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Wounded by the Church

We've all been hurt—here's how to get past it.

I have Church wounds. The first assault came from growing up in a church where religion choked out relationship. To this day, when I watch televised church services that remind me of my childhood, I still feel the beads of sweat forming on my forehead. My other church wounds are even more pronounced and pervasive. They left significant scars on my idealistic soul a few years after committing my life to Jesus in 1972.

I was exposed to leadership insensitivities, hypocrisy, church politics and abuse of authority. At one point, the pressure was so suffocating I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I would drive around in tears while listening to worship music.

For the next two decades, I traveled extensively, conducting seminars and speaking in churches. At times during my traveling ministry, I felt as if I was driving a getaway car, embarrassed I supported a person or group I could never, in good conscience, recommend.    

Origin of injury

Church wounds occur in two dimensions. The first dimension comes from agendas within the Church that are inflicted outside of it. Catastrophic abuses have been perpetrated in the name of Jesus Christ. Mention the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan to any pastor and see them cringe. Clearly, crazy didn’t start in the 21st century.

The second dimension of church wounds is interpersonal. These are breaches in relationship, whether person-to-person or person-to-God, initiated by a Christian. Some offenders seem to have a relationship with Jesus, but have intentionally wounded people. However, often the Christians who damaged others have done so inadvertently.

They meant well, but messed up.

And pain did not remain in the pews.

In their book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons point to research done by the Barna Group that shows 16- to 29-year-olds who are outside of the Church (outsiders) have lost much of their respect for the Christian faith. Two out of every five young outsiders (38 percent) claim to have a “bad impression of present-day Christianity.”

I don’t know what surprised me more when reviewing the Barna survey: learning 87 percent of outsiders consider Christians judgmental, or that 52 percent of churchgoers feel the same way. Similarly, 85 percent of outsiders believe Christians are hypocritical, while 47 percent of those within the Church feel the same way. Clearly, my experience of church wounds isn’t an isolated incident. And obviously, there is a problem—perception has become reality.

The Scriptures teach, and Church history affirms, the Gospel of Jesus is offensive to the natural mind (1 Corinthians 2:14). However, people are not just offended by our beliefs, but by how we treat them. How many misrepresentations of Christ-following does it take to turn off a culture?

My intention is not to question the sincerity of ministers of Jesus, nor to undermine their gifts and callings. But, if we genuinely seek understanding, healing and restoration for all parties involved, we cannot sweep our indiscretions under the rug. We cannot wink at areas of church life and leadership that grieve the heart of God and need to change. Wounds are meant to be healed! But first we have to figure out where the ailment is coming from.

Diagnosing the epidemic

My long journey into church issues began with an online survey of more than 600 participants, primarily from two healthy churches. So far, we have found:

  • 89 percent say they have church wounds.

  • 79 percent say they’ve been significantly healed.

  • 99 percent say they’re willing to forgive anyone who hurt them in the past.

  • 59 percent say they’ve considered not going to church again because of their experience.

I do not believe our findings are an anomaly but rather an accurate diagnosis of a systemic infection ailing much of the Church in the Western World. Since most wounding in life has a relational connection, it makes sense some of the deepest interpersonal wounds occur within the church—a community designed to be centered on relationship. These are familial wounds, friendly-fire, perpetrated by Christians toward Christians. As it breaks God’s heart, so it should ours.

But why are church wounds so devastating?

Broken trust: All healthy relationships are in some way dependent upon trust. When trust is broken, due to dishonesty or impropriety, this wounding assaults the core of our being. Because church leaders and believers claim to represent a God of love, church wounds are often the most damaging and lasting of these breaches of trust.

Deeper vulnerability: Those who represent God are often given access to the deepest part of a person’s being: the spirit. When a breach or misrepresentation occurs at this level, people feel uncovered and unprotected. This type of wounding affects not just our perception of the individuals involved, but can skew our relationship with God Himself, since we are His human representatives (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Expecting perfection: When someone is promised a genuine representation of God’s heart by a follower of Jesus, and significantly less is delivered, that person feels robbed. A violation has taken place. As an often-repeated person in our church wounds survey tragically lamented, “Every one of my family members is not attending church or does not have a relationship with God because of misrepresentations of God and the Church.”

