Have you been hurt by a church? If so, you’re not alone.
As a pastor of a church, I’ve heard stories from people who have found church confusing, contrarian, or even damaging. Not every church hurts people, but most churches have hurt someone at some point. Some people are hurt through their own mistakes, others because of sin committed against them, and still others because of failed leadership. This reality can leave them reluctant to re-engage, afraid of being hurt again, wanting to protect themselves, and questioning the place of church in their lives. The good news for the hurting is that God has spoken to your pain in the Bible.
Most of the writing in the New Testament about how to live in a church exists because the church has never been perfect. Most, if not all, of the letters were written to solve problems in the church:
- Galatians to solve legalism (Galatians 1:6–7, 3:1–3, 4:9, 5:1).
- Colossians to solve heresy (Colossians 2:4, 8).
- 2 Timothy to solve tension in succession (2 Timothy 4:9–16).
- Philippians to solve conflict and selfish ambition (Philippians 2:3–22).
- 1 and 2 Corinthians to solve a whole host of problems centered around the issues of human pride in gifting and speaking that led to loveless and arrogant religious activity.
And that’s not even to mention the letters to the churches in Revelation (chapters 2–3), one of which is so unhealthy, it makes Jesus want to vomit (Revelation 3:16).
And we think we’ve got problems.
A Broken, but Growing Church
That said, the church is the bride of Christ and the body of Christ—a people set apart to declare God’s praises to the nations and called to become more like the people of God we are meant to be. We shouldn’t be surprised by hurt and pain in the church, because everyone in the church is still sinful. But while saving faith in Christ is not surprised by brokenness, it is never content or negligent with it either.
So how do we make progress in the midst of our church’s flaws? Many things are outside of our individual control, but God has given us a simple formula for walking through every stage of life with every kind of challenge, grief and disappointment. There’s nothing secret or magic about these steps, except for the Father who loves to reveal his power when we give ourselves to them.
1. Stay in God’s manual for our grief.
Unashamedly, unshakably, and unreservedly draw your hope for life and healing from the teaching of the Bible. The more we are centered on God’s truth spoken in love (Ephesians 4:1–16), the more we will grow up into maturity and the more resources we’ll have at our disposal to heal from hurt ourselves and to avoid hurting one another.
The temptation will be to avoid God’s word. But keep reading the Bible, even if for just a few minutes each day. It’s like eating. What counts is every single day getting what we need to get through that day. Knowing God’s word will help us as we process hurt and find truth to satisfy and guide us.
2. Pursue the holiness you hope for in others.
Passionately, sacrificially and deliberately persevere in pursuing Christ-like discipleship. When you’re faced with betrayal or disappointment, it will require perseverance—supernatural perseverance. Learn. Grow. Forgive. Repent. Repent some more. Fight the good fight. Urge each other on. Do not give up meeting together. Stay on the path of discipleship, knowing it will be rugged at times. Trust that the good work God is doing in you and in other believers around you will ultimately be for the good of all who believe in him.
3. Trust that love will eventually prevail.
Love anyway. It seems impossible in the moment, but it’s the call of every Christian in every situation. In the end, only love will abide (1 Corinthians 13:13). And without love, our lives will be meaningless and unfruitful (1 Corinthians 13:1–3). Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Therefore, the wisest and safest way forward is always love. Love as if your life depends on it.
To love someone is to seek his best. I can love someone without even liking him. I can find someone frustrating, but still genuinely and truly want what is best for him. Love does not mean avoiding tough conversations or life-on-life accountability, but doing those sorts of things from a loving, humble, gracious and patient position which is from a mind and heart like Christ’s.
Jesus said you could tell his disciples by how they love one another (John 13:35), and so we who are loved by him love each other in turn—even through the darkest, most difficult days.
Of course, none of these steps will make your church experience or relationships perfect. But these truths will change how you process the pain you feel in the church. They will change your life. And eventually, by God’s grace, they will change your church, too.