WHEN A DEMAND FOR COMPLIANCE CROSSED THE LINE
By Matthew M.
WHEN A DEMAND FOR COMPLIANCE CROSSED THE LINE:
AFTER YEARS OF WEATHERING RED FLAGS, THE DEMANDS FOR UNITY IN ALL THINGS AT FOUNDATION CHURCH AT THE START OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC OPENED OUR EYES
- Author: Matthew M. | Church Member
- Attended: Foundation Church (ClearView Church), Bloomington-Normal, IL | 2010-2020
- This story was published November, 2021
My name is Matthew M, and this is my story of my experience with Clearview Church (later Foundation Church, they are used interchangeably below). I was a member at the Church, and attended from 2010 until 2020. I am sharing my story because I am tired of seeing friends and fellow Christians get hurt by poor leadership practices and suffer spiritual abuse without those stories seeing the light. My wife and I have prayed about whether this is appropriate to share, and we have come to the conclusion that it is, because it is important for people to know what happened to us, and if it has happened to them, know that they are not alone.
How We Entered The Network
When I entered college, I was looking for a church along with my girlfriend. We were both Christians looking for a church, and we were realizing that even though we both identified with evangelical Christanity, we were not 100% on the same page for what we were looking for. My girlfriend had grown up in the Vineyard Network and I had come from a relatively Baptist/non-denominational background with formerly Catholic parents who left the Catholic church when I was young. My focus was looking for solid Bible teaching, and my wife was focused on a church with dynamic worship and hands-on prayer. We were also both very focused on finding a church that met on Sunday mornings and focused on college kids worshiping and growing with older experienced families. Many college ministries weren’t really providing that, and around September my wife (who was having trouble adjusting to college) was home for the weekend and happened to run into a couple at the local drive-in theater who invited her to try the Network Church (Clearview).
My girlfriend and I tried it out the next week, and ended up attending for the next ten years.
I think that it was a perfect crossroads of what we were looking for at the time. The music and hands-on prayer appealed to my girlfriend’s background. We didn’t know right away that this church had formerly been a Vineyard. That was a transition for me. But I was impressed by the conviction and clarity of the teaching of the pastor (Jeff Miller). He spoke plainly and clearly, it seemed like it was directly from the text, and most importantly for an 18 year old looking for leadership, it was authoritative.
I remember towards the end of that year, he gave a sermon on divorce and he took some commentaries as well as his understanding of the passage and said that he would not remarry someone who had been divorced in line with his understanding of Jesus’ words in Luke and Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. It should be stated that I have no idea if Jeff Miller holds to that conviction now. In fact, I vaguely remember him saying that he thinks that declaration was too strong and lacked a lot of individual context in order to be spoken on a Sunday morning. But at the time, I was willing to let my theology and ideology be shaped by men who spoke boldly and clearly, using the word of God as a basis for their preaching. And that’s the main reason that a cessationist-leaning sort-of Baptist-y teen ended up staying in the Network for nearly a decade.
The Good Things God Was Doing In Our Ten Years in The Network
I think it’s important to outline the good things that happened over my time in The Network, because I do think that God was working in real and powerful ways in that time. My girlfriend and I got engaged and then married (that was our desire before entering the Network, it isn’t like the Network caused that desire). We had close friendships that developed through our time there, some of which continue, though many do not. We started our family and were blessed in many ways.
On spiritual growth, I want to focus on a few things that I took from my time at the Network that I found to be beneficial or constructive. First, I think that the emphasis on service developed by the Network is put in place for a positive reason, not just to make sure everyone’s working all the time. I had come from a line of churches where service for kids was limited to a couple women who were never able to attend on Sunday. My first summer after college I was at my parents’ church and was asked to lead the 5th grade boys Sunday school because no one else was willing to do the job. I found that depressing, because these men thought teaching 5th grade boys was too much of a hassle. Their own children, made in the image of God, were “too much to deal with.”
The general attitude, especially in the kids programs in the Network, that serving is expected because we all need to serve to help the church, is a good mindset that I believe gets lost in the consumer culture of American Christianity. And for my formative years of parenthood and marriage, my mindset was not to be a consumer, but a contributor. To be involved and not passive. I still think that mindset is really, really helpful, especially as I’ve started to attend other churches and find that community and outreach is very difficult, and people can feel lonely as Christians no matter what church they attend.
I learned patience and humility from submission to leadership, despite the leadership abusing that privilege.
This next one is a mixed bag, because I think I learned patience and humility from submission to leadership, despite the leadership abusing that privilege. I am very independent and strong willed. I remember coming into college with a very “elitist” Christian mindset. I thought I knew everything and was really confused why people who claimed to be Christians didn’t read their Bible, or at least know what was in it from an academic perspective. That got nipped hard and fast at Clearview. I was scolded for putting other Christians down for their lack of knowledge of the Bible. I believe this was done from a right heart and attitude, because 18 year old me definitely thought he’d earned his salvation and that I knew better than everyone else. That’s one of the reasons calls to submit to leadership work so well, because there is a nugget of truth in there. Learning to default to trusting leaders and to not think of myself as better than others, boasting only in the power of Christ was a fantastic thing that developed over my time at Clearview. It was crucial. Automatic rebellion against leaders who I thought didn’t know enough or were making bad decisions is something that can be sinful, and I truly believe that a lot of my time working that out was very beneficial. Unfortunately, it also led me to start to default to the mindset that “maybe my concerns are all in my head” and “why can’t I just trust leadership?”
