I confess right from the start that I am--and for 17 years have been--a backslider. If you're in the club, you'll know what this means, and you'll know how bad it is to be a backslider. For those not aware of the term--or who think it has something to do with ice skating or mountain climbing--allow me to explain that "backslider" is born-again slang; it means ex-Christian.
It's not a compliment.
I have officially been an ex-Christian--a backslider--since the day I handed in my keys to the front door of Calvary Chapel of Downey, in Southern California, walking away from what surely would have been a notable, if controversial, career as a minister of the Gospel. But far from the easy, slippery skid that the word backslider implies, my own tumble from grace had not been a gentle one.
No doubt about it, Calvary Chapel--along with such similar non-denominational, "New Wave Christian" groups as The Vineyard, Maranatha, and Warehouse Ministries--is some dangerously rocky territory if you happen to harbor any theological questions or liberal interpretations of Scripture. Take my word for it, you'll stick out like a leper at a tanning salon. The dynamic, ever-expanding chain--three of the affiliated churches now operate in Sonoma County (Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Petaluma)--stands apart from more traditional Christian churches by fostering a maddeningly upbeat, pep-rally atmosphere in which anyone experiencing a crisis of faith must either cover it up, shape up, or ship out.
After seven intense, often exciting years spent examining the "unconditional love" of Jesus--what we all called "God's free gift"--I'd finally concluded that too many conditions and rules had been placed upon that love for it to qualify as either unconditional or free. After all, if God loves us all exactly as we are, I wanted to know, then doesn't that imply some intrinsic human worth? Why, then, had my fellow teenage converts and I been so firmly trained to despise every last nook and cranny of our nature, beaming a patented Calvary Chapel smile while proudly proclaiming our staunch self-disgust?
The bottom line that led to my escape, however, is a less philosophical question: If Jesus truly lives in my heart, I asked, why do I still feel so goddamned empty? And if he does not, if it is all a game, what damage had I done to myself by conforming so utterly to the simple-minded, robotic, dogma-spouting mindset modeled by the elders of the church?
Terrified of what waited out in "the World"--our word for the supposedly empty, nightmarish, despair-filled existence that waited outside the church--unable to continue pretending, I closed the door on Calvary Chapel, knowing that I was doing more than just losing my religion; I was also stepping away from the vital and intimate social circle that had provided a sense of family all through my adolescence. I had just turned 21 and I was turning my back on everything I'd believed and worked for, betraying the only group of people to which I'd ever felt I truly belonged.
THERE IS A TENDENCY among New Age, born-again Christian groups to promise people that if they dedicate themselves to Jesus, their lives will suddenly be better," comments therapist Francis Dreher. The director of the Institute for Educational Therapy in El Cerrito, Dreher is an experienced marriage, family, and children counselor, with a distinguished track record working with former fundamentalists.
"In these churches you often end up placing your whole life and belief on this one single idea," he further explains, "the idea that you will receive redemption here on Earth, along with all the love and the sense of family that you desire, simply by focusing on Jesus. When that doesn't happen, people can tend to sink into serious depression."
Dreher suggests that those attracted to such high-control, authoritarian groups are trying "to make sense of a world that doesn't make much sense, a world full of violence and broken families and broken communities."
Once a member has left the church, Dreher says, the letdown can lead to serious psychological scarring. "Almost always there is a ... lack of self-confidence in making your own decisions again," he adds. "Often it takes a lot of work to make those abilities strong again."
Every organization, occupation, or social group tends to develop its own peculiar lingo, a unique glossary of colorful expressions that rise up from the collective ideas, habits, and personalities of the club members. To insiders, it provides a feeling of unity within the group, while distancing the members from the unwashed outside world.
After my spiritual rebirth at the wobbly age of 14--amid the cultural wasteland of the 1970s--I clung to such distinctions as if my life depended on it. The Jesus Movement was in high gear and I relished using the lingo that identified me as a participant. When we approved of something, we'd say, "What a blessing!" or "Praise God." When we told each other goodbye, we'd invoke, "God bless."
I even enjoyed that word backslider--taken from Proverbs 14:14: "The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways." We had other words for those ex-Christians: they were "strays," and "execs," and "prodigals," and "blotmarks." That last epithet is taken from Revelations 3:5, in which the apostle John describes a vision of Jesus, who says, "He that overcometh, the same will be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life."
