Wounded by the Church
By francis anfuso
May 26, 2010
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 injuryChurch 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.