The Not So Good Things That Were Happening
Small Group Structure and Scorning Bible Study
I am very concerned that the fallen nature of man and the church has led so many away from Christ when the very issues within The Network are not themselves endemic to Christianity. But, for those who were saved in The Network, it might feel that way because they haven’t known anything else. To be sure, the biggest critics of non-Network churches were those Network Members who knew nothing else.
Of particular concern to me was the scorning of Bible knowledge. To be sure, Bible knowledge does not save a person. But a Christian who does not care to know what is in the Bible will not be effective. This manifested itself in a few different ways over my time at Clearview. The most obvious was in small groups. Small groups are considered essential in The Network - attendance is expected weekly without exception for regular attenders and members. I was told constantly that this is where growth and relationship happens. While I found this to be true on occasion, often that was not the case.
Of particular concern to me was the scorning of Bible knowledge.
In small groups, we would read a passage and discuss it with the goal of God changing us through the text. I missed the Bible-studies of my previous churches, and was also surprised just how little anyone seemed to know about the Bible, so I would contribute with things I had learned from previous Bible studies, churches, or my own reading. Often this would be met with apathy or disdain from leaders or other members, and I was told on more than one occasion “we don’t want this to be a Bible study” and “we try not to make people feel left out or not smart.” Certainly there is wisdom in not trying to intentionally isolate someone who isn’t a Christian, but it seemed to me like there wasn’t a lot of growth actually happening to the Christians in these groups, either intellectually or spiritually. And that included myself, because it was easier to relax into this system then push myself to do more. I once tried to have a men’s Bible study meeting in addition to a small group and was quickly told that I could not do that because it would distract from the other things the Church was asking people to do.
As I started to watch younger and more inexperienced leaders lead small groups, it became more clear where the weaknesses lay in the small group discussion format. Questions were written so that they would be intentionally vague in order to foster discussion, and often asked people to put themselves in the shoes of the characters in the story. This often led to quite heretical declarations that would often go unchallenged. I remember one woman stating that God is not just a part of nature, but is physically in nature all around us without anyone even slightly pushing back for fear of offending her. Another great example of a bad question that was endorsed by leadership (I asked who had come up with it and was told that a Pastor had) was “we read about a tree in the passage from Psalms. What do you imagine the tree was like?” If that was supposed to change me, I don’t know who thought it was effective.
The other thing of note was that these questions were the same whether the group was full of Christians or not. Some of my best small group nights were nights where we just talked about what God was doing in us, or we had some other more personalized issue that we discussed, and we never got to the pre-planned discussion.
For a while, I thought that these were flawed questions asked by leaders who didn’t understand how to write questions. Then, a month or so before we left, I was asked to lead one night for our small group (Which had been fractured because of Covid-19) and write the questions. I took the passage and tried to do what I could with the objectives that my small group leader wanted to accomplish, and after my first draft, he sent me an audio file from the 2018 Network leadership conference about how to write small group questions. My wife and I had previously attended the Network summer conference in 2012-2014 because it wasn’t solely a leadership conference then, it was open for all members (and sometimes regular attenders). We had not been extended an invite after that point because we were not small group leaders, but I was familiar with the format. I listened to the audio and then sent it to my wife to listen to. We were appalled.
[They] demonized Bible study as “completely useless”.
The content of the audio wasn’t just about how to write these questions, but was specifically demonizing Bible study as “completely useless”. The pastor giving the breakout session gave what I found to be a strawman example of how Bible study was worthless. The specific example he gave was the question “where did Mary and Martha live” and stated that it was useless because it doesn’t matter at all to an understanding of the text. This was juxtaposed against “life application” questions, which were also said to be worthless because they didn’t use the Bible. But then both of these approaches were contrasted against The Network approach, which was about “reading the text, and letting the Spirit change you through it.” The obvious problem here was that just because you’re reading from the text doesn’t mean you are using it appropriately, or accurately. You could even inadvertently be fitting life-application questions into the framework you’ve developed.
A few years before we left The Network, my wife had started getting more involved in Bible Study Fellowship, and I got to watch a fairly well run, time-tested Bible study in process. Certainly no organization is without their problems, but they were effectively teaching women about the Bible and applying it to their lives. Why demonize that? Why straw-man Bible study with bad study questions and pretend it’s the same thing? I didn’t have a reason at the time that made sense.
Young Leadership and Inexperience
Along with the lack of Biblical knowledge was my constant concern, especially starting around 2015, on the pattern of hiring and affirming extremely young and inexperienced men for leadership positions, specifically pastoral leadership. It was always clear to me that the age of Clearview church was fairly young. When a church is focused on college students it’s bound to have some level of youth. But there was rarely anyone over fifty years old that was present. And more importantly, very few of those older men were in leadership. Leadership did include people who had been around the church for awhile, but it also included very young men, sometimes men who had just graduated college, most of whom become Christians within the Network, often recently.
