The Christian Church is supposed to be a place of spiritual refuge. It’s supposed to be a place of fellowship for believers. It’s supposed to be the body of Christ, doing exactly what the Son of God would do if He were physically here in the world—acting in love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness.
But sometimes, the house of God can be a place of pain for those within.
If you’ve been hurt by your church, you’re not alone. According to a 2010 Barna study, four out of ten non-churchgoers avoid church because of negative past experiences—that’s millions of people who have been burned by their place of worship.
Being mistreated by the members or leadership of a church can be one of the most grievous spiritual blows you can receive. All too often, we forget that the church is made up of fallen, troubled human beings who do not always act as Christ would.
All too often, the leadership of a church abuses its power, teaches bad theology, or encourages bad behaviors. Congregants, too, gossip, shame one another, or are simply cold and uncaring. These, and many more problems can be a source of hurt for churchgoers who are simply seeking a spiritual home.
It is at this point that many ex-churchgoers simply abandon the idea of church, never to return. A spiritual wound is unlike anything else, and can affect a person for a lifetime.
But there is hope for healing, and for the restoration of the church’s place in a victim’s life. Let’s look at a few healing steps you can take if you’ve been hurt by your church.
Identify the Problem
Spiritual abuse can take many forms, and can often be so subtle you don’t even know it’s happening. You might experience dread or anxiety or sadness when you attend, but don’t know why. Check out this list of ways your church might be hurting you to help you identify what’s going on.
So what’s the litmus test for abuse within the church? How can you tell genuine harm from a gentle rebuke? If the party that hurt you is not acting in a Christlike manner, displaying the fruits of the spirit— love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—they are in the wrong.
And no matter what, if you’re hurt, your feelings are valid. They’re real, and have a real cause that should be addressed.
Another way of figuring out the problem is to journal. Write down who hurt you, and how. Write about any times you’ve felt anxious or angry at church, and about how well you feel you fit in. Take a look at what you’ve written after a few weeks—themes will crop up, and the big problems will be easier to discern.
Once you identify the problem, seek to address it. Bring your concerns to the church leadership. Some people hurt out of ignorance—these people may be shocked and saddened at what they’ve done, and will grow from the experience and make amends.
Others, though, hurt out of malice, out of a misunderstanding of scripture, or they simply don’t care. If this is what you encounter when you bring up your concerns, the best thing that you can do for your own healing process is leave.
Separate the People From “the Church”
If you do find yourself moving on from a toxic church environment, don’t swear off church in general—you’ll be missing out on an important healing step.
There’s something to be found in a good church that cannot be found anywhere else—it’s vital to your continued spiritual growth, and will be one of the keys to your recovery. Don’t allow your previous church to continue hurting you by depriving you of a new spiritual home.
You can do this by mentally separating living, fallible human beings from “the Church”. The Church is a huge, multifaceted organization that is dedicated to carrying out the plans of a good and loving God. The particular group of people who hurt you are not the Church. In fact, the moment they abused you, they separated themselves from the cause of God.
Realize this, and you’ll put a human face on your pain rather than an entire organization—the “church” has not hurt you. The person has. And a person is a lot easier to forgive than a faceless organization.
The process of forgiveness is more important for your own emotional wellbeing than it is for the person being forgiven. This isn’t for their benefit. It’s for yours.
Forgiveness simply means accepting the reality of what happened and letting go of the prospect of revenge. Don’t focus on negativity—acknowledge what you’ve learned from the experience.