Several years ago, I didn’t want to go to church ever again. Yet several weeks ago, I started an internship at a church. I can’t help but wonder: How on earth can a person go from wounded by church to working at a church?
When I was 16, a few well-liked pastors at my church—including my youth pastor—were very suddenly and mysteriously laid off. The abrupt leadership changes, accompanied by changes in worship and preaching styles, led many families to leave the church en masse. A sense of shock set in for many of us youth as a veritable spiritual safe haven was pulled out from under our already-wary adolescent feet.
The biggest issue, though, was lies from leaders. Church leaders denied problems and discouraged questions, reminding us to “respect our elders.” They started threatening individuals not to leave, even informing me that “Jesus has a plan for this church, so if you leave you’re leaving Jesus.”
Guess I’m leaving Jesus, I thought.
But leaving Jesus, it turns out, isn’t that simple. Because Jesus is the very embodiment of truth, he is able to speak more powerfully than lies, threats, or any other church hurts we experience. “If you continue in my word,” he says in John 8:31-32, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Remaining a Disciple
Somehow, after leaving that church, I did “continue in the word” as Jesus instructed the disciples. On my own, I tried to pray and read Scripture and Christian literature. For fellowship, I sought out small groups meeting at school or in friends’ homes.
As Carmille Akande described in a recent article on church hurt, many Christians are using “church alternatives” such as “small groups, online communities, house churches, and Bible studies to connect with other believers regularly. They feel safe, can be held accountable, and worship God together.”
Once in college, I joined InterVarsity. And after a year or two of InterVarsity involvement, I thought maybe the leader of the group could be trusted. Maybe he wouldn’t be like other leaders I’d known. So one day, upon meeting with the InterVarsity staff worker at the campus coffee shop, I pulled from my backpack a book titled Recovering from Religious Abuse and said very frankly: “I need to talk about this.”
Gratefully, the staff worker was “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). There was no lecture about being part of the body of Christ or understanding Hebrews 10:25 or putting the past in the past. There were few or no solutions identified. But there was trust built. And, for the time being, that was all that mattered.
Like it or not, “church people”—especially ministry leaders—represent the Church to the world. Establishing trust with at least one ministry leader was a significant stride for me toward trusting the Church again.
Returning to Church
“For a victim of church hurt,” Akande writes, “the thought of church membership can be paralyzing.” No one who’s been hurt wants to put themselves in a position to be hurt in a similar way again.
Nonetheless, desiring community after college, I took the risk of visiting and later joining a church. On a corporate level, this church exhibited signs of healthy leadership, such as accountability among leaders, transparency with the congregation regarding basic church business, and already-formed plans for handling any necessary structural changes. Moreover, on a personal level, ministry leaders were willing to listen to my stories (even hard ones), look me in the eye, and say, “You’re welcome here. As you are, you’re welcome here.”
When church hurts, we have to remember that the story of the gospel is one of fallen people redeemed by Christ and sent together to heal. Given that we’re fallen people, it’s logical—albeit unfortunate—that churches are capable of hurt. But, as redeemed and sent people, it’s just as logical that churches are—thankfully—capable of healing.
Have you ever experienced a time when church hurt? How have you remained a disciple, rebuilt trust, and/or returned to church?
Julia Powers is an InterVarsity alumna who studied English at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. She now lives in Dallas, TX, works at Church of the Incarnation, and writes at www.juliapowersblog.com.