregational Autonomy.

For brevity, allow me to simply caricature what happens in our tradition when it comes to congregational autonomy.

First the elements of congregational autonomy that we celebrate...

  • Each congregation is run by its own elders. An eldership cannot exercise authority over other congregations or the members of those congregations.
  • Each congregation is enabled to make its own decisions about its life and doctrine without needing the pre-approval of some larger governing body.

Now, the more functional and dangerous components of this idea...

  • Lacking the authority structure to impose theological conformity, Churches of Christ result to social pressure, rhetoric, and a string of publications and outlets aligned with others of a similar orientation and practice.
  • Potentially embarrassing events (such as sexual abuse) can be addressed at the local level with nothing else done because it's not our problem and/or we don't have any authority or "right" to say something.
  • Autonomy typically means functional isolation, as if each church lives within a vacuum, although in dialogue with other equally self-contained congregations. This means that churches who do have resources to deal with things like sex abuse prevention are isolated from churches that need the same help.

In Churches of Christ, our "autonomy" has served to enable sexual predators to move from congregation to congregation with impunity.

In the last week since posting the introductory post in this series I have been contacted by four individuals who have stories of abuse being covered up (some in the distant past, and some in the last month!) and the perpetrator being asked to no longer attend that congregation, but to attend at a different Church of Christ! What the hell?!?!

Remember this excerpt from the outstanding article (published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology) entitled, What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse by Victor Vieth.

Child molesters manipulate both children and the church.

“Child molesters, particularly those meeting the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia, are extremely manipulative of not only their victims but also the church as a whole. According to Salter (2003, p. 28) ‘If children can be silenced and the average person is easy to fool, many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.’ In the words of one convicted child molester:

I consider church people easy to fool… they have a trust that comes from being Christians… They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people… I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words. (Salter, 2003, p. 29).

Not only are child molesters skilled at lying to pastors and parishioners alike, they are often proud of their abilities to fool leaders and members of their congregations. In the words of one convicted child molester:

(T)here was a great amount of pride. Well, I pulled this one off again. You’re a good one … There were times when little old ladies would pat me on the back and say, “You’re one of the best young men that I have ever known.” I would think back and think “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t think that.” (Salter, 2003, p. 199)

Congregational autonomy as it currently functions in Churches of Christ is at the very least problematic, and increases the risk that sexual predators are able to move within our tradition with impunity. It's time for the sake of our children and our witness in the world to think about how our functional isolation endangers the most precious and vulnerable members of our church family. 

Increased cooperation, communication, and commitment to protecting our children is the only faithful way forward.

#SilentCofC: Our Theological Assumptions About Children are Dangerous

I have this deep conviction that shapes the way I think about the world, my faith, and my place in God's mission:

ALL OF OUR PRACTICES ARE EMBODIMENTS OF OUR THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS (ABOUT GOD AND THE WORLD) EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN ARTICULATED.

Yesterday's introductory post to this conversation has absolutely exploded. With 200x the traffic of any other post I have ever written and with emails and Facebook messages coming in from around the world we have clearly struck a chord. Painful stories from victims, messages from people who were ostracized for their bravery to expose abuse, people asking "have you ever heard about _____?". The narratives are heartbreaking, and a number of them will be featured here in the coming days and weeks.

But today, I want to explore what I think is one of the most important underlying realities that have made addressing this issue all the more complicated in Churches of Christ. What I am about to suggest may be seen as controversial by some and offensive by others, but it is written out of deep love and respect for our tradition and from a genuine concern for the children (including my own!) in our churches and their formation in the way of Jesus.

What do our practices say about the value we place on children?

Worship Practices

Typically (and I am thankful for one that the congregation I attend is a wonderful exception) children are not utilized (and certainly not our young girls!). While I understand that this some will suggest that this is merely for pragmatic reasons, I believe that this also betrays a much more elemental theological assumption that I will explore shortly.

Education Practices

Our children are typically segregated from the rest of the church for their education from birth through college age. I recognize the need for age-appropriate formation, but this practice (distance from the "adults") again underlines and reinforces the root conviction that we need to talk about.

Mission Practices

Our children have little (if any) role in the larger mission of the church. Perhaps bringing some change for the missionaries, or being taught about basic moral principles (like kindness, sharing, and obedience... not particularly Christian traits), but they are not (in my experience) treated as "equal" in value or in their ability to contribute to the work of God in the world.

