Church Hurt: The Experience and The Healing
Church Hurt is a newer term referencing the pain, sadness, emotional scarring, or abuse experienced in a church context. Church Hurt can be inflicted, intentionally or unintentionally, by laity or religious leaders. Most do not attend church intending to hurt anyone, but many leave a church having experienced emotional pain. This article seeks to define the alarming trend that negatively impacts the unity and witness of the Lord's Church.
What is Church Hurt?
Church Hurt is a broad term referencing the pain (physical or emotional) people experience within a church setting. A new pastor does not enter ministry intending to hurt others, and most to not attend a new church hoping to cause division. However, it does happen, and it is prevalent. Church Hurt is a weapon Satan uses to undermine a ministry’s potential. He seeks to divide, discourage and destroy.
Let the reader recall that the Church is not a building—the Church is the people, the followers of Christ. Its members comprise a church family and is referred to in Scripture as Christ’s body. The Church is holy and God’s gift to the world in this age.
However, though Christ is the head of the Church, and the Spirit of God empowers workers to lead in the ministry of the church, the Lord has entrusted the care of the church to humans. Therefore, the decisions or actions of people associated with the Church are subject to error. Terrible things can happen in a church, be taught by a church, or be done by a Christian in the name of the Church. For the most part, Church Hurt arises from abuses in those areas. You may be experiencing Church Hurt if…
- You no longer feel comfortable attending a church service.
- You believe the church is weak in extending grace and forgiveness.
- You feel anxiety when you think about attending a service.
- You distrust pastors or ministry leaders.
- You experience little joy in attending church—you primarily attend out of a sense of duty or obligation.
- You avoid serving in church or attending small group activities (you prefer large settings and anonymity).
- You believe the difference between a Christian and one not in a relationship with Jesus is minimal.
- You have lingering feelings of anger, shame, or sadness when thinking about or attending a church service or function.
Who is Responsible for Church Hurt?
Church Hurt occurs when pain (physical or emotional) results from the actions or decisions associated with someone in a church. Church Hurt is aggravated when forgiveness is needed but not extended and when grievances are spoken, but church leaders and offending parties do not hear. People, often those identifying as Christians, are the perpetrators of Church Hurt, but the puppet master is Satan. The enemy is cunning and will prompt and manipulate people to support his objective to discourage and divide the body of Christ.
A church attendee, member, or a ministry leader such as a deacon, elder, teacher, or pastor can cause Church Hurt. Some actions or statements are egregious—causing anger and wounding deeply. But for the most part, Church Hurt arises when a well-meaning but misguided or insensitive Christian does or says the wrong thing in the wrong way.
What Are Some Examples of Church Hurt?
Defining Church Hurt is essential in finding healing with emotional pain. Inflicting Church Hurt can take many forms and impacts people differently. From sexual abuse to emotional abuse to misapplying God’s word, Church Hurt wounds can run deep, and it can take a few months or years for the wounded not to hurt anymore. A few specific examples of actions precipitating Church Hurt follow:
- A mother feels shunned and hurt by her church family, who asserted Jesus would condemn her for seeking a divorce from her abusive husband.
- A pastor's wife is shaken when verbally berated by disgruntled church members who take their grievances about the pastor to her rather than follow the grievance remedy guidelines presented in Matthew 18.
- A church leader refuses to take any responsibility for causing a new believer emotional pain after making that person's struggle with addiction public.
- A church member publicly ridicules a small group class member for not knowing where to find a book in the Bible.
- A church leader in a position of trust and influence pressures a teen into a sexual encounter.
- A church member tells a single mom with cancer that she could be healed if she had enough faith.
- A youth pastor admits he struggles with alcohol—church leaders move to fire him rather than support him through recovery.
- A church member felt pressured and manipulated when church leaders came to his home and solicited financial support—inferring that supporting the building fund was a mark of spiritual maturity.
Who Can Experience Hurt in the Church?
