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.
Most importantly of all, focus on the fact that the person, or people, who hurt you are limited human beings with tiny viewpoints and skewed frames of reference. They’re wrong, but their wrong actions have helped you to grow.
And finally, when you can, simply let it go. This doesn’t mean you pardon those who hurt you. It doesn’t mean that you even have to tell them that you forgive them. It simply means that you’ve let go of the hurt, and are going to move forward with your life.
Now you can begin the process of finding a new house of worship.
A good church provides community, a sense of belonging, and reminds us of the greater, overarching purpose of our existence. The people at these churches are there for you when you need them, talk to you rather than about you, and lead in loving service rather than arrogance and pride. These places do exist.
To find your new church home, consider your own personality. What type of community do you love? Where do you fit?
If you’re of a more academic bent, for example, you might enjoy a Presbyterian church, which generally delve into biblical interpretation and history during sermons.
Do you recognize the gifts of the Holy Spirit and enjoy emotional, high-energy services? You might want to try out a charismatic church.
Do you love God through tradition and beautiful ceremony? Why not give a Catholic or Episcopalian church a try!
The point is this: there are hundreds of Christian denominations with wildly different styles of worship. And because people come in an infinite variety of personalities, denominational choices are a good thing. God has provided something for everyone.
Just as you’d read up on a neighborhood before moving in, figure out what makes you tick, do some denominational research, and find your new home. There’s no shame in trying out a lot of different churches, because once you find the right one, you’ll be happier, more at peace, and more productive in your spiritual journey.
A New Home
The greatest key to healing from a bad church experience is to see it as a period of growth. You’re not just moving on. You’re moving up.
Those people that hurt you? They’re in the past. If you learn from your experience, let go of the pain, and find a new church that fits you, your future is going to look a whole lot brighter.
God has healing in store for you. Reach out and take it.