By Taylor Price
We have high expectations for the church–and in some ways, rightly so. It stings a little extra when qualities that are uncharacteristic of Jesus (hypocrisy, greed, gossip, shame, etc.) characterize His followers. Church should be a safe place–a welcoming place. It should be a place of worship, growth, service, and mission. The church, however, is not a place for perfect people.
Put bluntly: the church is made of sinners, and sinners hurt each other. A healthy church will have a variety of backgrounds, beliefs, and struggles, and when those backgrounds, beliefs, and struggles live life closely together, they will occasionally step on each others’ toes. How do we respond when conflict, sin, or disagreements arise in our church community and leave us hurting?
|1| Familiarize yourself with the character of God
After a painful church experience, it can be difficult to categorize emotions. All too often, we process hurt inflicted by God’s people by attributing it to God. It’s critical to know the difference between a perfect Savior and sinful, broken people. Being hurt by a church or a religious organization sometimes can look like feeling shamed, feeling unwelcome, being overlooked in a time of need, or experiencing the pain of watching a leader fall into sin. If you find yourself in any of those categories (or any number of other possible ones), please hear this: I am so sorry that happened to you. Our hearts hold a unique grief when those that are supposed to lead and protect let us down. There are times when God’s church looks more like a building than a Bride, namely, when His people are not reflecting His heart. You may have a hard time trusting believers right now, but don’t let that keep you from trusting God. His character is unchanging. Lean in hard. Talk to Him. He understands feeling hurt and betrayed by people that claim to love Him. Take time to study the character of God. Remind yourself of His grace, power to redeem, and love for people. Read about Jesus’s ministry on earth and how He cared deeply for the hurting.
|2| Beware of writing off church community
It can be easy to blame a whole group of believers for the sins of one. Often, there’s one person within a community that did the hurting, but in the eyes of the hurt party, the part equals the whole. This is not unique to the church–one rude exchange with one grocery store employee is enough for a consumer to take their business elsewhere, for example. But unlike a bad experience at church, a bad experience at a grocery store won’t stop you from ever going to a grocery store again–you’ll just find another one to frequent. As stated before, the expectation for a church is higher. While most people in our country have proximity and access to multiple churches, many people will choose to write church off as a whole, rather than risk having a similar experience at another. While leaving the church may bring an immediate sense of relief, the fact remains: we were wired for community. God highly values community – we can see this in His triune nature. Isolation is a threat to human flourishing, because it is directly opposed to our design.
On her podcast episode “Healing from Church Hurt,” author, speaker, and spoken word artist Jackie Hill Perry says, “We prefer autonomy; we prefer isolation. It is difficult to even come to terms with the reality that you need people you don’t want to have to need… People think it sounds godlier to say ‘I got Jesus, I don’t need Jesus’s Church.’ But God is actually being kind to us to give us a family with fathers and sisters and mothers and brothers and deacons and pastors that will be able to help us love Him well.” *
It can be difficult to reckon with the fact that God often uses His people to carry out His healing, even when those people also caused hurt. This is the mysterious and complex process of redemption, and our God is known for it.
“Fleeing from the source of pain and suffering, rather than addressing and overcoming it, leaves us wounded and bitter, and does nothing to enhance our lives or those of the people responsible for that suffering.” **
The disappointment when our church community lets us down is telling of our deep desire for a perfect community. This ache is evidence that we were created for one, and someday, we will find it. But when we expect life on this earth to satisfy the aches that can only be fully met in heaven, hurt and disappointment is bound to follow. A thriving, healthy, unified community of believers is what our hearts long for. And a taste of that can be achieved here on earth! It’s heavenly, but it’s only a shadow of what waits for us in the presence of God.
|3| Stop seeds of bitterness before they grow
Hurt, loneliness, conflict, misunderstandings, gossip, greed, undealt-with sin… these are the rich soil in which seeds of bitterness thrive. Dealing with genuine pain requires genuine work. If you’ve experienced church hurt, it is important to process your experience with a trusted mentor or counselor. Speak honestly, not sugar coating your experience. Use that time to explain the hurt or situation, not to try to convince the listening party to take your side or share your hard feelings. There is a bold line between gossip/slander and processing hurt in a constructive way, and that line can feel blurry in the midst of raw emotions. You can tell the difference by paying attention to the audience and the end goal. If the audience is an unbiased, wise counselor who uses the truth of God’s Word to bring comfort or call to action, and the end goal is forgiveness and restoration, speak freely and honestly, and listen. The enemy will do all he can to divide, stain, and weaken the Body of Christ. Nothing spreads more quickly in a Body than the destructive disease of bitter gossip.
Sometimes that forgiveness/restoration looks like heart change and apologies, and sometimes it looks like policy changes and institutional/structure changes. No matter the outcome, victory comes from overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21).
Loving the Bride
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
- John 13:35 (ESV)
Jesus loves the church- He calls us His Bride. If we say we want to be like Jesus, it means we commit to loving the Bride as He does. There’s a reason the verse says they will know us by our love- not our constant agreement. Conflict will come, but what we do with it displays how we love. This doesn’t mean we sweep our hurt under the rug and move on as if it never happened. It doesn’t mean we excuse wrongdoings or ignore issues for the sake of keeping the peace. Letting hurt and sin grow unaddressed is actually quite the opposite of how Jesus showed love! What it does require is commitment to restoration, showing grace, finding justice, a willingness to humbly love and pray for those who hurt us, and forgiving as we have been forgiven. And who knows more about loving those who have hurt you than Jesus? His example is an excellent guide.
* “Healing From Church Hurt,” from podcast Thirty Minutes with the Perrys, episode 8.
** Quote from 2010 Barna Group website https://www.barna.com/research/millions-of-unchurched-adults-are-christians-hurt-by-churches-but-can-be-healed-of-the-pain/