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Collective Trauma is Changing the Church

collective trauma

There is such a thing as collective trauma. And we’re smack dab in the middle of experiencing it. A pandemic, civic unrest, increasing political polarization. We have had a difficult couple of years. And it’s taking it’s toll on our collective psyche.

I heard a word the other day to perfectly describe where many of us are; languishing. We aren’t all in the deepest pits of depression but we are most certainly not thriving. We’re somewhere in between those and probably leaning more towards the depressed side of the equation. We’ve become indifferent.

Collective Trauma is Changing the Church

I am noticing this not only in the church that I pastor but in others with which I interact. I’m hearing it from many pastors. There is a reason why so many of us are feeling like failures right now and many are looking for work elsewhere. Recently Russell Moore asked, “Are Our Pastors in Trouble”? The answer is “Yes. Yes, we are.” But so are our people. The two are connected.

We have experienced collective trauma and it’s killing us because we’ve never really been taught how to grieve together, how to lament together, or even how to really truly praise together. And so we default to tearing one another apart.

Adam Grant is correct that we might not even notice that we are languishing:

Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.

But that’s the thing with collective trauma. It’s like a puppet master. Collective trauma has to go somewhere. All that trauma will go somewhere. That pain, frustration, and disappointment is going to find a landing spot. It’ll wreck marriages, It’ll destroy friendships. It’ll create discontent with your church family, your church leaders, etc.

But there is also a connection to trauma and shame and hiding. I’m not an expert on all of the connections here but I know with certainty that when we have trauma—and this is true also of collective trauma—we will pursue release instead of staring down the pain. We’ll turn to Saturday Night Live after 9/11 instead of acknowledging our anger and fear.

Grief and trauma become like a puppet master. It attaches itself to something else and makes you think that what you are really upset about is that politician, or that decision your pastoral staff made, or that person, or that theological belief. Or it could even attach itself to your spouse, your children, your job, or even yourself. Usually it’s a menagerie of marionettes*.

All those pent up feelings come out upon that person and you’ll feel right and justified—because you really do have a reason to grieve and be upset. Things really have been painful. But all that aggression is misplaced. But that momentary feeling of release will quickly subside and be met with another wave of shame. You know that you aren’t really upset with that other person. And so you pick yourself up looking for another victim.

Trauma has a tendency to run away from healing, especially if we have not cultivated a discipline of lament. We aren’t a very emotionally healthy people so collective trauma is going to have far-reaching consequences for us as a people. And the church, sadly, rather than helping is usually part of the puppet show. But it doesn’t have to be.

Those who are experts on dealing with collective trauma tell us that there are three big things that need to happen for healing:

  • I need to tell my story.
  • I need to tell my story safely to another human.
  • I need to tell a new, different story with other humans.

Can you think of a better place for this to happen than in the local church? Is there a better story than the gospel? We have a tremendous opportunity to be at the front of the line in listening to other people’s stories and pain and then hoping and helping to reframe our collective trauma.

But before we can do this we must learn to lament together as a church. We need to tell our stories. We need to give our vent to the Lord. We need to share our frustrations. Our deflated hopes. Our languishing hearts. We must cast all our cares upon him.

Feel free to share your story….no need to clean it up at this stage. We can do that tomorrow.

Jesus heals every languishing heart.


This article on collective trauma originally appeared here, and is used by permission.