On one hand, I was encouraged that the church wasn’t hiring people simply to fill pastor roles. I’ve never liked the American model of going to seminary, learning about the Bible, then adjusting your beliefs for the denomination of church you end up leading. That always felt like a transaction, not a relationship with the people being led. But the trade-off was that no one with a seminary degree was anywhere to be found in our church leadership. This was something that always concerned me, but then, in 2014, the Network did a Membership Bible Training that was supposed to get everyone on the same page theologically. At the time, I was 100% for this, and still think training like this can be useful for teaching everyone the beliefs of the church. That first training was detailed, helpful, and in my opinion, a good thing. What I did not see behind the scenes was the lack of grace given to people who were not immediately on board with the newly stated theological beliefs. But at the time there was leeway on some issues and strictness on others, and I figured that at least we were all learning about the Bible, something I missed seeing in a formal setting.
The statement was made at the time that everyone would have to “re-up” their membership by going through the class. It seemed reasonable until I started noticing that young men who were new to the church were being put in small group leader positions without having finished these classes up. I was confused, because I thought that this was really important to make sure everyone was on the same page. But the lack of experience was typically excused as necessary because of the needs of the church.
Young, inexperienced Christians were being put into leadership so quickly without even meeting the requirements ClearView had laid out.
This also played out in the Church’s stated desire to have 50% of staff, small group leaders, and members to be racial minorities. I found nothing inherently wrong with this desire, but I also noted that many of the men who were racial minorities were immediately being fast tracked for leadership, often despite being new to the church or new Christians. When I privately shared my concerns, I was told that I needed to check myself for feelings of racism. Certainly, I tried to evaluate that in good faith. It still bothered me that young, inexperienced Christians were being put into leadership so quickly without even meeting the requirements Clearview had laid out. But I held my tongue, mostly, because I was trying to submit well.
That lack of experience in small group leaders led to quite a few other issues and problems too. My marriage had some very specific and unique difficulties, right from the beginning. The pastor at our church who married us was fairly absent for most of the first year, until it was announced in Fall 2014 that he was leaving the Network as a pastor to work at an insurance company in a different state. Without the pastor who married us present, we tried to get help from small group leaders for our difficulties, and no one seemed to have any clue how to help us or advise us. My wife and I went through three small group leaders before my spiritual mentor (who was not a small group leader) recommended seeing a marriage counselor. This was the best advice I could have been given, yet we were so conditioned to think there was something wrong with us because we weren’t able to figure out our problems ourselves. But every time we took anything to a leader, the response was “this is something you’ll be working on for a very long time” or “just keep praying about it and doing what you need to do.” These were both very bad pieces of advice for our marriage.
Both my wife and I had major issues to work through, but every piece of advice we had been given was marred by the inexperience and inability to counsel shown at every level of leadership at Clearview church. So we looked for that outside help. Thank goodness we did, because it not only saved our marriage from deeply rooted issues, but primed us to be ready for when we would finally leave The Network.
“Evangelism” as the only Priority and a Refusal to Acknowledge Gifting
My wife rightly pointed out as we were going over what I’d written thus far that there was another big red flag over the years. This was the emphasis on evangelism over and above every other type of spiritual discipline and growth.
There was an attitude that evangelism was so important, more important than anything else, and it was tied up, if not explicitly then implicitly, with your value as a member of the church. My wife was regularly told to “go find people to invite to church.” Repeatedly she was told to just “go to the grocery store” and find people. This was repeatedly in seasons when she was already stretched thin. Recounting this, she remembered that she was once told to just get out and find someone to invite to church when she was only several weeks postpartum.
I had similar concerns. We had both had many people pray for the “gifting of evangelism” without us feeling much gifting. We honestly both felt called to serve in ways that never really felt acknowledged by those leading us. We also watched small group leaders as they were selected not for any spiritual gifting of teaching or preaching, but for their penchant towards evangelism and simply inviting new people. I remember pointing this out at one point, and someone matter of factly said, “well we want to grow, don’t we? Shouldn’t our leaders be good at that?” I had also heard repeated sermons on how evangelism should be our main and primary objective, above everything else, saying that we should be “90% outward focused, 10% inward focused.” The implication was that trying to disciple and grow the members of the church was selfish. We always wondered if this was a big reason there was so much turnover. It was like we were planting a church of the proverbial seeds sown on the rocky ground, that sprung up but had no roots. (Matthew 13: 5-6).
To be clear, evangelism is important. It is also very much just one of the things God calls the church to be about, and existing in a church full of spiritually young and undisciplined people had its drawbacks.
CityLights Leaving the Network and the focus on stopping “Gossip”
Around the time we started seeing the counselor in 2018, we were told about City Lights leaving The Network. Jeff Miller was the reason I stayed at Clearview church in the beginning - his teaching style and conviction of beliefs drew me in. When he left for City Lights in 2013 and Justin Major became the lead pastor, it was difficult for me and many others in that church, but when Jeff told us that he felt like it was the leading of the Holy Spirit (as well as the same conviction of the rest of the leaders in The Network that he was supposed to go to City Lights), I felt peace about it because of the vast outpouring of love and emotion experienced on the night of the announcement. That night was the night that my fiance (we would get married in 2014) said she felt convicted that I should only apply to law schools in cities that had Network Churches in them. I felt similarly that night, because if Jeff could leave what he’d built to go to a different city, I could make sure that I went to law school in a city with a Network church. That’s what I did, and I only applied to St. Louis MO, Bloomington IN, Carbondale IL, and Champaign IL. We chose Champaign, and in many ways it was a sacrifice because we decided to live in Bloomington, meaning that I would commute to Champaign. I say this to clarify that I do believe that the Holy Spirit was leading us - the day after we both felt the conviction to go to U of I they offered me a full-tuition scholarship, and it certainly felt like God was blessing that decision throughout those years. Likewise, I believe the Holy Spirit was leading Jeff, because I’m not sure he would have been able to leave The Network if he had been at Clearview in 2018.
