What should I do if I have been burned and hurt by the church? How can I overcome my aversion to the church?
The Church, as a universal spiritual entity encompassing all believers in Christ, as well as its local, physical manifestation as an organized institution and individual believers, is a particularly affective institution in our lives. It has the power to spur us on to greater faith, support us in our troubles, rejoice with us in good times, and hurt with us in bad. The spiritual, universal manifestation of the church is always there, being built up by Jesus Himself. However, the organized physical manifestation of the church is run by broken people who are in the process of healing and being sanctified, as are all Christians. The church has the power to help fulfill our deepest needs. But with this power comes the ability to hurt us just as deeply, because of the flawed people who populate it.
Sadly, many people feel they have been burned by the church, or have at least been severely wounded. This often results in wanting to have nothing further to do with the church, or in a reluctance to fully participate. Because the church (meaning the local church from here on) is so essentially a community endeavor, it only takes a few people within a particular church who hurt you to cause that hurt to be associated with an entire congregation, denomination, or church system. If someone in leadership was involved, or even knew of the issue and did nothing, this can add a feeling of betrayal and / or abandonment; the people who were supposed to be protecting at least, or helping at best, did not do that. This makes it more difficult to trust leadership in other churches as well.
Since community is such a vital part of Christian life, overcoming this aversion to the church is an important part of fully healing from the wound(s) and experiencing fullness of life in Christ (John 10:10). Understanding the specific cause of your aversion to the church is valuable in understanding how to overcome it.
First, we must realize that the specific cause is related more to an emotional reaction or to a lie that was communicated than it is to the actual perpetrators of the hurt. Focusing on a certain person or group of people as the cause for your pain will only lead to bitterness. Forgiving the particular people involved in your damaging situation is a crucial step in the healing process. You may have been hurt by an unbiblical general teaching you have now related to the broader church. If this is the case, your healing may be more about accepting truth than about forgiving any one person or group. However, if the hurt was caused by a specific action, forgiveness will need to take place not only in your heart but also through biblical conflict resolution (see Matthew 18:15-20). Depending on your situation, you may or may not be called to remain at the church in which you experienced wounding. God will give you direction on this (James 1:5). Either way, however, at some point (preferably fairly early on) you need to deal with the issue at that church and with those people. An exception is if the church you are involved with has been using emotionally manipulative or psychologically controlling methods to keep you there in the first place. If that is your situation, and other Christians outside the group also recognize this, trying to reach resolution with them will likely cause more hurt; and you should extricate yourself from the situation completely.
To start the process of forgiveness and healing, you need to name what those peoples' or that church's actions may have raised up in you – anger, shame, a sense of betrayal, the thought that you are less valuable to God if you are not as busy as others, a belief that all Christians are judgmental and fake, a feeling of being unwelcome, etc. Then look for God's truth on those matters. Likely any hurtful belief you have taken on is a lie from the enemy, Satan. Christians are sinful and fallen people, so they may be judgmental. But that is not who God is, nor is it His will for His people. And many people in the church are not judgmental. You may have been shamed by people in the church, but not all Christians misunderstand grace in a way that would cause them to shame others. You may be angry. Read the Scriptures on anger. Is yours righteous indignation over sin that also angers God? Can you let go of your anger and allow vengeance to be His (Romans 12:19)? As you can see, when you begin to recognize what you are experiencing or believing, you can begin to replace it with truth. Rather than look at the wider church as to be avoided, you can look at the ills of your particular situation. And then you can begin to experience healing and freedom (John 8:31-32).
The process will require time. It will take you being willing to be honest with yourself and with God, allowing God to examine your heart and being willing to see what in you may need to change (Psalm 139:23-24; Matthew 7:5). It may also take the counsel and help of others before you are able to reengage with the church.
If the hurt is related to physical or sexual abuse, psychological or spiritual manipulation (sometimes called spiritual abuse), or similar issues touching you or a family member, your aversion may be very deep, perhaps to the extent of extreme anxiety or phobia. Even something of this magnitude happening outside the church, but not being acknowledged or helped (if known of) by the church can be very hurtful, because it can add a sense of abandonment. This sort of situation should not be dealt with alone. Where reportable abuse is involved, please alert the appropriate authorities both in the church and outside of it. If the abuse involves church leadership, do not allow them to convince you that it is a situation that should only be dealt with internally – a crime has been committed, and must be dealt with as such. And in any of these situations, please seek the help of a counselor who is willing to help you recover from the abuse and understand how to flourish in your spiritual life with Christ even under difficult circumstances.
If there is a deeper root problem, it must be dealt with. But in addition to that, or simply on their own for less complex issues, there are a number of things spiritually and practically that can be helpful as you work to reenter the church.
Something important to realize on a spiritual level is that as a believer, you are the church – the universal church's physical manifestation is both you as an individual and the local congregation. No part of it is divisible from the other parts. It is indeed a body of which we are a part. For "we, though many, are one body in Christ" (Romans 12:5), even if we try to remove ourselves, for "If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body" (1 Corinthians 12:15). (See also: Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:11-13, 15-16; Colossians 1:18; 3:15). The church is not an organization you can decide to ignore – it is as essential to you as your hand.
This is not to say that going through a sort of protest stage is inherently wrong, or that you are a bad person if you find it difficult to trust or appreciate the church. It is also not to say that you may need to leave the particular church where you experienced hurt and instead reengage with a different congregation. It does mean, however, that it is a valid stage in your spiritual life that should be moved through. This hurt is indeed healable, for God is our healer and the church is how God designed us to grow in Him. Ultimately, a great deal of prayer will be very helpful in this process. God is able to change our hearts, and desires to do so especially in regard to His people. It may also be helpful to reintroduce yourself to the church community slowly, allowing God's people to disprove the lies that you may have accepted as a result of your experience while still maintaining a distance that allows you to feel safe.
Practically speaking, something that many have found helpful is to alter the traditions or rituals that they follow in their church practice. This is particularly for a situation where the church that hurt you must be left because of anxiety or truly bad practice on their part. There is a wide range of expressions of the Christian faith within evangelical Protestantism, and even more within orthodox Protestantism in general. If you came from a very modern "seeker sensitive" type of church, it may be very helpful to start attending a more conservative, traditional church, or vice versa, simply so that the tenor and specifics of the church service are different from what you may associate with a hurtful situation. If a wider change is desired, moving from a less formulaic service (such as is common in Baptist, non-denominational, or charismatic churches) to a liturgical service (such as is common in the Presbyterian church), or vice versa, brings one into an entirely different church culture that can allow easier worship and better healing. Even if this is only temporary, it can be rejuvenating to one's understanding of God.
A change in personal practice may be helpful as well. If you usually read the Bible and pray extemporaneously, try using a book of prayers such as The Valley of Vision edited by Arthur Bennett or Morning and Evening Prayers by Johann Habermann (available for free on Kindle). Both are user friendly and in fairly modern language. Many similar resources are also available. If you usually use a specific devotional or prayer book, try choosing a book of the Bible, perhaps one that can be particularly healing to you such as Psalms, Ecclesiastes, John, Philippians, or 1 John. Only read until something strikes you, and then meditate on that thought or concept, praying that God will give you wisdom and hope.
Similar to a committed romantic relationship, going through the motions can be more healing and re-igniting than anything. Give God and His people a chance to show you how they can bless you, and how you can help them in return. The church is made up of people who make mistakes – and sometimes do horrible things. But nothing can change the fact that God truly loves you, even when His people don't show it. God wants to demonstrate His love to you through His people, and do the same to His people through your faith and trust.
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