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Defending God or Defending Dwell?

Navigate to the Dwell Community Church homepage today, and the first thing you will see is the official church response to yesterday's article in The Daily Beast highlighting a diverse collection of traumatic experiences as told by over twenty ex-members of the group. Less than 24 hours later, the Columbus megachurch has posted a play-by-play rebuttal to the article which could serve as a Psych 101 exercise in cognitive dissonance and gaslighting. In a series of unrelenting objections, readers would be understandably mistaken to think they had stumbled into the Depp v. Heard trial - which begs the question: what precisely is being defended here? Are we to believe that this is a defense of the God of Abraham, the God who unfolded the world with a whisper, who led his people out of bondage and delivered them to the Promised Land, who sacrificed his only Son because he so loved the world, who knew your form in your mother's womb? No. The living God needs no defense. Dwell Community Church needs a defense, and it appears that its servant, Elder (and author!) James Rochford, is prepared to churn one out on a Sunday afternoon.

A screenshot of the Dwell Community Church homepage
Top News for Dwell CC: We abused no one and Shugerman misspelled a proper name

The next question we might wonder is: who the hell is even reading this response? Certainly, every American man, woman, and child did not jump out of bed on Sunday morning clamoring to read an article about how another non-denominational megachurch exercised vast authoritarian control and traumatized individuals via poor implementation of its vitally held religious ideals. Though Dwell Community Church may like to believe that it sits at the forefront of a spiritual battlefield that thousands of years of human history have inevitably been arcing towards - the pathetic truth is that there are only two groups actually reading Rochford's rebuttal: those who have been abused and those who have abused them.

As a message to the abused, Rochford is responsible for tearing open spiritual wounds that countless individuals have carefully tended for decades, causing fresh blood to pour forth as victims are forced to relive their deepest traumas and have them denied outright as a fiction that senior church leadership is either too myopic or too arrogant to recognize. As a message to those who have abused - or to put it mildly, to the members of the church itself - Rochford throws kerosene on a fire that has been smoldering for years and gives those who still trust his spiritual misguidance just enough rope to hang themselves with. We don't teach that! But that wasn't the case! We have a different account! Dennis McCallum denies this story!

This is not the love of God. This is not the love of Jesus. This is not the love of Christians or Muslims or Jews or Pagans or Atheists. This is not the love of friends, parents, therapists, teachers, acquaintances, or strangers either. Defend your faith with love, not logic. Logic does not speak to the abused. Intellect does not speak to the soul. God did not call you with a PhD thesis, he called you as a lover calls his beloved. Where is that love in Rochford's response? Where is the troubling fear that perhaps that love is not readily evident in Dwell Community Church today or in the past? Where is the internal class on developing a depth of nuance and emotional complexity in order to empathize with others? Where is the concern that the church functions better as a degree program in theology than in the actual practice of walking alongside the wounded as Christ taught?

It is not enough to hold a degree in theology. It is not enough to publish books on apologetics. It is not enough to take all the leadership classes or be discipled by the church's founding pastor. It is not enough to give all your money and all your time and all your knowledge and all your freedom to Dwell Community Church. For a church that exhausts its members with a full regimen of expectations, goals, rules, requirements, and training, it is devastatingly ironic that the only area that actually isn't required is this: love.

We don't teach that is a woefully inadequate response, when what is actually meant is we don't say that out loud - at least not anymore. The culture within Dwell Community Church encourages and rewards very precise behaviors, while it discourages and punishes other behaviors, all of which becomes deeply entangled with spirituality, personal value, community, faith, and God. Publish as many papers as you want, but until you change the culture, the abuse will not come to an end. You do teach that. You teach it by your life, by your example. Just as Christ taught a living message, Rochford also teaches a living message - a message that screams an idolization of intellectual rationalism, denial, condescension, shame, and abuse that has been confused with the love of God to disastrous effect. Look around, the evidence is in the results, including the hundreds of people who have stepped forward to share stories of dramatic, spiritual overreach and abuse. Senior leadership has a moral obligation to understand the allegations rather than just defend the church. The living God needs no defense.

The high-commitment Christian believer should demand more of their leaders at Dwell Community Church. We have moved beyond the early epoch of the church which saw nearly half of the group's followers leave in the 1990s, with the founders' only reflection on this incident being that negative actors and bad fruit were rightly pruned from the body of Christ. We are now living in a world of heightened transparency, where an individual can bring to light challenging questions about destructive patterns in any organization. As evidenced by recent coverage of the church, it should be worrisome that the love of Christ is not obvious in Dwell Community Church. It should be concerning that the culture does raise up leaders who are fundamentally dismissive of claims of abuse. It should be upsetting that so many people who sought to follow God with a high level of commitment somehow find themselves on the outside of a group with stories of terrible trauma and abuse.

There is a wider, more expansive version of God and commitment to faith that exists only as a trembling shadow within the authoritarianism of Dwell Community Church. There are incredible spiritual leaders present and past who have walked a line of serious spiritual devotion, but do not leave a trail of hundreds if not thousands of damaged believers in their wake. It is a difficult line to walk, but the leaders at Dwell Community Church are not even attempting to walk it. These leaders write papers and rebuttals and give classes to defend your faith (or are they classes to defend the church?). They do not look at the spiritual, cultural issues of the heart that have created this situation. They do not want to see it. It is easier to stick to the black and white, easier to write academic treatises, than to truly face the deep cultural problems that they are responsible for giving rise to.

A selection of quotes from James Rochford's response:


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