I was exposed to leadership insensitivities, hypocrisy, church politics and abuse of authority. At one point, the pressure was so suffocating I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I would drive around in tears while listening to worship music.
For the next two decades, I traveled extensively, conducting seminars and speaking in churches. Often I would not return to those churches or ministries that were in some way misrepresenting God’s Kingdom. On other occasions, I tried to bring balance to the errors I saw. Yet, I found it nearly impossible to remove a spiritual infection or deception in a weekend, or even a week. There are always deep-seated reasons for chronic illness, whether natural or spiritual, due to embedded patterns that need more than a conference to correct.
When I planted a church and began to pastor in 1997, I found myself reclusive when it came to other churches, even elated when I didn’t have to visit them anymore. This, of course, was not healthy. Over time, I have seen the dysfunction isolation can bring. Therefore, I am committed to being completely healed—no longer in hiding.
Church wounds occur in two dimensions. The first dimension comes from agendas within the Church that are inflicted outside of it. Catastrophic abuses have been perpetrated in the name of Jesus Christ. Mention the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan to any pastor and see them cringe. Clearly, crazy didn’t start in the 21st century.
The second dimension of church wounds is interpersonal. These are breaches in relationship, whether person-to-person or person-to-God, initiated by a Christian. Some offenders seem to have a relationship with Jesus, but have intentionally wounded people. However, often the Christians who damaged others have done so inadvertently.
And pain did not remain in the pews.
In their book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons point to research done by the Barna Group that shows 16- to 29-year-olds who are outside of the Church (outsiders) have lost much of their respect for the Christian faith. Two out of every five young outsiders (38 percent) claim to have a “bad impression of present-day Christianity.”
I don’t know what surprised me more when reviewing the Barna survey: learning 87 percent of outsiders consider Christians judgmental, or that 52 percent of churchgoers feel the same way. Similarly, 85 percent of outsiders believe Christians are hypocritical, while 47 percent of those within the Church feel the same way. Clearly, my experience of church wounds isn’t an isolated incident. And obviously, there is a problem—perception has become reality.
My intention is not to question the sincerity of ministers of Jesus, nor to undermine their gifts and callings. But, if we genuinely seek understanding, healing and restoration for all parties involved, we cannot sweep our indiscretions under the rug. We cannot wink at areas of church life and leadership that grieve the heart of God and need to change. Wounds are meant to be healed!
But why are church wounds so devastating?
Broken trust: When trust is broken, due to dishonesty or impropriety, this wounding assaults the core of our being. Because church leaders and believers claim to represent a God of love, church wounds are often the most damaging and lasting of these breaches of trust.
Deeper vulnerability: Those who represent God are often given access to the deepest part of a person’s being: the spirit. When a breach or misrepresentation occurs at this level, people feel uncovered and unprotected. This type of wounding affects not just our perception of the individuals involved, but can skew our relationship with God Himself, since we are His human representatives (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Expecting perfection: When someone is promised a genuine representation of God’s heart by a follower of Jesus, and significantly less is delivered, that person feels robbed. A violation has taken place.
I have seen four primary “stages” in people who have suffered church wounds: hostile, hurt, hindered or healed. Those who are hostile have tragically hardened their hearts to the healing process. Hurt individuals, on the other hand, have a sober choice: seek healing or wallow in the pain of past offenses. Our past hurts can hinder or help our healing, depending on how we deal with the insult. Healing must be the goal. A proper response to pain can bring passion and purpose to help others with comparable wounds.
Someone willing to be healed will recognize Jesus came to give us life (John 10:10), so we must settle for no less than God intended. But they also must realize some church wounds are the result of our own insecurities, and therefore make us more susceptible to being hurt (Jeremiah 17:9, Ephesians 4:32). Yet, we are persuaded there is redemptive value in every situation any of us will ever experience in life, if we can but rise above it and respond well (Romans 8:28).
Finally, our purpose in offering loving counsel to those who have wounded others should never be to play the “blame game.” We must earnestly desire every leader to be equipped to minister to God’s people, and every wounded soul to be healed and move forward in their spiritual life (Ephesians 4:11-17, 1 Chronicles 16:22, Romans 13:7).
The God of love tries us best in relationships that are tested. And the mettle of our character is proven by our willingness to allow God’s love to cover our hurt and pain. I know God will heal my church wounds. And I know God will heal His church of Her wounds and make Her the agent of healing to a broken world.
This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.