Anyone in the church can experience (or cause) Church Hurt. Studies show that most Christians report being wounded in a church setting; many do not go to church anymore. On average, pastors stay at their churches for only 18 months, and most who earn a Master’s Degree in Theology no longer serve in ministry after five years. This is not a faith issue—it is a Church Hurt issue
Years of specialized theological training, a mature faith, and participation in workshops in congregational care do not make a seasoned minister immune to words and actions that hurt, discourage, and cause one to question their calling. It is wrong thinking to believe the community of faith hurt you and, therefore, you should no longer serve the community. Satan's goal is to divert leaders from their calling. Beware and be strong.
Church leaders can experience Church Hurt when…
- They consider their own life and needs as less important than others and pour their heart and soul into the ministry, but members question their sincerity and dedication.
- Individuals in the church make unsubstantiated accusations and friends and ministry leaders are quick to think the worst.
- There is a hyper-critical spirit in the church.
- There is more gossip than praying in the church.
- They do not recognize the first step in guarding against Church Hurt is to pray and make it a point to teach on what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
- When those who were thought to be committed to the ministry leave for the church down the street with better_______________.
- Their work is demeaned via comments such as, “The pastor is overpaid." "His sermons are dry." "He only works a few hours a week." "He’s a good man but a terrible preacher," etc.
Those we care about most are often able to hurt us most. A ministry leader can be wounded by a careless, ill-timed, or insensitive comment. Ministry leaders are a favored target of the enemy. To be chosen by God to lead is a guarantee of a life of challenge. The greats in Scripture were not immune. Moses became discouraged when people rose up against him. David cried to the Lord when his son prompted a rebellion. The prophet Jeremiah was rejected by his people and thrown into a cistern. Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed Jesus. If you are called to lead in ministry, expect opposition—expect to be hurt. Paul suffered disappointments and setbacks but accomplished much because he persevered. His counsel is wise: "We will reap a good harvest if we do not give up" (Galatians 6:9b).
Church Members and Volunteers
Sadly, the backbone of a local church—church family members and volunteers—often experience Church Hurt more than other groups. Staff members generally have more support, more people around them to pray, and more people to call on at any moment if there is a need On the other hand, casual attendees are not always a part of church business discussions or aware of church polity issues. Their limited engagement in the work of the church puts them outside the primary target range. Satan knows that attacking the backbone of the church, the unity of the church family, can stifle spiritual growth and the church's witness.
The community of faith (those inside the church, those supported by the church, and those with ties to the church's ministry) suffer when Satan is allowed to exploit vulnerabilities and sideline a ministry. More than fifty evangelical churches in America close each week—many of these closures can be attributed to division, a lack of forgiveness, limited godly conversation, and infighting stemming from forms of Church Hurt.
Jesus warned that the enemy seeks to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10a). The enemy loves it when forgiveness is slow to be extended, and grace is withheld. He loves it when hope is lost, and believers use the Bible to justify actions not wrapped in love. Let believers be fervent in praying for the reputation and legacy of the local church, and that Church Hurt will not compromise the church's witness in the greater community.
What Are Some of The Causes of Church Conflict?
Dr. Chris Crain of the Birmingham Metro Baptist Association writes of seven leading causes for conflict in the local church—these conflict areas often facilitate Church Hurt and can stifle one's healing journey. His list follows:
Pride is one of Satan’s weapons; the prophet Isaiah notes that pride was the leading factor in Satan’s fall from glory (Isaiah 14:11-15). Pride is huperphanos in the Greek—a compound word meaning above + the base. God, His will, way, and teachings = the base. Believers are to trust God, believe in God’s goodness, and not put their preferences and will above God or other Christians—to do so weakens our faith and diminishes joy in life.
Spiritual and Emotional Immaturity
Like pride, spiritual and emotional immaturity leads to an egocentric perspective that values my personal experience above that of other believers. My life, my needs, my hurts, comfort, pain, and spiritual growth are paramount. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul encouraged Christians to mature in the faith, which, according to Philippians 2:1-11, is evidenced when we elevate the needs of others above our own. All in the church community must be diligent in praying for and responding to the hurts of others.