So what is the underlying theological conviction here that I believe makes our children more susceptible to abuse (sexual and otherwise) and neglect (spiritual and otherwise)?

WE DO NOT TREAT OUR CHILDREN AS EQUAL MEMBERS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD. WE INSTEAD TREAT THEM AS IF THEY ARE "CHRISTIANS IN WAITING" OR POTENTIAL CONVERTS WHEN THEY REACH THE APPROPRIATE AGE.

The results of this unspoken (and perhaps unconscious) assumption are the following:

  • Sometimes we view the formation of our children as the duty that should be filled by those who are willing. We spend time begging, recruiting, or relegating certain adults to a "life sentence" of "children's ministry" (why isn't it just ministry?) and in congregations of all shapes and sizes it can be a perpetual challenge to maintain. Well, guess who is always willing to go above and beyond?
  • A child's "distance" from the life of the church creates a dangerous "gap" in their formation. Our unwillingness to allow children to participate fully in the worshiping life of the congregation (for example by denying them admission to Communion, not allowing them to lead the congregation in the ways that they are able and gifted, and the total exclusion of our girls) creates within our children a great disconnect between their lives and the lives of (adult) members of the Kingdom of God. Well guess who is willing to tell them what God "wants them to do"? (Remember what we said in the previous post about "stayers"!)
  • Our segregation of children minimizes "safe" adults. If an abuser has placed themselves within our children's formation in our churches (bible classes, Vacation Bible School, youth ministry, short-term mission trips) and the children are largely isolated, or more accurately, segregated from the rest of the church, we have significantly diminished the number of safe adults which our children can know, love, and seek help from in instances of abuse.

For more about this read my previous post:
A Gospel Big Enough for Little Ones?


One of the conversations that we need to have in Churches of Christ is not merely about prevention policies and procedures for addressing disclosures of abuse. We need to talk about the underlying assumptions about God, the Gospel, and the mission of God in the world that shape the way our churches treat and shape and protect our children. The consequences are too high for us to do otherwise. After all, it was Jesus himself who said:

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matthew 18:6, NRSV)

So, are our children as important as we say they are? What kinds of changes in our practices and language would need to take place to address some of the things that I have only mentioned briefly here?

#SilentCofC: Child Sexual Abuse and Churches of Christ

There is a looming crisis of faith in the Protestant world. An issue that we have so long relegated to the inevitable consequences of mandatory celibacy in the Catholic Church is coming home to roost in our own traditions. Many believe (myself included) that the Protestant sexual abuse scandal will by far outstrip anything that has happened to the Catholic Church in the last two decades. 

Most concerning to me (and at the point of the collision of my professional life and my religious tradition) is that if our past is any indicator, if our current practices (or more importantly, our lack thereof) suggest anything, it is that for too long the Churches of Christ have been a safe place for perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse and a dangerous place for our children. 

(Allow me a moment of disclaimer so that those who disagree might be better enabled to actually engage with my argument: This article is not to suggest that this has (necessarily) been a conscious choice in the schools, universities, and churches within our tradition. But it is to suggest that our polity structure (both in the church and in the family), our lack of intervention for victims, a lack of consistent and pro-active prevention, and our unwillingness or lack of ability to at least keep pace with the rest of the Protestant world has made the Churches of Christ particularly vulnerable to the kinds of predators that I am discussing here.)

So this is what I want to attempt to explore in this long, sometimes tedious, and yet extremely important conversation. 

  • Childhood sexual abuse is prevalent in our society, and it is particularly prevalent in the context of religious communities. 
  • We have stories and documented incidents within our own tradition that should have served as an impetus to address this issue years ago. 
  • This is an issue, alongside adult sexual violence, (e.g., teen dating violence, sexual assault on campus, intimate partner violence, and domestic violence) that affects every church and institution in our fellowship. 
  • We have failed to keep pace with the vast majority of the Christian world in implementing policies and practices that prevent child sexual abuse in our churches.  
  • We must find ways and resources to break our silence, confess our complicity, intervene for victims, and prevent further abuse as swiftly as possible.

THE PREVALENCE OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE IN SOCIETY

This information is drawn from the following resources:

US Department of Justice – National Sex Offender Public Website
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)

From RAINN:

  • 15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12.[i]

  • 29% are age 12-17.

  • 44% are under age 18.

  • 80% are under age 30.

  • 12-34 are the highest risk years.

  • Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.

  • 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.[ii]

  • 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 said they had been sexually abused.

