What if you just can’t find a healthy church?
Or what if you realize the church you’re in is toxic?
One of our big findings in our research for our new book She Deserves Better is that church attendance as a whole is good for girls. It leads to better self-esteem, better marital and sexual outcomes once they’re adults, and all kinds of great things.
Numerous studies have found this; it’s settled in the literature. Church is good.
Except–and this is a big one–when we believe toxic teachings. We found that when girls internalize toxic teachings, the benefits of church attendance disappear, and in many cases they would have been better off not going to church at all.
So we want our girls in healthy church spaces. But how do we find them?
Today Beth Allison Barr is joining us to talk about it!
Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:
Timeline of the Podcast
1:50 Beth joins to discuss toxic church settings
17:00 How to find a good church
26:00 Your beliefs aligning with a church
29:20 Are we in a new ‘reformation’ generation?
46:00 Speaking as women + Leadership
57:20 What’s coming up
How do you find a healthy church?
Beth Allison Barr is a distinguished history professor at Baylor University, looking specifically at women in the medieval church. She is also the author of the amazing book The Making of Biblical Womanhood.
In our conversation, Beth told about her family’s personal history attending and working for a toxic church environment, and how they were pushed out.
She gave some thoughts about how to start the church hunt, and what to look for. And we talked about what real community actually looks like.
Plus we talked about when to stay–how to tell if you can change a church or not, and when to stop trying.
This is one of the big questions I get from all of you–you know your church is toxic, but it seems like every other church in your town is the same. How do you find a healthy body of believers?
I think we all need to keep in mind that there are more people in the pews who want things healthy than who cling to toxic things. It’s just that often the doctrine and the leadership of the church is toxic. If we could all band together, we could create healthy spaces. So rather than continuing to prop up toxic places, how can we and our friends join healthy ones, breathe life into some other struggling churches, or create a new expression of church?
I don’t know what it will look like, but i do think we need ot pay a lot less attention to the flashy stuff, like worship and fog machines and praise bands and sanctuaries, and a lot more attention to how we’re actually loving and serving each other and the community.
I hope you enjoy our discussion!
Things Mentioned in the Podcast
- Our Patreon! Support us for as little as $5 a month, and get access to our unfiltered podcasts and more. Your donations help support our next big survey coming this summer!
- Our new book She Deserves Better
- Beth Allison Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, plus follow Beth on Twitter
- Our books that are awesome for couples about to get married–The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex and The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!
Sheila: Well, I am so thrilled to bring back on the podcast my friend, Beth Allison Barr, who is the author of the amazing book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood. She is a professor of history at Baylor University and has a prestigious endowed chair there. And, Beth, thank you for coming back.
Beth: Oh, it is so fun to get to talk to you again, Sheila. A lot has happened since last time we talked.
Sheila: It has. We’ve both gone big. Our books have done really well. They released about the same time. Great Sex Rescue and Making of Biblical Womanhood.
Beth: Yeah. Like within a month of each other. Wasn’t yours like right before mine? I can’t remember. Or the other way around. But yes. Extremely close.
Sheila: Yeah. And Amazon was always recommending them together. And I felt like oh, isn’t that nice?
Beth: Yep. It was fun.
Sheila: Yeah. Great. And it, honestly, is a wonderful book. I mentioned Making Biblical Womanhood in She Deserves Better. In the last chapter.
Beth: Oh yeah. I will say I love She Deserves Better. I recently gave it to our youth pastor. I was in youth ministry for so long. I wish I had that book when I was in youth ministry. I mean it is just absolutely fantastic. So I would like to send it to every youth pastor I know. So thank you.
Sheila: Yes. So if you are listening, give one to your youth pastor. Give one to your sister’s youth pastor. Give one to any pastor that you know because we can change it. We can change things for the next generation. That’s what we got to do.
Beth: Exactly right.
Sheila: Okay, Beth, I have something I want to talk to you about. And I’m going to mostly let you talk. But this might be a big intro because I got to set it up. Okay?
Beth: Sure. Sure.
Sheila: So here’s what our data found. Going to church, good thing. Church is great. Better marital and sexual satisfaction. Better self esteem long term. Going to church, believing in Jesus, good thing. But as soon as girls internalize a lot of these toxic teachings, the benefits of church disappear. And in terms of those measures like marital and sexual satisfaction, self esteem, she would have been better off not going to church at all—
Beth: Isn’t that terrible?
Sheila: – than going to church and believing this stuff. So when you break that down—when we were looking at it, there’s kind of—and this is oversimplifying. So forgive me, Joanna, our stats person, who is probably listening to this and (cross talk). But I will oversimplify for everybody. There seems to be two different groups. So there’s the group that does well. That just simply went to good churches. They went to churches that didn’t teach this stuff. They went to churches that really taught them to run after Jesus, and they did well. They did really well because Jesus is not toxic. Jesus is good. Then there’s the other group that may have attended toxic churches, but they just didn’t believe the stuff. They didn’t internalize it. Their parents were really proactive, and my girls would have fallen into that camp. So we were going to super toxic churches, but they would come home from youth group. And we would laugh about stuff. And we would say how ridiculous it was. The problem is that if your kids are in the second group—so they’re going to a toxic church, you have no guarantee they’re going to be okay.
Sheila: And so the big question that I’m getting at now, Beth—now that so many people have read She Deserves Better is what do I do because I want to find a healthy church. But I don’t know how to do it. So I thought maybe you could share a bit of your story and some of your insight because you guys were in a really toxic church situation.
Beth: Yeah. Just a little bit. It’s interesting. Now that we have gotten some distance from it and we’ve been able to put it into perspective and we realize that even—it was a toxic situation. But it also—I think because my husband was there for so long and because the church didn’t start off toxic it was really introduction of leaders who were only trained in a very narrow understanding of the Christian tradition and were trained—the pastor was trained at Western Seminary and DTS and had a very—just had a very narrow perspective on what Christianity was that the church became increasingly toxic while we were there which, of course, resulted in us leaving towards the end.
Sheila: And your husband was the youth pastor, right?
