Best of My Blog: Why Church Hurts

July 13, 2011

While I’m on vacation and then on a mission trip to Mexico, I’m treating you to some exceptional guest bloggers and reposting some of my best content from the last year.  I’ll be tweeting and commenting off and on, but will be back full time on the blog July 25th.

Update: I’ll be back on Friday with a fresh post before I leave for Mexico.

Have you noticed all the Christians apologizing for the church?

I have.  It’s kind of the thing to do.  We assume everyone out there has been hurt, wronged, isolated, burned or ostracized by the church.  It’s almost the battle cry of my generation.  “We’ve been emotionally wounded by the church!” Ever since Donald Miller made it popular, some Christians just can’t resist telling everyone what jerks we’ve all been.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s some things to apologize for.

But when you stack up all the apologies, it makes you think that maybe the church is just an agent for pure evil. It’s almost like we’re inviting people to say, “Christians suck and I demand an apology!” I’m not here to apologize or take back apologies.  If anyone should be pissed off at the church, it’s me.  I’m here to ask why does it happen?  Why does the relationship people are supposed to have with the church break down?

A Low-Maintenance Friend

Think about the least important relationship in your life.  The person you have the lowest maintanence friendship with.  The person you talk to once every few months, or even years.  Most people probably have at least one of those friends.  I’ve had several.  One even told me he valued how low-maintanence we were.  It was weird.  It was also probably the last time we talked.

If that person were not in your life, would it make that much of a difference?  Probably not.  You already have the lowest possible investment in that person.  If they decided to not talk to not call you in six months, it wouldn’t hurt you that badly.  It’s probably impossible to be hurt by that person.

There’s some people who have that relationship with their church.  It’s very low-maintanence.  There’s no emotional investment, no risk.  They sit on the fringes.  If you don’t want to ever be hurt by the church, this is where you want to be.

A High-Maintanence Friend

Now think of the most emotionally risky relationship in your life – the one where you’ve invested the most. Probably the most emotionally risky thing anyone can do is have children.  Right behind that is getting married.  With either of those, you’re putting your heart and soul into that relationship.  And your heart and soul can be crushed by your spouse or your kids.  They can hurt you, disappoint you, burn you.  Or you can just lose them, one way or another.  Any way you look at it, you’re going to get hurt, sooner or later.

That’s where people need to be with the church.  It needs to be an emotionally risky relationship.  Any relationship that’s worth keeping has some level of emotional risk to it.  That’s the only way you get anything out of it.  Has anyone ever benefited from an emotionally distant marriage, or an absent friend?  Same with church.  You get out of it what you put into it.

Irreconcilable Differences

I have come to believe that the people who are hurt the most by the church are the ones who care most about the church.  How can you be hurt by something you don’t care about?  Why would you be wounded by the thoughts or opinions of someone who you don’t value?

That’s just it.  The more you become emotionally invested in the church, the more of yourself you put into it, the more vulnerable you are to disappointment and hurt.  It’s the people who pour their hearts and souls into the church who can most have their hearts and souls completely stomped on by other Christians.  Why did I get hurt by my church?  Because I cared about it.  If I were sitting on the fringes, I wouldn’t have cared what happened to it.  I would’ve moved on.

The church relationship breaks down for the same reason any high-maintanence friendship or marriage breaks down.  The love or friendship turns out to be conditional.  Married people love each other, until they have unreconcilable differences. Isn’t that a trite reason for divorce?  It just means those two people had love for the other that was conditional.  The relationship breaks down because one person didn’t meet the other person’s conditions for being loved.

Church breaks down because Christians decide their love for others is conditional. Or their love for their church is conditional. So maybe you’re the person who didn’t meet Christians’ conditions for love.  Maybe your church didn’t meet your conditions for love.  It disappointed you, and you walked away.  Either way, the result is the same.

In fact, I might say that given enough time, a person who is truly emotionally invested in the church won’t be able to not be disappointed or hurt by the people inside.  Just like any other relationship.  It’s inevitable.

Have you ever been hurt by Christians, or a church you were a part of?  Tell us about it.  Or, have you ever been the one to hurtthe church, or other Christians?  What do you think about the popularity of apologizing?  Is there always room for an apology, or is it becoming a cliche?


