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Church Hurt: Exploring a Christian Cultural Phenomenon, Part 3

4 Categories of Church Hurt

#churchhurt #churchabuse #offense #spiritofoffense #evangelical #progressive #liberal #conservative #deconstructingchristianity #decolonizingchristianity #healing #ecclesiology

Ooooh-well. Writing this next installment took longer than expected. Work, life, and mommy duties had to be handled on my part. I'm a public school music teacher and had lots of end-of-year duties. I got caught up with responsibilities but my heart has not stopped pondering on the topic of church hurt. It’s important to me to finish sharing on this topic because I believe it will help someone. I am a survivor of church hurt, who also still very much loves Jesus and the church (even though I left traditional church and religion). I want to continue to share my observations and lessons so that someone who comes behind me can find hope, healing, and the strength to continue to follow the Lord. This post is lengthy, but I promise, it's worth it. Grab a snack or some coffee, turn on some music to vibe to and let's dig into this together.

So, today’s installment is about categories of church hurt. And before I jump into describing them, let me remind you of the definition of church hurt that I have developed…Goes a little something like this…

"Church hurt is disillusionment, offense, intentional or unintentional pain, or trauma caused by interactions within the Christian religious environment. Church hurt often causes spiritual alienation; and it is most often committed within the power structure of church, where those who are in power cause injury to those who are not in power (or have less power)."

I expound a little more on this in part 1 of this series, and in part 2 I speak on the nature of offense in the church. Check those out if you want a clearer context of the present discussion.

It’s important for me to disclaim that not all “church hurt” is the same, and that’s why this present offering is important. My super power (or toxic trait, depending on how you look at it) is that I am a ruminate-er (my fancy way of saying over-thinker). So I have taken quite a bit of time to think this over in a way that would be coherent to readers out there (all 5 of you!).

So let’s hop to it. Here are 4 major categories of church hurt and their corresponding descriptions. See if any of these resonate with you…

#1 Minor Offenses and Petty Beef

This one may seem self explanatory, but it warrants examination. Sometimes things happen in church where congregants are offended at how leadership or a fellow congregant (or a lay person volunteer) handles a minor situation, or they may have a “customer service” gripe. If the congregant is spiritually mature in their walk with God, they will recognize the humanity of all people, including leadership, and they will not hold a grudge or take offense in such instances. This goes for all interpersonal interactions within the environment. Sometimes, the faintest slight, oversight or mishandling of a situation can have someone responding in ways that express entitlement or higher than reasonable expectations of those who are working in the church. There are far too many examples- someone sits in the pew you normally sit in; you don’t like the song choices of the music department; the church is unable to pay one of your bills or provide financial assistance; the pastor refuses or forgets to acknowledge certain clergy people who are visiting; you didn’t get the solo; pastor sends an associate minister to preach your uncle’s funeral instead of doing it himself… get my drift?

These are petty issues. Along with other minor disputes and misunderstandings that have little consequence, and have more to do with satisfying the ego, this kind of hurt warrants self examination and a willingness to quickly forgive and let go. Spiritually immature people get stuck in their feelings over little stuff. And while I do not dismiss anyone’s feelings, I think that inconsequential situations are opportunities to practice humility, grace, and getting over one’s self. You would be surprised how some people carry on beef and dispute for years with fellow Christians and churches over things that don’t matter. This is the kind of church hurt that all of us should seek to cover with grace…

“A person’s discretion makes him slow to anger, And it is his glory to overlook an offense." -Proverbs‬ ‭19:11‬ ‭NASB

Now you would think that after I spent an entire blog post ranting about offense (see part 2) that maybe I’m the type of person who thinks people should never overlook an offense. Far from it, because again, we have to look to the Spirit of the Lord and the scripture to get a balanced understanding of anything.

One of the most beautiful things a follower of Christ can do is overlook petty offenses, take the high road, rise above it, let it go, and cover it with abundant grace and kindness. This is the default “factory setting” of Spirit led, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus. There’s joy in that. there is power in that. There is space made for the Kingdom in that. That’s where we should all live (by the empowerment of Christ in us).

Minor offenses are a real form of church hurt, but these are the kind that we all must aspire to constantly and quickly forgive.

