Sexual Abuse Sends out Wide Ripples of Hurt: Bruxy Cavey’s Meeting House Wreckage

I heard Bruxy speak at a youth conference when I was 13 and I still remember it— that’s how much I liked it… I would listen to the sermons while walking to my work. That’s how much I liked those sermons. When our own local Baptist church fell apart we stopped watching our own live-streamed sermons and switched to the The Meeting House because that had been a safe place to land.

Angela Bick and I are doing some interviews with Canadians who tell us they are deconstructing their faith. Incidentally, most of the interviewees so far happen to either know Bruxy Cavey or have followed him on-line. This particular young married woman was already deeply disturbed by COVID-protocol wrangling in her own church and she turned to Cavey’s preaching, hoping for some reprieve from the conflict and verbal abuse she saw in her home church. Then when the news came out about the accusations of sexual abuse against Cavey and his own (qualified) confession of guilt, she was utterly distraught.

So the safe place to land became unsafe. Its still confusing… because a lot of my theology is stuff I learned from Bruxy and I don’t know what you do with that, if the person has been lying for years and years.

She sobbed as she reported these tragic twists in her spiritual journey. This is really important to remember: when leaders go off the rails, it is not only the celebrities and their victims who crash and burn in the brush. They take with them a whole trainload of unsuspecting people who trusted them, and many who bet their lives on the leader’s integrity and vision. “I tried not to attach my faith to a real life person,” explained this young woman. But our faith is relational, and some people, even in this skeptical age, still give a special trust and deference to those who claim to be God’s priests.

Most people look for a guide for the journey. Its always a risk, as all are a mix of gift and weakness.

Recently I have written a number of pieces on the distressing developments at The Meeting House over the past year. You can see a broad-based history of the church here at the World Religions and Spirituality Project, just written last month. Then I summarized the last 10 months of turmoil at The Meeting House in the Christian Courier here. Finally, in the same issue this month I interviewed some previous attendees. Related, my colleague Angela Bick wrote up our interview with Rachel DenHollander here, as it explores the pattern of sexual abuse in the church and beyond.

Finally, I recommend Morgan Bocknek’s article in The Toronto Star here–from last August–where she interviews one of Cavey’s victims. I have seen no news of a trial date for Cavey.

The Narcissistic System and Abuse

The big picture can appear grim. The list of evangelists and megachurch pastors whose careers were hit or ruined by scandal, and especially sexual scandal is long, including such names as Jimmy Swaggart, Eddie Long, Ted Haggard, Earl Paulk, Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, Zachary Tims, and Todd Bentley. This doesn’t include those megachurch pastors whose legacy was troubled by other issues, like Robert Schuller, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, or C. J. Mahaney. 

Consideration must be given to the fact that there are about 1800 megachurches in North America, and the number of scandalized megachurches remains a small percentage of the whole. It is the stories of fraud and sexual abuse of these high-profile churches that make the headlines and shape public perception, perpetuating the stereotype exemplified in the novel Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis in 1927 (and the movie that followed in 1960). Similarly, academic books like Sexual Misconduct and the Future of Mega-Churches: How Large Religious Organizations Go Astray by Glen Starks (2013) offers a detailed analysis of sexual abuse in megachurches along with numerous theories but offers no evidence that such abuse is any more prevalent than in Hollywood or Wall Street, or with doctors, professors, or politicians, not to mention smaller churches or mosques and synagogues (Schuurman 2019). The analysis is certainly worthwhile and important, but a good book offers context: just how much of a scandal is this, compared to other institutions?

Starks text delves into the sensation and the stereotype without giving the statistics and context.

Nevertheless, there are patterns to be discerned, and structures and practises that can enable or mitigate the opportunities for sexual abuse in megachurches. The power wielded by the charismatic personalities that lie at the centre of megachurches needs to be checked and critiqued. Sexual abuse is not just about lack of consent; it’s about power, vulnerability, exploitation, and deceit (Langberg 2020). A growing literature is developing in response to this, some of it from within the evangelical world.