18 responses to Best of My Blog: Why Church Hurts

  1. I’ve never actually been a Christian or been a member of a Christian church. (UU, yes, but I don’t really count that, and I suspect most people here wouldn’t either.) Despite what many Christians are fond of insinuating, I’m not an atheist because Christians made me cry one time or something. I just haven’t seen any convincing reason to believe Christianity’s true.

    True, we’re all hurt by Christians every time someone uses the Bible to justify bigotry and hatred, or to justify the sacrifice of fact-based education in favor of keeping children safely indoctrinated. I would really like to see more liberal Christians speaking out against (as in, really discouraging and explaining why they object to) the young-earth creationists pushing religion into science classrooms, the “gay cure” promoters, the con-artist “faith healers”, the ones making excuses for child-molesting priests… but I don’t think that’s the kind of stuff you’re aiming to talk about in this post.

    What I really wanted to respond to was this idea of “unconditional love.” It’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot especially in theological discussions. I’m assuming you’re arguing that Christians should love each other and love their church unconditionally, because that’s what Jesus taught, that’s how God loves his children, etc. etc. Am I right on that? (Honestly, please tell me if I’m misreading this.) It’s always seemed to me that Christian “unconditional love” has a HUGE condition on it: you have to accept some unspecified number of doctrinal points as true in order to get that love, grace, whatever you want to call it. If you don’t believe it, you burn in hell. (I’ve heard some apologists try to explain why sending you to an eternity of hellfire is actually loving, but that just strikes me as absurd on face.)

    But is it really so bad to love someone with conditions? If my husband became a violent criminal, I would stop loving him. If my parents had neglected or abused me, I would have stopped loving them. If the church I attended was covering up for child molesters, I would stop loving it. I base my feelings of love on some mutual respect, trust, and caring. What’s wrong with that?

    • You’ve got it! Yes, I am saying that Christians should love one another unconditionally (or at least make a better attempt at it). Too often there IS a condition for Christian love, like you point out. It may be theological, or anything else that someone fails to meet.

      You make a distinction between the church and marriage. It’s true, there are conditions on which a marriage can end justifiably. But far too many marriages don’t end because one of the spouses became violent or started screwing around. They just end because the two people got on one another’s nerves. That’s what I see as conditional love.

      Similarly, there is a distinction between a church, pastor, or member who does something to completely destroy trust (like abusing someone), and the conditions under which most people leave a church. Churches usually split, or members leave because of petty, selfish reasons that people can’t bring themselves to forgive. That’s what I have a problem with. I was wounded very deeply by a church I loved very much acting in this way, and I suspect there are far too many people who have felt similarly.

  2. Hi Matt,

    The passage which struck me most here was:

    “The more you become emotionally invested in the church, the more of yourself you put into it, the more vulnerable you are to disappointment and hurt. It’s the people who pour their hearts and souls into the church who can most have their hearts and souls completely stomped on by other Christians”.

    It seems to me that our religion has two facets: a relationship with God, and a relationship with other people.

    Church folks try to make one equal the other.

    Not so.

    I can demonstrate my relationship with God by the way I treat others, but that is a by-product of faith. Faith is more than going into a building to meet other people. “Where two or three are gathered…”

    But Jesus attended synagogue services, didn’t He? Yes, and He walked on water too.

    My wife and I faithfully attended and supported the same local congregation for 27 years. We expected to be buried in the churchyard. But our denomination changed radically and we calmly shook the dust off our feet without fanfare and began staying home on Sundays… Best move we’ve ever made.

    And guess what–we are still Christians.

    If I wanted unconditional love, I’d get a dog.

    John Cowart

    • John, I applaud your decision, when it came time, to leave your church with a very good reason, and to do so without causing a scene. I’m sure you’re still Christians, and at this point in your lives, it doesn’t feel worth it to start over with another church. For those of us with fifty years to go in this life, staying home just won’t do.

    • Thank you for expressing so eloquently what I am feeling.

  3. Great thoughts, Matt. If someone is demanding an apology, it’s not very Christian. I’m just saying.

    If we look at the sources of anger (which we are allowed to have without sin! Ephesians), they are being lied to, being betrayed, being wounded either physically or emotional, and frustration. It is easy to see how people would get hurt. People do these things to other humans whether they act intentionally or not. Add to that different temperaments, mis-communicated “love languages” and we are in a huge mess with little motivation to get it right. We don’t get paid, we may or may not be committed – it’s all voluntary. And finally there is our own response to others which comes from our brokenness: the need for approval, our expectation of perfection, our own shame and the fact that we tend to blame others. I believe that is why Jesus said, “the sick need a doctor.”