When we did find out that City Lights left the Network, we found out from someone who had left The Network years prior. That was particularly heartbreaking for us, to not even be told by anyone in the Church. We came in that next Sunday and casually looked at the map of churches in The Network and saw that it no longer included City Lights. We later found out that there had been a meeting of “small group leaders and long term members'' who were told about City Lights leaving. We apparently did not fall into the group of long term members who were needed to be told, which was hurtful as well. When I did discuss with my small group leader, he apologized for not telling me. I asked him what happened, and he said he didn’t really know and we weren’t going to gossip about it. I asked, if I knew people in St. Louis looking for a church, whether he thought I could recommend City Lights as a church. After all, whatever caused them to split wasn’t a theological issue or we would know about it, I figured. He said that his opinion was no, we shouldn’t recommend them because they left The Network. This greatly disturbed me as a response, though I don’t blame the particular leader for saying it - he was just saying what he was told.
Over the next few weeks and months, many people left Clearview, including our closest friends, the spiritual mentor who had recommended my wife and I see a counselor. We sat with them and heard their whole story, and though he was very careful not to speak for anyone else directly, he had started to ask people about their individual stories. This included the pastor who had married us as well as people from City Lights. We listened, and were disturbed by what we heard. We were equally concerned when at the 2019 team meeting at the beginning of the year, it was announced that Clearview would change its name to Foundation Church. I remember that feeling that night - newer attendees seemed confused but generally amicable. People who had been around for a while seemed concerned that we were erasing our past. That was certainly my concern. I even remember when the updated bylaws came out, looking through to see the changes, and noting Churches in The Network were no longer able to leave, explicitly. It was certainly a red flag, and I kept wondering if that conflict would boil over.
Why We Left The Network
If all of these things I’ve written seem like red flags to you, you might wonder why we stayed until mid-2020. My answer might not satisfy everyone.
We stayed because every time my wife and I prayed about leaving, we did not feel like the Holy Spirit released us to leave. Maybe that sounds strange or like an excuse, but we had prayed multiple times about leaving and we truly did not feel like we were supposed to leave. We acted on convictions we did have, like changing small groups when conflict arose instead of fighting with leaders constantly, or trying to help disciple Christians instead of focusing all our time on trying to find new people. We had concerns on why so many people had left, and why no one, either inside or out, seemed to discuss it. When our spiritual mentors left shortly after City Lights left The Network, we prayed hard about leaving, and we just did not feel like we had been released to leave. I think that God was working in keeping us there, it gave us stability as we worked through our transition to having two children instead of just one, and working through marriage issues.
I don’t have a good place to put this thought, but I think it’s important to note. My wife and I agree with a complementarian stance for churches. We identify with reformed theology and Calvinism, and generally think it’s good for people to be able to state what they believe, why, and have those conversations with other Christians, particularly ones who disagree. We certainly haven’t “deconstructed” our Christianity in response to leaving the network. So when you agree with the baseline theology of a church, and someone pushes you to obey them concerning non-sin issues for the sake of unity, that isn’t automatically an instant reason to leave a church. After all, lots of Churches have interpersonal issues - they're full of sinful humans. If I have a problem with one Church, and if I’m looking for one that’s “perfect” I’m never going to find it. So why leave a church where you generally agree on the theology and other issues are not constantly at the forefront?
As the years went on, it became more and more common for people to be accused of not being able to obey their leaders.
The other thing about the Network is that if you just wait long enough through a crisis, things calm down. There had been an exodus of people in 2014, 2016, and 2018. It was always concerning, but since people rarely reached out to us to tell us their story, we didn’t know enough to understand why, and we weren’t looking to seek out problems with our church. Occasionally we’d talk to people who had left and most of the stories didn’t have one particular through-line. Some people were offended by an interpersonal interaction and were mad that no one in leadership took their side. Some people disagreed with the theology and didn’t want to stick around. Some people didn’t feel called on the mission. And some people were accused of not being able to obey their leaders. As the years went on, this one became more and more common.
But the day-to-day life at the church was relatively calm. Normal even, compared to other churches I’d attended. We were in a good small group those last couple years with good leaders who I genuinely think acted in good faith through our leading process. My wife was a Team Leader in the kids program, I was serving as much as I possibly could, often being scheduled twice a month and covering several more times. We were busy, and being busy made it easy to keep going.
Then we stopped being busy very, very quickly.
This next part of the story is inherently tied to the onset of Covid-19 in early 2020. I have to include it, and my feelings and beliefs from that time, because they are integral to the story. I am not trying to make either a political or theological statement on Covid-19 or the responses by the government. But it’s important to understand my story in that context, because my position on Covid-19 is not why we left Foundation Church. If that was the reason, we might have returned when they changed their position. But how I was treated for voicing my opinions is crucial to understanding why we left.