The message was clear: to "walk with the Lord" and then slide back from salvation was to embrace a fate even more fiery than the one awaiting those who'd never been saved in the first place.
When I first walked into a Calvary Chapel, I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. I knew that Calvary, already a certified phenomenon, was a chain of ultra-casual Protestant-fundamentalist churches that had been strongly influenced by the California hippie culture. It had grown in leaps and bounds ever since Pastor Chuck Smith positioned his once-foundering, Costa Mesa--based church as a kind of jumping-off point for the Jesus Movement. I'd never seen any group of people so fired up, so magically set apart from the norm.
Desperately unhappy--the product of a broken home and an alcoholic, suicidal mother--I was ripe for the picking. At Calvary--named for the hill on which Christ was crucified--I all but salivated at the promise of a savior who could love me on an as-is basis. I prayed and invited Jesus to take up residency in my heart.
Soon thereafter, I joined a feverish Bible-study club that met during lunch breaks at Downey High School. I developed a strong cadre of friends, all focused on becoming ministers. We even held communion services, using peanut-butter sandwiches and grape soda for the sacraments. Whenever we felt that the "fullness of joy" we'd been promised was somewhat less than advertised, we'd blame our own weak faith and turn up the religious fervor even higher.
Saturday nights, we carpooled the 50 miles to Costa Mesa for intensely emotional, jam-packed rock concerts--featuring such classic Jesus-rock groups as Maranatha, Mustard Seed Faith, Petra, and One Truth--whipping ourselves into imagining that Calvary Chapel was ground zero in the great war against the devil. We sang, "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me"--but we sang it to the bouncy tune of "The Happy Wanderer." "This is not religion," we were told, and quickly parroted to our wide-eyed friends and family, "this is a relationship!"
That relationship with Jesus was further expressed, and distanced, from the incense-and-icon atmosphere of Catholicism and other formal expressions of divine longing by the instantly recognizable symbol that had become Calvary's logo: not a cross or crucifix (too negative, too brooding), but a dove, an oddly misshapen outline of a descending dove that resembled a melting B-52 on a suicide dive. We loved it, dutifully scribbling the shape in the margins of our Bibles, wearing it on T-shirts, and dangling it from chains around our necks. Since we were a bunch of ugly-duck, marginalized teenagers unaccustomed to feeling any sense of belonging, those early days were almost too heady an experience.
Marlene Winell, in her book Leaving the Fold (New Harbinger, 1993), describes her own Calvary Chapel experience as a tremendously exciting one, of being surrounded by "the Christian version of flower children" and of being filled with "a sense of cosmic purpose." Charged up with that sense of cosmic purpose, my friends and I would cry, hug, proclaim our love for one another, praise God, and reiterate our promises to never betray him. We'd close our eyes to pray and actually conjure up the smiling face of Jesus in our minds. Then we'd go out for coffee and badger the waitresses with our wild-eyed enthusiasm.
CALVARY CHAPEL, in retrospect, seems addictive to certain personalities the way alcohol is addictive to others," says Larry Fike. "If you have certain kinds of hang-ups or problems, Calvary can act as an addictive kind of salve." Fike, a professor of philosophy at Cal State in Irvine and another graduate of Downey High, also once assumed his faith was unshakable. After a short sojourn at Calvary, he moved on to an even stricter, Calvinist sect before abandoning Christianity altogether. "It fits well into a consumer-driven culture, Calvary does," Fike observes. "It shares a lot with McDonald's. You go in, and though you're never quite satisfied, there's this strong, advertisement-like appeal to it. You stand there chewing, going, 'I don't quite get this, but everyone else looks satisfied, so I'm going to keep coming back until I'm satisfied.'
"Calvary is selling a product," he insists. "A mass-produced idea of Jesus and salvation and everlasting peace that is constantly wagged before you while you're there. It's like buying a brand of uncomfortable shoes, but then you're afraid to admit that they're uncomfortable, because everyone else is wearing them. So you go on wearing them, hoping you'll finally break them in enough.
