As a kid, I was deeply hurt by the pastor of our church. The man we had trusted to be our spiritual leader used his position to do some awful things. The result would be the displacement of our family, the splitting of our church, and a wound I would carry for many years to come. I would eventually come to trust Jesus again, but trusting His Church would prove to be a far bigger challenge.
Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever found yourself betrayed, let down, or hurt by religious people or leaders, you’ve probably experienced your own fair share of what I sometimes refer to as “Post Traumatic Church Disorder.”
I pastor a church that is full of stories like mine. Some in our church like me, even love me, but struggle to really trust me simply because of my position. Some of them know the Bible front and back but can hardly bring themselves to crack it open on the other side of the shame-based tactics they were subjected to in the past. Some literally break into hives just thinking about sitting in pews or walking into a traditional church building. The wounds are real and the healing is slow.
So if you’ve ever found yourself struggling with Post Traumatic Church Disorder, I want you to know you’re not alone and perhaps suggest a few steps forward:
1. Resist the Urge to Become Cynical.
I know, it can be hard to resist becoming cynical when so much of modern Christendom is worthy of critique. I get it. There is certainly no shortage of things that need changing. But cynicism is too easy. It demands very little of us and contributes nothing. What is not easy, however, is entering in and actually contributing to the change we long to see. While this may seem overwhelming right now, it is an essential part of the healing process.
2. Remember Jesus Still Loves His Church.
Those of us with PTCD must eventually level with the hard truth that Jesus loves His Church. Even with all her imperfections, He thought her worth dying for. He chose her, died for her, commissioned her, empowered her, continues to move in and through her, and He will be coming back for her. So we don’t get to abandon her.
The journey of discipleship will never lead us to divorce ourselves from Jesus’ gathered people. This is a truth that all of us with PTCD must eventually wrestle with.
3. Re-enter at Your Own Pace.
If you bear the scars of church gone wrong, then let’s just acknowledge together that beginning to trust a church again is going to take a while. In fact, it might take a very long while—and that’s OK. The sad truth is not all churches or their leaders are worthy of your trust. We have far too many modern examples to illustrate this point. So the instinct to protect yourself is going to be strong. Don’t feel guilty for guarding your heart. Trust cannot be rushed, nor should it be. Take your time.
4. Expect to be Disappointed.
One of my favorite phrases I use to describe the local church is Jesus’ community of sinning-saints. It reflects the incredible truth that those of us who are in Christ are now and forever saints in God’s eyes, while at the same time acknowledging the fact that our own imperfections and bouts with sin continue on the other side of the Cross. It reflects the truth that you will fail again in the future and so will those in whatever fellowship you choose to be a part of. At times you will fail them and they will fail you.
And so my challenge for you is this: choose ahead of time what you will do when people inevitably let you down. Will you withhold grace or humbly extend it? Choosing to extend grace is enormously difficult and it is a choice you will have to continually come back to, but in the end, it is the only way to really heal.
Aaron is a husband, dad, church planter, coffee addict, insatiable learner and chronic dreamer. He's the founding pastor of Mosaic Lincoln. You can find more of his writing on his blog or on Twitter.