Beth: Yeah. He was the youth pastor there for almost 15 years. And so we’ve had kids—in fact, we just had coffee with one of the students who came through our youth ministry who we spent a great deal of time. She was wonderful. And she was there the night that my husband had to tell the youth we were leaving but not tell why. I think it was really therapeutic for her to sit and talk to us and actually hear the whole story and understand all of the pieces. And so I mean we have so many of these youth running around out there now. So many of them have gotten back in contact with us. The saddest stories are the parents who have contacted us who said that after we left and their kids realized what was going on their kids left the church and walked away and have never come back. And so we have all of these really great stories of kids who are thriving. And then kids who were just really damaged by what happened at our church.
Sheila: And when you say that it was toxic, can you explain a little bit what you mean?
Beth: Yeah. So authoritarian leadership. That was really the introduction that we got where there was—the pastor slowly got more and more control of all of the leadership where everything went through him. He started hand picking the elders and getting rid of the elders that weren’t on his side. He started changing the bylaws without telling the church he was changing the bylaws. All of those types of things. And then also theology started getting much more restrictive. The church had started off complementarian, but it was a soft complementarian. It was sort of like women were allowed to teach and lead and do things just as long as they weren’t senior pastors. So it was kind of—and there was some of those teachings like, well, Deborah led because there wasn’t a man to step up to do it. But it was still okay that she led. So it was—it wasn’t great, but it was something that we could live with. And at the time, we would have been—we were still okay with that. We were still more in agreement with it. But as we start seeing this more authoritarian leadership move in, we start seeing this theology harden. And we also started seeing the theology harden towards what we were expected to teach the youth. There was a lot of pressure for us to talk about marriage which, actually, my husband tried really hard not to talk about marriage very much at all because we did not want to talk about it the way that the church was emphasizing it. There also began to be a lot of emphasis on—not really sex. The church was—didn’t really want to talk about sex at all. But they did want to talk about the authority of the husband, and they wanted to talk about how the wife’s job was to always say yes to her husband. And I mean I still remember hearing—this couple got up and gave their testimony where the wife said that even when she didn’t agree with her husband she knew that it was godly to always tell him yes. And there was—and so it started moving much more that way. And I also remember around this time—we actually had a retreat for women where they brought in a sort of a sex expert to talk to all of us. And it was—I didn’t really pay attention to a lot of it because I was, at that time, where there was only so much I could take. And so I would do things like to try to friends and go talk to them and skip all of the talks. But during that retreat, a lot of my friends were passing around books about how to have better sex. And they were passing them to each other and not wanting other people to see it. And it was sort of this whole—and there was a lot of conversation because they were all, at that time—we we were in our late thirties, early forties. And so it was over—sex wasn’t just about having children anymore. That wasn’t it. You’re kind of past that. And suddenly, it was like this isn’t something I want to do. How do I make it? This is causing tension in our marriage, et cetera, like that. And so you could see this—there was this attitude—I mean I think among the women and many of my friends at the church that these attitudes about always obeying their husbands and the authority of the husband seemed to be having an impact on their relationships, on their intimate relationships. Now that’s just me surmising from what I was watching, at the time.
Sheila: But our data backs that up, so that’s fine.
Beth: It does. And I went home and told my husband. I was like, “Babe,”—anyway, I told him that I found it very fascinating that that’s what they were doing. They’re all passing around these books about how to have better sex. So yeah. My experience at that church backs up the data that you have found in both The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better. Oh, one more thing. Also during that time, we had—this was when purity culture exploded. And so all of the youth—many of the youth parents were reading I Kissed Dating Goodbye. They were also starting to read some of Mark Driscoll’s stuff on that. And my husband one day sat down and actually read it. And then he very specifically started telling parents that while there may be some things we could talk about we were not going to use that book. And he also began removing all of the Mark Driscoll from the church library after he actually read the things that they were saying. And then we also noticed that a lot of our teenagers were starting to wear shirts that said things like “Modest is hottest,” and sort of emphasis on—and there was—people would come up to us with concerns about the girls wearing too short of shorts when they were doing things on youth trip. And so there was more—I became more aware of those types of concerns about female bodies, women talking about problems in the bedroom and not sure who to talk to about it as well as an increase in, what I would call, toxic marriage literature starting to be passed around at our church.
Sheila: Right. And then what was the final straw? I know you talked about it in Making of Biblical Womanhood.
Beth: Well, the final straw was we were just talking about this with our youth the other—because she remembered it all. And I had taken over the role of Sunday School teacher because we—it was this whole saga. And we couldn’t find somebody—we couldn’t find a man to commit to Sunday School. Let’s just put it that way. And so finally, my husband went to the pastor and said, “Can Beth just lead? She’s good at this. Can she just lead?” And the pastor said, “She can facilitate questions from the sermon that I make.” So technically, I was not the Sunday School teacher. I was the facilitator of questions given to me by the pastor.
Sheila: Because these were teenage boys and you couldn’t teach—
Beth: Because there were teenage boys in the classroom. Yeah.
Sheila: And even though you are a university professor with a PhD who spends her life teaching and lecturing to adults, you were not permitted to teach the Bible to 13 and 14-year-old boys. So you were allowed to teach as long as it wasn’t the Bible.
Beth: Well, even that, I was still—I could teach only in very carefully guarded circumstances. There’s this one—I had this one bizarre experience there. I didn’t write about this in the book. But they were having this sort of internal conference at the church on how to teach better. And because we were—we didn’t have a lot of great teachers. And a lot of our great teachers actually were quitting or moving away for all sorts of reasons. And so they had this conference like, “How can we better teachers? How can we attract more people to our classes?” And so a lot of people were like, “You should get Beth to teach one of these. You should get Beth to teach a section on how to teach.” And so they asked me. And I said, “Okay. I’ll do it.” And at first, the session that they gave me was in the middle of the day session. There was a couple of workshops on either side of it, but I would be able to teach anybody who wanted to come. Well, about two weeks or three weeks before the workshop, Jeb—my husband came home. And he said, “Hey, Beth, they’ve changed the schedule of this.” He said, “Instead of having different workshops all throughout the day, the pastor has decided to put all of the workshops at the same time so that people can only go to one of them.” And then the pastor decided to teach his own workshop on how to teach the Bible. So I was teaching a class on how to teach better. The pastor was teaching a workshop on how to teach the Bible. Guess what happened to our classrooms? All of the men went to the pastor’s. All of the men who needed to learn how to teach better went to the pastor’s. And then mostly women came to mine. And it was a really bizarre thing to me because I was like, “Why wouldn’t you do it where we all go to all the sessions?” And all I could figure out later on is he didn’t—he was intentionally trying to keep people from coming to listen to me teach.