    Why we don’t teach relationship in church is way beyond me. I have written about it on my blog many time. Preachers spend a lot of time teaching about how to have a relationship with Christ, and none on how to have relationship with Christians. We need the basic understanding of how people tick, and most importantly, how we tick. We can’t just run around blaming everything on sin and the devil!

    And lastly, I think it’s religion that hurts people, not the church. That is what the Pharisees did, they hurt people with all their intellectual BS teaching, and man-made laws and customs. Jesus confronted people with the truth (by revelation, not 3 hermeneutical points) based on their situation. IE: The woman at the well, the woman taken in adultery, Zacchaeus, the 12 and even the 5,000 men and their families which he fed bread and fish. It was in the context of what the Father was doing – and the is the model.

  4. Maybe there’s a difference between being hurt by “a church” and “The Church.”

    There a tons of ways to be hurt by “a church”, all of which can generally be traced back to flawed people screwing up.

  5. Hi Matt.

    How apropos. This week I’ve been feeling especially hurt and harassed by church people.

    I’m introverted. It’s built in. I recharge when I spend time alone.

    I’ve been going to a new (for me) church the last few months. They are great people, and I enjoy their company.

    But me going to Sunday worship and helping out on the every other Saturday work days wasn’t enough for them. So they (the pastor’s wife) started pressuring me about attending Sunday school.

    So I go. It’s a good way to get to know people, and it’s a way to learn and grow with people my own age.

    But now that’s not enough, either. Now I should go on Wednesday nights, even though the church is 45 minutes from my home, and I get to work early. I’m sure that won’t be enough, either. I’m sure after that it’ll be Sunday nights, too, even though I was there all morning.

    I know someone here will most likely reply that going to church twice a week and helping out on Saturdays isn’t really a huge commitment, and that it’s just so sad, because other people they can list have so much zeal.

    It is, though. Because I also work the other 5 days of the week, and I’m only home on those days about 4 hours before I need to go to bed.

    I’m introverted.. God made me this way.. so I need some time alone to recharge. I need my Saturdays. I need Sunday nights. I need to make sure I get enough sleep, and that I’m not out on the town 45 minutes from home at 8:30 on a Wednesday night.

    I need these things because God has placed me in a work situation that requires patience – not something that comes easy on little rest.

    I do not need prayer because I need time alone. I need my Christian brothers and sisters to get those self-righteous sticks out of their rear-ends and recognize that people can love God without being heavily involved in the church.

    • Forgive me for this, but maybe your pastor’s wife doesn’t realize that she is pressuring you and thinks she is inviting and encouraging you. I belong to a woman’s prayer group, and I’ve invited ladies. If I’m told outright that she won’t be able to make it, I state that she’s welcome anytime and drop it, but if she says she doesn’t have a ride, I offer one, or “not this week”, I’ll ask again.
      I guess what I’m saying is that a firm no is perfectly fine :-) and if your pastor’s wife can’t accept that, she’s being pushy, but she may be taking your natural shyness to mean you don’t feel welcome and she may be trying to do that.
      BTW, I used to be shy and had to practice saying “No, I won’t be able to ” firmly while looking in the mirror. It helped me see that I wasn’t being as firm as I thought I was, and that when I was firm, I didn’t appear rude like I feared. Also, you don’t need to give anyone excuses as to why you can’t attend something you are invited to or help with something you are asked to help with. As far as I’m concerned, “No, I won’t be able to” should be enough for anyone except moms, aunts, and grandmas!
      I hope I’m not being the pushy one, now. :-)

    • Sounds like a huge committment to me! I’d go for quality over quantity when it comes to church activities. How people find the ability to digest and implement into their lives three Bible lessons a week, I will never know. One life changing revelation a week seems enough to me. But I will agree with Helen. Maybe the woman doesn’t know how she’s coming across to you. She may not know that you are shy, or that you have a crowded schedule. When her schedule apparently revolves around church like hers does, it may be hard for her to imagine that your schedule is full too.

  6. Of course we hurt each other. We are human. We need to be loving enough to apologize when we are wrong and humble enough to try to make amends even when we aren’t. Do we fail? Darn tootin’ we do. At least I do. But harder than apologizing is forgiving. We need to love each other enough to forgive each other. Love seems to be Jesus’s major Commandment, and I can see why. Everything falls apart without it.

