The Disturbing Tale of Two Opposing Pastors: Heath Lambert and Mac Brunson; One Blogger -Tom Rich; One Victim -Tiffany Thigpen; and the Fight for Control at FBC Jacksonville.


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“It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us; it is the very sign of His presence.” CS Lewis


 

Stay tuned: I hope to make an announcement next week about a positive change in the blog. Never fear. Nothing is really changing.


The summer I first started blogging, I became aware of the eye opening story of Tom Rich, FBC Jax Watchdog.Tom had started an anonymous blog in which he outlined the issues surrounding FBC Jacksonville and their recently hired pastor, Mac Brunson. Brunson and friends involved the local deputies, who involved the state of Florida attorney’s office in order to request that Rich’s internet server *out* his identity. In the end, Rich prevailed in a lawsuit against all involved in this unjust action.

Here I sit this evening, about to tell the story of Mac Brunson and Heath Lambert at FBC Jacksonville. Not much has changed. It’s still ugly over there.  This is a confusing tale involving politics and tribalism. This will take several posts in order to help readers, not steeped in the culture of FBC Jacksonville, to understand what has happened. (If that describes you, dear reader, thank God you avoided being involved in such a church mess that has lasted well over a decade.

This church was wealthy and influential but whose fortunes have faded over the last decade. However, its infrastructure is quite impressive which has not gone unnoticed by those the Calvinista set. Enter Heath Lambert a couple of years ago. Hey, you say, he’s not a pastor. He’s one of those ACBC Biblical counseling dudes who was on faculty of SBTS. What’s the deal? How did he get rid of Mac Brunson and take possession of this real estate gem? And didn’t we hear that he is doesn’t believe in confidentiality in counseling because he wants people who are sinning™ to be disciplined by the church?

Well, yes. All of that is true. FBC Jacksonville is an incredibly *rich story (sorry, Tom)* which may help explain why the SBC is experiencing a serious decline in membership. Christianity Today just posted Southern Baptists See Biggest Drop in 100 Years: As baptisms and membership continue to decline, top SBC leader challenges the annual report process. (PS Most leaders will admit, behind closed doors that the actual membership of the SBC is much lower since Baptist churches rarely remove people who leave from their roles.)

The loss of 288,000 church members last year brings total SBC membership to 14.5 million, down from its peak of 16.3 million in 2006. Average worship attendance remained relatively stable at 5.2 million.

Total baptisms, a landmark metric for the denomination, fell by 4 percent to 235,748—the lowest number since World War II. Giving was down slightly to $11.6 billion, after two years of increases. SBC churches spent $1.1 billion on missions.

As you will see, I have a rather poor opinion of both opposing pastors: Lambert and Brunson.I fear the ones who have been let down the most are the long time members of FBC Jax as well as good folks like Tom Rich and Tiffany Thigpen.

I want to review what happened to Tom Rich first before going into what has happened with the advent of Lambert and the exit of Brunson. Thankfully, I wrote a synopsis of Tom Rich’s story in 2012: The Saga of Tom Rich Versus Mac Brunson and First Baptist Church, Jacksonville.

I still remember contacting Tom Rich back in the summer of 2009. he agreed to speak with me but was a tad suspicious when I told him I had started a blog and wanted to write his story. I can still hear his voice, somewhat hesitant. But, he took a deep breath and told me his story. We’ve been friends ever since. We still laugh about the day when the state attorney returned my phone call and I almost fell out of my chair.

The Dawg’s (His nickname) story is pretty incredible and a sad, proven example of abusive church leaders. It is my hope that this post will give you the background you will need to understand the rest of the story to come.

I know there is so much info in the following. If you want to get to the heart of the mess, Tom outlines the settlement at the end of this post.


“Victory is sweetest when you’ve known defeat.” Malcolm Forbes

Tom Rich won!!! This is a blog post that I have waited almost three years to write. Shortly after starting TWW, we became aware of a major church conflict between a blogger and First Baptist Church, Jacksonville. The more I read of the situation, the more convinced I was that there was a major story developing.  It involved, in my opinion, highly questionable actions on the part of a church which used law enforcement agencies to “out” the identity of a blogger. Said pastor, Mac Brunson claimed he feared for his “safety.” This church went onto punish Tom Rich and his family. As we read Watchdog’s blog, link, we became convinced that, if this blogger was a threat, then the two of us should be reported to Homeland Security!

I got the now infamous “Wartburg Tingle.” This wasn’t just any story. This was a saga that had national implications for the right of free speech without the fear of government coercion. Dee, decided to attempt to contact Tom Rich, the now identified “anonymous” blogger.

Mind you, this blog was new and we had just a few readers. I was concerned that Tom might think I was nuts. So, I emailed him and agave him my phone number and said I wanted to do a story on him. I was sure he would fall down laughing when he saw the size of the blog’s audience at the time.

My cell phone rang and a hesitant voice asked for Dee Parsons. Tom had not heard of the blog but slowly started to warm up to me.( To my critics-I can be charming). We then planned some time to talk for an extended period, via phone, along with his wife, Yvette. And we did, for hours. I still have my original notes.

Thus began a friendship that has stood the test of time. Although we have never met face to face, a failing I intend to remedy this year, we began to email and talk on the phone. I was incensed as I became convinced that FBC Jacksonville, Mac and Debbie Brunson and the sheriff’s office had violated the rights of Tom Rich.

At that time, I, too, was an anonymous blogger. It angered me to think that an irritated church could so profoundly interfere with the civil rights of individuals. If a church could so easily convince law enforcement to interfere with Tom’s  legal right of privacy, can you imagine how rampant such requests could become?

I have believed for close to three years that Tom was in the right. I offered to do anything in my power to publicize this travesty. There are also two other people who rose to the occasion to help Tom. Their input and support were essential to the outcome of this case. Both “Arce,” a TWW commenter, and Wade Burleson provided advice and support to Tom during these past years. Although I am not at liberty to reveal the specifics, we want to thank them. You have shown the grace of God towards Tom when he was under serious attack.