Walk of faith

I have seen four primary “stages” in people who have suffered church wounds: hostile, hurt, hindered or healed. Those who are hostile have tragically hardened their hearts to the healing process. Hurt individuals, on the other hand, have a sober choice: seek healing or wallow in the pain of past offenses. Our past hurts can hinder or help our healing, depending on how we deal with the insult. Healing must be the goal. A proper response to pain can bring passion and purpose to help others with comparable wounds.Someone willing to be healed will recognize Jesus came to give us life (John 10:10), so we must settle for no less than God intended. But they also must realize some church wounds are the result of our own insecurities, and therefore make us more susceptible to being hurt (Jeremiah 17:9, Ephesians 4:32). Yet, we are persuaded there is redemptive value in every situation any of us will ever experience in life, if we can but rise above it and respond well (Romans 8:28).

Finally, our purpose in offering loving counsel to those who have wounded others should never be to play the “blame game.” We must earnestly desire every leader to be equipped to minister to God’s people, and every wounded soul to be healed and move forward in their spiritual life (Ephesians 4:11-17, 1 Chronicles 16:22, Romans 13:7).

After days of poring over the church wounds survey, I came across a comment from a gentleman who had his share of church wounds. He had arrived at a refreshing conclusion: “In my time around church, I’ve been treated with love and respect far more than I’ve been offended.”

He did not just dwell on a handful of offenses; he chose to remember countless experiences when love and respect were shown. Herein lies the healthy key for processing all relationships.

Perhaps church wounds are the Mt. Everest of all relational struggles—there’s so much to overcome. The God of love tries us best in relationships that are tested. And the mettle of our character is proven by our willingness to allow God’s love to cover our hurt and pain.

I know God will heal my church wounds. And I know God will heal His church of Her wounds and make Her the agent of healing to a broken world. 

Francis Anfuso is the senior pastor of The Rock of Roseville in California, the church he planted with his wife, Suzie. He is the co-author of Church Wounds. This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.

58 Comments

Christian R Flores

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Christian R Flores commented…

Thanks for this post. As a pastor I've hurt people and have been hurt by people in authority myself. They way I see it is 1) leadership is a holy privelege, we should protect it and ourselves come in "fear and trembling" 1 cor 2
2) remember that "all creation is groaning...as in chilbirth" Rom 8:22, we should expect brokenness and hope on Jesus only.

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Martha commented…

I've just experienced a church hurt that results in my reluctance to ever be part of a church family again. The minister's behavior is demonic, as he was confronted with his mistakes, while people anxiously awaited to forgive, he refused to seek reconciliation.
He instead chose to demonize any that came forth with concerns, alienating them further from the church community. Now surrounding himself with a few minions, his declaration is, "It wasn't about me". His sins are numerous, likely as mine and anyone else, however his responses and continuing denial are red flags for anyone on a faith journey.

William Tello

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William Tello commented…

I was raised a Catholic in Massachusetts and from 4th to 7th grade I attended a Catholic school. This is where the foundation of my faith was set. I was confirmed with every sacrament up to Confirmation and after I was confirmed I never went back. Somehow, I was never abused. I believe that God spared me because at one point the school was considering sending me to an all boys Catholic choir school as God has blessed me with a lot of musical ability and a very nice and strong vocal presence. It's funny because at one point I had the entire Catholic Mass memorized and had considered becoming a priest when I got older (until I realized that I'd really rather have a wife and be a Dad like my Dad was to me when I got older).

When I left the Catholic church my family moved us from a suburb of Boston to a rural town south of Boston. In junior high school, and some of high school, I stopped attending church as often as I did in Catholic school. In later high school and through college I focused mainly on partying.

God protected me a lot through those years.

In my early twenties I officially rededicated my life to Christ in the Boston Church of Christ. I was there for two years until I realized that they were cultish (asking me to invite my friends who were Christians in other churches to church and that they were teaching some doctrinal error regarding water baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit).. So, I left there and found a home within the Foursquare church for many years.

In my late twenties my career as a software developer moved me to Silicon valley to work for Borland (a well-known competitor to Microsoft). I found a nice church there called Church on the Rock which was pastored by a friend of mine (who's still a friend and I consider a mentor to this day), Pastor Ted Kennedy. I attended that church until Pastor Kennedy moved to Texas.

I met my first wife in an Assemblies of God church in Santa Cruz, CA while attending Pastor Ted's church. She was a single Mom and within a couple of years of meeting her, we were married. When we were engaged, she told me that she was "called" to go to a Bible school in Costa Mesa called Spirit Life Bible College which was hosted by a church called Embassy Christian Center and pastored at the time by a man named Roberts Liardon.