We didn’t know it was our last week at Foundation church, because we didn’t know that Covid was going to happen. We didn’t realize that one case in a neighboring county was going to cancel church not just for one week, but for months. And for two people bought into the mission, committed to the idea that Christians grow when they meet together, it was shocking that we were closing down at all. But here we were, watching choppy streamed video of the lead pastor Justin Major from our basement via Facebook live. And it kind of woke us up.
We didn’t know it was our last week at Foundation church, because we didn’t know that Covid was going to happen.
For those first two months, streamed sermons were our new normal, and at first, the new normal was okay. The sermons were directed towards the church members (because those were the only people who were watching) and that was encouraging, despite how difficult it was to participate in church with two little kids who didn’t understand what was going on and just wanted to play. But then, about a month in, Justin made the announcement that, as this was the foreseeable future, he would be tailoring his sermons to non-believers, like he tried to do on Sunday morning. My wife and I found ourselves actively disliking Sunday mornings, because they felt like a complete waste of time for us. We weren’t meeting new people, we weren’t serving or teaching kids, and we weren’t even engaging with the sermons.
We could tell this was affecting others too. People who I thought I was in close relationship with were communicating a whole lot less. I had less than five active text conversations going with men in the church. I was feeling isolated and frustrated. But I was also confused. I had heard for ten years that our strengths were meeting in person, and how important it was to get together and take care of each other. But I saw people falling off from the church and small groups, and worse, my wife and I didn’t want anything to do with virtual small groups either. I just did not understand any of the rationale behind it, and I saw people who were actively suffering and struggling who it sure seemed like were being ignored. We sure felt ignored. And the worst part was watching Christians get hurt.
So I spoke up.
I just did not understand any of the rationale behind it, and I saw people who were actively suffering and struggling who it sure seemed like were being ignored.
The two issues I chose to speak up on were on the nature of our small groups (a more systemic issue) and the rationale that we were Biblically required to obey the government and not meet as a church. I disagreed with this interpretation of Romans 13 because, as it was being taught, seemed to be a vast over-interpretation of the level of obedience required to the government. I brought up the small group issue with my small group leader in late May 2020. I brought up the government issue to associate pastor Jesse Yoder, on a chance meeting in our neighborhood a few days later. The governor of our state, in response to a Supreme Court decision to hear a religious liberty case, had said that churches can do what they would like but recommended they not meet (at the time it was the end of May 2020 and our town had never had a case average of more than 10 new cases a day). I pointed out that this meant we were no longer under a government order and by their logic, could meet again. I was told by Jesse that it would be reckless to meet. I explained that I wanted to understand better so I could be in unity with the church.
It was the starkest and harshest spiritual and verbal abuse I have ever experienced in my life.
I was messaged and texted that same afternoon by Justin Major asking if I could meet that day at my house with him and Jesse Yoder. I said yes, of course. Justin arrived first, and Jesse showed up 10 or so minutes afterwards. It was the starkest and harshest spiritual and verbal abuse I have ever experienced in my life. Even as I write this it is difficult to relive that afternoon. We sat in my backyard, in three chairs, for about two hours.
- Justin berated me for daring to bother Jesse at his home on his weekend. The inconvenience of this meeting was a chief concern. It did not cross my mind that Fridays were the weekend for staff, mostly because we were all still “at home” at the time. When he first showed up I said, “Sorry, hope I’m not wasting your time,” to which he sharply responded that it was a nuisance that he had to deal with this today.
- Justin accused me of being a Covid-denier. He also repeatedly straw-manned my position, attributing viewpoints to me that I did not hold.
- Almost out of nowhere, he said that my experience as a lawyer meant absolutely nothing to him in regard to the legalities of the situation, and that any viewpoint I had on this was ill-informed. I was so shocked by what he said and that he could say it with a straight face. I didn’t expect him to think I knew everything or agree with my opinions, but to discount me completely was shocking.
- He told me that I was guilty of stirring dissent on social media with other men of the church, some of whom I had barely spoken to online. He told me that I had a blatant disregard for the lives of those in the church with any kind of condition. He yelled as he told me that my position showed that I didn’t care if they lived or died because of Covid. This was not true, but broke me down emotionally. By this point I was crying and upset.
- There was quiet for awhile, I apologized to Jesse for bothering him on a Friday, and he forgave me, which to my memory was the only thing he said the entire time.
- I started to speak about how I have great issues with trusting Justin, and before the words were out of my mouth he was berating me again. He said that all of my problems boiled down to a refusal to trust leadership, and that none of those issues had anything to do with his or any other leader’s behavior or actions. I brought up specific instances where he had lost my trust, like early in my marriage where I was breaking down on a Sunday morning and he spoke to me about it, then proceeded to use that in a sermon that same day without my permission (He did not name me, but people could see he’d been talking to me and I was upset). I told him that this was something that made him hard to trust, and he said, “I’m sorry you feel how you feel, but I have nothing to apologize for and that’s not a reason not to trust me.” He did not apologize for anything I brought up, so I did not bother bringing up everything with him.