Today is just a review of some of the articles that we wrote. Tomorrow, I will discuss our thoughts on this matter. I predicted that this situation would be resolved in Tom’s favor. I was right. The first post is the longest since it provides a summary of the situation.A lso, if you link to the earlier posts, please forgive the format. I used to use an obscure Mac format and it did not translate well when I converted. Also, I did not carry over the comments for these posts.

Today, we honor our fellow blogger, Tom Rich. We thank God for giving Tom the strength to persevere.

First Baptist Church, Jacksonville: Another Same Old, Same Old Link

Mac Brunson was called to pastor FBC Jacksonville in 2006. Within three weeks of his arrival, he was reportedly given a land gift estimated at $250,000 by a member of FBC Jax. Pastor Brunson built a large home on the lot which is purportedly worth around $900,000. We will outline other expenditures in our next post. A member of FBC Jax, Tom Rich, became troubled by what he was seeing in his church. After realizing that some members were being asked to leave the church, Tom wrote an anonymous letter to Pastor Brunson outlining his concerns. However, Pastor Brunson wanted the anonymous letter writer to identify himself, and Tom declined because he did not wish to be “thrown” out of the church.

Tom hoped that much needed changes at FBC Jax would be made. In August 2007 he began blogging anonymously as “FBC Jax Watchdog” about the issues he had with his pastor and his church. In December 2007 the “Watchdog” criticized the by-law changes that were made at First Baptist Jacksonville. This seems to be a trend within Southern Baptist churches, so if it hasn’t yet happened at your church you might want to do a little research into why they are being altered. Here’s a clue: the changes to the by-laws appear to be giving pastors all the control. Then in May and June of 2008 Tom addressed Mac Brunson’s erroneous comments about Sheri Klouda. Remember that Brunson and Patterson are very close friends. Tom published Klouda’s response on his blog.

When Pastor Brunson began to solicit large sums of money from his congregation to benefit the church infrastructure, Tom expressed his deep concerns on his blog. Apparently, the pastor requested that the congregation “give a million in two weeks”. Can you imagine the pressure that must have been applied to motivate congregants to give over and above their regular contributions? At the same time, Florida was experiencing a precipitous decline in property values. The real estate bubble was beginning to burst during this time.

On September 28, 2008, during the Chest of Joash Service (aka commitment Sunday), commitment cards for 2009 were collected, and the total pledges were only half of the church’s budget. Furthermore, the “give a million in two weeks” campaign was terribly unsuccessful. Not that much money went into the church coffers. Haven’t we discussed something similar on The Wartburg Watch recently? We hope you are reminded of Martin Luther who caused great trouble for the indulgence preachers.

Pastor Brunson and the church trustees must have believed that the “Watchdog” alone was to blame for the tremendous shortfall, not the failing economy. The very next day, September 29, 2008, John Blount, FBC Jax church administrator, called the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to report “an Internet incident with possible criminal overtones.” At that point the church leaders sought to discover the Watchdog’s real name. Tom Rich didn’t even find out about this investigation until recently.

Robbie Hinson, a sheriff’s detective attending FBC Jax, reportedly opened a criminal investigation into the Watchdog’s identity by obtaining subpoenas from the State of Florida Attorney General’s office. By the way, Detective Hinson has served as Mac Brunson’s personal bodyguard. Since when do pastors (besides Mark Driscoll) need body guards? These subpoenas forced Google and Comcast to reveal Tom Rich’s name. The case was closed on November 13, 2008, with a report that simply stated: “Investigation closed, no crime found”. Incredibly, there was no record of any investigations or interviews done by Detective Hinson in the file.

Tom, and his wife, Yvette, were visited by two church leaders on November 28, 2008, and given a letter outlining Tom’s 16 (!) sins, along with letters prohibiting Tom and his wife from “trespassing” on church property. He was accused of “church misconduct”. Ladies, please read the following very carefully… Yvette, Tom’s wife, was accused of associating with a church member who was guilty of church misconduct. Here’s a warning for wives at FBC: Be careful, if your husband loses his temper, you are also in sin for associating with him! EGADS!!!

On February 10, 2009, Tom was contacted by John Blount (church administrator) who informed him that they were taking the matter before the board of deacons. Tom requested fifteen minutes of uninterrupted time to defend himself against the allegations. Blount responded by saying that Tom could only discuss two things: whether he is the owner of the blog and whether the blog is sinful. Nothing else, period! If you haven’t watched the movie Luther, please be sure to do so. Again, the similarities are uncanny. Luther couldn’t discuss his concerns about heretical Catholic teachings with Cardinal Cajetan or address them before the Diet of Worms — he would only be allowed to recant. Martin Luther’s refusal to cower before the Pope and his henchmen changed Christendom forever. Since Tom would not be given the opportunity to defend himself fully before the deacons, he told John Blount he would not attend.

Tom was reportedly told that he could not come back to FBC Jax unless he met with the trustees. There was a bit of a problem. Tom had left the church and joined another fellowship by this time. However, he graciously agreed to do so if he could bring legal representation and/or make a recording. According to Tom, they informed him he COULD NOT. Such a staunch position begs the question — Why not? What were the trustees afraid of since they were following Biblical principles closely… Didn’t Jesus allow for witnesses?

Tom and his wife had to join their current church by statement of faith since FBC Jax reportedly would not give them a letter of transfer. (Yawn…been there, had that happen, too).
Here are a few of the questions we will be addressing:

1. Is it ethical for a pastor to accept lucrative gifts from church members? Does “living large” help or harm a pastor’s witness?

2. Why did FBC Jax believe it was entitled to know the identity of anonymous bloggers when the church leaders did not follow all of the Biblical mandates in dealing with controversy?