#2 Authentic but Unintended Hurt

(When humans are human-ing and accidentally harm other humans) . Anytime you dwell in any kind of community, there will be conflicts. Christ’s community is no different (whether or not you are in a traditional church setting, which, by the way, I am not). There must be a difference between how the Body of Christ handles church hurt and authentic conflicts that is different from the way of the world handles interpersonal conflicts and mistreatment. The world is about vengeance, one-up-man-ship, competition and winners taking all. The church is about love, reconciliation, finding common ground in Christ, making space for diversity of thought and expression, and healing brokenness and breaches. So, I think it’s important to know that real relationships will have hurt and offenses that must be worked through; but this does not mean that ongoing pain and offense should be a hallmark of life in the church.

Our ground zero is peace and unity in Christ (expressed in diverse ways). Our reality is to follow the ways of Jesus and practice them with one another. This includes speaking truth in love, pointing out when your brother or sister offends you, making amends when you cause real pain, and forgiving over and over and over again. Oh yes- this kind of church hurt is inescapable, no matter what church you are a part of. Every church is made up of redeemed humans who are recovering from the practices of fallen humanity. So we are all going to hurt people from time to time. But part of the healing for all of us- individually and collectively- is learning how to work through pain and offenses in a way that pleases our Father in Heaven and builds up the community.

These aren’t the kind of offenses that get overlooked. These are offenses where true transgression or severe misunderstanding has taken place. A brother or sister spoke evil of another behind their back (out of anger or frustration); someone lied to someone or on someone; or took advantage of their kindness; continually spoke unkindly to them; or deliberately humiliated them; a trust was betrayed; money wasn’t paid back; or someone looked down on someone for whatever reason. Look- we are all susceptible to hurting others, let’s own that as Jesus followers.

Let’s take these offenses as opportunities to go deeper in the love and holiness of God- through honest conversations about hurt, through devoted efforts to do better toward one another. This is how we practice the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

#3 Major Offenses and Stumbling Blocks

These are ignorant, false, unspiritual and unhealthy principles and practices that harm the flock. Major offenses are caused by individual, persistent character flaws, or multiple character flaws that cause perpetration of harm within the church environment. Another way of saying is that major offenses are a set of insidious, pervasive, toxic philosophical or practical thought systems and behaviors within the spiritual environment. Major offenses happen when there is religious teaching and practice that does not line up with scripture; or worse yet, it twists and manipulates scripture in service of the dysfunctional spiritual environment. These teachings and practices affect the way the leadership runs their religious organization, and how the congregation conducts their lives both inside and outside of church related activities.

It is difficult for me to describe major offenses and differentiate between them and church abuse- and there is some overlap. But I would say the biggest difference is that, although major offenses are extremely damaging to both individuals and the community, they are often done in ignorance and without conscious intention of causing harm. Major offenses are extremely hurtful because they cause people to believe false ideas about the nature of God, and they cause people to lose faith and turn their backs on God and the church.

These are the kinds of offenses that church people blame the victim for. They will say “if what somebody did to you at church made you stop believing in God, then your faith was never in God but in humans.”. This is such a dismissive, false statement that boils down to gaslighting . The church is literally the Body of Christ. Everything we do is supposed to be done in His name. If we are teaching false doctrines- those hurtful concepts that bring bondage and oppression as opposed to freedom in Christ- where else can people turn???? How do you find God when the people of God are full of themselves and leading in the wrong direction?

I’ll give some examples here..

-openly rebuking congregants, such as young girls for getting pregnant, and forcing them to apologize to the congregation

-yelling at and humiliating musicians for playing the wrong song or not playing it the “right” way

-altar call humiliation, when ministers use the altar call portion of service to call out congregants (alleged) personal business. They use their so called spiritual authority to intimidate people into accepting verbal abuse during the altar call (if you know, you know)

-guilting people for not tithing or giving as much money as you think they should

-bludgeoning people with scripture instead of teaching with conviction and love

-teaching political persuasions instead of God’s Word

-using church authority to control people’s personal life decisions, such as who they should marry, what job they should take, or when they can go on vacation

-mean and controlling church leaders and volunteers

-the promotion of a white Jesus and white supremacist iterations of Christianity

-posting or posturing about a congregant's most vulnerable moments on social media or mentioning their personal business in the pastor’s sermon

Oh, that list is just getting started but I will stop there. Guilt, shame, and humiliation are major sign posts of this kind of church hurt, in the misguided belief that "open rebuke" (mishandling of scripture) helps people to become spiritually mature. Most of these are things that happen in traditional modern church environments. In my opinion, often people who hold power in environments like these have unaddressed psychological issues, and church hurts of their own. They are just passing on a legacy of spiritual dysfunction.

