I had the uncomfortable sense that Broderick would end up in therapy one day because of ministry. He had the look of a kind-hearted, well-intentioned lemming on the brink of charging off a hill—a hill called ministry. He asked people to call him, “Brod,” because he wanted everyone to treat him like best buds.
He was like a kid on his way to Middle School who expected everyone to be his forever friend. Brod only saw the upside of church—he was passionate about a career in ministry, committed to teaching the Bible, and putting relationships with others first. I could see how a church could leave him battered by the side of the road.
Burned out and weary from giving so much of myself to the church only to find that you end up stepping on toes and meeting opposition for even your best efforts, I’d long been disabused of the hope and enthusiasm that Brod exuded. Having swung to the opposite, more cynical side of things after several damaging church experiences, I thought to myself: you’ll see… some day you’ll see.”
I have no idea what became of Brod. As for myself, I’ve given up on any future ministry plans, but I’m finally hopeful again about church and what it can be.
When we expect church to be a place of healing, community, acceptance, and growth, it can be devastating to stumble into a series of personal turf wars, theological battles, vendettas, popularity contests, and power struggles. On the other side of things, it’s hard to see how things could be any other way. If you get a group of 200 people in the same room, any 200 people, and try to find music, learning styles, and activities that suite them all, you’re going to lose your mind. It’s only our cultural expectations and previous experiences of church that reign in our preferences and create a starting point when we gather together for worship.
I have two rules now for church. I may add to them or modify them in the coming years, but for now, here they are:
- Look for life.
- Commit to people first.
Looking for Life in Church
If I look at my previous church experiences, I often stuck around out of judgment or obligation. And if I did step out of a church for a season, I beat myself up with heaps of guilt.
Today my first question about church is if I feel free to worship God with these people, whether in the service, in small groups, or in other settings. Are these people experiencing the life of Jesus and imitating him in some distinguishable ways? Do I experience the freedom and joy of the Spirit with these people? Am I free to learn and be challenged by the Spirit? Do these challenges lead to more life and freedom?
You get the idea. There’s always a temptation to slip into a consumer mindset, but seeking life and “freedom” rather than what feels good is an important, if not fine line at times. We experience life and God’s presence often in the places where we are most challenged and where we are led to seek the deeper experiences of God.
If God’s Spirit is restricted by theology or an order of service, then I have no qualms with bailing. If the Bible is used to control, judge, and prove one side’s superiority, it’s time to jump ship on that church.
I’m not saying you should give up on every church ever. Just that church. There are churches that will guide you to God’s life. Sometimes we are so focused on the meager benefits of a toxic church that we overlook its judgment and harmful theology that could alienate us from God.
Commit to People First in Church
If you give up on having an opinion in the church as an “organization” or “movement,” you will eliminate the majority of your potential conflict with fellow Christians. In fact, I dreaded the fate of an optimist like Brod because, as a pastor, he was mandated to have an opinion of his church’s organization and future. As often as we hear about pastors who abuse their authority, there are just as many (if not more) unreported stories of pastors who have been hounded by members of their congregation. In addition, anyone who gets in the way of church members vying for control of their turf will get run over.
As I recovered from a series of negative church experiences, I found it immensely freeing to personally commit to the people rather than the church organization and its ministries. If the church stopped meeting tomorrow, would I still commit to community with at least some of these people?
That means I’m trying to depend on the people around me and to support them as often as I can. I’m not trying to keep the church as an organization going. I’m trying to keep the people going. And I know, I know, I KNOW… the church IS the people. I wasn’t going to say it, but I know someone will… so there.
I certainly have opinions about the church as an organization, but after giving so much of myself to the ministries of various churches, I was left empty and disappointed. The more I’ve invested in people, the more fulfilling my ministry has been and the less I’ve stressed about the songs we choose, the ministries we offer, the topics of the sermons, the facility budget, or whatever else.
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I understand this course may not be viable for everyone. You may feel called to manage your church’s facilities for instance. Have at it. I’m not saying what you should or should not do.
I’m saying that I’ve been deeply disappointed and hurt by the church in the past. And when your source of hope and healing becomes a source of conflict and pain, you need to change something.
I’m sure that therapy could help my friend Brod quite a bit, especially if that therapy helps him face the sources of his pain and move forward with forgiveness. If Brod does need some therapy after working in a church, he may find this post helpful. I believe that we can rediscover community with Christians after a bad church experience. And while a different church can help, a vastly different outlook is actually more important.
When we’ve been damaged by church, the most important changes need to take place within ourselves. Seeking God’s life and supporting people over an organization has worked for me.
What has helped you recover from negative church experiences?