3. Why was “potential criminal behavior” cited as the reason for the subpoenas when there was no concrete evidence of the criminal behavior described?

4. Why did “Mac Brunson’s “bodyguard” become the investigative officer involved in obtaining the subpoenas and submitting the charges? Is there a conflict of interest here?

5. If FBC Jax professes to preach the whole Gospel, why is it afraid to be a light on the hill so that the whole world will see Jesus and praise Him? If FBC is truly following God, they should be delighted that Tom Rich is talking about the senior pastor and his lifestyle because Mac Brunson is the shepherd of FBC Jax and, as such, is an example of godly behavior.

6. Is there a program in place at FBC Jax that would allow the less affluent church members to receive gifts of lots in gated communities from fellow members, as their pastor did?

Finally, our hearts go out to Tom and Yvette Rich. I (Dee) have had the opportunity to speak with them at length. They are delightful people who answered my questions candidly. There is no doubt in my mind that they are a brother and sister in Christ. Too bad no one in the “so-called” leadership of FBC Jax ever met with Tom over a cup of coffee to hear his concerns and hash this out. Too busy filling out subpoenas, we suppose….

The Way of Love Versus Hypocrisy link

In this post, we addressed the incredible outpouring of “gifts” given to Brunson upon his arrival. We listed quite a few of them. At the same time he wrote a book expressing admiration that Billy Graham did not accept gifts.

Shenanigans and Subpoenas link

In this episode we discuss  the claims of Debbie and Mac Brunson. For example, “Mac and Debbie say they were being stalked and their mail was stolen.”  Frankly, this has to be one of the most bizarre claims in this ordeal. you see, the Brunson’s live in a gated community in a very, very expensive house. Mrs. Brunson claimed someone was stalking who when he went on her run. In other words, someone had to jump over  the wall to find the Mrs. Why? She went to church each Sunday, dressed to the nines. Anyone could snap a photo then.

Here is what we wrote back then..

“So, is there an ongoing investigation of the supposed mail theft and the alleged stalking of Debbie Brunson? Dare I raise this question, why in the world would anyone need to “surreptitiously” take photos of the Mrs.? Does this sounds a bit narcissistic? What steps have been taken to prevent further mail theft and stalking? How many times since the Brunsons learned the identity of our intrepid blogger, Tom, has Debbie been surreptitiously photographed and the mail stolen? “

Poor Pastor Mac: Getting Killed For The Lord link

We wrote

“We have some pretty compelling evidence that Mac Brunson lives quite well in his McMansion with a handsome salary, a wife and son under his employ, and what appears to be a recession proof gig at First Baptist in Jacksonville. However, Mac was apparently whining about how poorly he was being treated by the church.”

The Pastor Or The Model: Who Demonstrate a  More Christlike Attitude? link

This post was to demonstrate how a NY model, hounded by a blogger,  showed more class than Mac Brunson.

FBC Jacksonville: Selling It and Selling Out link

In this we explore the fundraising events at FBC Jacksonville.

Jimmy Smryl, Redneck Theologian link

Jimmy worked under Brunson. You might be interested in seeing what he says about Catholics. We invented one of our first TWWisms-Redneck theology.

“These are the guys who confuse patriotism with Christianity and are convinced that even major religions are “cults”. They call each other by their first names with brother inserted (e.g. Brother Bob). They come up with new Biblical mandates such as “God wants us to have a quiverfull.” “Jesus created nonalcoholic wine.” “It is heresy to believe the world is older than 6000 years”.

Dissenting Opinions Are Not Allowed! link

In this we focus on how the subpoenas were obtained. It is not a pretty story.

Subpoena This Blog link

In this episode, Dee recounts her conversation with Angela Corey, one of Florida’s State attorneys.This post was brought up during some depositions and Dee was ready to go to Jacksonville and stand by her interview.

FBC Jacksonville Blogger Wins Round One! link

Rich prevailed in his lawsuit against the authorities. TWW predicted that this would bode ill for the FBC Jacksonville. If only they had backed off at that point. Think of how much money could have been saved by the church!

From Tom:

“My lawyers and I have reached a settlement in the 1 ½ year long lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) detective and Assistant State Attorney involved in issuance of subpoenas on my blog back in October 2008.” The monetary settlement was for $50,000 representing the damages we have incurred from the actions of the JSO officer and Assistant State Attorney in unmasking my identity as the Watchdog blogger through subpoena power, and the ensuing banishment from our church – but much more important than the financial settlement is that the settlement agreement includes a commitment on the part of the city, specifically Sheriff John Rutherford, to make positive changes at the JSO stemming from the circumstances that led to this lawsuit.

In our agreement with the city, the Sheriff has agreed to a meeting with myself, my lawyers, and the city’s legal counsel to discuss important ethical issues that have arisen from this case, and to consider our input on changes that can be made in the JSO’s conflict of interest code for its detectives. Additionally, the Sheriff and the Office of General Counsel have agreed to develop and implement a training program for JSO detectives specifically on constitutional First Amendment issues and legal ramifications that must be considered when issuing investigative subpoenas.

We have given you way too much to read. We will discuss the ramifications of this settlement tomorrow. Meantime, Dee continues to dance around her kitchen, celebrating the end to Tom and Yvette’s trial. And I am going to say something I have wanted to say for a long time.

SHAME ON YOU-MAC AND DEBBIE BRUNSON! SHAME ON THE LEADERS OF FBC JACKSONVILLE. AND SHAME ON ALL OF THE CHRISTIAN LEADERS WHO PROPPED UP THESE MEN.


Comments

The Disturbing Tale of Two Opposing Pastors: Heath Lambert and Mac Brunson; One Blogger -Tom Rich; One Victim -Tiffany Thigpen; and the Fight for Control at FBC Jacksonville. — 99 Comments

  1. I’m so tired of the church’s dismissal of overt pastoral greed while talking about how everything anybody else does is “sinful”. I’m also disappointed that the state of Florida seemed to go right along with Brunson.