Investigations into megachurch abuse should start with the early pioneers of the megachurch. Marti and Mulder in The Glass Church (2020) write about how Robert Schuller’s ministry at the Crystal Cathedral flourished for a half-century, but the pressure to constantly perform, manage their image, and maintain relevance for the sake of incessant growth distracted from the need for deep roots, robust alliances, and accountability. “His unremitting commitment to growth before it arrived, his strategy of aggressive borrowing for ambitious projects to accommodate anticipated growth, and a lack of institutional checks on current spending based on overconfident projections of future revenue led to its eventual unspooling. Unable to sustain the growth of friends to cover increased obligations, his ministry’s debts spiraled, and Schuller’s religious empire crumbled” (2020:203). The structure and culture of a megachurch empire contains the seeds of their own unravelling.

“The glass church” is not just a good metaphor for the Crystal Cathedral: its symbolic of all churches that build fast, furious and flashy and yet are fragile and likely to crack if the central figure dies or is deposed.

Mark Driscoll’s ugly demise at his Mars Hill megachurch was documented in detail by Mike Cosper’s Christianity Today podcast entitled The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill in 2021-2022. While Cavey did not share Driscoll’s practise of bullying and verbal abuse, the podcast’s discussion of fame outstripping character, of the constant dismissing of questioning and critique, of the centralization of power, and of regularly overlooking misconduct because the stakes are perceived to be too high to change course—these reveal a subculture not too distant from TMH in its later years. Recently, one ex-Meeting Houser listening to the podcast made the same observation to me.

One of the bonus episodes (#18) on the Rise and Fall podcast with author and therapist Dan Allender has Allender discuss what he calls a “narcissistic system”—which suggests structures that allow authoritarian leaders to keep people subservient and loyal through fear. Followers feed on the certitude that the leader offers, which helps them escape their own past trauma. They also delight in the vibrant community that comes with such a bold vision, but they fear the alienation that comes if they express some dissent. So adulation for the leader becomes imperative and entrenched. The discussion of narcissism and church pastors, and its relationship to sexual abuse has increasing academic interest (Chuck DeGroat 2022, When Narcissism Comes to Church). Such a system is not easy to resist or exit: Johnson’s ethnographic study of Mars Hill, Biblical Porn (2018) shows how attendees’ affective labour ensured their own socialization into—and the marketing for—Driscoll’s hyper-masculinist evangelical subculture. Attendees are not just passive viewers; they embody the vision that has captivated them.

Here is one tentative thought: abusers don’t see themselves as immoral reprobates at the time of their abusing others. They somehow feel justified in their abuse. Allenders’ interview suggested to me that these celebrated leaders can feel used. They feel objectified as the tool for the growth imperative. Not a few times I heard a leader at The Meeting House say, “We have to get Cavey speaking more often. He draws the crowds.” Or worse: “He’s the next Billy Graham.” In this way, the leader is being trained into a transactional system, where they themselves are being used to gain more influence, attendees, notoriety for the church. Resentment can build inside someone who sees this for its instrumental approach, and the leader comes to collect his due in the same way his board sought to get what they wanted. Using people.

Abusers don’t see themselves as immoral reprobates at the time of their abusing others

This explanation is one attempt to bring meaning to what seems to be to me an utter travesty: a church bent on showing Jesus’ love to the world ends up showing one of Satan’s favourite attacks: dehumanizing our neighbour. What should be a Thou becomes an It (to invoke Martin Buber).

More books are investigating the trend of megachurch leader failure. Theologian Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer (2020) focus on the toxic cultures of megachurches in general and Willow Creek Church and its former pastor Bill Hybels in particular in their book A Church Called Tov. “Our book is about wounded healers and wounded resisters” they write, “women and men who did the right thing, who told the truth, who suffered rejection, intimidation, and revictimization, but who persevered in telling the truth so the truth would be known” (7). A reckoning is happening within evangelicalism itself, questioning its own methods and culture. In Celebrities for Jesus Katelyn Beaty (2022) says celebrities (which she defines as “social power without proximity”) are spiritually dangerous for individuals and movements, and she argues that “the American church has overall mimicked celebrity culture rather than challenged it. We have too many institutions built around personalities” (19). Evangelicalism is in crisis in North America, and the sexual abuse at TMH is a symptom of a larger problem that more and more evangelical insiders are now willing to admit and address.