Sheila: He was probably intimidated by you. He was probably intimidated by you.
Beth: I mean I don’t know why—well, I mean there’s a lot of surmise we can make. But I can clearly—it was so strange. So anyway, I quit being a facilitator because it was so exhausting in the Sunday School class. I told my husband. I was like, “I’m not going to teach if I can’t teach.” I was like, “This is crazy. The questions he gives me are stupid.” I can say that now. And I was like, “I’m just not going to do this anymore.” And I said, “I’m really sorry.” And my husband was like, “No. No. I understand.” And so the only person we could get to agree to teach was actually a man, who was in youth ministry with us, and a woman, who was in youth ministry. And they said, “Hey, we’ll teach. But can we co teach? Neither of us wants to do it by ourselves.” So that was the question that we took to the elders to see if we could have a woman co teach with another man. They weren’t married. And that was what led to my husband getting fired was that question. So I mean it was just—it gets more bizarre the further away from it we get.
Sheila: Yep. And I hear these stories from women all the time because churches have—there’s a lot of churches that have gotten exceedingly toxic over the last few years. And there’s a variety of reasons for that. So here you are. So let’s imagine that you’re not Beth Allison Barr. And you’re not married to a pastor, who is going to go and start another church. How do you find a church when you’ve grown up in a denomination? What do you do?
Beth: Gosh. That is such a good question. And people ask me that all the time. And it’s also hard because I would say that the number one reason people choose churches is because of relationships with other people. It’s actually not the pastor w which means that they will stay in toxic churches because of their friends. I mean it’s just like teenagers. Rather than leave because of the toxic pastor. And so it becomes really, really hard. When people finally decide that they can’t stay there anymore, what they find is that if they walk away they lose most of those friendships that they had. Or it becomes sort of a strange—it’s weird. It’s almost divorce situation. And then they’re also left with the fact that now I’ve got to choose a church that I don’t have any relationship at. There’s not any other people that I know. And they have no skills about how to go and actually evaluate a church, how to actually go and start meeting new people and building new relationships in churches that are healthy. So the first thing that I tell people to do is to visit other churches without any expectations that I’m looking for the place I have to land. Just go and see how big the body of Christ is. And sometimes—and that can help get people exposed to how different maybe the church that they are going to is from some of these other places which can kind of help. So I’ll let you ask me some more questions too. But I can keep expanding on that.
Sheila: And I hear this a lot from women too. They’ll say, “Well, I left my church, and I went to a bunch of other churches. But they’re all the same,” because they left First Baptist. So they went to Second Baptist. And then they went to Third Baptist. And then they went to Fourth Baptist. And they’re all the same. And it’s like—
Beth: No. Don’t do that. I should have expanded on that. So when my husband lost his job and we finally got where we were—we had about 7 or 8 months that we didn’t have a church. First time in our entire relationship that we were not on staff at a church. And so we decided to go to as many churches as we could with no intention of joining them. And we also decided to go to as many diverse churches as we could. Churches that we might have no intention of ever joining, but we just want to go see. So we went to the Korean church in town. We went to the Episcopal church in town. We went to the Anglican church in town. We went to the Methodist church in town. I mean all of these different—we went to all of these different churches. And we also went to a lot of small churches. One of the things I tell people is we are so used to mega churches. And we are so used—to use, we’re like, “Oh, there’s only 400 people in our church. It’s small.”
Sheila: By the way, for Canada, that’s super big. That would be a large church for me.
Beth: This is such a different experience. Well, in the U.S., the average size of churches is actually under 150. But the demographics in places is that people tend to go to mega churches instead of these small churches. So there’s wide disparity, I think. Most white evangelicals that I know go to big churches instead of the small churches. So they have no idea what small churches look like. So I need to reset my framework for people that are also going to smaller churches and looking for non toxic churches, correct?
Sheila: Yeah. Well, I mean we certainly—when we left, we left churches that would have been some of the larger churches in our town. So in the 200 to 350 range. And that was considered larger for us. And it was weird to consider going to a smaller church because we always thought—in those particular denominations, we had never really considered them. But then when we started going to them after COVID, it’s like, “Oh, this is actually really nice. People know each other. They’re very—yeah. They’re very welcoming.”
Beth: Yeah. People know each other. And the other thing too is that small churches—they aren’t—they can’t be as picky about who helps which means there’s also—there’s often a lot more flexibility. Now it can be dangerous because sometimes you have people you’re like, “We cannot let that person in front of a classroom,” for all sorts of a variety of reasons. But at the same time, it also usually—a lot of these churches—big churches have the luxury of being legalistic whereas small churches that are simply just trying to meet the needs of the community, neighborhood churches, don’t have that luxury. They have to use who is available. And so it’s just really interesting how those patterns change when you move to smaller churches which means that you often get more diversity of thought. And you get people from all sorts of backgrounds. I was teaching this past summer in our church, which is very economically poor. And we were going through the study on When Helping Hurts. And I came home from one of the Wednesday nights and told my husband that that was the first time I had ever taught When Helping Hurts to a room mostly of people who did not have homes. They were mostly what you would consider to be homeless people. A whole group of them were staying at a local shelter. And I said the perspective that I got from people who actually lived through this was just so amazing and so different from the upper middle class white perspective that I usually get teaching through a series like this. So I think expanding our horizons on what church is and going to intentionally very different churches from what you have been can be really refreshing. And they can help you reset.
