Nearly every week I talk with someone who tells me they have been "hurt by the Church." Every time I hear these words, my heart breaks because I know exactly what they mean—and exactly what they don’t mean.
Years ago, my wife and I went through one of the most painful experiences in our lives. Our close friends and partners in a local church hurt us deeply. The fallout was massive. We lost friends who once called us their family. We lost a lot of money, and rumors about us abounded.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We trusted and loved these people and believed that they trusted and loved us. They invested in us, and we invested in them. We were serving side by side in a local church. Then it was all suddenly gone.
I was effectively told I was not worth it and that I was no longer needed or wanted. I will never forget standing in my kitchen that morning, telling my wife about all that happened as we cried bitter tears together.
When someone tells me, “I was hurt by the Church,” I know exactly what they mean. I have been hurt too. However, I also know what they don’t mean.
I believe to speak of being hurt by “the Church” is a safe way of speaking about our pain. It allows us to keep a safe distance from the events that have wounded us—because "the Church" is a faceless thing.
Each Sunday, our congregation gathers in a building in Denver. Some call this building "the church." Many talk about going to this building to “go to church.” There are frequent questions about our church. The word “church” is used in many contexts to mean many things.
A building. An event. An organization.
There is an unspoken agreement on what we mean when we use the word in certain ways, but ultimately it is a term with a kind of generic meaning. What people don’t mean when they say “I have been hurt by the Church” is that a faceless organization has hurt them.
What they really mean is that a person or group of people they associate with the Church has wounded them. As is often the case, thinking or speaking of their hurt in such personal terms stirs up painful emotions.
It is hard to talk about our wounds and say the names of our friends, pastors or mentors who have caused the pain. Sometimes it feels like death to say exactly what they have done to us. Each time we retell the story, something inside us replays our experience that, in one way or another, told us that we were not needed or wanted.
However, if we are ever to move past this kind of hurt and journey toward restoration, that is exactly what we must do. Forgiveness can only exist where the truth is present and spoken.
This does not mean publicly stating the person’s name and spilling all the details of our grievances. It does mean addressing the pain in appropriate ways and, if possible, telling that person directly how they have hurt you.
There are no guarantees with this. You may share your wounds and have your forgiveness thrown back in your face. As painful as this is, Miroslav Volf observes that in that moment, you stand with the crucified and risen Jesus—the One who has given everything to offer forgiveness to all humanity, only to have many reject His love.
To speak this honestly is always a frightening idea, for it means once again placing our trust in someone else. But the reality is that if we are ever to get out of our pain, we must go into it. We must acknowledge the hurtful moments and recall the injury. We must stand and face down the lies that haunt us and tell us we are not wanted or are unlovable.
For it is in that pain that we will find Jesus. The one who bore our sorrow, our shame and our pain. And in that place, He will show us His wounds and we will hear Him whisper, “I think you’re worth it, and I think you’re lovable.”
If you have been hurt by the Church, I can tell you that I know how you feel. By the goodness of God and His people, I can also tell you that because of those wounds, I also know the love of God in a deeper way than I ever thought possible.
Michael Hidalgo is the lead pastor of Denver Community Church and lives withhis wife and children in downtown Denver, Colo. He blogs regularly at AView from a Point. Follow him on Twitter @michaelhidalgo.