  7. I was very hurt by my old church. I was verbally and spiritually abused consistently for many years. I finally got fed up with it after things started to make sense to me. For example, the pastor always talked about “tough love” because it was the best way to teach someone how to be strong. That meant being brutally honest to the point of utter disrespect. Saying things to another brother that would, many times, not even be relevant to the situation or productive for that individual.

    Also, there was a superiority that the leadership carried around with them. An arrogance that told everyone that they were better than everyone else. They only chose the ones they wanted to spend time talking to and helping through their issues. I was always put on the back burner because they always told me that my problems weren’t important enough to really deal with. They would deal harshly with me and then deal even harsher by telling me to “GET OUT!!!”, or “GET OUTTA HERE!!!”

    As a result I turned to other leaders for guidance and discipleship, which led me to begin voicing the negative things those leaders were saying to me, only to have those leaders who dealt harshly with me go to them in front of me and say, “Don’t listen to him. He’s exaggerating. Then turn to me and say, “Quit your belly aching and stop talking to him!”

    That’s one instance out of many others that time doesn’t permit me to mention. But, I do agree that, YES, a church should apologize continually for it’s actions, because it is the heart Christ for His kids to be reconciled to one another. That church has never made an attempt to reconcile with me, and that hurts a lot. If they were to apologize for their actions that would only help the healing process even more. I want to start my own blog, so that I can tell of other instances and hear how others may have had similar cases, and/or how they healed from it. Only, without the hyper-spiritual answers. Only real talk.

  8. I feel I was hurt by the leaders of my church. Looking back as an adult, I can see why it happened. I was young, introverted, awkward, and female and the churches I attended were very traditional and very Korean (which, in this case, also meant very traditional). I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and in doing so I had to accept the only environment I could access Jesus which were the churches my mother went to. This meant years of being told how worthless I was (and yes, I understand that as a sinner, I am worthless) and unworthy with a lot of emphasis on the vengeful and punishing God. God is a God of righteous anger. And rightly so, but there was no loving Father to look to for help and guidance, just asking for forgiveness constantly.

    Looking back, I can see why the young adult leaders (and I mean they were young adults in their early 20s) and leaders of the church did it – it was to keep us out of trouble and in line and safe. I took it from age 11 to 22 and what it did was create in me the deep and abiding knowledge that I. Am. Worthless.

    And yet, I consider myself a Christian. My friends find this astonishing. They ask me if I believe this or that (Christian belief) and I answer, “Yes.” Some think I’ve been effectively brainwashed while others can see the heartache and wonder why I still believe. Basically it comes down to this: I believe in Jesus and that he died for my sins. But the people that make up the church are not Jesus. They’re just people.

    But even as I understand this, I haven’t been back to church. And I don’t know that I ever will.

  9. First time here…got here from a link by a mutual blogger friend. Great thoughts. As a former house church pastor for 10 years, I can relate.

    This might have already been said in the comments (I didn’t take time to read all of them), but I have a couple of thoughts. First, while you’re absolutely correct that any invested relationship involves risk of being hurt (including with the church), there are a lot of ways in which the church hurts people needlessly, largely because of the way we’ve structured it over the years, and because our priorities are askew compared with the Scriptures. You can forgive the church for those things, but at some point you need to confront the behavior–just like an alcoholic sometimes needs an intervention by his/her loving family. Sometimes you must draw a line and say, “This is wrong, and this needs to change in order for the relationship to move ahead.” That’s probably a good analogy for where I am with the church right now. I’m tired of enabling counter-productive and hurtful behavior that could be avoided simply by getting our priorities straight.

    The other thought is that in my own life, I’ve made a clear distinction between the Body of Christ and institutional Christianity. I have not left the church (I can’t do that unless I deny Christ, and that’s not gonna happen). Rather, I have left the institutional structure that we mistakenly CALL “church.” Church is an organism, not an institution, and I am now seeking to live my faith in a more organic and life-giving way, seeking out fresh forms of Christian community. I guess I say this because I think the dynamic of people getting hurt by “church” (and consequently leaving) is a little more complex than just people getting hurt by a high-maintenance relationship. I am still deeply invested in the Body of Christ, even though I’ve left the institutions that currently surround it. My irreconcilable differences are not with the Body of Christ itself. Hope that makes sense.

    Thanks for your thoughts here.

