Church Hurt: Exploring a Christian Cultural Phenomenon, Part 4
I almost named this post ‘How to Heal from Church Hurt”, but realized pretty quickly that a “how to” will never fix church hurt (and most “how to’s” are just plain gimmicky). What I have to share on this topic cannot be packaged or marketed. As a matter of fact, I really do not have a definitive answer to this. All I have is a set of experiences in my walk with God, that I believe will help someone else.
I hesitate to even label these as guidance or suggestions, but rather, more as ideas, tools, and basic guideposts. Ultimately, healing comes from God. There are people out there who have endured various levels of church hurt. Much healing is needed.
In extreme instances (but sadly not uncommon), some have been assaulted or abused in church. For these, I tread lightly and do not claim to be able to advise those precious people who have been through this. I am a trauma survivor as well (not in church though), so I can relate on that basis. But I am only in a position to empathize and support. There is something deeply disturbing about being grossly violated in places that are supposed to be safe and sanctified spaces. For serious cases of trauma, there must be professional mental health support, and in some cases, legal intervention. Some people have been violated in unspeakable ways. That must never be overlooked or excused until justice is done in the Name of Jesus.
Today, my intention is to share some personal experiences- what I have learned, and how God has healed me through some difficult church hurt situations. As I was writing, I realized that this post would have to be broken into 2 parts, because my stories are a bit long. In part 5, I will give practical tools for the journey to healing from church hurt. This time we will just start with stories.
Over a decade ago, I stopped attending traditional church. I am now part of a house church, which contains no hierarchical titles, no clergy/laity distinctions, and no mandated religious rituals (we do practice communion and baptism). It bears mentioning that I did not leave traditional church because of church hurt (I will have to expound on that when I share my testimony of leaving traditional church at a later time). The reality is that church hurt happens in all kinds of church environments, because they are all inhabited by fallible humans. My goal is to share wisdom from the Lord on how to deal with it in a way that does not cause oppression and alienation, but instead helps create authentic opportunities for healing, restoration, and spiritual growth.
I WANT TO SEE PEOPLE ROOTED AND GROUNDED IN A STRONG, UNSHAKEABLE FAITH THAT CANNOT BE MARRED BY PAIN, SUFFERING, OR CHURCH HURT
In Part 3 of this series, I described 4 different types of church hurt. And I will say up front that I have experienced some variation of all 4. Obviously I’m not gonna share every instance, and I do not classify every single instance of me being wronged at church as “church hurt”- some stuff is just humans being human. I want to leave ample space for that. Going back to my original definition, church hurt has to have an alienating effect and is often committed within the context of an imbalance of power. So I want to keep that in mind as I share my experience, and I want you to keep that in mind as you ponder your own.
So, Let's jump in with some stories...
Prophetic Pissing Contest in Pennsylvania
One time, at band camp….ok, ok let me be serious LOL!
Almost 2 decades ago, I was in attendance at a christian conference in Pennsylvania that was being hosted by a COGIC church (Church of God in Christ-a pentecostal denomination). I used to love conferences and revivals because of the intense teaching and worship. Often in these environments, charismatic gifts like prophecy are in abundant operation. I am not a cessationist. I believe in the operation of the gifts of the spirit. Unfortunately, many times in pentecostal environments, there are wacky and unbiblical manifestations of the prophetic gifting. These are counterfeits that are not of God... or so I would soon learn.
So, a friend of one of my friends had a prophetic “word of warning” for me, saying that if I didn’t get my life together, God was going to end my life....very soon. Now, during this time, me and my friend were having some tension in our relationship (cannot remember all the details), and I believe she shared some of what was going on with this other friend of hers, whom I did not know (hence, friend of a friend). I believe this friend of my friend used some negative information she was given to form an opinion about me, and then she put some “Jesus juice” on it and, “VOILA!” - there’s your personal prophecy of doom (so let it be written, so let it be done!)
I was terrified, hurt, and felt betrayed and abandoned by God. Then I became angry with God and wanted to know what I had done wrong, and why was He even telling strangers to give me death threats when He could have just told me Himself. I was young in the Lord, and I didn’t have the defense mechanisms, wisdom, nor the discernment to know that I was being spiritually bullied. What hurt worse is that the friend who I came with- whom I looked up to spiritually-seemed to endorse the ominous prophetic warning. Both of these sisters had been believers for a longer time than me. During the course of the weekend, my spirit was heavy, and I needed some form of relief or understanding. Later, I told another friend, who came to the conference with us, what was going on (this was another friend who I looked up to spiritually, and who had been walking with the Lord a little longer), and he talked me off a ledge and helped me to understand that I did not have to accept every prophetic word that people tried to speak over me.