Victims of sexual assault are:[iii]

  • 3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
  • 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 13 times more likely to abuse alchohol.
  • 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
  • 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.

 From the National Sex Offender Public Website:

  • As many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood.[iv]
  • Most perpetrators are acquaintances, but as many as 47% are family or extended family.
  • In as many as 93% of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the person that commits the abuse.[v]
  • Approximately 30% of cases are reported to authorities.[vi]
  • Approximately 1.8 million adolescents in the United States have been the victims of sexual assault.[vii]
  • 33% of sexual assaults occur when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 17.[viii]
  • 82% of all juvenile victims are female.
  • 69% of the teen sexual assaults reported to law enforcement occurred in the residence of the victim, the offender, or another individual.
  • Teens 16 to 19 years of age were 3 1/2 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. [ix]
  • Over 63,000 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in 2010.[x]
  • Children ages 12–15 have the highest percentage of sexual abuse, among all types of abuse, for children under 18 years of age.[xi]

Myths and Factors about the disclosure of abuse by children:[xii]

  • Myth: If a child is sexually abused, she or he will immediately come and tell.
  • Myth: Children disclose immediately after the abuse and provide a detailed account of what has occurred.
  • Myth: Children are more likely to disclose if directly questioned by their parent or an adult authority figure who can help.
  • Myth: Disclosure is always a one-time event.
  • Fact: Disclosure of sexual abuse is often delayed; children often avoid telling because they are either afraid of a negative reaction from their parents or of being harmed by the abuser. As such, they often delay disclosure until adulthood.
  • Fact: A common presumption is that children will give one detailed, clear account of abuse. This is not consistent with research; disclosures often unfold gradually and may be presented in a series of hints.
  • Fact: Children might imply something has happened to them without directly stating they were sexually abused—they may be testing the reaction to their “hint.”
  • Fact: If they are ready, children may then follow with a larger hint if they think it will be handled well.
  • Fact: It’s easy to miss hints of disclosure of abuse. As a result, a child may not receive the help needed.

CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE WITHIN RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES

Sometimes there is the naïve assumption that because of our religious convictions that Christian churches and organizations would inherently be more safe than other contexts when it came to the potential for childhood sexual abuse. This is a myth. While most of the instances of sexual abuse we hear about in churches are perpetrated by clergy (give a couple of example links), we fail to recognize that religiosity is actually in many cases a predictor of perpetrators.

One important study even suggests that “stayers” (individuals who have maintained religious involvement from childhood through adulthood) had more victims, more convictions, and younger victims than people with lesser degrees of “religious affiliation”. 

One of the chilling conclusions of the study is this:

…an explanation for the positive relationship between religious affiliation and sexual offending may be found in current research indicating a peak in sexual offending once offenders’ reach their late 30’s (Hanson, 2002). It has been suggested that this peak is the result of increased opportunities (eg. greater access to victims as offenders become fathers, attain trusted positions in the workforce or family). It is highly possible that situational dynamics within the church community may lead to a rise in opportunities for unsupervised access to vulnerable victims. It is a reasonable assumption that the “stayers” possibly continued to offend because the proximate causes of the crime, such an environment, lack of supervision, and continued opportunities, were not disrupted (Sampson & Laub, 2004). (pg. 286)

Sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy often has a number of different dynamics than abuse perpetrated by people in churches who lack official position and authority. There are studies exploring the dynamics of clergy offenders, as well as other resources and organizations dedicated to the complexities of child sexual abuse in churches by both clergy and laity such as the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, the Faith Trust Institute, and GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment).

One of the most helpful introductory resources for this conversation is a great article (published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology) entitled, What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse by Victor Vieth.

Here are eight key insights (among others) from this rich article:

False allegations of child sexual abuse are rare.

“Although all child protection professionals need to be mindful of the possibility of false allegations, a number of studies conclude that false claims of sexual abuse are rare (Oates et al., 2000) and that when children do lie, it is usually done to protect the perpetrator, not to get anyone in trouble (Lawson & Chaffin, 1992). … Accordingly, it is unreasonable for any pastor to automatically assume that an allegation of abuse, even against a respected member of the church, is untrue."

There is great fear for the child when it comes to disclosure.

“…the secrecy is often a source of fear in which the perpetrator conveys to the child that bad things will happen if there is a disclosure. Bad things may include the abuse of the child’s sibling, non-offending parent, or pet. Disclosure may result in the victim’s placement in a foster home. Disclosure may result in the child’s embarrassment in front of fellow classmates who learn details of the sexual abuse through media or other sources. The child may fear that disclosure will result in his or her condemnation in their church community.”

