Monday, June 13, 2011

The Church Hurt Me

My palms were sweaty and I’m sure that my blood pressure was as high as it had ever been. I was a nervous wreck.

This was certainly obvious to the man sitting across the room from me. He showed no mercy. He sensed weakness and went in for the kill.

His threat went something like this, “Jay, if I’d been there you would’ve had to deal with me and I don’t think you’d like that very much.”

This didn’t do much to help my sweaty palms and “high blood” as the folks call it.

The week before this confrontation, I was serving as a fresh out of college intern for a church group on a two week-long missions trip that was part adventure and part missions. It was one of those kind of trips where some dude named Dakota convinces you to scale down a 60 foot cliff and then asks you about your feelings when you get to the bottom.

“Jay, how about you? What was going through your mind as you repelled today?”

“Death. Dismemberment. What will it be like eating pureed hamburgers through a straw for the rest of my life? Is that what you were looking for, Mr. Dakota?”

Towards the end of this trip an adult volunteer called my character into question. She accused me of some pretty vile behavior that I, and everyone else, just kind of ignored with a laugh. But at the end of the trip I came home to find that World War 3 was waiting on me. That’s how I found myself, complete with sweaty palms and heart palpitations, sitting in some strange living room getting yelled at for everything short of the Kennedy assassination.

It didn’t take long for the truth to come out and for my name to be cleared and I was thankful for that. The church where I served as an intern and the leaders of that church were incredibly supportive and rational. The elders even carried out church discipline on this couple and asked them to leave. But even still, another person who also claimed to be a Christian and who belonged to a church attacked me. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I thought we were on the same team? Isn’t the church the one place in the world where you are protected from attacks and hurts and insults?


But my story is G rated. Others have seen churches unravel into something that looks more like a mob scene and there are even those who have suffered from sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted church leader. Our own experiences remind us that being involved in a church doesn’t mean you are protected from insults, accusations and pain.

But how should we respond when we find ourselves saying with countless others, “The church hurt me”? Our options are many. Here are a few.

1. Quit

This is probably the most popular option and it is usually layered with good intentions.

Here’s a quote I’ve never heard from a disgruntled church member: “That’s it. I’m shaving my head and joining the Church of Satan. Wanna come with me?”

Here’s a quote I’ve heard a lot: “Why do I need all of this nonsense from the church? It just slows me down. I can do more good for God on my own.”

There are many problems with this option but one really sticks out. Since when is the gospel about one person doing more good for God? Where in the New Testament do we see an individual abandoning the church and striking out on his own to do some good for Jesus?

Our salvation is given to us by God’s grace, not as a strategic move on his part because he saw a little potential in us that he thought might help him take out Satan’s team next year. The gospel-centered life is a life that is centered on commitment and surrender to Jesus, not performance for Jesus. The best place for believers to live out that commitment and surrender is in the context of the local church.

Quitting is not an option for believers.

2. Hide

This option recognizes the pain that can come with getting involved in people’s lives and allowing them to get involved in yours. It sees that this thing we call community can get messy pretty easy. But giving up on church all together seems a bit extreme. Maybe if you could just find the perfect church, preferably one that’s at least 30 minutes away, you could finally feel safe and secure.

So you find a church three counties over where the pastor is really good, the worship band and their 3.4 million albums sold to date really speaks to you and the softball team is coached by former big leaguer Darren “Dutch” Daulton. Oh, and best of all – nobody knows you.

I mention Darren "Dutch" Daulton because he was a part of the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies, the only softball team to ever play in the World Series. They beat the Braves in order to get to the World Series where Mitch Williams literally threw a softball (slow pitch style, 12 foot arc) to Joe Carter of the Toronto Blue Jays who proceeded to hit it over the fence, thus ending the Phillies title run. I digress.

The problem with using a church as your own personal hideout is that it forces you to treat church only as a place where you go to get fed (see entertained; see also Golden Corral) rather than a place where you also go to pour your life into other people (see Galatians 6:1-10). And who wants to bother with getting involved with other people when there is such a risk of getting hurt again?

The words of C.S. Lewis from his great book The Four Loves are very appropriate here.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."

Hiding is not an option for believers.

3. Wait Him Out

This happens way too much. You don’t like the pastor because of all of the terrible things he’s doing to your church. But at the same time, you don’t want to just leave and go somewhere else because it is… ahem… your church. So you do what any reasonable, forward thinking person would do – make your pastor’s life miserable until he finally leaves and gives you your church back.

This kind of approach is foolish, prideful and ineffective. It is foolish and prideful because it forgets that no church worth its salt belongs to the pastor or the oldest and loudest member but to Jesus (Colossians 1:18). It is ineffective because life changing ministry takes a back seat to the spiritual arm wrestling match between you and whatever leader it is you don’t like with the rest of the church just sitting and watching.

If your pastor is an arrogant jerk, forgive him and seek reconciliation while at the same time remembering the tendencies you have to also be an arrogant jerk. It’s funny how often I think of moments when the church has hurt me in comparison to how little I think about the times when I have hurt the church.

Foolishness, pride and inactivity are not options for believers.

4. Persevere

A friend of mine is a pastor and has been the victim of his share of personal attacks and accusations over the years. One day he lamented to me, “When I was hanging out in bars nobody ever tried to destroy my character but now that I’m working in a church it happens to me all the time.” But he hasn’t given up. He still preaches and leads faithfully because he loves Jesus and part of loving Jesus means loving what Jesus loves and Jesus loves the Church (1 John 4:20-21).

My bad experience in that angry man’s living room really rattled me. I forgave him quickly but remained gun shy towards ever getting involved in any kind of church ministry for a few years. I never quit going but I did try hiding out in the church as if attendance was all that mattered.

Looking to Jesus and following the example of others who also look to him has helped me to hang on since then and through other difficult times. Many can say, “The Church hurt me.” But when we do we must look to the One who can say, “The Church killed me but I still love it with all of my life (Romans 5:6, Ephesians 5:25).


Three excellent books on why the church is worth the struggle are Why We Love the Church by DeYoung and Kluck; Stop Dating the Church by Harris and Journeys by Duren and Wright.