As the weekend continued, a featured preacher gave a message, and mentioned, in a general way, that some people have been receiving evil or negative prophetic words. He said that we needed to go back to the people who gave them, and tell them, “God said, not so.” It almost felt like wizard school, like he was telling people how to undo harmful spells by enacting counter spells. I really did not want to be a part of some mystical, prophetic pissing match, but this was more than a coincidence for me. It was actually an opportunity for me to empower myself in the Holy Spirit and stand up for myself. By the time the weekend was over, I did confront the “friend” and told her that her prophecy was not correct. I learned that weekend that I have the authority and the responsibility to vet and evaluate every prophetic word that is spoken to me
“Do not utterly reject prophecy, but examine everything, and hold on to that which is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
-I Thessalonians 5:20-22.
I believe that this is where some of my healing began to take place.
Delusions of Fornication...
I wish I could say that the lesson from PA had fully equipped me to be strong in the face of more fake, prophetic foolishness, but I still had much to learn. At my home church in Maryland, there would often be guest preachers who came to speak to our congregation. The tradition that I came from was very big on obeying ministers and people with titles in the church. (I suppose this is a holdover from shepherding movement of the 1970's). Most people were not even acknowledged or allowed to speak in service unless they were some sort of minister or pastor or bishop, or apostle (you’d be surprised how many self-appointed bishops and apostles there are, but anywhoooo….).
A visiting preacher came for an evening Sunday service and gave a message. At the end there was an altar call. Some of us went up for prayer. When it was my turn for prayer, this pastor started to “call me out” for sexual sins that I was not engaged in. He told me that I was with some man, and that the man didn’t love me. I distinctly remember him raising his voice loudly and saying “HE DOESN’T LOVE YOU! HE DOESN’T LOVE YOU!”. The only problem was this...I was with no man, I barely knew any men (our church was mostly women), and I was not dating anyone at the time.
I cannot even begin to describe my humiliation. Even if what he was saying to me was true, how godly was it to openly humiliate me in front of the entire church? Could he not have counseled me in private??? I did not respond, because we were taught not to challenge those in authority. But I was extremely hurt, humiliated, and angry. No one stood up for me, and I did not stand up for myself. Although I had the strength in PA to confront a fellow believer, I did not have the strength to confront a pastor in front of the whole congregation. Side eyes, shock and awe were in abundance that day. There were young people at my church who were being mentored by us young adults during this time. One of them questioned me after the service, and looked at me like I was a crazy fraud. I had to explain to him that what the preacher said about me was not true. But I am not sure if he believed me, and it was likely that this situation damaged my witness with him.
Church hurt does not just effect an individual. It is pervasive.
Although I believe my pastor may have explained to the guest preacher that he was wrong after the service, there were no apologies made, and no rectification.
Hymns and Humiliation...
Once I was playing for a church service, and the pastor requested that I sing and play a congregational song. I was never great at being put on the spot, but the request was simple enough. I sang and played “Holy, Holy, Holy” (the gospel version sung by Alvin Slaughter- yeah this was some years ago). When I finished singing the song, the pastor was not pleased. Apparently, he had never heard this version of the song, and assumed I was singing one of my own original songs. He proceeded to literally yell at me from the pulpit- saying that I was not obedient to the request and I was singing my own music. “We know you have your own music, but I told you to sing a congregational song”. The church was packed, and I was in total shock. He lost his temper in the pulpit, and after he finished yelling at me, I could have sworn I heard someone say “AMEN” (don't quote me on that, but some church people love to co-sign foolishness).
So, I just sat there, and basically quietly let tears run down my face. I was not in a position to challenge this pastor, once again, based on the prevailing teaching, that we are not to challenge leaders, and we are to be obedient. No one else stood up for me either, not that it was their job, but someone could have vouched for me, seeing I was being verbally attacked and humiliated. But nobody did. Some of my friends were there (including the pastor's daughter, who gently explained to me that I should have done a song like "This Is The Day"), and my pastor was there. I should have left at that moment, but I didn’t want to seem rebellious, and I was also in the "freeze" mode of the "fight, flight, freeze, or fawn" group of trauma responses. I was just too angry and humiliated to move- I was too traumatized. It took me a long time to recover from that one, mostly because, once again, absolutely no one acknowledged my pain, and there was absolutely no apology. The pastor went on to preach his sermon-complete with screaming, hooping and hollering- and the church went up in an uproar of total praise, as I shrunk in my seat in total shame and total defeat.
"The Puppet Show"
I’ll share one more open rebuke story, and then I’ll move on. Writing about these memories is actually triggering me. I had to take a break and just sit here for a minute. I felt the feelings of shame start to burn through my body again. I had to breathe, and remind myself that these events are in the past, over and done with; that I have nothing to be ashamed of. I had to remind myself that I have forgiven these offenders, even though none of them have apologized or taken accountability. I had to remind myself that these stories are stories of trauma, and reliving trauma can cause a physical response. And, thank God this trauma has ended.
