Narcissism in the Church
It’s been a decade since my shadow darkened a church door. Church is toxic for me. I’m in detox. Aye, that sums it up: detox! The very word “church” is a poison in my veins, my tissues, my brain, my very bones.
“Are you so holier-than-thou?” you may be asking. “Is that why you hate church? Isn’t avoiding other believers the very essence of a cult?” I asked myself the same thing.
Then I realized: The reason I’m deathly allergic to Church is that my soul, my intuition, my gut senses that it reeks of narcissism.
Before I get started, let me pre-apologize to all of you who love church and may find this article offensive. I’m awfully sorry. But for many of us who endured narcissistic religious abuse, church is a trigger and a toxin for us. This article is meant to explore narcissism in church and what true religion sans narcissism might look like.
You really must click here to read the prequel to this article or, in the words of Charles Dickens, “nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.” In a nutshell, my home was a narcissistic, Bible-thumping cult and after twenty-five years of trying to “get right with God” in and out of a myriad of Protestant churches, I gave up and accepted that I was going to Hell. That about sums it up.
Now, having dispensed with all the fol-de-rol, let’s get cracking! 😉
Why I Hate Church
Let’s say it’s Sunday morning. You’re dog-tired from a long week at the office. But you drag your carcass out of bed when the alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m., stifling an urge to heartily cuss out the alarm. You’ve gone to church before, but not for a long time.It’s Super Bowl Sunday but you have time to get home in time for the kick-off.
Fortified with gallons of coffee, you struggle into your best bib-and-tucker. You’re a jeans and T-shirt kinda’ person, so the outfit makes you uncomfortable and self-conscious. And you know, just know, everyone else in the congregation will be better dressed than you!
That Joy Thing
Arriving at church, you make your way self-consciously in your pinchy good shoes to the door. They’re you’re greeted by a joyfully smiling man with a firm handshake. He’s too slick by half. From his perfectly greased hair to his perfectly bleached smile to his perfectly polished shoes, he gives you the willies. “I’ve seen men like this on the news,” you think to yourself. “The perfect church goer. Always there every time the door squeaks and privately a closet pedophile.” But you shake his hand, resisting the impulse to wipe your hand on your pant leg afterwards.
You smile an insincere smile in return and take the thick bulletin he offers. Even the bulletin is oily.
Trying to be unobtrusive, you slip into a pew in the back. The sanctuary buzzes with quiet conversation, people observing each other’s hair and clothes closely and up-tempo blaring music. Although, why they call it a sanctuary is beyond you. There’s nothing sanctified about it. It’s a freakin’ auditorium with the best lighting and acoustics money can buy more suited for live theater than a place of worship.
And speaking of worship, there’s no place to do it. No out-of-the-way corners for private, desperate prayer. No banks of candles giving off the heavy, waxy smell of devotion. It doesn’t lend itself to the private worship Jesus talked about. If you want to worship here, it’s like standing on a street corner.
Your reverie is interrupted by a elderly woman ordering you to move over. You’re in her spot.
You’re so shocked by her rudeness, you wordlessly scoot over. She introduces herself, explaining that she’s sat in that spot for the past decade and begins to regale you with how much she loves the Lord, how much she does for the Lord, how long she spends praying every day and how much money she gives to the Lord, despite being deeply in debt. She’s been having strokes, she says, because she does so much for the Lord, the Devil is attacking her. She sums it up by condescendingly offering to “disciple you,” taking it foregranted that she’s holier-than-thou, literally.
Suddenly, a man bounds to the pulpit. His suit costs more than your monthly mortgage payment. Every hair is in place. If he wasn’t behind the pulpit, you’d take him for a lawyer. Exuding jubilance and joy, he welcomes the congregation with glowing terms and brings it to its feet.
A choir of sixty, a “worship team” of eight, a rockin’ worship band flood the place with music. Everyone is in the mood. Everyone has their closed eyes lifted upwards. Everyone, who isn’t holding a microphone, has their arms raised. Everyone is swaying to the driving rhythm. Every face bears an expression of devotion and joy.
And it goes on and on and on. The same chorus repeated over and over ad nauseum.
You slip out to use the restroom. When you return they’re still on the same chorus. Finally, with a crashing rim-shot it comes to an end with the congregation cheering and clapping. Apparently, they’re giving God a standing ovation or something.
Now there’s someone new behind the pulpit. They’re telling their life story. Dancing. Rock-n-Roll. Gambling. Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Theft. You name it, they done it.
After awhile you can’t help thinking, “Shit! Are they confessing…or bragging!?! Do they give out prizes for the ‘Biggest Sinner’ or something!?” Finally, they come to the denouement. They were in the gutter. They couldn’t get any lower and God saved ’em from it all.