Sheila: I think it’s hard because often when we are in these toxic environments what we’re told is we’re the ones who believe the Gospel. All of those other churches? They don’t believe the Gospel. And so you feel like if I—my church. I know it’s toxic. But at least they’re preaching the Gospel. It’s like okay. That doesn’t actually make sense. Because if a church is toxic, it’s not de facto preaching the Gospel.
Beth: That’s exactly right. Yeah. We can think about this sort of with politics too. People all the time. They say, “Well, this person—they may not have a completely good life. They’re not great character. But they are fighting for what I want to fight. So it’s okay for me to vote for them.” And then we take that and we translate that to our churches. It’s like, “Well, yeah. There’s things that are going on that aren’t great in my church. But they are teaching the Bible. So we’re going to excuse them from all of these other errors.” And the problem is—is I do not understand how people are okay with going to churches that are not producing the fruit of Christianity. And that, to me, I just—we’ve got to step back and look and be like, “What is our church doing?” If we look at the fruit of the Spirit, if we look at love your neighbor as yourself, what are churches—if we take God’s commands in both the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament—to take care of people around us, if your church isn’t doing that, I mean, why are you there? I mean that’s the question.
Sheila: Yeah. And why do you think that church is biblical? That’s the other big question.
Beth: Yeah. Why do you think it’s okay? Yeah.
Sheila: And the other thing that I often hear is, “Well, as long as they are preaching the Gospel, nothing else really matters,” but I think we’ve lost a lot of what the Gospel is. And for me, I know what made a big difference was when I started to look around outside my toxic churches and realize that the people in other churches looked a lot more like Jesus than the people in the churches that I had been going to. And starting to say, “No. If these people are not acting like Jesus, if they’re saying things that Jesus would never say, then maybe I need to give up.” But I hear—okay. So that’s all great. We know that. But the question that I still get from people is how do I have hope that there are other churches? I’ll hear from women who they live in Kentucky or Idaho or wherever it might be, and they say all of the churches in my town are very sexist towards women, very demeaning towards women. I don’t know what to do.
Beth: Yeah. So I mean sometimes that’s true. I live in Waco. We have Truett Seminary, which supports women in ministry. We have our—the first female senior pastor at a Baptist church was actually at a church in Waco, Texas. So we have a lot of those things like that. But the majority of churches in Waco do not support women in ministry especially the big ones. The ones that pull the most weight. The ones that most people go to do not—they put limitations on women in ministry. Most of them are also complementarian in some form. And many of them have authoritarian church structures. And I would say that a significant amount of them have lots of toxic characteristics. And it terrifies me because I see our Baylor students flocking to these churches not because of the toxic teachings but because that’s where their friends are and because that’s where the excitement is. And that’s because that’s where the biggest—where the most money is put into the worship and the bands. And it feels vibrant and alive. And so they all flock to these places. So even in Waco, it’s really hard to find churches that don’t put limits on women and actually more intellectually curious, are more willing to ask questions, and to allow there to be conversations about theological differences rather than ones that say, “This is what our church teaches. And if you do not agree with it, you don’t—you can come here. But you don’t get to teach or to be with us, et cetera.” So I don’t know if it’s just—I think this is a problem especially in the south of the U.S. and even in the Midwest where we see this very Reformed tradition that has taken root and even moving over on to the West Coast. We think about John MacArthur, and we can think about the EV Free Church spreading out that way. So there are pockets all over the U.S. even in big places where this is a problem. So I think—
Sheila: Here. Let me ask you this one because you’re a medieval scholar. So you’re a good one to ask this. Okay. What I have been saying to people—and you can tell me whether I’m right or not because I’ve been asking people to do a thought experiment. Think back to 1521, right? So Martin Luther—it’s been a couple of years since he wrote his theses on the Wittenberg door. And people are starting to really think about what he’s saying, and they’re not happy with the Catholic church. But at that time, there is nowhere else to go.
Sheila: And within a few generations, there were new churches, and there were new places to go. But if you were alive in 1521, 1522, you’d be super upset at the church, but there is no alternative. And I wonder if we’re kind of living through that similar thing where the majority of people—because when we look at our data, the majority of people do not agree with these super toxic Reformed churches, but they’re still attending.
Beth: Right. No. I know. So the way you change churches is by people standing up and saying, “We are not going,”—I mean it’s the Strike at Putney. This is one of the things that I’ve been trying—we cannot change our churches unless we speak out against them, unless we speak up against the problems that we see in them. And I think the reason that this culture has not changed—a big part of it—is because of these toxic teachings that tell us that we cannot gossip and be divisive. And the bad use of Matthew 18, which you have talked about before. And so I think one of the things that people who really want to change their churches is that they have to be brave and they have to realize that part of these toxic teachings are keeping them silent. I tell people all the time that one of the most encouraging things that I see are book groups started in churches. I mean I think book groups will change evangelicalism.
Sheila: I heard of a group in John MacArthur’s church who is doing The Great Sex Rescue. I’m like yes.
Beth: It will change. It will change things. I mean that’s the first thing. Okay. Say you really like your church. You don’t know where else to go. Well, maybe try to change your church first. One of the things that I have—I kind of put toxic churches into two categories. And these, again, are really broad sort of categories. The first category are the ones that are kind of run by what, I would say, are more narcissist personalities.
Sheila: Mm-hmm. Your Mark Driscolls. Your Mark Driscolls. Yeah.
