During this season, the 'no-talk' rule came into its own. While it is possible that a number of people were uncomfortable at how things were developing, the 'faithful' were not comfortable voicing their feelings to each other. We believed that to do so was gossip and criticism. We held the pastor in very high esteem, as a gifted man 'set apart by God'. Even those in the inner circle or on the trust board rarely raised concerns, either with each other or with the pastor. With hindsight, it is clear that the force behind this silence was a combination of fear together with our genuine belief in honouring the pastor as 'the Anointed Man of God'. To disagree would be disrespectful, petty and unspiritual. We had been taught well how to 'love' each other. If there was anything serious to be challenged, we believed that God would show him. It was not our place to do so.
Over the years many changes were made.
Meetings became more frequent. At one stage there were nine meetings a week, eight of which I attended.
There was a Bible study homegroup, which was closed down so that time could be spent renovating our building. It was never restarted. Instead we began to deliver food to needy families in the local community. This was considered, perhaps correctly, as a more worthwhile use of time.
However, newcomers tended not to stay for long, drifting in and out of the church.
With the Bible studies gone and a foundational course for new Christians no longer used, systematic teaching from the Bible, which had been a rarity, ceased to exist.
The single women nearest the pastor arranged and paid for holidays for the pastor, his wife and family and accompanied them as though they were his daughters. One of them took on a role as 'second in command' during meetings.
The style of meetings began to change. Worship became disproportionately a matter of spontaneous singing and harmonizing, often only in 'tongues'. Opportunities for using songs or material written by others became scarce. Singing 'from the wall', via overhead projector, became frowned upon.
A drive for holiness was introduced. God would bless us when we met the required standard. While God's grace continued to be preached, the message became a shaming message that we were taking His mercy for granted and how much worse sinners we were as a result. Begging for mercy became a common theme.
Encouragements to participate became 'exhortations' and eventually rebukes for not doing so adequately. Coercion was accompanied by threats of God's displeasure at our poor performance. Perhaps we didn't sing 'from our hearts' loud enough - or long enough! Those who found spontaneous singing difficult were reprimanded for being self-conscious, full of unbelief and disobedient. The rebukes were delivered as the 'medicine we all had to take' - including the pastor himself, of course, and all delivered with Scriptural 'backing' and persuasive rhetoric. They were made more convincing as he frequently referred to himself as the worst offender.
A good habit of 'Amen' ing the speaker became a measure of our willingness to accept the 'voice of God' through the pastor - even when dubious doctrines, hurtful assumptions and false generalizations began to be made.
The targets for pleasing God became ever more distant and obscure, the guilt trips and shaming more painful.
One family, who had settled into the church in recent years, left on the grounds that they were tired of arriving refreshed and leaving exhausted, battered, shamed and condemned. They were not asked why they had left or followed up afterwards. They told us they felt bullied. The Pastor preached that we should not associate with anyone who said they were bullied, as this was a horrendous accusation to make.
Other individuals had left over the years, but we never knew why. It was assumed that they were somehow divisive or unsafe. and that it would be 'unwise' and certainly unspiritual to meet them. While shunning was not actively promoted, it was promoted that to engage with those who had left was to allow division into the flock and to open oneself up to a spirit of criticism and gossip.
It was noted that there appeared to be no fruit in the church--this was blamed on our lack of holiness.
Much talk began to be made of rebellion and unbelief. Those who were not at meetings were considered to be in rebellion against God, as were those who were observed to be unenthusiastic towards the pastor. It appeared that we were being coerced into conformity to the pastor's mould.
It was preached that if God wanted to talk to a church, He would talk to the pastor. Disagreement with the pastor's way would be a sign you were not listening to the Holy Spirit, since God's way was to inform the Pastor first. Such preaching fostered an environment of unaccountability.
In all this, the leading lady would frequently exhort us to honour the pastor, citing Miriam's leprosy as a cautionary tale against dissent and proclaiming a rallying cry of submission and obedience.
We were told that there was nothing in us whatsoever that wanted God.
Little by little, meetings sometimes became two hour events during which the pastor spoke, exhorted, accused, shamed, prayed to God loudly, accompanied by a minority of the congregation. Sometimes there was not even relief by way of singing, giving notices, or taking bread and wine.
In order to encourage us, great things were promised for the future and a goal of purchasing the land next to the church for building was introduced.
At one stage, the pastor asked us, privately, if we would be willing to mortgage our home to support a struggling family business owned by a son, but for which the church was encouraged to feel responsible. We declined. It seemed clear that our new purchase of land and the prospect of building would have to be made at considerable personal financial cost to the most faithful in the church. The pastor did not investigate available financial help from outside our small church community. Such help was considered unspiritual and lacking in faith.