    I wish there was a call back to simplicity in the church, but I’m afraid our culture has become so consumerist that many people are just blind when their pastors demand huge amounts of money and then that money just disappears or is used on such frivolous things. So many people are struggling and I know that many megachurches won’t help their members who might be really suffering because the pastor needs a $300K+ salary and another million-dollar expansion.

    BTW, where I used to live in Atlanta, the church around the corner had a pastor that kept pushing for expansion even though they didn’t have the membership to support it at a reasonable cost. They finally built the expansion with a massive debt, and then the pastor left the church and took half the congregation with him to start a new church (where I assume he’s doing the same thing). They are Baptist, but not SBC, but I definitely think they were watching these SBC megas do the same thing.

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  2. ishy: I wish there was a call back to simplicity in the church, but I’m afraid our culture has become so consumerist that many people are just blind when their pastors demand huge amounts of money and then that money just disappears or is used on such frivolous things. So many people are struggling and I know that many megachurches won’t help their members who might be really suffering because the pastor needs a $300K+ salary and another million-dollar expansion.

    In these cases church becomes a pay for use service. People think they’re buying salvation. If we just pay our tithes then we’ll be good. Contract out the difficult questions to someone else who’ll provide easy answers and a place to gather where we can do our duty and get on with the rest of the week.

    Give the authority to the CEO and let them run the corporation.

    The problem is the corporation becomes an entity unto itself. It’s sole purpose (like any other living thing) becomes survival and propagation.

    With religion though the investment is not just cash but your entire worldview, including family, friends, kids.

    It’s not just a matter of cashing your shares and investing in another company. You are caught supporting an entity with the belief that failure is not option or delusion that the entity cannot fail because that would mean the deity would also be a failure.

    If one is seeking reform in faith then they better strap in for a long ride….as in geologically long ride.

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  3. On topic for once: I owe deepest thanks to Tom Rich. His was the first blog I found about church abuse. At that time I did not have the vocabulary to understand my own earlier experiences. My worst experiences happened when I was a teen, but FBCJAX Watchdog helped me start healing. I’m surprised by how much really old damage has fallen away, through Tom Rich’s blog, TWW, and one or two others.

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  4. Amazing story. Around here, most pastors have a 40 hour a week job, and pastor the other 128 hours of the week. For no pay at all, so far as I know.

    Neighbor built his church himself on a little plot of his farm. I’m sure future members helped, as one man can’t handle roof rafters alone. But I know he distributes more in aid to the congregation than the congregation can contribute.

    This is really rural, not downtown JAX, not Atlanta, etc. Also more Christ-like than FBS JAX as far as I can tell.

    Does this boy in JAX have a Gulfstream already, or does he have to make do with a Limo still?

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  5. J R in WV: Amazing story. Around here, most pastors have a 40 hour a week job, and pastor the other 128 hours of the week. For no pay at all, so far as I know.

    Where I live, there’s a huge variety of churches. It is normal in many traditions to hire full-time pastors with salaries and benefits. Ours work exceedingly hard, and none of them are getting rich. Even though most local churches remain closed, our clergy are working more hours than usual, because they spend extra time on phone, email, etc., instead of being able to keep up with all of us face to face. The change to using technology has also consumed time… not just getting accustomed to it, but using it appropriately and securely.

    No Gulfstreams in my immediate area. Just churches that look like churches, and hymns that sound like hymns. 😉

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  6. Jack: With religion though the investment is not just cash but your entire worldview, including family, friends, kids.

    It’s not just a matter of cashing your shares and investing in another company. You are caught supporting an entity with the belief that failure is not option or delusion that the entity cannot fail because that would mean the deity would also be a failure.

    I think you are very right. And then when that institution fails you or your family in a major way, it pretty much destroys your entire worldview. Not just that, but if your spouse or kids aren’t disappointed in the same way, they will blame you for the fallout instead of on the institution.

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  7. About a month after I stopped attending my SBC church in Feb. 2016, I found out that hubby told people there that I was depressed. Well ………. some people at church sent me some downloaded papers (a special section included for women) on how to deal with depression. Those papers were co-written by Mac Brunson and Jerry Vines, and those papers made me feel better in less than an hour, and I didn’t even read all of the first page.

    You see, it took me less than an hour to take the staple out of the papers, fold each paper into a paper airplane, fly it from the living area into the dining area, and than gather up all of the paper airplanes and throw them into the wood heater! And, oh boy, did that make me feel better!

    .. PS – I’m sorry I missed the “covering” post! I love those!
    ~

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  8. ishy: One major problem with big cities in the south is that they are overrun by SBC or SBC-like megas, to the point where they force most others out of business.

    It seems they’ve reached a saturation point at which the local economies can no longer sustain any more mega-biggies.
    The same has happened here in the Southwestern Pacific Bible belt (Southern Cal. Eastward into Arizona).
    The easy pickins’ are gone, much like the gold fields of the Yukon got played out.

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  9. Ed. Note: Read this comment to help you to see what is going on at FBC Jax. This person is a true blue Brunson fan and had been dogging me for awhile. She’ll get her wish about Lambert but will be disappointed to earn that I think they are both an embarrassment to the faith. I sure hope Jennifer liked her money going to body guards and fancy digs.

    Is this a joke? I couldn’t get through this whole nonsensical “article” and finish it, but good grief! You mean a pastor accepted a gift of a lot from a generous church member? Shut the front door! Who cares? FBC members have been generous to all of their pastors.

    And, what, the church needed to raise a lot of money in a short period of time? NOOOO!!!! Say it isn’t so. That’s crazy. No, it’s not crazy, but you, Tom and this article are.

