Wounded by a Church
and also to love our enemies;
probably because generally they are the same people.
The Barna Group has been studying the 100 million Americans who haven't been to church in six months or more. The study found that most of those who have are not in church on Sunday (61%) do not define themselves as having no faith or no religion, but self-identify as Christian.
Why are Christians not in church? Here I wish the answer was surprising, but it's not. They are out of church because the church has hurt them. A previous Barna study of the adults in this group showed that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people. The Barna Report notes:
Bestselling author Stephen Mansfield has written a new book (ReChurch) that digs into those experiences. As one who has been wounded by past church behavior, Mansfield encourages those who have been hurt by the local church to overcome that pain and suffering – if not in response to a biblical command or for the benefit of the church, then for their own healing and maturation.The full article is online here: Millions of Unchurched Adults Are Christians Hurt by Churches But Can Be Healed of the Pain.
Citing numerous examples, Mansfield notes that God uses people’s pain – and their own immaturity, in some cases – to reshape us. There is no denying that many churchgoers get wounded by the insensitive or ignorant actions of others in the church. Mansfield points out, though, that those instances are opportunities for us to love others who, like ourselves, are simply “flawed sinners.” 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 solution, according to Mansfield, is forgiveness – the same forgiveness that Jesus offers to each of us who have wounded Him. Christianity, after all, is about receiving freedom through God’s forgiveness extended to us. Offering that same forgiveness to others is the only means to us becoming healthy and whole again.
This is not surprising as Christian community is messy. We are humans and humans have a tendency to let one another down and to cause each other pain. Sticking with such a fallen institution is not easy, but it has its rewards. This quote captures how I feel fairly well:
my church and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone
and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed
and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal
and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised,
more false, yet never have I touched anything
more pure, more generous and more beautiful.
—Carlo Carretto (1910-1988)
Yet, I believe that even if every Christian gets it wrong in how we live out our faith in our daily lives, that Jesus is still right. This does not excuse the way churches hurt people, in fact it shows how important that it is to work to be safe places of healing. As we are the Body of Christ, we must live worthy of that calling. This applies to the gross injustices recently being reported about the Catholic Church. While the unconscionable acts reported must be stopped and the perpetrators removed from ministry, this does not begin to touch on all the way churches cause harm.
I am aiming my sights lower if you will at the quite legal, but also deplorable forms of judgment and condemnation meeted out in Jesus' name but unworthy of the title Christian. In my office I have heard through the years many painful stories of the ways in which churches have left Christians wounded, but still seeking that connection to God they felt in Christian worship.
What does this bring up for you? What has your experience been?
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor