Caught Up in the Fray of Clergy Sexual Abuse: Media, the Megachurch, and the Mess We’re In

The news of Bruxy Cavey’s fall from grace is bigger and more wide-spread than any promotion of his gift of grace, which was teaching Jesus’ Way with words. His moral failure has overtaken his teaching charisma, like many others before him. A media presence celebrating the end of religion that took over two decades to build has been overshadowed in a few weeks by the shameful end of Bruxy Cavey’s celebrated career at The Meeting House.

Bruxy Cavey never had full-length articles about his ministry in Christianity Today or multiple articles covering his activities in the Religion News ServiceNow that he has been forced to resign he does. I have relatives in The Netherlands showing me clippings of Cavey’s appearance in the Dutch church news of late. It’s a travesty that his positive message of the good news of Jesus for seekers, saints, and sinners didn’t get the press that the bad news of what is best called clergy sexual abuse is now getting.

Failure entices audiences better than success in many ways. Sad, but true. Bad news is words on a page, but for the victims–and there are multiple victims here–there is no such distance. It’s what you wake up to each morning.

The fact is, however, The Meeting House was a church built on the fragile wires of electronic media. Numerous times the leadership championed their significant investment in on-line promotional tools, claiming they were the “Roman roads” of our age. They compared Bruxy to Billy Graham, calling him the best communicator of the day, and emphasized that it was all about “getting the message out.” While the Roman roads were indeed the channel of St. Paul’s missionary journeys, they were also first of all the pathway of another more imperialistic kingdom. Its ironic that most of The Meeting House’s satellite campuses were rented movie theatres, and some carried the name “Empire” in big bold letters. Maybe its subversive, but it was also formative at the same time. We are shaped by our structures. As he trudged the Roman roads, St. Paul had days to reflect on his experience in one town and prayerfully ponder what he would say in the next town. But the internet is instant, global, and hard to retract. It does not forgive.

The Oakville headquarters for The Meeting House is no palace. It’s a converted warehouse.

The desire to grow your church can easily turn into an idolization of growth. Its intoxicating when the numbers are climbing by hundreds—numbers of ministries and stories of transformation, as well as numbers of attendees, the offerings, the hits and the likes. Its like riding a wave, and waves can crash against the rocks as well as lap against the shore. But they always recede.

The revelations of Cavey’s failure happened on-line. His confession, the Instagram from Danielle Strickland, and the Town Hall meeting that broke the news were media events. The discussions and debates of what he did are populating social media and fracturing the church. Social media has democratic possibilities, but its also exacerbates anxiety and increases polarization. It can be distracting. Cavey’s journey of making amends, however, needs to happen off-line, in deeply personal ways, and it will take time. Now the performance ends and his practising the Way of Jesus presents a new opportunity: healing. The same applies to the victims here: the woman who shared the secret, Cavey’s family, and thousands of people for whom Cavey and The Meeting House were their spiritual guidepost.

The Meeting House is taking down all the teachings of Cavey from their own websites now. They are trying to erase his legacy from their on-line presence, which seems strange. To some extent, he was The Meeting House. But maybe this is an opportunity to signal their censure of him and prepare the way for a new chapter for the satellite campuses. Calling this cancel culture, as some are doing on social media, isn’t accurate; he’s not being expunged from the web for his politics but for his abuse of his pastoral authority. And now that authority has lost its credibility.

“With great platform comes great responsibility,” said my wife over breakfast this morning. Not unlike I Timothy 3:2: “So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation.” James 3:1 also says teachers will be judged more harshly. “Not many of you should become teachers,” he warns. This is ancient advice, long before Twitter.

Implicated in the Mess

I’m a part of this, too, in a small way. I’m quoted in Christianity Today, I have an article with the Religion News Service, and I have articles here and here in Christian Courier on the subject. I’ve promoted my writing on social media, too. Then, of course, this blog. 

My first book is about charisma that looks successful. My next one will cover the dark underside of evangelical charisma.