But the question occurs. Does God also forgive Little Sinners, the ones who just do hum-drum sins? And how do they come to God if they just never had that “gutter moment”? It’s puzzling. And the Big Sinner at the pulpit…were they rescued from addiction, misery and crime…or was their soul saved for Eternity? Did this have anything to do with Jesus on the Cross? It isn’t clear at all.
They end their testimony with a run-down of all the (many!) church programs and outreaches they’re involved in. The congregation applauds (them? God? the church? who knows!) as they retake their seat.
The ushers are standing in the back, taking a head count. There are spreadsheets, statistics, projections, marketing plans. Apparently, the House of God operates much like Big Business.
The sermon is coming soon, but first, it’s money time. Two-by-two, the greasy “Welcome” men march down the aisles to the front of the audito…I mean, sanctuary. There’s a prayer and a smartly turned out trio shimmies and sings while the oily guys start shoving offering plates down each pew. There’s an embarrassing moment when one pew gets double-dipped. They sent two offering plates down the same pew, one from each side, so they cross in the middle.
You scrounge around trying to find some cash, too embarrassed not to put something in the plate. After all, people are watching out of the corners of their eyes. Judging each other if they don’t put something in. You know they are, cause you’re doing it too.
If every family with $40k gross each year tithes 10%, that’s $4k per year. Multiply that times 500 families and holy shit! That’s $2 million…you catch yourself! Surely, that’s no way to be thinking just before the sermon.
The trio ends in a crescendo of three-part harmony was the oily ushers disappear with everyone’s hard-earned cash. The children are excused and run up the aisles anxious for the fun of Sunday school. That’s odd, you think. When I was a kid, we were allowed (nay, forced!) to listen to the sermon.
The lawy…I mean pastor bounds to the pulpit again. He’s still exuding that super-human, well-tailored joy as he invites the congregation to open their Bibles. It’s unnecessary though because of his PowerPoint presentation.
The sermon, oddly enough, is about money. In fact, he’s in the midst of a three-month series about money. And every bullet point in the sermon outline starts with an “M.” Y’know, “M” for “money.” Cute, isn’t it. He tells the congregation exactly what to write in their sermon notes, repeating everything twice slowly, like a High School teacher.
You remember something about Jesus turning over the money-changers tables and shouting, “‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!” (Matt. 21:13) But the pastor doesn’t mention that verse.
“With every head bowed and every eye closed,” the pastor suddenly brings the sermon to a close. He asks the congregation how many of them have rededicated themselves to God’s plan for money. You peek. Everyone else is peeking too. Hands go up all across the congregation. If you don’t raise your hand, you look prideful and pig-headed. It’s a sea of raised hands.
Then, it gets worse. The dreaded altar call. He keeps praying and calling for all those who want to come to Jesus to step forward. Odd. That’s the first time he’s mentioned salvation in the whole sermon.
You peek again. Is anyone taking the walk of shame? The walk that admits you’re the only damned sinner in the whole place who’s going to Hell. You peek and see a mother and father physically shove their six-year-old daughter down the aisle, against her will. Your heart goes out to her. It’s the ol’ story. Saved at six. Lived like the Devil for awhile. Re-dedicated her life to Christ at thirty-six. She’ll be the one giving her testimony some day.
The pastor keeps praying, keeps calling. He must not have his altar-call-quota yet, you think. At least he’s not laying hands on people, knocking ’em over backwards to cure cancer or something.
Finally, the pastor raises his right hand and recites the benediction. “The Lord bless you and keep you…” It’s the longest passage of Scripture you’ve heard in the past hour. It’s a wonderful prayer, brings a tear to the eye. Oddly enough, it’s the first time you felt worshipful.
The pastor reminds the congregation to buy their $15 Super Bowl half-time DVDs on their way out. “Invite your unsaved friends over for the Super Bowl,” he said, “and share the Gospel with them by playing this DVD during the halftime.” You stifle an impulse to tilt your head like a confused puppy. Okaaaaaaay. No Gaga. What did he have planned when the cheerleaders start their boob-bouncing and crotch-revealing high-kicking choreography. At least Lady Gaga can sing and play piano!
The pastor bounds down from the pulpit and begins glad handing the congregation as the pipe organ (First time you noticed it!) belts out Prelude in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. What they lacked in hymns they made up for in Bach. Now you’re deeply moved with the desire to worship. After all, Bach wrote everything “to the glory of God.”
But there’s no time for worship now. People behind you are pushing you out of your pew. Two more audiences must be rushed through the system. There’s a service at 10 a.m. and another at 11:30 a.m. All the performers, yeah performers, will give their damned performances twice more that morning. It’s all on a schedule and a tight one!
As the oily usher absent-mindedly pumps your limp hand, he’s excitedly discussing his Super Bowl party with a friend. Obviously, strangers like you are not invited, not even to the Gospel DVD during the halftime.
