Churches can become very closed, protective spaces. Pastors protect their traditions, their doctrine, their theology. Congregants protect their ideal community. Protection can be good thing, especially in a culture that is prone to adopting “new” thoughts on Christ or disregarding scripture altogether as not relevant to the world today. However, the desire to protect or preserve often leads churches to focus inward, only on their church members and their church programs. They neglect to reach out to the community around them and embrace those who desperately need to be brought into a place that shows them love and acceptance, something many have never known. It also leads pastors to unknowingly dismiss their congregants’ feelings or desires to see necessary changes in the church as well. A congregant who is brave enough to approach a pastor and let him know his sermon was insensitive (for whatever reason) or who feels the church could do better in one area or another needs to be heard and loved, even if his claims seem baseless. Because there may be something under the surface he doesn’t even know and certainly cannot express yet, but something that a loving pastor could help him reveal and work through.
When someone does have the courage to speak up about what they experienced in a church, their stories are often dismissed as well. A friend of mine recently shared a post on Facebook about why she recently left the same church we did a few years ago. While most were supportive, one woman commented about how she never experienced anything of the sort. So many people want to discount what happened because it didn’t happen to them. They are unable or unwilling to see the fault lines that could cause rifts a mile wide and deep. They are unable to extend empathy.
I will share more thoughts on empathy in another post, but empathy is simply the human, God given ability to place ourselves into the feelings of another person. Empathy allows us to be Christ to others. It allows us to follow his example when a friend is in pain, grieving a loss, experiencing sorrow, etc. Empathy is what Jesus had when he wept after seeing and hearing the grief in the voices of Lazarus’s family and friends. He knew what he was about to do. He knew there would soon be no reason for sorrow. But empathy caused those tears. In the same way, empathy should be what drives our responses when someone tells us their story, even if that story is vastly different from our own. I don’t have to be the victim of a tornado to know the tornado went through my neighborhood. I can be thankful it spared my house and weep with my neighbors who lost everything. And that is how we should respond to those who have experienced abuse in a community where we experienced only love and support.
As I will share in more detail later, I’ve been dismissed by pastors and church members. However, in God’s kindness, I’ve also experienced true shepherding and friendship as well. We left a good and faithful church about 18 months ago, due to differences on infant baptism and their requirements for membership. It was a difficult decision for many reasons, but one reason in particular was especially hard for me: It was the first church I had been in since I was a child where the pastor and elders actually listened to, responded to, and followed through on congregants’ concerns. In other words, it is a church where the pastor is a a true shepherd, humble and kind. He loves the Lord and he loves those whom the Lord has put under his care. I didn’t agree with everything they believe or chose to do, but I trusted them, and trust comes hard when you’ve experienced abuse.
Over the years, we have also met and become friends with some truly genuine believers. People who know how to do empathy well. I recently shared some of my experiences with one of these friends and her response was exactly what I needed to hear. She simply said, “I’m sorry.” “I believe you.” And “Do you have the support you need to work through this right now?” That text conversation was a beautiful example of what should be. It was also an example of what the church desperately needs. What a contrast to the “I don’t believe you, because I didn’t experience that” response my other friend was given. I was offered hope and healing. She was offered condemnation and shame.
Unwillingness to be Taught
In the Gospel of John lies the story of the blind man who was healed by Jesus. Born blind and likely reviled by society his entire life, we must think this man struggled with understanding his intrinsic worth and ability to be of value to the society in which he lived. Yet, we know he was intelligent. We know he was thoughtful and quite articulate by the way he interacted with the Pharisees after he was healed. Jesus saw his value and worth. And Jesus chose to demonstrate his great love for him through the healing of his sight. Jesus gave him what was physically lacking in his body to lead him to understand his greater need: Christ himself. The physical healing would allow for him to be a part of the world that shunned him. The spiritual healing would allow him to be a part of the eternal Kingdom of God. As a result, the Pharisees hated him and reviled him even more. He represented all that they did not and could not understand about themselves and their greatest need in the world.
The blind man reminds me of so many believers who have been healed spiritually and yet know what it’s like to have been damaged physically or emotionally. Believers who desperately want to be accepted for who they are – for who God made them to be, incidentally – and yet are not valued for their knowledge or understanding within the church. Instead, when they speak about their situation or attempt to draw attention to another’s hurt and pain, they are cast aside as attempting to bring “worldly” ideas into the church or not relying fully on the healing power of the Holy Spirit or not “forgetting the past and pressing on to what lies ahead.” Unlike the Pharisees, their pastors or elders or study leaders may have good intentions of pointing them to the truth of Scripture that Jesus is able to heal them. But, like the Pharisees, they are unwilling to be taught how healing comes and unwilling to walk the awkward and pain-filled road to get there.
Such believers carry “baggage” and baggage is uncomfortable. It takes up space that could be used for ministry. It costs time and energy that could be used for fellowship or other “fun” things. Baggage most often has no place in our congregations and yet, it is our baggage that makes every believer unique and integral to the healthy life of a church. If a congregation (and, more importantly, its leadership) is not willing to work together to truly love believers for who they are and where they came from, the church itself will simply be a whitewashed tomb, superficial and ultimately worthless to a hurting world. It will look pretty. But it will not be a place of true fellowship or growth. And sadly, too many of our churches resemble such institutions today, which is why professing Christians are leaving them in droves.
Too often, people who come out of abusive homes experience even more abuse in the church, due to the unwillingness of leaders to hear them, believe them, and work to help them. People who have experienced trauma can be some of the most difficult people to love well, but if we are willing to learn how to do life in the trenches with them, we will be able to see what gifts they grow to be within our communities. Traumatized people who have been able to heal are often the strongest seekers of justice, lovers of the downtrodden, most faithful of friends we will ever meet. They are worth learning how to do hard things. They are worth changing how we relate to one another in churches today.
This post is continued with Trauma and How the Church Can Be A Healthy Place of Healing (Part 4 – Conclusion)