Consider this: I wrote a book focused on Bruxy Cavey and his charismatic power. I was part of his fame, and now I’m participating in his infamy. What was one of the central claims of my book was that megachurch charisma is never just one individual’s gift of grace but is in fact a communal production, a grand drama that requires a core team to plan and promote and thousands of attendees to celebrate and spread by word-of-mouth and their social media sites. And yes, journalists and academics entering the throng to make comments and draw extra attention to the charismatic event. It snowballs: nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. Especially around a train wreck, when charisma goes off the rails. As journalist Mike Cospers said about the bully pastor Mark Driscoll: we all did it. There is no charisma without followers.

My book sales have spiked like never before. I may pocket a few dollars from this tragic event (honestly, my royalties are peanuts). Even more people, I see, are reading my PhD dissertation free on-line (which is harder to read and lacks some chapters and arguments that are only in the book, BTW). But that’s fine. The point is that I was implicated in this mess already in 2010 when I started researching and writing on Bruxy Cavey and The Meeting House. My goal was to contribute to the understanding of the megachurch trend and the power of the charisma that fueled it. In the past, denominational loyalty brought people to church. In our age, it’s about what attracts the religious consumer to the church, and charismatic leadership is key for many people.

Why Write About Abusive Clergy?

The wave of articles on Cavey’s failure will eventually settle. The Meeting House always championed a “third way” and maybe there is yet hope that something creative and life-giving can come out of this charismatic implosion. Yet to write nothing at this point is to suggest there is nothing to write about. Silence is what shrouds the abuse of so many (mostly) women in settings like this and I don’t want to be part of that reticence.

This is changing my views on the megachurch and charisma. I think I’m going to take a more critical posture now that I’m implicated in this. Yes, there are 1800 megachurches, and we only hear about the ones that crashed and burned. Cavey is one more anecdote. This is true. But there is more to be said.

My research was focused on the charisma of Bruxy Cavey as an instance of the greater trend of megachurch personalities and their charismatic power. In many ways, Robert Schuller was one of the first, and many built their own megachurch empires on the methods he commended to eager listeners. Gerardo Marti and Mark Mulder chronicle what they call “the strain of megachurch ministry” in their book on Robert Schuller entitled The Glass Church. But Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral’s disappointing end are becoming a premonition of what is to come for many who aspired after Schuller’s success.

Something is unravelling in the big, bold and boisterous trend of evangelical powerhouses. I’m now writing a book with Angela Bick on the deconstruction of faith in our age, as so many have become disillusioned with the failures of the Christian church. Crusades, colonialism, white supremacy, Trumpism and clergy sexual abuse have revealed a dark underside to the giant systems of Christian ministry and mission. Phyllis Tickle said in The Great Emergence that every 500 years the church has a giant rummage sale, ridding itself of what baggage is weighing it down. We’re in the midst of a new Reformation.

As I write this, Christianity Today, the veritable heart of American evangelicalism, is reporting on its own case of leadership convicted of sexual harassment. The dark underside of evangelical ministry seems to be revealing itself in a new way.

Canada, Too

This deconstruction of faith is certainly very much an American phenomenon, but not just America. One indicator is the recent list of fallen Canadian pastors: Ravi Zacharias, James MacDonald, Jean Vanier, and Todd Bentley. Most of them landed in the USA, and that seems like a trend. But while Cavey taught and preached from time to time there, he was our home-grown megachurch pastor. Canada is part of the mess, too.

My book was a critical analysis of the success of The Meeting House. My next book wth Angela Bick will be on the failure of Christianity in our postmodern age. Neil Postman said in Amusing Ourselves to Death that public discourse in an age of television is reduced to entertainment. Now the internet exacerbates that influence, and social issues are reduced to sound bites, tweets, and instagrams. We are not just thinking about church in an age of show business, but faith in an age of social media. All the world is a stage in a new way, and if its not a vaudeville act, its become a soap opera or worse—a spiritual tragedy.

Reconstruction is the project that truly deserves our focus after we confess to our failures of the past. A significant part of that will be reconciliation—with our indigenous peoples, and all those who were abused, mistreated, alienated or neglected. The women, ethnic and racial minorities, the sexual and gender minorities, the disabled and those suffering from mental illness. The list will be long. But reconciliation cannot happen primarily on-line. It has to be in-the-flesh, incarnated in our local communities in through networks of social transformation. If the Way of Jesus means anything, it means taking up a cross and shuffling towards some sort of resurrection. Such religion, if anything, means hope for the future.

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