    I read Tom’s blog many years ago and it actually made me cry. I couldn’t believe someone could be so nasty. It broke my heart for my church and my pastor. Tom is no saint, as you clearly try to make him out to be. The Brunson’s had real cause for being concerned about their safely, thus the need for a body guard. They received death threats, had people stealing and vandalizing their property. They were scared, and for good reason.

    You’ve done nothing here but pick and choose what you want to share with your readers to make the Brunson’s look bad and Tom look innocent. You’ve neither been honest nor forthcoming. Which is really a shame because you do have a story when it comes to Heath Lambert, if you plan to tell it right. There’s lots of juicy backstaping, lying, manipulating and deceit with that one, but how can anyone take you seriously when you write crap like this about the Brunsons?

    The Brunsons certainly were not perfect, but no one is. No pastor, no deacon, no member of any church anywhere is without sin, or mistakes. But the Brunsons were good, godly, caring people and they were treated horribly by Heath and many others.

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  10. Muff Potter: It seems they’ve reached a saturation point at which the local economies can no longer sustain any more mega-biggies.

    They keep trying, though. When I lived in Atlanta, I would see a sign for a new church plant every week. A couple minutes on their website, and I could tell who they were trying to copy, whether it was Northpoint, Willow Creek, Grace, or a NAMB New Cal plant. And they always failed after awhile…

    NAMB, I think, lets people try knowing they will fail, probably believing at least a few new people will be indoctrinated and join up somewhere else. But everyone else just sees money but somehow ignores all the megas which already hold their target audiences. Because these churches aren’t making a lot of new converts, just shuffling around the same people.

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  11. ishy: I wish there was a call back to simplicity in the church

    This hope may be closer to fulfillment than one would guess from superficial appearances of the state of religion in US.

    We may have recurrent seasonal pandemic pneumonia in US forever, a Covid version of the seasonal influenza epidemic. This could occur if the virus mutates quickly enough that whatever vaccines are developed do not confer multi-year immunity.

    Under those hypothetical (but plausible) conditions, I think that the in-person megachurch model is dead. In terms of meeting size, religion will need to scale back down to what it was in decades or even centuries past, and gatherings that size cannot support the extravagant life-styles of today’s super-apostles.

    I have the impression (from Max and others) that the majority of SBC churches are actually at this scale already. Assuming actual (pre-pandemic) attendance at 4 million (contra the “on member rolls” number of 14+ million) and ~40,000 congregations, the average gathering size would be ~100, and median size may be smaller since the megas may bias the average high.

    As the reality of the “new normal” sinks in and prior ways of “being church” are seen to be unhealthy (in multi-fold ways, sociologically, inter- and intra-personally, and medically), it will become obvious which church leaders give a d@#n about their congregations and which are simply using them for personal advantage.

    The epidemic in US might be a present-day instance of God scattering the flocks in order to liberate them from unrighteous shepherds.

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  12. Samuel Conner: Under those hypothetical (but plausible) conditions, I think that the in-person megachurch model is dead. In terms of meeting size, religion will need to scale back down to what it was in decades or even centuries past, and gatherings that size cannot support the extravagant life-styles of today’s super-apostles.

    Let’s hope so. One of the big problems in American evangelicalism is the megachurch model. It invites financial corruption and lots of other problems. Small churches aren’t perfect, but they do allow for more oversight of leadership by the congregation.

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  13. Samuel Conner: I have the impression (from Max and others) that the majority of SBC churches are actually at this scale already. Assuming actual (pre-pandemic) attendance at 4 million (contra the “on member rolls” number of 14+ million) and ~40,000 congregations, the average gathering size would be ~100, and median size may be smaller since the megas may bias the average high

    I wouldn’t say the majority of churches are, but it could be that the majority of SBC members attend a mega, simply because they have huge average attendances. There are a lot of really tiny SBC churches in rural areas of Georgia. There’s at least five within a mile of me.

    There’s probably some discrepancies, as some SBC megas tell members they are “nondenominational”, just like the Summit did. Some of the biggest megas are truly nondenom, like Grace and Northpoint. Grace really has it’s own little denom, and Northpoint’s got the satellite feed churches going (one is pretty close to me and I’m just mystified that anyone would go to a building to watch a satellite feed when you could watch the same feed at home). I actually think more people go for praise and worship and not the sermons to some of these heavy contemporary worship services, then just play games on their phone during the sermon.

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  14. I just had a thought, in thinking about some of the arguments I’ve heard that mega pastors “deserve” a CEO’s salary. As we’ve seen, most of them do not have the skills of a CEO. They are the faces and voices of the church, but other people handle the business and even write their sermons for them.

    They are essentially church spokesmodels…

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  15. ishy: There are a lot of really tiny SBC churches in rural areas of Georgia.

    Of SBC’s 46,000 churches, 85+% have membership of less than 200; of that number most have less than 100 members. Megas (2000 + members) comprise less than 5% of the total number of SBC churches … their pastors become stars and national leaders, but don’t represent the majority of SBC churches. While it may be an objective of the new breed of SBC seminary graduates to be a “Mega” pastor, few achieve that goal. Only those with a touch of charisma, a gift of gab, and a gimmick get to handle the holy grail of more numbers and nickels than they count. While the big-boys continually change their message and method to attract the masses, obscure real-deal pastors in mini churches are ministering to the sheep as they ought … the last shall be first and the first last.

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  16. ishy: I’ve heard that mega pastors “deserve” a CEO’s salary. As we’ve seen, most of them do not have the skills of a CEO … other people handle the business and even write their sermons for them

    The average megachurch is more business than a Church of the Living God. Without a business aptitude, mega “pastors” rule by delegation, manipulation, intimidation, and domination. Likewise, fruit of the Spirit are not in their toolkit; thus, we should not expect them to act like men of God. At a time when we need to return to prayer altars, megamania has constructed platforms over them for the gifted to strut their stuff … drawing CEO salaries and benefits perhap, but spiritually poor and destitute before God.

