I Understand Why Some People Can’t Trust the Church

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When I have to attend a Catholic mass for a family event, such as a funeral or wedding, I can’t rid myself of a deep unease and defensiveness. I have spent years trying to understand this reaction, and the best that I can determine is that the Catholic parish and high school of my youth were very instrumental in dividing my family, and I cannot view the Catholic Church outside the lens of that experience.

Although born and baptized a Catholic to parents who soon divorced, I took an interest in the Baptist church my dad attended at the age of 12. When my mother and her Catholic family caught wind of this, they arranged a meeting with the Catholic priest of their parish who told me to stop reading the Bible and to keep away from this Baptist Church.

However, I’d already started reading the Bible for myself. While I had lacked motivation for a while, this opposition felt like they had something to hide and only emboldened me. The priests routinely pushed for me to stop reading the Bible and to place myself under the interpretive authority of the Catholic Church. This led to years of conflict and division in my family.

When you’ve experienced a particular church or denomination as a closed system that demands control and allegiance, setting itself up as the only correct path, any doubts, questions, or personal investigations are classified as rebellion. I didn’t necessarily set out to leave the Catholic Church. I was certainly drawn to the Bible and a Baptist Church, but I didn’t need the Catholic Church to set down an all or nothing, scorched earth approach.

I recognize that my experience of the Catholic Church is not uniform by any means. Some have had far worse experiences under the authority structures of Catholicism and some have had far more positive experiences. However, the key finding of my experience is that I will never, ever consider placing myself under the power of the Catholic Church ever again. Even entering into a Catholic Mass still feels suffocating.

For years I assumed that my resistance and discomfort were the products of my own flaws or failures to appreciate a different religious group. Today, I can see with a little more clarity that my feelings during the mass after those experiences are a direct result of the way the priests treated my interest in the Bible and sowed deeply painful division in our family.

When a religious system has betrayed you, it’s likely that you’ll never return.

I have watched many friends struggle through abusive church situations on the Protestant end of the faith. They have generally either left the church altogether or found a very different denomination. As they’ve run away from controlling and sometimes abusive power structures, many of them still do so with mixed feelings. They want to affirm Christianity or at least Jesus, but damaging experiences have made it impossible to feel safe in Christian community.

At the very least, I have felt safer in the more decentralized Protestant churches, but we all know Protestants have had their fair share of scandals and failures as well.

Just the other day I happened to overhear a man praying, and he more or less was telling God what’s up. I started to panic before I even realized what was happening. I wanted to run away. I wanted to shout “Get behind me Satan!” I wanted to tell him to stop trying to control God.

I have felt that urge to run away from the control of religion time and time again. I’ve avoided church, I’ve had panic attacks in church, I’ve felt like I simply didn’t have the words to explain to someone why attending church felt so difficult and negative for a season of my life. Many times I was a negative voice of criticism and division because I simply couldn’t see my own wounds.

I’m sure that many have assumed I’m just a sinner. They’ve quoted from Hebrews 10:25 about not forsaking gathering together, boiling down my hesitation if not revulsion at the church down to a black and white matter of obedience. Never mind that it’s likely the author of Hebrews never had something like modern church meetings/power structures in mind when writing this letter, it’s even more likely that the author of Hebrews could never have imagined how horribly church leaders would control, divide, and alienate those in their care.

Until you’ve experienced healthy church leadership that you can trust and that you can believe genuinely cares for you as a person, not as an attendance number, tither, or cog in the ministry machine, you’ll struggle to heal from past church damage. I know people who have grown up in what I would consider unhealthy denominations, but they were cared for by relatively healthy church leaders, and that has made all of the difference for them today.

They weren’t expendable. They weren’t controlled. And perhaps today they struggle to imagine why so many struggle to trust church leaders or to even attend church in the first place.

While I know that many find beauty and holy mystery in the mass, it has only felt oppressive and constricting to this day. Any person in his right mind would run away from that. I have only sympathy and compassion for those who struggle to attend church or have walked away altogether for those same reasons.

I can’t imagine that God would fault anyone for taking the very natural steps of protecting themselves after going through damaging church experiences. Perhaps that is the place where we can find hope—God’s mercy and compassion. This is the God who relinquished control, took the form of a servant, and showed us the way forward through resurrection. We can’t change the judgment and control of the church leaders from our past, but we can see the true mercy and grace of God with a clarity that exposes the frauds and may one day lead us to a place of peace.

 

Hope for Those Who Have Been Wounded by the Church

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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:

  1. Look for life.
  2. 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.

* * *

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?