So, my last story is about when I went to see my cousin give a sermon as a guest minister at a church event. I will never forget what she spoke about, because the message was so uplifting and encouraging. She taught on the theme of the “Hope Diamond” (found in the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC), and how God treasures and values people much greater than the most valuable, precious stones under the highest security protocols on earth. She gave an amazingly encouraging message.
But, back to the church hurt LOL.
After my cousin spoke, a so-called apostle got up to administer an altar call, which involved her (I bet you can guess... wait for it...)... calling people out and prophesying over them. By this time I had left the traditional church and was hypersensitive to BS. I was only at this service to support my cousin. So, during this altar call, I keenly observed the tactics of this apostle (I had seen them before, but now I am on high alert). She would scan the audience and read people’s faces, then she would pick someone out of the audience, give them a prophecy; and finally make them do a praise dance or demonstrative act of worship to show that they believed God for the prophecy. And you know what? Everyone she called out, complied. It was as if I was watching a puppet show. This was disturbing. This was manipulation. This was witchcraft.
I thought to myself that if I did not make eye contact with her, I would avoid being called out. The thing is, she called out almost everyone in the church. Then finally, she called me out. She told me to stand up because she had a word from God for me (or something like that). This time, I had some strength. I had left church, had been seeking God for direction, and I knew that under the authority of Jesus, I did not have to submit to anything that was not of God (no matter who it came from-clergy or not). And since I was not obliged to follow her command, I declined. I told her, very politely, “no thank you”.
There was a sense of confusion, and shock in the room. The so-called apostle was shocked. After hesitating for a few seconds after my refusal, she began to (predictably) rebuke me openly in front of the entire congregation. (I mean, she read me for filth). She said that if I was not going to receive the word from her, that she was going to pray for me anyway. She was going to "do what the Lord said to do", so that my blood would not be on her hands (I guess she also had a death prophecy, who knows???). As she then engaged in this loud, long-winded, angry prayer assault (she did not touch me or come near me), I had to stop myself from busting out and laughing. I finally saw how powerless these people become when people stood up to them. So she prayed for me- as I said, it was a very aggressive prayer. But she stayed on her side of the room and I stayed on mine, trying hard not to roll my eyes (I was so tickled at this point). There was a sense of desperation in her voice and demeanor, as if she did not know what to do about not being able to control me as she had everyone else. I was not the same girl who had been humiliated and berated by the other ministers. I had found my strength and identity in Christ alone, not in the false authority of heavy handed church leaders.
Someone once said to me that many of these church leaders are those who are powerless outside the church at their everyday lives and jobs, so they find their identity in being in charge at church, and by wielding spiritual authority in religious environments. But the Lord has set me free from that.
Power Dynamics and Alienation...
In each of these stories, there were clear attributes of an imbalance of power. The first offense involved the “more mature” saints, and the others involved actual clergy people who had power over the people. In every one of these situations, my first response was humiliation, and then anger with God. This caused a sense of spiritual alienation and anguish that I could only work through with enormous amounts of prayer. I poured out my heart to God- I blamed Him for allowing His people to hurt me like this. God allowed me to express my pain to Him, and slowly began showing me that He had absolutely nothing to do with the harm that was caused to me. I became irrevocably convinced that He was on my side, that He cared about my pain, and that maybe He would use these situations to help me grow spiritually.
So many times people tell you not to place leaders on a pedestal as if they are God, but in the same breath, they tell you to obey the leaders, and do everything they say. No one has explained what the recourse is when leaders hurt people. Who holds them accountable? Who corrects them when they harm the flock with toxic spiritual practices?
What I can tell you, is that many people do not recover from these kinds of repeated and continual offenses within the church. Many people decide that they can’t keep taking this kind of mistreatment from God’s people. They believe God is sanctioning this kind of abuse because His leaders are doing it, and no one is correcting them. This causes them to turn their backs on both the church and God. This is a grave injustice within the Church. I believe God wants this to be corrected.
But For My Own Journey, Here's What I Do Know...
*Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.
*God was teaching me how to deal with church hurt.
*God was giving me spiritual tools and maturing me through these experiences.
*God was teaching me what NOT to do, if I ever became a church leader or mentor
*God was teaching me to be merciful and kind.
Yes I have been through and witnessed many wrongs such as this in church spaces. Eventually, I had to leave because toxic religious environments stunt spiritual growth and cause mental illness. God had better for me, and He has better for everyone.
God was healing me.
And, boy, am I thankful!
I Have Tools to Share!
But you have to come back to read them! This post is SUPER LONG, and I do not want to eat up all your time LOL! Please subscribe to our mailing list so that you can be notified when the next post comes out. I’m going to share some specific tools for dealing with church hurt. This information could be helpful to you or someone you know, so please, DON’T MISS THIS!
LOVE YOU ALL! UNTIL NEXT TIME!