Beth: Your Mark Driscolls, et cetera. And there is no changing that is ever going to happen at places run by these personalities. And so if you find yourself at one of—oh, I’m waving my hand on the Zoom. Sorry. But if you’re at one of these churches, you are not—it’s not going to change. And so part of it, I think, is discernment about when I’m at a church that’s not going to change. I would say that if you take your concerns to the church leaders, whatever, and the response that you receive is that they’re not even going to entertain conversation about this, that they—if you’re like, “Hey, I know this isn’t what our church agrees with, but we would like to have a conversation about this because what if we’re wrong?” And the church says, “No. There’s no way we’re going to do this.” This is shut down. I don’t know—if a church is not even willing to consider or to talk, I don’t know if it’s worth staying. The places that are worth staying are the ones that are teaching—this is my second category of churches. Is these are churches that are run by pastors and leaders that simply don’t know anything else. This is all they’ve been taught. They have been either discipled. This is a pattern that terrifies me. They’ve been discipled by other pastors. Actually have no schooling, no training. They’ve only been taught by other pastors, who believe this same thing. And that’s all they know. Or they’ve gone to these really conservative seminaries that have become echo chambers for complementarian, conservative, white, evangelical Christianity and have said everything else is anti Gospel. And they simply have never been taught anything. But they are intellectually curious, and they are—they have enough humility to be like, “Okay. That concerns me. I’m worried about that. But this is important. Let’s talk about it.” And those are churches that you can change things in. And I mean I can just—I think we need to pour our energies into those churches and encourage people to leave the ones that aren’t willing to even consider. So I think that, as I say, I can’t tell people when to leave a church. But what I can say is you can ask questions and see how far you can push. And if you are not allowed to ask those questions, you might as well just go somewhere else.
Beth: So is that a little bit helpful?
Sheila: And take some of your friends with you because probably there’s a lot of your friends hurt.
Sheila: If there is a little Lutheran church with all these 65 to 75-year-old people, who are making coffee and—they would probably be so excited to have five couples with kids join them from some other church.
Beth: Oh my gosh. Yes. I mean that’s the thing too is people are like, “Well, nobody at the church goes. I like it. Whatever. But nobody—I don’t have any friends there.” I’m like bring friends. Seriously. There are enough—I have talked to enough upset people at some of these other churches around that if they just all got together and left and came—
Sheila: Exactly. There’s more of us. There are more of us than them.
Beth: Yes. There are. There are. And so if we got up—I can think about some of the—a couple of the really big churches in town that I would say are probably not going to change. And if the people in those congregations, if even 10% of those people in those conversations, got—congregations—got up and left, not only would it be a huge sign, but they would be a huge blessing to these small, struggling churches that are not toxic.
Sheila: Yeah. And that are actually trying to be part of the community. And so I think this is important for people to hear too. If you’re in a church where the leadership isn’t changing, remember that it’s not your job to change the leadership because you can’t change anyone’s mind. All you can do is speak up. And if they ignore you, they ignore you.
Sheila: But maybe the goal is not actually to change their mind but to speak life into your friends. And so you do not have a responsibility to be quiet and to protect leadership.
Beth: No. Yes. I think that’s a perfect thing. If you’re at a church that if you bring the concerns up and they, not only do not listen to you but they tell you you cannot leave those things and that you cannot talk about this that is a huge red flag. I mean when churches try to protect their leaders and they try to protect conversations there is nothing Christian or godly about that. I would say that the only way I would stay at a church that is teaching toxic things—and this is one of the reasons we stayed at the church we were at for so long is because we had a lot of autonomy within our youth group area which meant that we could teach the things we wanted. We could ask questions, and we were having an influence on, not only the people in the youth group, but the parents of the kids in youth group.
Beth: And so that sort of the idea was is things are perfect here but, hey, we can help change that next generation, which is what our, sort of—especially as we became more and more uncomfortable with the teachings there, that was sort of what we were looking for.
Sheila: But in a way, you were almost a missionary in that church.
Beth: It became that way. I will also tell you, Sheila, that towards the end I became increasingly uncomfortable that was as my kids were getting older with having them hear the sermons preached by the main preaching pastor. When they were little and they were just in the children’s area and I knew who was teaching them and when they were—if they were in the youth group—neither of our kids made it to our youth group. But I was like—all of that I was fine with. But I did not want my kids in the sermon. And I became more—as my son was starting to sit through the sermon every Sunday, I was like—I had this 11-year-old kid. And I’m like, “That wasn’t right. Don’t listen to that.” Every day. And that was when I realized that this was becoming a problem because—and so that’s the other thing too is that—and you said this at the beginning. And I think this has to do with She Deserves Better is we can’t let our kids grow up this way. We just can’t. And so if you are not willing to leave a church for you, are you willing to leave a church for your kids? And are you willing to find another church where they are getting non toxic teachings about what it means to be a follower of Jesus? And so I think that’s something too is that we just—we’ve got to do this for our kids.
Sheila: Yeah. And if enough of us do, if enough of us speak up, if enough of us form friend groups, we can breathe life into smaller churches.
Sheila: We can create new church movements that are house church movements. And I know there are issues with that too. I absolutely know there are issues with that as well. But we need to start thinking outside the box because staying in a toxic place because other places can also be bad is not really a good option because you already know this one is bad.
Beth: No. I mean I’ll be real honest here as the wife of a pastor at a very small church. I’m usually very optimistic. But some days when I get on Twitter and I see what other pastors are preaching and I know what I just sat through, and I just think, “Dear God. Why?” I’m like why are people at these churches that are telling us these things that are only not of the fruit of the Spirit but have nothing to do with Jesus. That are all about putting forward these personalities, these platform building when people like my husband are preaching the Gospel and doing Meals on Wheels in their community and spending—and people aren’t at their churches. And I’m just like—I just—things like that—I have these moments sometimes where I’m just like, “This is hard, God, because our world would be so much better if we left those toxic churches and went to the places that are not just preaching the Gospel but are doing the Gospel.”
Sheila: Yeah. Even if those churches don’t look like the typical churches that you’re used to.
Beth: Yeah. They’re like ours that the walls are cracked. And we just got new carpet in the children’s room because a group at Baylor came and laid it for free so we could afford it. And we were all rejoicing because we finally had new carpet. I mean the thing is is that white evangelicals don’t want to go into churches like that. They don’t want to be in places where a significant amount of the congregation maybe are homeless. But the things is is that God loves those people just as much as God loves you. And I don’t know why—I mean it’s so hard for me to watch white evangelicals become increasingly isolated from the world that Jesus called us to reach. And so I told this just to my son just the other day. I said, “You know, church isn’t actually about you. It’s about God. And so you don’t go to churches just for you. You go to churches where you can do the work of God. And if you’re not doing the work of God, if your church is pouring all of its money into itself, if its,”—something else in Waco. We see these huge, big churches, and they’re like, “Oh, we’re going to build these facilities that are going to help the people in our community.” And I’m like, “We already have those. Why don’t you pour your help into the places in the community that are already doing that work?”