In total transparency I can say that I have endured this kind of church hurt, and I don’t recommend trying to stay and work through it. My advice is to get out of these kinds of churches as soon as possible. No healing can take place in these environments unless there is mass, dramatic repentance, and a total restructuring of the community. This would mean those in charge would lose power, so healing and change is not likely.

In the name of Jesus, get the hell out.

#4 Abuse (Intentional harm, humiliation, oppression, manipulation, and control)

This last category is not only the most obvious to talk about, but also the most difficult. Any environment where congregants are being deliberately harmed- emotionally, physically, sexually, verbally, spiritually or otherwise- the most egregious form of church hurt is at play. We can’t just look at extreme cases like the Catholic Church, and most recently the Southern Baptist Church, and say that these situations are anomalies or systemic abuse. They are not. Abuse in religious environments is quite common. It is not always in big organizations with widespread ecclesiastical power. It’s independent churches, it’s little store fronts, it’s smaller and midsize organizations. It’s everywhere.

Let me assert that the hierarchical power structure of most churches (which is not biblical) draws power hungry people, narcissistic people, and predators. And although these people can seem warm, friendly and charismatic, there are people who do severe harm to other people when they have access to this much power.

Yup, it happens in cults too. But we don’t have to look into the obscure and strange facets of society to find this phenomenon. It’s right in front of our faces. And what’s worse, people defend and excuse abusers in the name of them being “the man of God” (or sometimes, even "the woman of God"). People will cover up, refuse to hold accountable, be quick to forgive with no repentance or discipline (or they do damage control with a “restorative” process).

Victims are often shamed, blamed, or not believed, or completely cut off from the community in order to save the offender and the reputation of the community. One example that comes to mind is the story of Ravi Zacharias. His story is famous and familiar, but it is not uncommon. Although we are quick to to sensationalize stories like this, let’s remember that there are many victims among us who have lost their way and their connection with God because of church abuse.

This is the kind of church hurt that should never be tolerated, minimized, or joked about. It requires quick and decisive action to protect those who are being harmed.

Are we going to be part of the problem, or the solution? Are we going to shame and ridicule people who are angry at the church, for whatever reason? Are we going to assault them with our apologetics? Or are we going to sit down and have coffee with those who have been hurt and abused? Are we going to love them whether or not they decide to be a part of the Church or of Christ?

My little wacky interpretation of Psalm 23:5 "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup overflows" this- the reason why God prepares that table for us, is so we can invite our enemies to come sit and eat. We have more than enough, and we are anointed to invite the hurt, the abused, the outsider, and the alienated into the Divine love and fellowship of the Godhead.

There is an opportunity here for all of us who care about the spiritually disenfranchised.

Are we going to be healers of the breach?

Are we going to be people of the Kingdom?

The choice is ours.

To those out there who have experienced church hurt...

under any of the 4 categories I have discussed in this post, please know my heart is with you. I have been there- really been there! Some hurt is part of normal life but other hurt is absolutely unacceptable. You deserve healing (read that again). God wants you to be healed (read THAT again). God created you to be a whole person, fully capable of receiving His love. Your number one purpose in life is to be a receiver of God’s love!

Listen, my space is your space. Write me- either privately or leave a comment below. Share your thoughts, and your testimonies. If you survived hurt- give us some tips. You can bleed here, because that’s where the healing starts. I love you, and I’m praying for your total healing.

Come Back and See Me!

You have to come back for the next post. I will speak more on my personal stories and how we can all heal. Subscribe to our mailing list to receive a notification. I will also post more content on this topic on our YouTube page. So please, subscribe there as well.

Thanks for taking time to read this! I’ll see you next time!


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