Ex-pentecostal reveals how her former pentecostal assembly’s spiritual abuse, mind control tactics and their teachings on losing one’s salvation drew despair, hopelessness and shame in her life.
I was raised a Methodist along with my family in Ohio, USA.
When I was in the 3rd grade, my family was introduced to the Charismatic movement when we switched to a non-denominational Pentecostal “church”**. Unlike our previous Methodist assembly, the lively “worship” experience was new and a little jarring for me as a child – it was strange but refreshing at the same time.
I remembered this one specific lady who always came to “church” all dolled up. At almost every service, she would break out into this weird dance running everywhere while yelling or screeching loudly like a mad person.
Loud, yodeling speaking in “tongues” was considered a “prayer language”. Once in a while, someone would stand up when all was quiet and would give a loud, booming message in tongues. After he/she sat down, the congregation would be silent, waiting for the message to be interpreted. Every second felt like an hour. Finally, someone else would stand up and interpret the message and the congregation would breathe a sigh of relief.
People would periodically be “slain in the spirit” after being prayed upon. It was bizarre but back then, I truly believed all these were the works of God.
One Sunday, a lady went forward to the stage to be prayed for. She had a stroke and was aided by a walker. One of her arms could not move. My mother shared with me that after a period of loud, simultaneous prayers in English and “tongues” by the congregation, this lady was miraculously healed and was able to move her arm again! I was amazed, feeling so blessed to be part of a “supernatural church”. However, months later, this same lady still walked with a walker and had very limited mobility. One day, My father and brother happened to drive past her house and saw her walking normally and carrying a laundry basket with ease. It was eventually discovered that she never had a stroke in the first place!
Sunday after Sunday, it was the same routine – demonstrative “praise and worship”, followed by a sermon and then an altar call. Most sermons used a combination of name-and-shame, humiliation, scolding, despair, fear, poor biblical interpretations, inconsistencies and presumptuous applications to today’s life without proper exegesis. Those who don’t tithe would be “under a curse”. The “pastor” even insisted that touching a drop of alcohol can send you to Hell. As there were no elders or anyone in leadership over him, he was accountable to no one. His son is the assistant pastor and son-in-law a youth pastor, so those who are close-knit would gain his favour. He also expected loyalty and obedience from the flock without question.
The altar calls implored and guilt-tripped “backsliders” to re-invite the Holy Spirit into their hearts since they “lost their salvation due to sin”. So often, I felt bad about myself, my sins and questioned my ability to keep my salvation. I was swayed to go to the altar call by the loud, hypnotic music playing in the background and soon, those negative feelings were replaced with a feel-good overall state of being, at least for a little while.
Now that I was a teen, I joined the “church’s” youth group. We met weekly in a room with the lights off and blaring “praise and worship” music, followed by preaching on moralism and how badly we failed to meet God’s demands, and then the altar call. By now, I was used to feeling guilty about losing my salvation and rededicating my life to God countless times, that I constantly prayed the sinner’s prayer like some magic formula to save me from Hell, even every night before bedtime.
During a youth retreat, we joined youth groups from other Pentecostal “churches”. There was so much fun and games, with many services in between. On the last day of the retreat, a youth from another church spoke out before all of us, and invited “anyone who was tired of being ordinary Christians” to follow him outside the building and pray for God to do something special.
I was confused. Why did God have to be outside and not in the building? But I followed the young man anyway as many youths were doing the same.
There was this adult man waiting before us, and when we arrived, he went about and prayed for the youngsters, and they all fell down – “slain in the spirit” and their mouths uttered in “tongues”. One young girl laughed hysterically and uncontrollably, stumbling about and falling from time to time, as if drunk. Then, someone prayed over me. I was excited and looked forward to being “slain in the spirit” and then…nothing! I looked around at all the people on the ground, envious and disappointed that I felt nothing. Was there something wrong with me? Did I lack faith? I felt like the black sheep, unloved by God.
However, my brother was “slain” that night. He shared with me that the first time this guy prayed over him, he didn’t fall, so he prayed for him again and my brother felt pressured to fake a fall. I realized that it was all a charade, a performance.
Our youth “pastor” also pressured all of us to take an oath before God that we would wait until marriage for sex and we had no say in personal decisions we made for our lives as the leadership did not trust the youths with free will. We had to be accountable to them about our daily lives or risk being “disobedient”. Many times, I questioned my feelings and reality as the environment did not encourage us to speak out our disagreements or confrontations with the leadership or we’d be seen as “lacking faith”. We swallowed whatever they threw at us, because “the leaders were always right”. Yet, all these could not deal with the many layers of unspoken emotional and spiritual abuse hidden underneath despite careful maintaining of living up to their holiness standards, even on social media (yes, they eyed our every move on social media).
I also tried speaking in “tongues” at times but it felt really wrong so I did not practice it often. Yet, I yearned to achieve that level of enlightenment that so many “anointed” people who practiced the “sign gifts” had, which established a person’s “right standing with God” and proof that he/she has “eternal life”, so they say.
It was during my senior year that I stumbled upon the account in Acts 2 of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost. As I read, I questioned the practices at my “church” that did not align with the Bible. Acts 2:6-11 showed that tongues were understood languages already in existence, not some gibberish that only God or His angels could understand. I kept this doubt to myself for fear that I would be accused by my family and the “church” for “blaspheming” the Holy Spirit, the one unforgivable sin.
My high school years were plagued with a constant deep sadness that I could never shake off – feelings of condemnation, shame, ultimate hopelessness and no assurance of going to Heaven after I die. Absolutely no peace. Why was it that my unchurched friends seemed happier and more confident than me? What were the chances of me, say being able to utter the sinner’s prayer right before I die in a car crash? I resigned to the fact that I would end up in Hell anyway, that God did not love or care for me.
I grew cynical and critical of “church” members who proudly proclaimed empty assurances of “I know that I know that I know that I know…”. I became tired and unmotivated by the hyped up “praise and worship”. What was there to be excited about singing to a disapproving father of a god who was scowling at you?
Once I started college, I explored Christianity outside of my pentecostal “church”. I noticed one consistent thing among the other churches that I came in touch with. They were transparent with their tithes and offerings. Every single pastor was accountable to a board that could remove them if they acted inappropriately or needed to be removed. It was so different from the one-man rule at my “church” and my “pastor” who lacked accountability and Bible credentials, and who taught that salvation could be lost. From then on, I became totally convinced that the “tongues” spoken at my childhood “church” were not the same as the tongues in the Bible.
That same heaviness that I felt back then continued to linger. I would read the Bible and pray for it to go away (a prayer that always started with the prayer of salvation) and I would feel relieved for a period of time before it returned.
Lying in bed, I imagined God stretching out His large hand, dangling me over the flames of hell and ready to release me at His will. As I thought deeper, I recalled Bible verses that mention that trusting in the finished work of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to save my soul. No special prayer, good work or perfect behavior was good enough to match God’s righteousness. I was saved by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), with Christ’s imputed righteousness (Romans 4:22-25). This was a huge turning point for me. Instead of trying so hard to earn my way to Heaven, I now thank God for His goodness, strength and mercy when I am weak and helpless.
After I graduated from college, I got married and moved an hour away from that “church” that I could no longer attend there. I realised how brainwashed I was by them. Afraid of their backlash, I silently stood by as my own family continued to drown in their false teachings. I now HATED ruffling feathers with that “church”. Even though the “church” was off, I naively thought it wasn’t hurting anyone. That was my biggest mistake, believing that lie.
19 years after I left, my brother shared his doubts about the “church”. We delved in deep discussions pertaining to salvation and church leadership. I assured him that he wasn’t crazy and persuaded him to leave them. When my brother attempted to leave, the “church’s” grip around him tightened further. They tried to convince my brother’s wife separately to coax her into staying. They avoided my brother and refused to talk to him when he tried to confront them. Our parents were angry about the treatment and insisted on leaving too. They went to the “church” for one last service just to say goodbye, only to be sucked back in when they believed the “pastor’s” gaslighting words that my brother was the one in the wrong instead. As the “church” often taught that one must rely on “hearing divine revelation” instead of comparing to the written Scripture, my parents wrongfully believed that “God” told them not to leave the “church”.