Children “cope” with the trauma of sexual abuse in a variety of ways ranging from self-justification (“I am protecting _____” or the promise of some pending reward), dissociation (pretending or imagining to be in a different place) during the abuse, or some form of mental illness.

“Clergy and laity alike should not assume that Christian victims of abuse are immune form dissociative identity disorder. … If a child cannot figure out a way to cope emotionally, what Summit (1983) calls a psychic economy, feelings of rage may cause a child to commit suicide, engage in self-mutilation, become promiscuous, or develop other harmful patterns of behavior. Clergy and laity unaware of these and other dynamics may be quick to dismiss a child’s allegations of abuse, concluding the child is exhibiting mental illness or is not credible given the closeness with a perpetrator and the many “kindnesses” a child has received from an offender. Similarly, the Christian pastor or lay member may unwittingly focus on delinquent or other behaviors without realizing these behaviors reflect deep-seated childhood trauma.”

Spiritual injuries result from childhood sexual abuse

“There are a number of studies documenting the impact of abuse on spirituality. For example, in one study of 527 victims of child abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional) it was found that there were significant “spiritual injury” such as feelings of guilt, anger, grief, despair, doubt, fear of death, and belief that God is unfair (Lawson, Drebing, Berg, Vincellette, & Penk, 1998).

Rarely is there only one victim.

“…church leaders [fail] to recognize that many pedophiles molest hundreds, even thousands of children without ever getting caught (Abel et al., 1987).”

Child molesters manipulate both children and the church.

“Child molesters, particularly those meeting the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia, are extremely manipulative of not only their victims but also the church as a whole. According to Salter (2003, p. 28) ‘If children can be silenced and the average person is easy to fool, many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people.’ In the words of one convicted child molester:

I consider church people easy to fool… they have a trust that comes from being Christians… They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people… I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words. (Salter, 2003, p. 29).

Not only are child molesters skilled at lying to pastors and parishioners alike, they are often proud of their abilities to fool leaders and members of their congregations. In the words of one convicted child molester:

(T)here was a great amount of pride. Well, I pulled this one off again. You’re a good one … There were times when little old ladies would pat me on the back and say, “You’re one of the best young men that I have ever known.” I would think back and think “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t think that.” (Salter, 2003, p. 199)

Many child molesters offend with others present.

“In many instances, a child molester offends with other children or even another adult present. According to one study, 54.9% of child molesters offended when another child was present and 23.9% offended when another adult was present (Underwood, Patch, Cappelletty, & Wolfe, 1999). The abuse, of course, may be subtle and not easily detected. … The fact that many sex offenders molest victims with others present is critical for clergy and laity to understand. Without this recognition, offenders often argue that a child’s allegations are absurd—after all, who would sexually touch a child with others in the room? A pastor acquainted with studies such as those cited in this article will tell a suspect that, as it turns out, many sex offenders engage in precisely this conduct.

Child molesters often abuse children in the name of God.

Child molesters often use religious or spiritual themes in the abuse of children. Child molesters may cite a child’s biological reaction to abuse and contend the victim equally enjoyed the abuse and is equally sinful. It is not uncommon for a molester to pray with his victim and ask God’s forgiveness for both. A molester may tell a victim that if he or she disclosed the abuse, the church will condemn the victim for his or her sin. … According to one sex offender treatment provider, sexual abuse in the name of God creates a “triple trauma” involving the abuse itself, the betrayal of trust, and spiritual harm that often includes “threats regarding God and damnation” (Pendergrast, 2004). According to Pendergrast:

Fear of retribution from God, whom the abusers related ‘gave me permission to do this to you,’ and ‘if you tell anyone, God will punish you in hell for eternity,’ produces an intense fear as well as feeling of confusion. The confusion results from the fact their religion teaches them that what they are doing is wrong and sinful, but the religious abusers teach them that the God of their religion gave them permission to sexually abuse them. (p. 285)

DOCUMENTED INCIDENTS OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE WITHIN OUR OWN TRADITION

Don’t assume for a moment that this is not an issue that can readily be found within Churches of Christ. In fact, some of the more public and legal precedent cases of the last few decades have been from within our tradition. To assume that this is an issue “in the denominations” or for Catholics is at best naïve and more likely cowardice. 