So, after being married for a few months, we packed up and moved to southern California so that she could attend that school.

I was out of my element there from the start. Despite the burden that comes with learning the ropes at a new job and company and being newly married, she was kept so busy by the school that I was resenting them for it. They were also teaching a lot of doctrinal error from the pulpit regarding spiritual warfare, name it and claim it, the prosperity teachings, excersizing demons from the Christian faithful (those who had already given their lives to Christ and were filled with the Holy Spirit), teachings that Jesus had to be born again in Hell after His death on the cross, that if you were sick it was due to a lack of faith and speaking and praying using loud warring tongues. In the meantime, I was attending church on Sunday and Wednesday evenings with my family, but they noticed that I wasn't there with my wife every time the doors were open and they held a meeting with her to discuss it which I wasn't told about. Then, they asked me to meet with them and told me that as the spouse of a student, they held me accountable to be every bit involved as my spouse is. I told them that I wasn't able to do that mainly because of my new job and also mentioned that I didn't see eye to eye with them on everything that they were speaking from the pulpit. They met with her some more after that and eventually asked her to pray about whether or not she was supposed to have married me in the first place labeling us as unevenly yoked (despite that I was a believer). She eventually "heard from God" that she had married me in error and then they quickly facilitated her exit from my life. Despite that I loved her and her daughter as if she were my own daughter, she would have nothing further to do with me and I moved back to Massachusetts having lost everything in my life that I cared about and was devastated by it for a few years.

Besides myself and her, I blamed the church and God for a long time. I called her from time to time, but rarely when she would accept my calls, she would tell me to move on.

Within a few years I decided to try again. I met a girl from Maine who seemed nice. We dated for a couple of years and within the third year, we were married. What attracted me to her was that she was not into church or God. She attended a very liberal church when I met her, but she told me on more than one occasion that she wasn't sure if she even believed in God. We were good together for around five years until she met someone else online. We were divorced not to long after. She told me that although she loved me, she was never in love with me and that with the new guy, she had a chance for both.

The funny thing is that a month after my second wife and I were married, my first wife called me and told me that the school had thrown her out (as she had worked on their staff after graduating) after they had learned that she was recently diagnosed as bi-polar). She also told me that she wanted to try again with me. It was hard for me to do at the time, but I told her that it was too late and I was re-married.

Over the course of many years, I've grown to realize that my relationship with God is separate from the church. I realized that I needed God back in my life and although the church is filled with failing people, it is also where God can heal people and I needed Him back in my life. So, I returned to a Foursquare church with the resolve that although I would cultivate my relationship with God, I would never again allow any other person to have so much influence in my life or in the life of anyone that I cared about that they could divide and conquer us. I earnestly gave my heart back to God, found forgiveness and in turn forgave everyone who I ever felt had hurt me and over time, I was healed.

Now, we go back to around five years ago. I met another unwed mother named Alison and we dated and quickly decided to move in together. Alison wasn't into church when I met her, but I quickly brought her into my church setting and we both love God. Frankly, we haven't got married for health insurance reasons (as she and her daughter get hers from the state and as I work and she doesn't for medical reasons, we can't afford to keep medical insurance for any of us on my salary alone).. Honestly, we love each other and we are dedicated to each other as any two people can be. I love her daughter as if she were my own. We have all never been happier. I feel like God has already blessed us as a couple, so there's no sense of urgency to get married. Although Christian friends have tried to create a sense of urgency, I'm just not seeing it and again, I refuse to let people have any real influence or control over my life or hers and she feels the same way. So, it has led to the our Christian friends being frustrated at our situation and not us and although I'm sorry for that, it is what it is and they'll just have to get over it. If we ever have a public option health insurance plan for all in this country, then our problems are solved and we'll be married the very next day.

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Guest commented…

Problems in the church are typically such a taboo subject that I "Googled" the topic out of curiosity. I thank God that this perspective was shared. As with all problems, they are more easily addressed and solved when we deal with them directly, in the light of truth and love, with courage and the understanding that despite what goes on in any church, God is love. As a person seeking healing in this area, it is also a relief, though troubling, to find that many others have had this experience.

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Oq7777 commented…

What is most hurtful is when the the Christian doing the hurting does not bother toapologize as it was in my experience. I understand that people are not perfect but when I hurt some one I will apologize to them and ask for their forgiveness.

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