"But you never do." I was 15 when Downey gained its own Calvary Chapel, a tiny storefront operation pastored by a sincere and affable guy named Jeff Johnson. A disciple of Chuck Smith, Jeff seemed seductively cool to my new teenage friends. Intense, bearded, muscular from years working as a welder in the construction industry, this charismatic, drug-dealing-surfer-turned-Jesus-person caused an immediate stir throughout the strait-laced environs of Downey, following the established Calvary Chapel format of oratorically low-key preaching, a de-emphasis on the trappings of denominational religion, and a shockingly casual dress code.
At Calvary Chapel, even today--at one of the thousand-plus affiliates spreading across the country--jeans, T-shirts, and tennis shoes, or bare feet for that matter, are acceptable Sunday dress. The theology is basic foursquare Protestantism with a Pentecostal twist: an emphasis on love, joy, peace, and goodness with an undercurrent of fundamentalist didacticism and an unswervingly literal approach to the Scriptures. We were encouraged to go out "harvesting souls" in order to bring new converts to Christ; we pored over our Bibles, scribbling notes in the margins, underlining important passages.
The congregation grew; a larger church was built, but was soon too small again. By the time construction began on a new church--building a sanctuary in one quarter of an enormous former White Front department store, the floor of which I camped out on every other night for six months as a volunteer guard of the site while building commenced--over 1,000 worshipers, many of them under 18, were attending every Sunday morning. Similar events were occurring across Southern California, as Smith's burgeoning Bible school churned out dozens of freshly ordained ministers, all male (unlike most Protestant-based faiths, Calvary Chapel expressly forbids women from holding leadership status over any man), all trained in the biblical interpretations favored by Smith, all hot to start their very own Calvary Chapel franchise, taking over storefronts, movie theaters, and tire stores, seldom in a building that actually looked like a church.
In Downey, leaders of other churches--particularly at the First Baptist Church--began to grumble that the glittery newcomer was taking away members by offering "easy" salvation and "worldly" entertainment. In truth, the demand we felt to prove our worthiness has becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. I myself now went to church five or six times a week, and--encouraged to stay away from non-believers--resisted friendships with anyone outside the church.
I organized an offbeat performance group, touring the Southland with a seven-person team that used puppets and pantomime to sell the message of Jesus. Supportive of my dedication and "childlike faith," the Rev. Johnson offered the troupe a workshop/studio behind the newly opened church. I was given a key and "executive privileges"--I was allowed to use the staff kitchen--and began the process of studying to become an ordained minister of Calvary Chapel.
Then things began to get weirder. As the intensity increased, our willingness to debase ourselves in God's name led to unhealthy extremes. I remember Sandy, a fierce 10th-grade convert. While out on a "harvesting trip" at the local mall, she once chose to literally soil herself rather than locate a restroom and risk letting the couple she was preaching to escape. Later on, during an emotional prayer meeting at the church, she stood up to testify, stating ecstatically, "I wet my pants for Jesus!" Not once did anyone suggest that perhaps she was losing perspective. Two other high-schoolers, Laura and Julianne, eager for a juicy mystical experience to tell the congregation, insisted that they'd witnessed the love of Jesus materialize before them in the form of a glowing ball of energy dancing before their eyes. They later realized it was a only a halo of light around a street lamp outside.
Then there was Jeff Johnson himself, our leader, who would tell us that before converting to Christianity and while tripping on acid, the devil appeared to him in a tent in the jungles of Hawaii, and, Johnson insisted, granted him the power to control the elements. After experimenting with the flies in his tent--making them do backflips with the power of his mind--he wandered to a cliff overlooking the ocean. There he summoned a tsunami that drowned all the sunbathers on the beach. He did not tell this story as that of an imagined vision during a bad trip, but as an event that he apparently believes actually took place, an occurrence so unsettling that he had no choice but to turn to Jesus to escape the devil's temptations.
We all prayed that an experience that overpowering, that mystical, that cool, might someday happen to us. Further swayed by Johnson's jaunty sermons encouraging our "servitude" to God and his insistent admonitions not to trust our "worldly desires," we became convinced that we were incapable of making decisions without God's help. We would pray desperately about everything: whether to go to college, which car we should buy, which person we should date. We even prayed at the counter in Burger King that God would guide us order the entrée he knew was best for us.