Sheila: Yeah. Well, when a church resembles a golf club more than anything else because it’s got all of these buildings and all of these great facilities, but they’re only for the members. And anyone else is not going to feel comfortable coming in anyway.
Beth: That’s exactly right. I mean a lot of the people in our—in a lot of these churches that I know, they would not feel comfortable at some of these bigger churches. They don’t make the type of money. They don’t drive the types of cars. Some of them don’t even have cars. And so I mean it’s just—I don’t understand why we don’t go to churches that are doing the work of God.
Sheila: And let me reiterate too, again, with some stats from the book that often the reasons we stay in these bigger churches is because we think they’re safe, right? Because all the people look just like me. But 18.7% of the girls, who took our survey, who mostly came from conservative mega churches like these ones were assaulted, harassed, or abused as teenagers. 12.9% of girls were—by an adult as a minor. A lot by pastors. And so are they really safe? And we know from the outcome variables that we did in our survey that our girls are more likely to marry abusers when they grow up in churches that are giving the modesty message, that are telling them girls talk too much, girls are more easily deceived. You need to be quiet. That is grooming girls to marry abusers.
Beth: That’s exactly right.
Sheila: And so how safe are your kids in these kinds of churches?
Beth: Yeah. No. I mean that’s—and looking back on my church experiences growing up, I mean I can say, “Hello. Yes. That was exactly right.” The messages that I began to hear there made me think that the type of person to marry was this strong male person, who could dominate me. And that that was a godly man. And lucky, I don’t know. Unlucky for me. I learned really fast that that was actually not true. And so—but it’s—I did buy into that at one point in my life. And it’s amazing how many people I know who still buy into messages like that. My daughter is 13. Actually, I finally confess. She’s taller than me. She’s over 5’9”. So I had to finally give that one up. But I am so thankful that she has never been at a place—well, she does not remember not seeing women preach. She does not remember not having female pastors. And she is not being taught any of these toxic messages. And so regardless of how hard our experience has been, I am so thankful that she’s getting better.
Beth: And I’m so thankful that my son, too, is also—is not being taught toxic things about what it means to be a mean. And so I mean I can say it’s all worth it for what we went through as hard as it was for the sake of my children. And then for the sake of the people that now I’ve been able to share my story with. I just—I think we can change this if we can help people realize they have other places to go. And that staying in these toxic churches is actually not healthy for their walk with God.
Sheila: Yeah. Exactly. Okay. Before we go, Beth—because that’s actually—that’s a great thought. I want everyone to keep it. But I do want to talk to you about one other thing. What is it like—because I think you and I are in a similar situation where we actually are experts in our field.
Sheila: We’re very well educated. You are a PhD professor. You have headed up different centers. You’ve done a lot of research. You understand academia. You are a scholar. My team and I—we have—one, two—I think we have three post graduate degrees between us. We have relevant degrees in our field. We have done original research. And I find it very difficult when the people who are chosen to speak and write especially about marriage and gender tend to be pastors who do not have any experience in this.
Sheila: And then they tell us that we are not experienced because we are not pastors.
Beth: Right. Yeah. No. I actually find this kind of ironic in Protestantism because the whole basis of Protestantism is that there is nothing special about being a pastor. We are all the priesthood of all believers. And yet, for pastors to claim simply because of their position that they have this special ability to teach, not the Gospel, but about things like sexuality and things like—about marriage and about history and people should listen to them because they are a pastor. And this is also, if we look at it, it’s mostly men who are giving this message. And many of the people that they are argue do not have the right to speak in this area are women. And so I think this is a direct result of these toxic teachings that say that men simply because of who they are have the ability—have better knowledge, experience, and wisdom to teach in a way that women cannot. I mean this is evidence of toxic teaching. I think it’s really—I think women regardless of how many degrees we have, regardless of how much experience we have, we are always going to be facing an uphill battle to prove that we are experts in these areas where men, on the other hand, simply because they are men are often assumed to be experts in these areas.
Sheila: Yeah. I was told when I started writing about marriage and sex that women can write to women. And men can write to women or to couples or to men. But women can only write to women. And when it was about sex, I found that so strange because how does—you know?
Sheila: And they don’t even rely on research. They just write what they think which I find very, very frustrating. But I find this—as bad as it for us as we’re talking about sex and marriage, I think it’s even exponentially worse in youth group situations. Now your husband is obviously the exception because he was a great youth pastor. But my girls have gone to youth groups where the youth pastor, even if he was well meaning or well intentioned, 24 years old, no real world experience, only a Bible college degree—and there’s nothing wrong with a Bible college degree. But when you have girls in your youth group who are actually more educated than you are in many ways and more intelligent, it’s difficult.
Beth: Yeah. No. You’re exactly right. I mean I think with youth—I mean we saw this all the time in youth ministry. First of all, it was often considered to be a stepping stone degree. It was sort of like you have to get through this in order to go on to what’s really important. So that, on the one hand, already makes it where youth aren’t seen as the most important part of the church. This is a stepping stone on the way to being a pastor which I think is a horrific way to approach youth ministry. And then we also get these—we hire really young boys. I mean my son is almost 19. I cannot imagine. I mean he is still a child. How in the world are we giving young men with not much more experience or age or wisdom leadership over our teenagers and expecting it to all go well? I mean I just—
Sheila: Because like you said, the youth is often in its own little world in a church. And it’s in youth group—the youth pastor is the one in a church who is the most likely to hear abuse disclosed, eating disorders, cutting, addictions of some sort, sexual assault. They’re the ones who are going to hear about this. And they’re not equipped for it.