As you walk out to your car in your pinchy shoes, you observe the oily usher waving his fist at his wife as he drives off in a spendy car. His blindingly white teeth are gritted and you can almost hear the crash as he furiously slams his fist down on the dashboard of the car. Apparently, that snafu with the offering plate really pissed him off. His wife and kids are catatonic. Apparently, this post-church tantrum is business-as-usual for them. If this is the “real him,” why the Hell does he even bother with the expense and trouble of even going to Church, you wonder.
So much for Christianity, you think, shaking your head.
You grab a Big Mac from the McDonald’s drive-thru and then enjoy football, beer, babes and Gaga, for the rest of the afternoon. That’s the last time you’ll ever set foot in a church. Perhaps you’re not holy enough or not self-deluded enough. Or, and this is more likely, you’re simply too honest with yourself to pretend as these people are obviously doing.
The Reek of Narcissism
Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe I’m bitter. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m freakin’ honest. After twenty-five years in churches, they reek of narcissism and hypocrisy for me.
For starters, there’s the money thing. Money, money, money: narcissists true love, I call it. Is this Christ-like? He had one set of clothes and “no place to lay his head.” Yet churches build massive buildings on debt, always with an in-house bookstore where they make a profit by selling the Word of God (and other religious books) only to those who can afford it. But when my husband was homeless on walkabout, precious few churches would allow him to cross their threshold, let alone offer a meal, clean cast-off clothes, a safe place to lay his head for one night…let alone a free Bible. (Luckily, he always carried his own Bible in his rucksack.) Is this Christlike!?
Speaking of money, the pastor’s “glad rags” are very glad indeed (and so is his sports car and his pretty, young, sexy secretary.) Just to give you some contrast, Amish congregations meet bi-weekly for church in each other’s sheds, barns, anywhere that’ll hold the crowd with horses and buggies scattered in the barnyard! The pastors are the fathers and grandfathers of the church, unpaid. And they all dress the same. One pattern, always in black fabric on Sundays. Just sayin’.
Then there’s the braggadocio. Seems like church members try to out-do each other in holiness, in involvement, in ministry, in service, in prayer, in discipling, in tithing. Where’s the bloody humility? When they get done bragging about their good works…they start bragging about their former sinfulness. Seriously!?
And then there’s that damn joy. So overt, so in-your-face it’s a special kind of Hell. It’s also fake as shit! Don’t give me that “joy of the Lord” thing. If it were real, honey, I’d know it. Now let Mrs. Fisk drop the act and take off her make-up.
And do they ever see, speak or know anyone outside of the church? Ever? It’s like an inclusive, little clique. Or maybe even a cult.
Enter C. S. Lewis
As you know, when I was twenty-five I gave up trying to get to Heaven and accepted Hell was my destination, at least, if the narcissistic cult of my family was to be believed.
There was one spark, one glimmer that maybe, just maybe, true Christianity was not the smarmy, hypocritical sham I detailed above. Enter C.S. Lewis. You may know Clive Staples Lewis as the brilliant author of The Chronicles of Narnia including The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, et al. He was the close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien who richly blessed us with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Who was Lewis? He was an atheist. He was a survivor of the abuses of a clinically insane headmaster and somehow escaped the childish pedophilia of the British boy’s boarding schools system. He too tried valiantly to reach God, until finally giving up to become an atheist. He was wounded on the battlefields of WWI. He was the lover of a much older woman. He was a student of mythology and paganism. He was a brilliant British professor who hated teaching but inspired Tolkien’s character, Treebeard. He was a dedicated chain-smoker who loved his beer and a good bawdy joke. When he finally came to faith, he hated church and defied the teachings of his Anglican church by marrying an American (!) divorcée with two young sons. And maybe, just maybe, Lewis may be the first and only true Christian I’ve ever “met.” He and he alone kept my small, frail spark of faith alive.
If you, too, hate the sickening hypocrisy and vomit-inspiring narcissism of the so-called church, before abandoning God entirely, may I suggest you read The Screwtape Letters by Lewis. He had the balls to write if from the perspective of a Senior Devil advising a Junior Devil. If you like this article, you’ll love Screwtape. And if you like Screwtape, you’ll love Mere Christianity and especially The Great Divorce….oh! and Lewis’ autobiography Surprised By Joy.
Oh, oh…and see if you can find The Four Loves on tape or CD as read on the BBC by Lewis himself. It’ll give you goosebumps as his deep, bass voice reveals what real agape (unconditional) love should be like…y’know, the kind of love narcissists don’t have. (I nearly stole my library’s copy of it!)
Maybe, just maybe, narcissists have given God a bad name. Thanks to C.S. Lewis, maybe we survivors can make our peace with an unconditionally loving (and brutally honest) God after all.
Thompson, L. (2017). Narcissism in the Church. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/narcissism/2017/01/narcissism-in-the-church/