I myself, after years of gaining only intermittent flashes of anything approaching peace, joy, or happiness, began intense 30-day fasts in order to open myself more fully to Christ. At the end of one such starvation-fest, I passed out cold at church, as everyone smiled and praised the Lord, supposing that I'd been knocked out by the power of Jesus.
I began to have doubts. I became depressed. My doctor suggested that I was carrying a stress load that could kill me if I didn't make changes soon.
Johnson--apparently irritated that my doubts weren't dispelled by his prayers--had less and less time to devote to one-on-one counseling sessions with me or any of his other "sheep." That's more lingo: Since Johnson was "the shepherd," we were all "sheep," a hand-me-down idea from Chuck Smith, who, in his biographical book Harvest (Calvary Publishing, 1984, which also contains Jeff Johnson's Hawaiian devil story), tells of abandoning traditional denominational structures after years of pre-Calvary frustration that any church board of mere "sheep" would dare to vote down the plans that he, "their appointed shepherd," had been given from God.
Apparently overwhelmed by the growing demands of running what had become a multimillion-dollar organization with almost 5,000 members, a bookstore, a full-time Christian school, and numerous ancillary ministries, Johnson began to refer certain mundane matters--explaining contradictions in Scriptures and your basic crises of faith--to his associate ministers. Often he'd suggest we get in line with the other sheep waiting to talk with him after Sunday morning services.
I stood in that line to say goodbye on the day I walked away. I'd long since abandoned the puppet ministry, shortly after the church took back the studio to convert it into restrooms for the school gymnasium. Lastly, with only a shred of belief left, I had even called a stop to my ordination process. With the last of my childhood faith now fading away, I shook hands with Johnson, exchanged God-bless-yous, and drove away from Calvary, away from Downey, away from Southern California, and away from Jesus.
I vowed I'd never return. Last Thanksgiving, after nearly two decades, I finally broke my promise and returned to Calvary Chapel.
RICK ROSS is an "[intervention specialist]," a world-renowned [expert] specializing in the [behavior] of destructive cults [and radical groups]. As a "deprogrammer," Ross aids former members of [extreme groups] and their families to make the difficult transition to life outside of the controlling group.
Working from his office in Phoenix, Ross has assisted members of the Davidian cult in Waco as well as [consulting the media just after the tragic suicide of the cult known as] Heaven's Gate in San Diego. His website http://www.rickross.com -a resource center for cult watchers and families of people who have disappeared into cults--includes a long list of reports on various cults, [controversial and radical groups]. Calvary Chapel is on the list.
"I wouldn't go so far as to call them a full-on cult," Ross says. "But I will say that Calvary Chapel is an extremely authoritarian group where lots of control is exercised over the members. They treat Smith as if he has some special revelation, an elite calling from God. The churches under Chuck Smith all foster feelings of spiritual elitism. They are typical of a lot of groups who think they are God's Green Berets, the epitome of God's best."
Ross has twice been involved in transitioning clients away from Calvary chapels, each time contacted by parents who were alarmed at the intensity of the personality changes and frightening mood-swings their children experienced after joining Calvary.
"The promise of unconditional love is hard to pass up," Ross agrees. "But in my experience, what Calvary offers is [highly] conditional love I've ever known. People who leave [often] feel that they could never be good enough. The clergy at Calvary don't wish to admit it, but they push their members very hard. [Many can not] an live up to those expectations.
"Don't get me wrong," he adds, "I've seen some of the worst cults ever. By comparison, I don't see Calvary Chapel as being nearly as extreme as others. But does that mean Chuck Smith is a nice man or that his churches are a good place to go? No.
"The Bible says you will know them by their fruits, doesn't it? Well, Chuck Smith's tree has dropped some pretty damaged fruit."
Repeated phone calls to Chuck Smith were never returned.
Others are more inclined to classify Calvary Chapel as a full-blown cult. "Cults, in my opinion, are about behaviors, not beliefs," explains Janja Lalich, an expert on cult systems and mind control and the director of Community Resources on Influence and Control, in Alameda. "Cults aren't always tiny religious groups off in some compound. I think anyone who says they have the answer, the one way, whatever it is, is potentially dangerous. Whenever questions are not really answered but always turned back on you like there is something wrong with you for asking them, that's a sign that something is wrong."