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  17. ishy: I actually think more people go for praise and worship and not the sermons to some of these heavy contemporary worship services,

    This may be part of the megachurch model that will end. Large numbers of people in an enclosed space, singing loudly … it’s perfect CV-19 transmission conditions.

    If many people are attending primarily for the musical/emotional experience, and that has to change dramatically (will people want to just stand and listen without vocalizing? Hum along with the choruses in one’s head?) in the interests of staying medically well, will people continue to want to be present at these meetings?

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  18. Samuel Conner: If many people are attending primarily for the musical/emotional experience, and that has to change dramatically (will people want to just stand and listen without vocalizing? Hum along with the choruses in one’s head?) in the interests of staying medically well, will people continue to want to be present at these meetings?

    It’s a good question. I suspect they will, because the emotional worship they attend every week tends to come with a hefty dose of spiritual manipulation and guilt. But I attended megas for 10+ years, and they really tend to be giant donation concerts with some speaking, and little in the way of depth.

    Some of the megas have definitely gone to cult territory of demanding members come, like Grace and Gateway, but most would never notice if you didn’t show up for months (I know from experience).

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  19. ishy: I attended megas for 10+ years, and they really tend to be giant donation concerts with some speaking, and little in the way of depth

    Shallow folks swimming in shallow water … Christianity Lite.

    “Unspeakable! Sickening!
    What’s happened in this country?
    Prophets preach lies
    and priests hire on as their assistants.
    And my people love it. They eat it up!
    But what will you do when it’s time to pick up the pieces?”
    (Jeremiah 5:31)

    I’m not a fan of The Message translation of the Bible, but this passage from it paints the picture well.

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  20. Max: Samuel Conner: The epidemic in US might be a present-day instance of God scattering the flocks in order to liberate them from unrighteous shepherds.

    And if those dispersed flocks start hungering and thirsting after righteousness, God just might return to His people.

    This might be the effect on the church. However, I still can’t see God deliberately unleashing this virus in order to smite this group or that group.

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  21. Friend: This might be the effect on the church. However, I still can’t see God deliberately unleashing this virus in order to smite this group or that group.

    Agreed. Persecution scattered the early church, causing Christianity to spread to the known world at that time. Good can come from bad. It’s always better to ask What than Why … “What are you saying to us, Lord?” In the middle of a pandemic, what sort of people are we to be? In the midst of a tragedy which has closed churches, perhaps we need to re-examine what Church is supposed to look like.

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  22. 9Mark Dever throws congregants a bone, realizes he can get around DC health department and his own dogmatic ‘no livestreaming of church’ dictates by taking his show on the road across the Potomac.

    CHBC 9Marksists have been summoned to assemble for their leader’s preaching at 5 o’clock tonight in a field outside a former intern’s church in Virginia:

    https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/

    scroll down for notice:

    “meeting at 5pm on Sunday, June 14 outdoors at Franconia Baptist Church. Please download logistical details”

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  23. Samuel Conner: The epidemic in US might be a present-day instance of God scattering the flocks in order to liberate them from unrighteous shepherds

    While a significant number smother to death as they are called home. The pandemic was not caused by God wanting anything.

    It’s humans crashing into nature that’s the case. Food gathering practices and wet markets play a part. Often affecting some of the poorest parts of the world. Combine this with a global economy that thrives on international travel and trade, ostensibly to support an industrialized culture that pours significant resources into “service industries” like entertainment & consumerism and we’re just peeling the surface of this onion.

    Church is one of those service industries affected.

    I agree with the premise that smaller groups like churches may become more prominent but if they retain the authoritarian structure they may become more cultish. It’s hard to say what will happen.

    Some folks may be enjoying their freedom from such conformist expectations. People might not go back to church. My wife is a devout Christian but she’s attending the on line services less &less. During this time we’ve been more busy, both of us are in health care, combine that with juggling home schooling and our work schedules, church has fallen by the wayside.

    She still prays and is devout.

    This is definitely a game changer and will no doubt provide lots of fodder for analysis of Christian trends.

    If people want to gather, they will

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  24. Jack,

    “In these cases church becomes a pay for use service. People think they’re buying salvation. If we just pay our tithes then we’ll be good. Contract out the difficult questions to someone else who’ll provide easy answers and a place to gather where we can do our duty and get on with the rest of the week.

    Give the authority to the CEO and let them run the corporation.”
    ++++++++++++++++++++

    in my view, it’s letting someone else manage your faith & spirituality for you, instead of owning one’s own faith and being responsible for it.

    the world of professional christians (christianity, inc.) reminds me of how the clothes we wear are decided for us in boardrooms.

    being in the christian machine (as a consumer) means shadowy entities decide for me what i will be exposed to, what to think, how to think.

    YUCK BLECH SICK I HAVE HAD ENOUGH

    my decision to opt out of the institution was an intelligent one. simply meaning, well-thought through. one of the most compelling reasons was to reclaim ownership of my own faith and spirituality.

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  25. Jack,

    Jack,

    “The problem is the corporation becomes an entity unto itself. It’s sole purpose (like any other living thing) becomes survival and propagation.

    With religion though the investment is not just cash but your entire worldview, including family, friends, kids.

    It’s not just a matter of cashing your shares and investing in another company. You are caught supporting an entity with the belief that failure is not option or delusion that the entity cannot fail because that would mean the deity would also be a failure.”
    ++++++++++++++++++

    logically, when you boil it all down, the brass tacks at the bottom of the pot of a church institution is that its mission is to perpetuate itself. whatever that requires. the financial investment is too great not to.

    philosophically, it’s too much for me.

    and so (as mentioned) i have opted out. but in the eyes of family members and friends, that makes me a failure.

    yes, the entity cannot fail. it is too big to fail. so opting out makes one a failure in the eyes of one’s “co-religionists”.

    they think i’m no longer “a christian” (whatever that means). given up on it. given up on God. have lost my faith.

    the fact that they think this sort of proves my rationale for opting out, and does not bode well for them.