Lament, confession and repentance are good Christian practises that are apropos at this time. Angela Bick (editor of Christian Courier) and I are writing a book with New Leaf Press at this time on Canadians deconstructing their faith. The implosion of The Meeting House enters into this trend, and we hope by next year to have this research ready for a wider public. Admitting failure is nothing to hide, and it opens up opportunities for grace and transformation. But such things come by travelling a road that winds through some dark valleys first.

REFERENCES

Beaty, Katelyn. 2022. Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church. Ada, MI: Brazos Press.

Becker, Palmer. 2017. Anabaptist Essentials: Ten Signs of a Unique Christian Faith. Harrisonburg, VA: Menno Media.

Bocknek, Morgan. 2022a. “He Was a Celebrity Pastor at One of Canada’s Biggest Megachurches. Inside the Sexual Abuse Allegations That Brought Down Bruxy Cavey.” Toronto Star, August 13.

Bocknek, Morgan. 2022b. “Her Allegations Brought Down Megachurch Pastor Bruxy Cavey. Then the Anonymous Trolls Came for Her.” Toronto Star, September 23.

Bustraan, Richard. 2014. The Jesus People Movement: A Story of Spiritual Revolution Among the Hippies. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.

Cavey, Bruxy. 1997. The End of Religion: Engaging the Subversive. Colorado Springs, CO: Navigators.

Cavey, Bruxy and Wendy Carrington-Philips. 2012. “ Pp. 151-77 in The Church, Then and Now, edited Stanley Porter and Cynthia Long Westfall. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.

Ellingson, Stephen. 2007. Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-first Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Elisha, Omri. 2011. Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gilmore, Meagan. 2022. “At Canadian Megachurch, One Abuse Investigation Spurs Another and Another.” Christianity Today, June 27.

McConnell, Scott. 2009. Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement’s Next Generation. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing.

Mulder, Mark and Gerardo Marti. 2020. The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry. Rutgers: Rutgers University Press.

Murray, Stuart. 2010. The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press.

Schuurman, Peter. 2019. The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Schuurman, Peter. 2019a. “Megachurches.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Global Pentecostalism Online, Edited by Michael Wilkinson, Conny Au, Jörg Haustein, and Todd M. Johnson. Accessed from https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/brill-s-encyclopedia-of-global-pentecostalism/megachurches-COM_040592 on 1 October 2022.

Schuurman, Peter. 2020. “Redeeming a Spoiled Identity: Purge Sunday at the Anabaptist Megachurch.” Liturgy 35:3-10.

Schuurman, Peter. 2022a. “Ten Months of Turmoil.” Christian Courier, October 10.

Schuurman, Peter. 2022b. “The Walking Wounded: Meeting House Attendees Respond to News of Pastor Abuse.” Christian Courier, October 10.

Sider, E. Morris. 1999. Reflections on a Heritage: Defining the Brethren in Christ.  Mechanicsburg, PA: Brethren in Christ Historical Society.

Shellnutt, Kate. 2022. “Ontario’s Most Influential Pastor Resigns Following Abuse Investigation.” Christianity Today, March 10.

Strickland, Danielle. 2017. The Zombie Gospel: The Walking Dead and What It Means to Be Human. Westmont, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Thumma, Scott and Dave Travis. 2007. Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America’s Largest Churches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wilkinson, Michael and Peter Schuurman. 2020. “Megachurches in Canada: Evangelical Outposts in a Secular Society.” Pp. 269-83 in Handbook on Megachurches, edited by Stephen Hunt. Leiden: Brill.


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