Here are just three (although there are more) examples of how this issue has impacted our tribe:

The legal precedent-setting case before the Colorado Supreme Court concerning individual and church financial liability in regard to the response to allegations of clergy sexual abuse involving the Bear Valley Church of Christ.

The highly publicized story of the family of Les Ferguson, Jr. Their disabled son was sexually abused and then later murdered along with the boys mother by the abuser. You can follow more of Les’s journey through this ordeal here.

Jimmy Hinton, a minister at the Somerset Church of Christ in Pennsylvania, conducts seminars abuse sex abuse prevention after his father, also a former minister in Churches of Christ was convicted of sexual crimes against a minor and sentenced to 30-60 years in prison. More information about his seminars here 

Finally, you can simply take a look at the search results for “sexual abuse” from the Christian Chronicle

(UPDATE: Because of some complications with the search engine at the Christian Chronicle this link displays no results. This was not my intention. The Christian Chronicle has been an outspoken voice on this issue and I am thankful for their desire to articulate the need for change over the last decade. So, when you click this link you will have to do your own search. Erik Tryggestad, the editor at the Christian Chronicle has helpfully suggested the following terms: "sexual abuse", "child abuse", and "molestation".)

THE CURRENT STATE OF PREVENTION IN OTHER CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS

I am of the opinion that many in our tradition when confronted with this conversation appeal to one of two cop-outs. (1) This is not a problem that Churches of Christ have. (2) No one else is doing anything about it either.

Hopefully, this foray into this issue has proven the first idea to be patently false. Secondly, here are a brief listing of resources from various other Christian traditions who have in fact done something to address this issue within their traditions:

Southern Baptist Convention
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - Sexual Abuse Prevention /// Clergy Sexual Abuse Prevention
The Episcopal Church
Seventh-Day Adventist 
Unitarian Universalist Association
Church of the Nazarene
United Methodist Church
United Church of Christ
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Roman Catholic (in the United States) 

Resources from Churches of Christ (that I am aware of): NONE.

MOVING FORWARD TOGETHER AGAINST CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE

So consider this a call to no longer be silent, but to be proactive within Churches of Christ for the protection of our children and the care of those who are already victims of this horrible sin.

I wish to call on ministers, elders, school administrators, scholars, counselors, moms and dads, grandparents, and siblings, victims, and concerned people throughout our tradition to no longer be silent in the CofC about sexual abuse.

There are certainly other important and interrelated conversations that we could be having (adult sexual abuse, domestic violence, etc.), and those are important. But I believe we should start here and now with our children, with the most innocent and most vulnerable among us.

To this end, I want to begin a conversation. Using the hashtag #SilentCofC I want us to share resources, invite people into conversation, share our stories of abuse that perhaps have gone unspoken until now. It is time for this to no longer be a peripheral issue for our tribe.

I will attempt to collect and link all of the material that is generated by #SilentCofC here (create page).

In the meantime, speak up. We need you.


ENDNOTES

[i] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sex Offenses and Offenders. 1997.

[ii] 1998 Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls. 1998.

[iii] World Health Organization. 2002.

[iv] Briere, J., and D. M. Eliot, “Prevalence and Psychological Sequence of Self-Reported Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse in General Population.” Child Abuse & Neglect, 2003, Vol. 27, Issue 10, pp. 1205–1222.

[v] Douglas, Emily, and D. Finkelhor, Childhood Sexual Abuse Fact Sheet. Crimes Against Children Research Center, May 2005. (http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/factsheet/pdf/CSA-FS20.pdf)

[vi] Finkelhor, D., “The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” Future of Children, 2009, 19(2):169–94.

[vii] Kilpatrick, D., R. Acierno, B. Saunders, H. Resnick, C. Best, and P. Schnurr, “National Survey of Adolescents.” Charleston, SC: Medical University of South Carolina, National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1998.

[viii] “Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics.” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000.

[ix] “National Crime Victimization Survey.” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1996.

[x] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau, “Child Maltreatment 2010.”

[xi] Truman, Jennifer l., Ph.D., BJS Statistician, “National Crime Victimization Survey 2010.” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 2011. (http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv10.pdf) (November 1, 2012)

[xii] Canadian Centre for Child Protection Inc., “Child Sexual Abuse–It Is Your Business.” (https://www.cybertip.ca/pdfs/C3P_ChildSexualAbuse_ItIsYourBusiness_en.pdf) p. 10. (November 1, 2012)