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  26. Jerome: “meeting at 5pm on Sunday, June 14 outdoors at Franconia Baptist Church. Please download logistical details”

    Hmm, I wonder if Virginia currently has fewer restrictions on outdoor church gatherings than the District of Columbia. On Google street view, that place looks like it has a huge lawn and tons of parking.

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  27. elastigirl: the world of professional christians (christianity, inc.) reminds me of how the clothes we wear are decided for us in boardrooms

    Interesting perspective. I’ve always suspected that seeker-friendly Christianity Lite, the prosperity gospel, New Calvinism and other aberrations of faith were hatched in a smoke-filled room full of religious demons, where a band of elite “pastors” emerged to change the belief and practice of a generation. The “church” has evolved into something that is not the Church at all, full of church members who don’t really know God at all. There are exceptions, of course, but they are in the minority IMO.

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  28. Max: mega “pastors” rule by delegation, manipulation, intimidation, and domination. Likewise, fruit of the Spirit are not in their toolkit;

    Pretty much sums it up.

    Being around these celebrities in their environs, one notes that they exude a scary, demanding, threatening aura.

    Beyond their turf, in the normal society of authentic self-regulated working people, they are useless deadbeats, dependent on other people’s assets. Which is why they are scary on their own turf: they seek to control – which is the one commodity they offer: Let me control you and thereby keep you out of hell. It doesn’t work, though.

    Our God is a God of agency for every person. God seeks those that love Him in response to His love. Full agency. Voluntary.

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  29. Ava Aaronson: Our God is a God of agency for every person.

    This is why it doesn’t work to have predators in church, with church being used as their rehab. In reality, we are all free agents, making choices based on our inner commitments.

    A predator is no longer a predator when they:

    1. have fully confessed to their wrong doing (walk in the light. 1 John 1)

    2. have fully compensated each and every victim/witness (“Bring forth the fruit of repentance,” John the Baptist, Luke 3.8, Matt. 3.8. Example: Zacchaeus).

    That’s the outward evidence of inner change, inner commitment to good not evil.

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  30. elastigirl: my decision to opt out of the institution was an intelligent one. simply meaning, well-thought through. one of the most compelling reasons was to reclaim ownership of my own faith and spirituality.

    I feel quite a bit more lost, even though I’ve never quite felt like I fit in any church. I think school is where I felt the most at home.

    I can’t help but wonder if a lot of people never feel truly at home in the church, but most are afraid to admit it. One church I attended for some years became so focused on recruiting new people that they barely paid attention to members. Another was essentially a country club with sermons. But there seemed to be a lot of unhappy and unsatisfied people at both. And I’ll be honest, not having a church hasn’t made me feel any more satisfied.

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  31. FBC Jacksonville
    ++++++++++++++

    reading all this (and i did, all the links)… it just describes shades of the last 25 years of being a member of ‘christian culture’.

    since entering adulthood, “church” as felt and smelled like being at a Tupperware convention. (i watched a documentary on ‘Tupperware’, you see. must have been a slow day for me, there)

    contrived, far too smiley, always feeling like i’m being sold to,…. you can smell the warm plastic of it.

    remember that sort-of-sweet warm plastic smell that hits you when you walk into a variety store? Target still kind of smells like this.

    that’s evangelicalism.

    something truly changed 25 or so years ago in christianland.

    i’m sure it happened in a boardroom, somewhere.

    seems to me only a desire for money & power could drive this much change on this large a scale.

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  32. ishy,

    “And I’ll be honest, not having a church hasn’t made me feel any more satisfied.”
    ++++++++++++++++

    i understand.

    if anything, i’ve noticed the majestic beauty of all of my fellow human beings.

    it’s funny, but one of the songs in my heart is ‘i’m proud to be human’. i truly am. and it gives me joy.

    and i can’t think of anything that affirms and accords with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit more.
    i’ve found that very satisfying.

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  33. Ava Aaronson: This is why it doesn’t work to have predators in church, with church being used as their rehab.

    I don’t fully agree. There is little evidence that sexual predators can or do change through repentance or therapy. Predation is not like addiction—which is hard enough to overcome. Apart from Communion wine, which is problematic for some recovering alcoholics, there are not a lot of “substances” in churches.

    But there are people, aka prey.

    Only a few churches insist on regular attendance. By including predators among the children and adults required to attend, these churches create a favorable environment for bad actors.

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  34. Ava Aaronson: A predator is no longer a predator when they:

    1. have fully confessed to their wrong doing (walk in the light. 1 John 1)

    2. have fully compensated each and every victim/witness (“Bring forth the fruit of repentance,” John the Baptist, Luke 3.8, Matt. 3.8. Example: Zacchaeus).

    That’s the outward evidence of inner change, inner commitment to good not evil.

    Apologies… I omitted to quote this in my response above.

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  35. elastigirl: since entering adulthood, “church” as felt and smelled like being at a Tupperware convention. (i watched a documentary on ‘Tupperware’, you see. must have been a slow day for me, there)

    My mother was a Tupperware fanatic.
    Hosted Tupperware parties on a regular basis.

    Ever heard of a short-lived 1991 horror-comedy TV series called “Eerie, Indiana”? It’s first episode was a parody of Tupperware called “Foreverware”.
    This is the only online copy I could find that wasn’t behind a paywall:
    https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6q2ryi
    (This show/episode was especially creepy for me, as until my mother’s death in 1975 my family lived in a permanent 1953; my mother kept me as her little boy at a permanent emotional/developmental age of 5. My family dynamics could get really “Eerie”.)