That was really painful for us. Our family was never going to be the same.
I was angry with myself for not speaking up sooner about the problems in that “church”, especially when my mother vented out her doubts earlier on but I did not speak out. As my parents continued blaming my brother for being victimized, they turned on him and my anxiety and grief worsened. I began to have panic attacks and constant occurrence of heart palpitations that often shoot pain in my arm. The only difference between me and my brother was that I left the “church” quietly in order to maintain goodwill with everyone, using proximity as an excuse when in actuality, it was their unbiblical teachings that pushed me away. I joined a church that was not Pentecostal, and that taught from the Word of God in its context and that made the Gospel the centerpiece of every sermon.
The deep shame of growing up in the Pentecostal movement and never confronting it remained a secret throughout my life, until one day…
I remembered a former coworker who shared with me how she left a fundamentalist Pentecostal “church” yet I was reluctant to share my similar experience with her due to the shame and confusion. However, this time, my anxiety and grief rose to its peak. I knew I had to talk to her as I could no longer hold down years of troubled emotions and trauma. The moment I opened my mouth, instead of words, I broke down in tears uncontrollably. After I managed to speak, she looked me in the eyes and advised me to seek counselling help, so I did.
Through counseling, I poured my heart out, reliving the trauma and revealing the fresh wounds of mental abuse, mind control, emotional damage and humiliation from that “church” and its devastating effects on my family . The more I shared, the less shame I felt. I realized that I wasn’t alone. A former classmate experienced the same sadness, despair and loneliness while in high school, the same as me during that time. When I opened up to people who hadn’t experienced this, they actually accepted me. None of them treated me like a damaged good or walked away.
As I began my healing journey, I researched further in my childhood “church” and realized how similar their “sign gifts” were to Hindu’s Kundalini, not the Bible. I cringed at a sermon in which the “pastor” used the story of the finger writing on the wall in the book of Daniel to wrongfully reinforce the idea that our works qualify us for eternal life. The finger wrote the word “Tekel” on the wall to King Belshazzar and his nobles as they drank from the stolen goblets from the temple in Jerusalem.
“That word “Tekel”,” said the “pastor”, “means you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” He further insinuated that our lives were like a scale and that “faith alone will not justify man, but that we are saved by faith AND works”. This “pastor” also equated those who left the “church” as walking away from God and ostracised them. Every sermon was deeply troubling where Christ and His finished work took a backseat. He focused so much on the Old Testament and wrongly applied what was meant for Old Testament Jews for the Christians. His works-based salvation doctrine stated that in order to ensure that you were on the way to Heaven, you had to compare yourself to others and get his approval.
I am relieved that I don’t live under that burden anymore. There is a Hero in every story in the Bible and His name is Jesus Christ. Everything points to Him. He did what I can never and will never be able to do for myself. That is the TRUE God I worship and I love with all my heart.
I warned my mother of that “church’s” mind control, gaslighting and their false doctrines. Unfortunately, she rejected my explanations and accused me of cursing what God has blessed. My father even accused me of being negative and believed that I was possessed with alcohol demons.
While their words were devastating, they are the fruit of unbiblical teachings that break families apart. The Gospel of Christ is indeed divisive (Matthew 10:34-36), dividing those who are for Him and those who are against Him. God drew me in His mercy and showed me how much I needed Him and this is my prayer for my parents, whom I still love, that they will see the light and be truly saved. I put my hope in Christ that if He can mercifully call me out of this heretical movement, He can do it for anyone.
To those who are still in the Charismatic movement, your pastors/elders are not infallible. Anytime we elevate the words of a pastor or anyone above the words of God, we make that person our idol. Search the Scriptures and compare their teachings to the Bible alone!
I may have lost my family, but God has blessed me with like-minded believers whom I now consider family. I pray that you have the courage to come out and seek the true Jesus of the Bible and the full sufficiency of His finished work on the cross to pay in full for all your sins (past, present, future). No works, sign gifts, tithes, offerings, church attendances or pastors can save your soul from Hell except Jesus Christ.
Trust in Him alone today!
*Name has been changed to protect the author’s identity
**The Pentecostal “church” in question has not been named in order to protect the author’s loved ones who still serve there