- Justin told me that he had never seen anyone with “my concerns and issues” with trust make it at the church. He was much calmer in speech at this point, but he was still sharp and threatening, especially when he told me that he believes it is Jesus who removes people from his “church” for issues with obedience to leadership. I did not know at the time if he was speaking of Foundation church specifically, or if he was speaking in a salvation context. Even after my follow-up meeting, I still don’t know which he meant, but it is very difficult for me to believe that this wasn’t meant to make me question salvation.
- Towards the end, City Lights came up. Justin claimed he still had no idea why “Jeff” left the Network. When I pressed, he said he did not know or understand the reason. This was towards the end of the two hours, as my boys woke up from their naps and I needed to attend to them.
I told my wife what had happened.The next month was awful. We were already supposed to have dinner with our small group leaders the next day, and we went despite my anxiety. I held in a panic attack through the whole dinner, and tried to just not speak until I could get to the car and just cry. On May 31, I started writing up what happened, and it also happened to be Sunday morning. As I noted in my recollection, Justin read an edited version of his letter to the small group leaders at the virtual team meeting that day, and I started to get very frustrated with him. His viewpoints did not seem to me to be based in principle, rather, in the whims of what his objectives were at that very moment.
[Justin’s] viewpoints did not seem to me to be based in principle, rather, in the whims of what his objectives were at that very moment.
The last sermon we listened to from Justin was on social justice, and he decided it was safe enough to have all of the staff and their wives in the room,including one of the “compromised” individuals he accused me of having disregard for, He also decided that it was appropriate to tell those watching that this was a sermon for all the white people, and he wasn’t talking to the black people this time. He used James Chapter 2 on the sin of partiality to make the point that racism was bad, and subsequently asking questions about racial bias that had no connection to the chapter. I believe strongly that he was taking the passage completely out of context. James was written to Jewish Christians, the most religious and racially discriminated people group at the time, telling them not to show partiality to the economically rich over the economically poor. But that’s not even the point.
The point is this: how was I supposed to have any sort of conversation with anyone about my disagreement after the verbal abuse I had just suffered? How was I supposed to articulate my deep concern that non-sin issues were becoming something put forth as a mandate? And what was I supposed to do with conclusions taken from an undisciplined use of scripture? For years, I had said that if the Bible stopped being preached, we would leave. I was starting to suspect that this was where we were at.
My wife and I prayed and prayed about what to do next. We were still attending a small group (which had become a racial sin struggle session for the next few weeks), but it was getting more and more difficult to attend. We stopped watching the Sunday morning sermons, and started watching other churches' livestreams to try and discern if and where we should go. It was easy because the sermons during the month of July 2020 was each of the pastors telling “their story”, which we had mostly heard before and certainly wasn’t a sermon from the Bible. We also spoke to our marriage counselor, who directly told me that my pastor had committed spiritual abuse against me. Eventually, in late July, we had come to the final decision that we needed to leave.
We had our small group leader and his wife over for dinner, and afterwards tearfully told them that we felt released to leave. We gave them some information but not all the details of what had been said. The wife was tearful and understood what we felt we had to do. The husband suggested that the Christian thing to do would be to try and reconcile. My wife and I were not a fan of this because we knew that we were opening up the door for more harm, but agreed because we did not want to be accused of leaving poorly.
I was told the first step was talking to my Discipleship Community leader Brandon Betts. He was the youngest pastor (23 at the time, I believe) who hadn’t once reached out to me since February when Covid lockdowns began. I had a phone conversation where I relived it all again, including being told, by someone with no knowledge of what had happened, that this could just be because I didn’t like what I was being told and needed to just submit to leadership. At the end of this conversation, he said that he felt like I needed to talk to Justin, which is what I assumed would happen.
I approached that final meeting with Justin differently. I thought a lot about my plan beforehand, knowing that we were probably still leaving, and that I was simply going to communicate that I had been hurt and ask for an apology. Despite wanting to avoid my wife the pain of having to experience it, we agreed that I needed someone there to corroborate my side of the story. We also asked our small group leader to attend, and the four of us met. I cannot remember what day it was, but it was the week of July 12-18 because we left on a quick vacation starting on the 16th. We met in the kids area, which was being renovated for the reopening.
This second meeting immediately began with Justin asking what my problem with him was.
This second meeting immediately began with Justin asking what my problem with him was. I explained that I had been hurt by the things he said and he turned it back to me, saying I had misunderstood him. Again, here are the main points of that interaction:
- Justin did not apologize for how he made me feel, saying that he had thought about that day a lot, and he had nothing to apologize for.
- Justin continually accused me of trying to start fights and question leadership.
- He attempted to turn my wife against me, repeatedly saying to my wife “you agree, don’t you?” I had decided before entering that I would not let him know that my wife and I were in agreement on all the issues we had, because I did not want my wife to be verbally or spiritually abused. Not knowing this background, he tried to prod her to criticize me.
- Justin claimed that he very much cared about us, noting times he had prayed for me in the past. He talked about praying to “help me with hurt from my parents,” which both my wife and I found tragically hilarious because some of those same trust and abuse issues were the exact same behavior Justin exhibited towards me.
- He said that we just need to give him the slightest benefit of the doubt, as if we were giving him none. In retrospect, it really felt like we weren’t getting any of the benefit of the doubt from him, but even agreeing to meet after what I experienced seemed to me like giving him quite a bit of deference.
- Justin reiterated that my issues with leadership would happen wherever I go, but stated that I needed to stay at Foundation Church to deal with these issues.He said I wouldn’t be able to deal with those in another church.