Beth: No. I mean I think one of the things that made my husband such a good youth pastor is that he actually—he got his degree in social work. So his undergrad degree is in social work. And that actually gave him a better understanding and a better training of what this type of—of what he needed, equipped him in a way that Bible college degrees do not. I mean I’m just going to say that. They just don’t. Learning about theology does not equip you to deal with 13-year-old girls that are cutting. And churches don’t have any other experience. I mean usually most of the pastors don’t know how to deal with any of this stuff. And they are being taught that they should outsource it. I remember my husband was in seminary, and he came home one day just disgusted. And I was like, “What’s wrong?” And he was like in his counseling class they were teaching him—it was what? New ethics or whatever. That is—
Sheila: Yeah. The nouthetic counseling, which is now called biblical counseling.
Beth: Nouthetic. That’s it. Yes. Yes.
Sheila: Yeah. Now called biblical counseling. Mm-hmm.
Beth: He just came home. He was like, “I cannot believe this.” And it was—that was sort of—it shows our age. It was kind of brand new at the time. But he was just absolutely appalled. But now we have a whole—more than one generation of pastors that have been taught to only counsel people from the Bible, from texts that were never intended to deal with any of these issues. And it has just created a crisis among our youth in churches. And as you said, it also has created all these situations where the people who are most likely to hear abuse stories are the least likely to know what to do with them.
Beth: And there is no one else—because of the lack of accountability in many of these churches, there is no one else to step in and help. So I mean it actually terrifies my heart. I’m really thankful that I know who my kids’ youth pastors are, and that I have—I can speak into it because it is actually terrifying when we think about the youth groups that are out there.
Sheila: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Beth, it is great talking to you again. Is there anything else you want to talk about? I’ve asked all my questions, I think.
Beth: Oh gosh, Sheila. We talked about a lot of frustrating things, I think, today. And I know both you and I are so frustrated sometimes by the things that we see out of Twitter. But at the same time, you said this earlier. There is a church—there is a group of people at John MacArthur’s church doing a book study on The Great Sex Rescue. There are people in churches all over the U.S. and even in the world who realize there is a problem and want to change. And so I’m just—I want to encourage those people to keep going and to keep bringing their friends in because the only way we can change things is if we don’t give up. So anyway, thank you for your work.
Sheila: Mm-hmm. Exactly. And I want to jump off of that because you may not be able to find a church that’s safe. But you can find friends who are safe. And the body of Christ is people. And so the more people that we can bring in who are safe we are going to change our churches. We are going to be able to change these small churches. We’re going to be able to start new ones. I don’t even know. It’s going to look different for everybody. We’re going to see a whole variety of things pop up.
Beth: If I could maybe say one thing because I probably should have said this earlier, but this is the advice I give to students all the time and to people who have been really hurt by churches. And I’m like, “I totally understand that. There’s some churches that I don’t know if I could ever walk in and sit through a service again. At least, not for a long time.” And I said, “But you know what? Instead of thinking about going to church, what if you tried to get involved in some sort of ministry to help people like go volunteer some place?” I often tell my students in Waco that we have a great organization called Mission Waco. And I’m like, “Go to Church Under the Bridge. Go minister to people who are in poverty. Go do something for other people.” And it is amazing how much it helps other people, but it helps us too because it helps us see humanity and the people who are made in the image of God. And it restores my soul every time I go. One my husband’s—our favorite things to do is to spend Christmas Eve at the homeless shelter in Waco and to go. And every time I’m always like, “Oh, I don’t have time to do this. We’re so busy.” And then we get there. And I’m like, “Thank you, Jesus because this is the kingdom of God.”
Sheila: Yeah. And that’s what you’re showing to your kids. That’s what you’re showing to your kids. I love that.
Beth: That’s exactly right.
Sheila: I love that. Well, Beth, of course, people can find you. Making of Biblical Womanhood. I hear that you are starting your new books right now.
Beth: I am. It’s sort of crazy. But yeah. I’m writing a book called The Pastor’s Wife, which is about—really it’s the history of ordination for women and how it intersects with the role of the pastor’s wife. And it is so much fun. I cannot tell you. I did not know how much fun it was going to be until I got—I have my grad student that I’ve been working with. Oh my gosh. We are having so much fun. So anyway.
Sheila: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Beth: So anyway, so I can’t wait. But it is coming. By this time next year, it will be for presale. So it’s kind of scary. But I told my publisher. I was like, “It says a lot that I’m actually not—I’m more excited than scared.” So yeah.
Sheila: Yeah. There is a sea change coming. She Deserves Better sold so well, and it’s still selling well because there is a sea change coming. And you’re part of that. We’re all part of that. Not just us. But everyone who is listening to this. You guys, we’re all part of this because we are the change. And things are going to change because they have to. And Jesus wants them to. Jesus wants them to. This isn’t on us.
Sheila: But things are going to change because we all deserve better. So thank you, Beth.
Beth: Indeed. Thanks, Sheila.
Sheila: Thank you for being here.
So much good stuff here.
“Big churches have the luxury of being legalistic, small churches don’t.”
Love it. I’m so sick of big shiny megas, and smaller churches that want to be big shiny megas.
I will say that I learned all my legalistic theology in small fundamentalist Baptist churches. Purity culture, misogyny, Gothardism–it was all there, and I’m still trying to unlearn it.
I realize this is anecdotal and just one person’s experience. From what I have seen, though, the smaller churches are more vulnerable to weird/cultish theology because it’s so much easier for one or two forceful people with strange ideas to be heard and gain influence over everyone else. Big fish in small ponds.
If you’re looking for a healthy church, then please do give small churches a chance! We may not have 50 kids the exact same age as your children, we may not have 15 activities a day, we may not have smoke machines, colour change lights and a 20 piece music group leading worship, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be church family to you. In fact, I’d argue we can be more like a family, because we know everyone so well.
We have a whole community of people out there who need to know that Jesus loves them, but we are limited in what we can do because we are few in number. And it’s so disheartening to see believers in our town bypass our church without even considering us because we are small, and driving 45 minutes to the megachurch in the nearby big town.
Not all big churches are bad. Not all small churches are good. But don’t write off your little local fellowship purely on account of its size. (And when the pastor has to take a turn on the washing up rota, you can be pretty sure he won’t suffer from an inflated ego!)
