When the church lets you down, processing hurt can feel tiresome. Whether the letdown was personal to you, to someone you know, or simply what you have seen in the news, you can be left with feelings of anger, grief, and confusion over what happened.
How the church lets us down.
There have been many prominent church leaders exposed for sinful behaviors, such as engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships that are often abusive, child pornography, grooming teenagers, sexually assaulting men and women, and on and on.
These church leaders are hurting the very people they have committed to shepherd and protect. When Church authorities hide this abuse from them attempting to protect the abusers, the damage is even more profoundly felt as it becomes systemic and structural.
The worldwide church is angry over this injustice. They’re hurt, too, because people they trusted are no longer trustworthy, which has then led to a lack of trust of the church as a whole. Now people are even struggling to trust God and follow God because of it, too. They think that if God’s leaders are like this, they want no part of God.
In fact, people are leaving the church in droves. Before the 1990s, church attendance in the United States remained steady at around 70% of households. Since then, it has steadily declined to less than 50%. Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born in 1997 and later) are barely in church at all.
Whereas 85% of the silent generation (born 1928–1945) call themselves Christians, just 56% of today’s younger Millennials (born 1990–1996) do the same, even though the vast majority (about 8 in 10) were raised in religious homes. Over the past 70 years, each successive generation has included fewer and fewer Christians, and the overwhelming majority of the Christians remaining today are over the age of 35.
‘Why Millennials Are Skipping Church and Not Going Back’ shares more about the rapid decrease in millennials at church: The drop-off has been most pronounced among people ages 23 to 38. In 2019, roughly two-thirds attend worship services “a few times a year” or less, and 4 in 10 say they seldom or never go. A decade ago, it was more than half and only 3 in 10, respectively.
According to Springtide Research’s The State of Religion and Young People report, “Nearly 40% of young people ages 13–25 indicate that they are unaffiliated, whether agnostic, atheist, or ‘nothing in particular.’” ‘The Nones: Where They Come From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going’ gives additional insight: More people are entering adulthood without a religious affiliation, and they become more likely to stay a none as they age.
To put a fine point on this, nearly a third of people born between 1990 and 1994 had no religious affiliation between the ages of eight and thirty-five. And even when the younger generation is in church, they’re not embracing Christianity.
There are many theories of why this steady decline is happening, but one reason could be because of this lack of trust in leadership. When leaders are lying, abusing, hiding, or covering up abuse, the ones who are abused are traumatized and the whole church is traumatized, too.
How we feel when the church hurts us.
Anytime someone who is supposed to be safe proves to be unsafe, people are hurt. We feel betrayed, manipulated, used, abused, and deceived. Even though many are able to admit no one is perfect, and everyone “falls short of the glory of God,” people are unable to reconcile the manipulation, abuse, and deceit. We all long for authenticity and have had enough of the hypocrisy. We get angry, but underneath the anger, we are really hurting.
It hurts to have someone teach you hope, grace, love, and faith of the Christian faith, and then not embody those principles in their lives and leadership. It hurts when someone is ready and willing to expose all the things that are sinful or not in line with what God wants for his church but is abusing innocent people behind closed doors.
It’s not just abuse, either. It’s financial deceit, narcissism, cult-like leadership, and many more things that are hurting people. And no one wants any part of a system like this.
So, how as a people, especially people of the Christian faith, can people process this hurt without leaving the church altogether or turning away from God? Because the answer seems simple: “Just leave. Don’t put up with that kind of hypocrisy. Don’t have any part of it. You don’t need the church.” But it’s not that simple, because that doesn’t fill the spiritual ache every person has inside.
Five truths to help in processing hurt.
Here are some things to remember when processing hurt from the church:
1. Remember that God isn’t at fault.
It’s easy to hate the leaders and then point fingers at God. But remember he isn’t a puppet master. He gives everyone free will to make their own decisions (including those in leadership), and he knows those decisions are often hurtful.
It’s always important to return to truths you know about God or commit to learning about God from fresh eyes when the church hurts you. Reread the Bible and get to know him all over again, letting the Holy Spirit guide you.
Really learn what the Bible says about who God is, and then come back to the truth that everyone needs a Savior because no one is perfect. He is the only one who never failed, never sinned, never chose wrongly, and never lied.
2. Don’t think God doesn’t know or see.
It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. (Luke 17:2) (NIV). This verse makes it clear that those in leadership positions had better not use their position to harm those in their flock.
The Bible even warns leaders and teachers that they will be held to a higher standard.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NIV).
People often say God “ordained” those in leadership. Though sometimes that’s true, it’s important to remember many times man puts man in leadership positions. Man hires, sometimes under the false pretense of having sought God for wisdom in those decisions.
Some people enter leadership positions in churches that have no place there. Perpetrators of abuse, narcissists, con artists and money launderers are attracted to positions of power because power gives them more room to explore those places of darkness without being caught. Power gives them room to cover it up.
Injustice is a terrible thing, however, God’s Word says in Romans 12:19 that “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.”(NIV). We do not have to take matters into our own hands, however, we can be supportive of those who are harmed by the church and take steps to prevent any kind of abuse by church leadership.
3. Consider how you feel.
When processing your hurt, it’s always important to allow yourself to be still long enough to consider how you feel and why. What happened that was so disappointing or hurtful to you? What specifically about the event triggered your anger or feelings of betrayal? What specific feelings are there? Anger? Hurt? Sadness? Spend some time with this. Journal about it and consider discussing your feelings with a Christian counselor.
4. Don’t blindly follow anyone.
Because we live in a fallen world, we do well to practice discernment and seek the wisdom of wise counsel, especially the counsel of the Holy Spirit, when “following” anyone. This is also why it’s so important to be intimately acquainted with the Bible, knowing what it says because you’ve read and studied it yourself. It’s also why prayer is so important, because the more you pray, the more you get to know God.
People need to be able to listen attentively and think critically, never getting shoved into groupthink.
5. Be honest with God and with safe people.
Remember, it’s okay to feel what you feel and ask tough questions. It’s okay to bring your doubt, anger, disappointment, and sadness to the feet of Jesus and tell Him honestly you’re struggling to trust the church again. It’s okay to have these conversations with safe people, and it’s crucial to have these conversations with people who know the Bible deeply so they can help anchor you in truth when processing hurt threatens to take you away from it all.
You aren’t alone if you are disappointed and angry at the church. Again, it wasn’t supposed to be this way, and it’s okay and necessary to grieve that loss, but you don’t have to walk through the pain alone. Find a safe person, especially a trusted counselor, with whom you can process this pain.
Don’t give up on God and His church just yet. There are many congregations and leaders who are authentic, trustworthy, humble, and kind. There are many who denounce all abuse and who always stand on the side of the hurting. God will help you find a better church as you’re processing hurt.
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