- When I asked why, if this was so serious to him, he wouldn’t have brought these things up earlier in my 10 years at the church, especially since he claimed to see these things from the beginning, he responded “I don’t know.” He later added that when he pokes around in these issues, it goes poorly, so he doesn’t.
I remember specifically saying “we’re out of town next week, so don’t read into that or anything” as we left, because I still wanted Justin to think highly of me and not assume the worst of us. As we got in the car, my wife turned to me and said, “Well, now I’m sure I want to leave.” I agreed, but I wanted to give Justin the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to be able to trust someone, anyone in leadership. But the reality was, if we stayed, I wouldn’t have been able to bring up anything important to him or any other leader. Not my concerns, not my thoughts. I wouldn’t have grown, I would have been completely stuck. At least leaving, I could discover if this truly was my problem, or if it was Justin’s problem.
As we got in the car, my wife turned to me and said, “Well, now I’m sure I want to leave.”
This was made even more clear when I had a phone conversation the next week with my small group leader and told him we were still leaving. I explained that we weren’t going to grow in a place that was filled with so many issues with leadership, and that we’d learned to grow and heal through Christian counseling far more effectively. In short, there was more than one way to be a Christian and grow. He responded by saying that we’ve learned to grow, and we could help people in the group do the same thing. This is when I realized that’s all we’d been doing for years, and that we could not continue to hope it got better.
We announced we were leaving the next Tuesday. Our small group was fractured into three groups because it was so big when Covid started. We tried to let as many people as we could know, but most didn’t respond when I told them we were leaving. When we announced we were leaving, it was us, our small group leaders, and one other couple. The following Tuesday they left as well, but we never discussed anything about our experiences with them before they left. They were relatively new to the church and had seen many of the warning signs too, in particular, the wife noted that the sermon series in June about the staff “stories” included lots of references to Justin calling the pastors at the church, but no references to God calling them. We are still friends with them and our kids hang out despite being in different churches, because that is a normal thing normal Christians do.
OUR LIFE SINCE LEAVING THE NETWORK
At first, my wife and I were grieving the loss of community and the church we’d put so much time into, but we knew there was no way we could stay without an actual reconciliation over the abusive words said. I also knew that there were a variety of other issues, some cultural and political, that we were very much not on board with and would have to work through if we were to return. That wasn’t happening after the abuse suffered, because there was no way to trust a leader who had acted without grace.
We started looking for other churches, which was difficult in the midst of Covid-19 restrictions. While I don’t think we would have had the opportunity or courage to leave without the lull that not attending in person for six months provided, it still made finding another church difficult. Even with that, we did find a church that met in someone’s house to attend for a few months afterwards. We had some issues with the theology, but there was no authoritarianism present and we weren’t told to conform and simply decided to keep looking. No one seemed angry at that decision (including our family doctor). We tried a few more churches and in January settled on a PCA Church, as we both continue to identify as reformed and the specific church is very loose on binding of consciences, which means that as we continue to work out theological beliefs, no one is scolding us or rushing us to simply conform and submit. We desire that end, but we are working on it carefully while building trust.
On relationships, my wife and I had vastly different experiences. Very few men from Foundation Church reached out to me. I had a few people in my small group that I specifically reached out to, in order to let them know we were leaving (not even to give details), and most did not respond to me at all. This was particularly disappointing since The Network constantly brags about how “relational” they are and how we “really take care of each other.” That was not always my personal experience, and it certainly isn’t true once you have left. Relationships with Christians matter right up until they leave The Network, then they aren’t someone you need to engage with.
I see no Biblical basis for shunning someone based on [leaving the Network], unless you believe that only The Network are true Christians.
My wife was treated much differently, at first. Many women who heard we left reached out to her over that first month or two. Several of her friends verbalized the idea that we didn’t stop being Christians just because we left, and they continued to interact and be friendly with her. This changed summer 2021, but at first, the women of The Network were acting far more compassionately towards my wife than the men towards me. Perhaps they thought that she wasn’t leaving of her own will, but mine (which is terribly ironic considering that my wife was the one insistent that we had to go after our joint meeting with Justin Major). Either way, people were friendly with my wife for a while. Then, after a new round of people leaving The Network for various reasons in 2021, there was a newfound coldness where people who had no problems being friendly with my wife (who was careful to never talk about church with them so as to offend) are now essentially ghosting her and are refusing to interact with her.
My wife did nothing and said nothing to change the relationship, rather, we believe that these women are being convinced by leadership to cut off Christians who do not attend The Network from their lives. I see no Biblical basis for this, because no one has bothered trying to point out what sin me or my wife have supposedly committed, except that they seem to think it is wrong to no longer attend The Network. I see no Biblical basis for shunning someone based on that belief, unless you believe that only The Network are true Christians. It is actions like this that sometimes make people believe that The Network is a cult, and while I do not make that statement myself, the orientation of The Network towards Christians outside The Network is unbiblical. If they believe they are the only Christians, I would argue strongly based on the text of scripture that they're wrong. If they think that refusing to talk to someone because leaving the Church is a sin per 1 Corinthians 5, that would also seem quite wrong both on the surface and based on the fact that no real attempt at reconciliation is ever made.