Abuses of Power
The best leaders are humble servants. It is wrong when religious leaders use their power or influence to do or say what they desire without considering the impact their actions will have on others. Leaders must look out for the hurting and vulnerable. In Romans 14, Paul advises believers not to do anything that will cause a brother to stumble (Romans 14:1-13). To the Corinthians, Paul wrote that all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable (1 Corinthians 10:31). Here, Paul makes it a point to emphasize the importance of grace and humility; henotes that church leaders should be different than leaders in the world who push to do what they can rather than pursuing God’s justice.
Church politics can often be the ugly side of church life. Many churches have split or closed because the senior pastor and church members struggle to have a reasonable and Christ-centered conversation about the work of the Church. Though the New Testament notes the proper structure and the importance of order in the Church, many business meetings devolve into power struggles and disputes that leave people wounded and hurting. Feelings are hurt and bad things happen when we allow a conversation to turn into an argument and we focus on our desire more than praying to hear what God desires.
Christians should not allow personality differences to lead to anger or division in the Church. In John 17, Jesus prayed that His followers would be one—He did not pray that all believers would be the same, but that all believers would be united. And Jesus revealed why: “That the world may believe that God sent His Son” (John 17:21). The strength of our witness correlates with our ability to love each other. Allowing personality differences to bring hurt, pain, or injury to the church family points to pride or an immature faith.
How Can Individuals Who Have Experienced Church Hurt Start to Heal?
The heart breaks when those we trust disappoint. Only the Holy Spirit can bring healing. Dr. Alison Cook, a therapist author, and ministry leader, suggests that those who have experienced church hurt consider the following as they walk their healing journey:
Step 1. Define Church Hurt as a Form of Abuse
The first step in finding healing is to identify and name your pain. Pain is an indicator of the need for remedy. The remedy for Church Hurt includes praying, growing in faith, focusing on godly desires, and having a sense of knowing what to hold on to and what to release.
Church Hurt is a form of abuse. It can be a false accusation, using the Bible to justify a wrong, posting information on social media that should remain confidential, physical abuse, a judgmental pastor using prayer to condemn or embarrass, using truth as a club, etc. Church Hurt is abuse. Recognize the serious nature of it, ask Jesus for help to forgive, and seek God's power to overcome.
Step 2. Separate the Church Hurt from God's Character
Though you may have experienced Church Hurt in a church, what happened was not the will of God. God’s character is perfect—His nature is love. He wants you to walk His path, hear His truth, and experience His grace. Ask God to help you separate in your mind, Church Hurt from the Church, and God’s will from what broken people do or say in God’s name.
Step 3. Recover Your Power
The enemy will take the ground and the power we give to him. The Bible states that God loves you and is a formidable force within you (1 John 4:4). Study your Bible, pray, seek good counsel, and protect your heart. Establish new boundaries to protect your mind and heart. Be bold and call out sin—speak the truth in love. Forgive. Pray for your pastor and church. Use your pain and hurt to bring hope and awareness to one of the enemy's favorite weapons. Do not let past abuse keep you from a vibrant walk with God today.
Step 4. Reclaim Your Spiritual Practices
Seek the assistance of other believers to help you reacclimate into church life. This may include prayer, extending forgiveness, and attending a new small group, church, or ministry. Live the life God wants you to live. Point others to the truth. Help others find hope. Help your pastor lead with grace and wisdom. Do not let others stand between you and your relationship with God. Remember, God will hold accountable those who hinder the spiritual growth of others.
Church Hurt is real—its impact can be devastating. In a world of great skepticism, many are looking for an excuse not to believe, and the church's witness is compromised when people are hurt in the church. Guarding against Church Hurt requires clear expectations of those affiliated with a church, a push toward spiritual growth, a condemnation of pride, and a healing process for those who have experienced emotional pain.