And though cults are often identified by the influence of one charismatic leader, there is such a thing as a cult of consensus, she says. "Often it's not direct orders from the leader at all but a group dynamic and a process that gets put in place," explains Lalich. "It's the peer pressure that can end up being even more important than the relationship with the leader. As human beings that's what we respond to. You're just going along with the norm and modeling yourself after the other members, and suddenly you are unable to think for yourself."
DON McClure is the pastor of Calvary Chapel in San Jose, another growing franchise in the Calvary chain. Its membership, like most of the urban-based Calvarys, has been steadily growing for years. Clearly, there is something at Calvary Chapel that people want. "Calvary chapels are among the least judgmental, most easygoing churches I've ever seen," he gently insists, calmly resisting my assertion that past members have claimed emotional wounding. "We have no ego here. The shepherds have just one job, and that is to feed our sheep. We get accused of things from time to time, but our message is pretty simple:
Come to the Lord and be saved.
"I guess if someone's calling us a cult, then they don't understand what we're really all about." There is no doubt that Calvary Chapel--and other non-denominational churches of its kind--do a tremendous amount of important charitable work: assistance to the homeless outreaches to the poor and to immigrant families. But what of the wild extremism I experienced in Downey? The constant fasting, the feigned visions--the pants wetting? Isn't that a sign that all is not well?
"Well, I never heard about any of that," McClure chuckles. "But I guess it goes to show that some people will do just about anything."
AFTER MANY YEARS spent living in "the World," I have learned that there is such a thing as happiness, peace, and even unconditional love, and that Calvary Chapel--religion in general, for that matter--holds no monopoly on it. Though it's taken almost half my lifetime--and endless hours of therapy--to shed the anger, guilt, and self-hatred that I inherited from my tutelage under Jeff Johnson, my new life is demonstrably richer, fuller, and more meaningful than my narrow, fear-driven experience, intoxicating though it was, within the inner circle of Calvary. I am not alone.
Of my old friends, only a handful have remained believers. And--true to their training--have made it clear that my blotmark status makes it impossible to sustain any further friendship. A surprising number of them, however, are now confirmed backsliders like myself.
"It would take an act of God to get me back to any church with the name Calvary on it," jokes Laura Hoffman--she of the aforementioned mystical street-lamp experience. "I'm embarrassed to think about the things I did and thought. It took a long time to stop feeling stupid."
Laura, by coincidence, is now married to another former member of Calvary Chapel, whose son attended Chuck Smith's Calvary School in the 1980s and suffered recurring nightmares for years. "I do look back on my experience as that of being in a cult. It's left me with little tolerance for people who won't think," she says. "It's easy enough to live in a closed system where all the answers are fed to you, but it's laziness. If you have an original thought, I can respect that, but to be a sheep just sitting there gobbling up the pabulum, I have no tolerance for that."
Jeff MacSwan, a professor of linguistics in Los Angeles who attended Calvary off and on during his high school years, adds, "Let's face it, a lot us who got involved with that conversion-style religion were pretty screwed up to begin with, right? You get people going in who are screwed up, and they are likely to be screwed up even more.
"I wouldn't say they're a cult, though," he cautions, "because then you'd have to say that 12-step groups are cults, or even the Marines, which all depend on hyped-up emotionality and psychological control. I guess it's a matter of which groups do the most damage."
"I'm still pretty banged up by it," admits another escapee, requesting anonymity. "I don't want any of my colleagues to know about that part of my history, that I was suckered in by a 'bait-and-switch theology,' which I was, with Calvary telling me I was saved only to insist that I was barely worth saving."
He's now a science writer at a major northwestern university.
"When I was 17, and a part of that group, I thought I understood everything," he says. "And when I was 25, I realized that when I was 17 I was full of shit. Now that I'm even older, I'm sure I was full of shit. That Jeff Johnson and Chuck Smith are standing up there telling a bunch of kids that, as Christians, they really do know everything is beyond frightening--it's deplorable."
Sandy, at last report, had traded in her pants-wetting zeal for something more personally rewarding; a Berkeley newspaper a few years back described a massive, university wide protest that she led against an anthropology professor who'd been teaching that white races were mentally superior to people of color. She shut down his classes for weeks.