  10. The apparent (yet unseen by the casual observer) growth philosophy (though unintended) of the church as it is instinctively and directly related to individual behaviors deems that people will be hurt. In other words, leadership spots people that are used as tools for growth. Those people, due to relavent growth talents make a difference…(it’s recognized as being obedient to the will of God). They are then admonished as being extra special people in Gods eyes…No not literally, but through the celebrity status they are adorned with. Narcissism and envy then begins to grow. People with a simple sincerity to serve but do not bring ‘valued’ talent and sensationalistic/charismatic personalities are left in the back drop never finding there place in the church. They are the sheep…as in any heirarchy. This process…this cycle is seen nationwide. Over the past 30yrs I have seen such hurts done to people that are unconscionable. I have seen nepotism at the highest level of presbyters. (You may know the kind) “We will make ‘Johnny’ the district director of youth since his daddy is the superintentendent of North Texas Dist. (fic.ex.only) or the Pastor hands the lead to his son who is from afar…and passes up the youth pastor or associate pastor who served faitfully for years. Both incidents are accredited to being the will of God; and deems that one does not question those leaders due to them being closer to God than you, hence division occurs. There is a growing dissolussionment in the church by the ‘non-essential’ members…No they are not ‘considered’ non-essential…they are ‘treated’ as such. Stay in a particular congregation or denomination and you will see the hurt in the name of God due to the ‘human’ factor. Upon inviting a friend (who had apparently experienced all that he should not have) to church…he replied “Why do I want to return to a place that caused me so much hurt? He said that he had nothing but bad memories and why would he want to go back to that ‘place’ when he already had to deal with the ramifications of all the pain that was caused him. I told him that none of what he experienced had anything to do with a loving God…He said exactly…that’s why I am not going. Hmmm…the logic. Love must be the dominant element of the church…Few church’s teach the elements of love found in 1 Cor. 13. Maybe we assume that all know what love is…God gave us the definition of love for a reason…it’s because we get it wrong so often. 1 Peter 4:8. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.

  11. I want to tell my story.I was in a church for 8yrs. I got close to my husbands brother and his wife.I did everything for them and my father-in-law even after my husband and I seperated for over 2 yrs.I lived near them and the church.The pastor and his wife were good to me and kind.When my husband and I seperated ,I lived near his brother and his wife.I worked in a family business with my brother-in-law.We were all at this same church.I used my car to give their daughter(my niece),help with the aging father-in-law,give rides to my brother-in-law and favors to my sister-in-law.I did everything and anything they asked.
    Many wives would not help with their father-in-law when seperated from their husband but I did and truly cared about him and did it also as”unto the Lord.”
    Well one day my car died this past Dec.2011.I had pulled an abdominal muscle and had much pain and was practically on bed rest for a few months.I could’t work in the business with them.I have 3 kids,2 with special needs.I needed a ride to the doctors and guess what?They WOULD NOT HELP!!! Instead my sister-in-law cursed me,said I was demanding etc.I had to walk for months an hour and a half to a place I had to go to every 2 weeks.Total round trip was 3plus hours in any kind of weather.With terrible pain in my side,either crying almost or using pain killers to do it.She worked and said she did not want her husband to give me a ride though it was always fine before when I did favors for them.She also after all this said”your not taking my husband!”I was like,”what???”I tried to contact the pastors wife and she claimed she could not have a meeting because she was too busy.They went to bible college together with my sister-n-brother-in law.They also turned their backs on me and I had served at this church,loved them,etc.Another friend of mine got 2 meetings during this time with the pastor and his wife for lesser matters.
    Now me and the kids walk everywhere,i still have some pain,have not fully healed and NO ONE WILL HELP US!!! naturally I stopped going to the church which I am condemened for by the church and my brother-n-sister-in law.I tried to make peace,forgive,etc but they are still hurting me and saying “everythings”my fault. My sister-in-law cut me off from my brother-in-law who was nurturing and a friend etc for 8 yrs.I have all this pain because even though they did wrong to me ,I still loved them so much and miss my brother in law.i have to see them drive by me etc.They were like a family I never had.i still have to see my niece and have tried to move but God hasnt allowed me too.My heart is so broken.What am I supposed to do???!!! And what’s up with God and me being stuck here??
    p.s. Do not let anyone especially christians who represent the love of God(suppossed too anyway)destroy your faith!!! I almost did but I’m holding onto God/Jesus even though I’m in terrible emotional pain and don’t understand right now.