I completely agree! I think if we were to leave big churches with 4-5 of our friends we could breathe new life into some smaller churches that are just focusing on being a community!
Another thought – I’m getting the feeling that a lot of folk are thinking of ‘church’ as a big building you go to on Sundays for a sermon, prayers and singing. The Bible says WE are the church – ‘where two or three are gathered’…that’s church!
We have a lady who has been very hurt by church (including by people who were in our church before we came here) and who says she will not ‘do church’ any more because of it. But she comes to a midweek Bible study we run in our home, and she helps at a kid’s event during the week in the church building and she also comes to a monthly service we run in a building that isn’t our ‘church building’…so as far as we are concerned, she IS ‘doing church’. It’s just not a church that looks like the way she thinks churches look like! It’s something we keep repeating again and again and again to our folk here…church is NOT the building OR the events…church is the PEOPLE!
So for the folk who feel like they’ve been hurt too badly to ‘do church’ any more…maybe you just need to change the way you define church? Midweek prayer group in a coffee shop? That’s church. Meeting up for a BBQ and Bible study at a friend’s house? That’s church. Going for a prayer walk with a friend? That’s church.
Angharad, your friend is DOING church and also BEING church! It’s not about how often you sit in the pews and wave your bible around. It’s what you DO with others and the community as a whole.
I myself have no problem with big or small churches, as long as they stay focused. Often, big churches fall victim to what is sometimes known as Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. That is, as an organization grows, two groups emerge: Those dedicated to the original goals of the organization, and those who are dedicated to the organization itself. The second group nearly always takes control, and it becomes a morass of rules, showboating, paperwork, power struggles, etc. and the original goals get lost in the shuffle.
This doesn’t ALWAYS happen, naturally. I go to a mega church, and it’s pretty good (some small exceptions), but it’s a danger to watch out for.
Yes – this is something we struggle to get across to our whole congregation – someone who turns up to every one of our midweek meetings will come to a lifegroup in our home and say that they ‘haven’t been to church’ for years – and they look blank when we tell them they are doing church right now! Or regular attenders at our church building will ask when someone who comes to all the gatherings in other locations is going to ‘start coming to church’ and we say ‘they are’!
It’s a slow process. One thing that is helping is that we never refer to events taking place at ‘church’ – if they are being held in our church building, then we say ‘this meeting will be at our building on —– street.’ People are gradually accepting that you can BE church in any location, not just a church building, but it takes a looooong time to change the culture.
It does have other advantages though. We have a small group of people who have vowed ‘never to have anything to do with church ever’ who are cheerfully doing church with us on a weekly basis – they just don’t realise that is what they are doing because it’s not in the church building on Sundays!
Awesome interview! I have so much to say I got nothing to say! I really enjoyed that conversation. Wish I could of taken notes while listening so I could add my comments… that would’ve been a fun conversation to be in the middle of! good stuff!
Thank you for this. Yes, sometimes we need to shake the dirt off our feet and move on (preferably with friends), other times we need to take a stand to make a change.
— my story —
I grew up in a church where it never even crossed my mind I was less than a boy. Possibly from the church, and most certainly from my parents. Our church, like all, had it’s problems, but it was good. My entire life I’ve been involved and run many programs.
Then we got a new pastor. And slowly, many involved people, like me, had no idea what was happening, what decisions were being made and started to hear rumours of rifts and offences. People were hurt and disengaged.
I had three choices. Stay silent. Leave. Or fight.
I prayed about it – and God sent so many bible verses to me confirming this was something I had to stand up too (who knows if I was called for such a time as this?).
I stuck with the issues, not the person. Slowly, more people rallied. Others spoke words of support behind closed doors.
But a silent majority stood back and watched.
It was hard, but we got there. Many don’t know how hard it was to get to where we are now, the burden was on a few.
We have since seen a revival – it’s amazing what a focus on inclusion, love and safety does for a community! It’s beautiful.
So this is what I ask. If you do chose to stay – even if you don’t have the energy, or it is not safe for you to fight – Support those who do fight injustice and hurtful teaching. Support a culture where it is safe to question. Encourage them. Let them know they’re aren’t crazy.
Sometimes, they are doing it for you, because it would be far easier for them to leave. But they love you, or their kids, or your kids, too much not to fight. Sometimes your words are what will keep them going.
Thank you Sheila, and Beth for everything you do. I appreciate you speaking up and challenging. I appreciate you sharing that good God focussed community is out there. I appreciate you encouraging people to find it.
Oh, my goodness, this is so good! I want to shout this from the rooftops!
“So this is what I ask. If you do chose to stay – even if you don’t have the energy, or it is not safe for you to fight – Support those who do fight injustice and hurtful teaching. Support a culture where it is safe to question. Encourage them. Let them know they’re aren’t crazy.
Sometimes, they are doing it for you, because it would be far easier for them to leave. But they love you, or their kids, or your kids, too much not to fight. Sometimes your words are what will keep them going.”
We were frustrated with our church, but didn’t know of any other options. Then someone told me that I can do ministry that’s not officially part of my church. I can just start a small group; I don’t have to continue waiting for the pastor’s permission (I’d been waiting 2 years already).
So my husband and I decided to start our own small group separate from our church. We invited anyone we thought might interested, both within our church and outside it. One family took up our offer, and then suggested we talk to a female pastor they knew who wanted to plant a new church with similar goals to our small group. We talked to her, and we combined our missions so that now instead of a small group we have a house church. We are very focused on Jesus’s example and social justice. It’s still very small, just 3 families. But we let our friends know they are welcome. Last month a friend who consists herself atheist because of bad past experiences in church, someone who is usually distrustful of Christians, said she’d like to visit our church.
So my suggestion is if you can find just a couple people who feel the same way, you can start your own group, even if you’re far away from a healthy church. If you don’t have a pastor but still want experienced teaching, you can use an online church or other organization for resources. Even with a pastor, we use resources like The Bible Project for material in our meetings. It’s usually more like a study or discussion group, not a sermon, and I love this style.
Wonderful, Jenni! I’ve thought about this a lot too.