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  36. Friend: This might be the effect on the church. However, I still can’t see God deliberately unleashing this virus in order to smite this group or that group.

    Though this blog did have one commenter who became obsessed with the latter.
    When he disappeared from our comment threads (voluntarily or not), he’d even made it THE Litmus Test of Salvation.

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  37. Headless Unicorn Guy: It’s called “Sheep Rustling”.

    I have mainly belonged to churches that don’t advertise, send mass mailings, etc. I once showed an Easter mailer to one of our clergy, who replied, “We let people find us.” Quite the opposite of “grab-em-off-the-street-and-save-em-from-heck.”

    So does the church let God down by waiting to be found? It seems to me that the saner churches are quiet little circles of sanity these days. The louder the messenger, the worse the message.

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  38. Headless Unicorn Guy,

    “My mother was a Tupperware fanatic. Hosted Tupperware parties on a regular basis.

    Ever heard of a short-lived 1991 horror-comedy TV series called “Eerie, Indiana”?”
    +++++++++++

    never heard of it, but i’m sure it’s entertaining. i’m sorry for the difficulties you describe. would it be too triggering for me to say

    –those tall, slender tumblers with a little rim around the top in pastel-colored filmy plastic

    –those short tumblers with the slightly flared rim in opaque primary red, yellow and blue…maybe green

    my mom was bohemian in spirit and refused such things (along with all the wondrous cereal i could only fantasize about), but i have so many memories of drinking kool-aid, sometimes milk, at other people’s houses out of that plasticware.

    …oh my goodness i’m being sucked down the tractor beam of memory lane….i can taste it…the plastic, i mean…

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  39. Jerome: “meeting at 5pm on Sunday, June 14 outdoors at Franconia Baptist Church. Please download logistical details”

    Blergh. This made me go check a church I know where they were INSISTENT that they had to meet, and moved to a church 40 miles away so they could continue doing so. I thought the were permanently gone, but I just checked and they’re back. *rolls eyes* It’s entirely too hot to protest them, though they seriously deserve it.

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  40. Max: In the case of New Calvinism, that would be “Gods” (plural) … Dever, Mohler, Piper, etc.

    Actual Dever quote: “As the preacher spoke of God’s character, or of a certain sin, or a certain opportunity for service, it was as if God Himself was addressing you. He was!”

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  41. Ava Aaronson: Being around these celebrities in their environs, one notes that they exude a scary, demanding, threatening aura.

    Which, of course, is not of God. As noted to Ken F above, Christ’s authority is waning; likewise, He has almost no influence in what we call “church.” The people of God are to blame for allowing such rulers to set up shop; they wouldn’t be on stage if ‘we’ didn’t buy tickets to their show.

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  42. elastigirl: i blame it on sheltering in place

    I know what you mean. A couple months ago there was a “Frozen” parody video going around with the husband knocking on his wife’s closed home-office door with a bottle of wine in hand singing to her, “Do you want to start drinking?” By the time this wraps up, the question will be, “Do you want to stop drinking?”

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  43. Jennifer: There’s lots of juicy backstaping, lying, manipulating and deceit with that one, but how can anyone take you seriously when you write crap like this about the Brunsons?

    Juicy backstaping….like everyone has a sign saying “kick me” taped on their back?

    I really should consider going back to church…sounds like a laugh riot.

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  44. With respect to OP.
    This is a “modern” example of why the separation of “church and state” is fundamental to the US, and key to the US Constitution.
    just try to imagine what so many of the “bad boys” documented here on TWW would have done if they had the police in their back pocket?

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  45. Jeffrey Chalmers: just try to imagine what so many of the “bad boys” documented here on TWW would have done if they had the police in their back pocket

    Magisterial reform in Calvin’s Geneva included exile, imprisonment, torture and execution. Calvin could depend on the strong arm of the law to mete out justice if he needed to correct those who rebelled against his attempt to establish a “Christian” utopia in Geneva. Fortunately, the worst believers can experience today in New Calvinist ministries is 9Marks discipline, shunning, and/or excommunication … thank God!

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  46. Jeffrey Chalmers: just try to imagine what so many of the “bad boys” documented here on TWW would have done if they had the police in their back pocket?

    Some have, on a local level.
    Cultivating the local Authorities as Loyal Members of their Church, making sure they are on the Cop side of the Code of Blue…

    To paraphrase the Bokor from The Princess and the Frog, Nothing like Friends in High Places.

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  47. Max: Fortunately, the worst believers can experience today in New Calvinist ministries is 9Marks discipline, shunning, and/or excommunication … thank God!

    YES!
    Bless Providence for those old dead white men who founded our Nation.

    Addressing Jefferson, who had in 1817 complacently boasted that
    their country had averted a Protestant Popedom, John Adams exclaimed:

    “Oh! Lord! Do you think that a Protestant Popedom is annihilated
    in America? Do you recollect, or have you ever attended to the
    ecclesiastical Strifes in Maryland Pensilvania, New York, and
    every part of New England? What a mercy it is that these People
    cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.!
    If they could they would.”

    ~From Brooke Allen’s Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers~

    There are those in our Nation who would love to establish a fundagelical dictatorship, just as they would have loved to back in 1817.

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  48. Jeffrey Chalmers: The conflict over slavery, between “ Northern” and Southern “Christian leaders” leading up to the Civil War was pretty nasty ”

    Yeah, to the point of Baptist deacons eventually shooting at each other on the battlefield! “Southern” Baptists were particularly nasty defenders of slavery rights … while Abe reminded them that they didn’t have the right to do wrong.

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  49. SoSickOfAbuseEnabling: Back in the day when I used to go to church, so-called “church” was nothing more than a silly country club. It’s a sad fact that most “churches” now are just a sick joke, especially to abused people.

    “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
    — Karl Marx, 1852

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