IT WAS A DESIRE for a sense of closure--coupled with a growing bewilderment and curiosity about the organization that once so thoroughly dominated my life--that led me, one Sunday last fall, to return to Calvary Chapel in Downey.
My e-mails to Pastor Jeff, suggesting a sit-down meeting, are ignored and his secretary politely insists that I should not expect to be granted such a meeting if I arrive. The same huge parking lot--which once seemed unfillable, even by the large numbers of people attending services 17 years ago--is packed with cars bearing anti-choice bumper stickers and glib slogans: "Life without Jesus is Hell." I find a parking space in the back, near the site of my old studio.
True to Jeff's promise, I had been replaced by a restroom.
The old sanctuary--the one I helped build and slept in all those years ago--is now used for the youth ministries and Spanish-language services. To accommodate the growth in attendance, a gorgeous new sanctuary has been built in the three-quarters of the building that had once stood empty. Standing inside the cavernous new lobby, as the first service lets out, I immediately catch an unmistakable whiff of that good old "cosmic purpose." Though I recognize none of the faces--a huge percentage of them still under 20--I recognize the look, the radiant smile, the glowing features, and the tear-stained cheeks.
I also recognize the line of people that leads to where Jeff Johnson stands, still bearded, his hair gone white.
I take my place in line.
"Remember me?" I eventually ask.
"Of course!" he exclaims, grasping my hand.
"Good to see ya. Lord bless ya! Where are you living now?"
"Northern California," I reply.
"Heavy. Married or anything?"
"Praise the Lord! Any kids?"
"Wow! What a blessing! Are you going to fellowship up there?" he wants to know.
"Actually," I answer truthfully, "since Calvary, I haven't found any church I'm comfortable in."
"Oh," he answers, nodding slowly.
"The place has grown," I say, glancing around and back at the line that's formed behind me.
"Awesome growth," he agrees. "But more than the quantity, there's a whole new quality of believers coming in. They're getting rooted in, grounded in God's word, and staying rooted in it. They're bringing in others. Healthy sheep beget healthy sheep, of course. Are you staying for the next service?"
I say that I am and reiterate my request to meet with him later.
"Wow, I'm all scheduled up," he says. "But maybe after Thanksgiving."
He extends his hand again. "God bless."
Sitting toward the front of the 4,000-seat sanctuary, I am suddenly overwhelmed by the tremendous emotional distance I have traveled since the last time I sat listening to my one-time shepherd. His words still awe me, though in a vastly different way.
"Don't bother watching the news, people," he says from the stage at the end of his sermon.
"Don't waste your time reading newspapers. The Bible says that the devil is 'the prince of the power of the air.' What do you think that means? Air? God's talking about the 'airwaves'!
The devil controls the media! So take your news from the Bible only. It's all you need." The sheep smile. They nod. They agree with whatever he says.
"Out in the world, people have no guidance," he continues. "If someone smashes their car, what do they say? They look at their car and say, 'Oh my God!' because their cars have become their gods. Weird gods."
And so it goes. Finally, he winds it up. "Let's pray," he says as heads bow all around me.
"Thank you, God, for the assurance of your glorious Word," Johnson prays, as I continue to watch. "We pray for those who don't have this assurance. We pray for those who are backsliders. You know who you are."
I look up at the pulpit. Though 4,000 pairs of eyes are closed all around us, Jeff Johnson is pointing directly at me.
"Pull them out of the world, Lord," he prays. "Bring them back into your Light."
I close my eyes, trying to imagine the face of Jesus calling me back to the fold. Though I will always love that face, and will honor the wisdom, understanding, and love that it represents to me, I can no longer see it as the face of a savior, offering to transform my wretchedness into a thing of worth. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.... I may someday find a church in which I feel comfortable; perhaps I'll even call myself a Christian again. But I will never again believe that I am so wretched that no one but Jesus can love me.
I look back to Johnson.
"Come home," he is offering, his voice lilting and soft. "Come back. It's never too late to reclaim your salvation."
Perhaps he's right. Maybe it's not too late.
But for this particular backslider--having finally grown up out in the big wide messy world--nothing I once clung to within these very walls could ever again be enough. http://www.rickross.com/reference/calvary/calvary5.html