Our orientation towards The Network changed drastically over the year after we left. When we first left, my wife and I discussed that we would probably not recommend The Network to anyone who is a Christian, but would still tell people that it’s a church and it would be better for non-Christians to go rather than not go. After all, we’d seen people get saved there, we’d seen people grow in some good ways, who was to say the Holy Spirit isn’t working in some fashion?
Our viewpoint has since changed. There are some specific events that occurred over the next year in Foundation Church that now would lead me to encourage people to not only not attend, but I would actively encourage those attending to leave. Christians will have trouble adjusting to the system and will not thrive there. Non-Christians will be met with anger and frustration if they don’t change their lives fast enough, which is actively damaging to the witness of the grace of Christ. But the bottom line is that the leadership of Foundation Church is not qualified under the Biblical definition of qualifications for leadership, and they have acted in ways that disqualify them from leadership, and therefore I do not recommend The Network to anyone.
…the leadership of Foundation Church is not qualified under the Biblical definition of qualifications for leadership, and they have acted in ways that disqualify them from leadership, and therefore I do not recommend The Network to anyone.
As I indicated before, one of the big points of conflict was the Covid-19 pandemic, along with frustrations on how small groups were operated. The position of Justin Major at the time of my berating was that Covid-19 was dangerous to a degree that we should not and could not be meeting, and that the Bible commanded obedience to the government on this issue, and all issues, unless those issues involved explicitly not preaching about Christ. I disagreed with this interpretation, but I am not asking the reader of this to take my side or Justin’s side in that debate. What I am noting is what happened after we left.
After we left, it was about a month before in-person services started up again. In talking to others who left Foundation Church, it was about late summer when Justin’s public views on restrictions and Covid-19 changed. He publicly commented that they were never shutting down Sunday services again. This included November 2020 - February 2021, when the case numbers in Central Illinois were much higher than anytime Foundation Church was shut down in March-July 2020. The legal guidance of the Illinois government (which was, Churches can do what they want, but we recommend they don’t meet as often, with as many people, masked, etc) was the same guidance in place in late May 2020 as it was at the end of the year, but during one time period Justin kept Foundation closed and later he refused to shut down. After talking to several people, the main difference between those two times is that over the summer of 2020, Justin and his family reportedly contracted Covid-19. I’ve spoken to people who say that those cases were relatively mild, and others who were told that it was relatively severe without hospitalization. What’s consistent with both stories is that they were now ready to see people again, and they were ready for the rest of the church to start seeing people again. As one person recounted to me “It was as if because they were over it, we all needed to be over it too.”
Around March - May 2021, several people were told that they either needed to show up to in-person services, or they might as well leave.
This continued to affect Foundation Church. Around March - May 2021, several people were told that they either needed to show up to in-person services, or they might as well leave. This turned into actively pushing people who would not return to leave, all because they were not yet comfortable returning to in-person service. At least a half dozen people we know have left for this reason.
Again, this is not a discussion on who was right about Covid-19 and handling it. I am noting instead how Justin appears to make his decisions and how he communicates those to the congregation. When I was pushing back that meeting in person was important, his response was to belittle and insult me as uninformed on Biblical mandates to obedience to authority and the seriousness of Covid-19. A mere eight months later, he had effectively adopted my position and was commanding others to do the same. That’s the main difference in the ideology - not that theology changed, not that the laws changed, or even that the medical data showed circumstances had gotten better, but that his own personal experience challenged his belief and therefore, everyone else who did not change with him was refusing to submit and be unified.
That’s the main difference in the ideology - not that theology changed, not that the laws changed, or even that the medical data showed circumstances had gotten better, but that [Justin’s] own personal experience challenged his belief and therefore, everyone else who did not change with him was refusing to submit and be unified.
Another reason we would never send anyone to Foundation Church is that my experience of being berated for never being able to trust leadership was duplicated nearly identically in February 2021, when Justin leveled the exact same criticism against friends of ours who were still in the Church. While this is not my story to tell, this was the moment for me when it was clear that this wasn’t just something that happened to me because of my personality, stubbornness, inability to trust, or anything else. This happened because this is how Justin treats everyone who disagrees with him on any issue, big or small. And learning more about how The Network operates, it is clear to me that this is how Steve Morgan operates as well.
Where does that leave me and my family? We’re healing, both in our new church (which has had to deal with the fallout of Christians leaving the Network before) and with our marriage counselor (she actually sent us the link to the Leaving the Network website the day after we found it, which I found hilarious). We have found a church with strong safeguards in church discipline, which are actually explained to the members before they join.
We are actively dealing with the pain of what happened to us, but also the repeated pain of having to watch others go through it again and again. We’re trying to re-learn what we always believed, which is that gossip is different from speaking truth, and conflict resolution is different from burying our problems and ignoring them.
And we pray that this record of our experience is uplifting and revealing, and that God uses it for his glory, to protect people from harm, and to lead people towards truth.
Finally we rest in the sovereignty of Christ and the belief that he will sustain us to the last day, despite the hurt that we have experienced, and by his grace, the hurt we certainly have caused. We’re hopeful and praying for change in the hearts of the men and women who attend Clearview/Foundation Church, that they can call out the sin they see. And we pray that this record of our experience is uplifting and revealing, and that God uses it for his glory, to protect people from harm, and to lead people towards truth.