Many have been hurt by the church, or more specifically, by creepy people in the church.
This shouldn’t shock us. Churches have people in them and people, by nature, do evil things. We’re all arrogant jerks from time to time, some more than others.
But I think in church we have high hopes. Maybe we let our guard down a bit. Maybe we forget that our enemy the Devil is seeking whom he may devour and church is a fantastic staging area for his attacks. If Satan can mess with churches, who knows what fallout that can have?
I was not naïve going into ministry. My dad was a pastor and I lived in his house for 18 years watching churches beat him up. My grandfather, my mom’s dad, was a pastor and I saw what ministry did to him. I went in knowing what was going to happen.
It was still unreal!
Knowing you’ll be rejected does not diminish the actual pain of being rejected. In some ways it seemed to make it worse. Until I personally received rejection from church people, I assumed my dad and grandpa probably to a degree deserved it! I, however, who know everything and am way more betterer, do not. But then it happened to me too.
I was deeply frustrated, angry, and bitter about my church experience, both as a kid growing up in a pastor’s family and as a pastor myself for 21 years. There is a lot of pain. I still tear up over it and I’ve been out of pastoral ministry for over two years. The pain is still right there.
Part of the pain of ministry is knowing the lives that fell apart in front of you, their souls heading right to hell, and there was nothing that I did that prevented that.
I know all the theology about some plant and some water and God gives the increase. I know God is the one who works in people, not my efforts. I know. I know all that. And it still hurts to watch people you love and care for reject truth and destroy their lives and possibly their souls.
I have plenty of pain and bitterness from the church. How does a person get over such things? Where is the relief? Here are some points to consider.
1. We follow Jesus Christ, the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He cried over Jerusalem, He wanted to gather them, but they would not be gathered. Ministry, if done right, will hurt. The soldier who signs up for duty, knows it’s going to hurt. It’s not a shock when it does. It’s the “fight of faith,” not the picnic of faith. Ministry will hurt you and hurt you deeply. Embrace that. Come to terms with it. Understand it’s part of the deal. This has helped me let go of the more dangerous side of pain: resentment, vengeance, bitterness, and anger.
2. Know the Gospel. Jesus came unto His own, and His own received Him not. He prayed, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” to those who nailed Him to a cross. Gospel love is about giving yourself sacrificially to others and includes massive amounts of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not easy. Put yourself in light of Christ’s forgiveness for you. Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgive others as Christ has forgiven you. Pray for wisdom in truly understanding the Gospel, not just the facts of it, the story, the events, but the actual new life we have in Christ through it. There is no shortcut to ridding yourself of the pain and hurt. Lose yourself in the Gospel and in the person of Christ. It’s no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me. We die daily. We were crucified with Him, buried with Him, and raised up with Him to newness of life.
3. Remember Scripture. Don’t consider it strange when the world hates you, it hated Christ first. Woe unto you when all men speak well of you. Blessed are you when you are reproached and reviled for righteousness sake. That I may know Him, the power of His resurrection, the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death. If we suffer with Him we will be glorified with Him. All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Read the prophets!
4. Make sure your pain is actually for righteousness sake. Perhaps one reason your experience in church has been terrible is because you have been terrible. This is what makes this issue hard to discuss with a general audience. Some people’s pain from church is because a church rightly exercised church discipline. Our sin leads to a lot of our pain. The fact that you didn’t get your way in a church, not everyone jumped on board with your weird idea, is not persecution! It might just mean you are a sinful weirdo. Consider where the pain is coming from. Sometimes pain is a warning that you’re doing it wrong. Don’t assume your rejection is because you’re so wonderfully righteous! Consider for a moment maybe your own sin contributed. Some of my pastoral pain is because I made mistakes, had bad judgment, or well, sinned. A source for much of my bitterness and resentment about the church is because they failed to make me look good! I wanted to excel at ministry many times simply for my ego. When you get your pride in check, much bitterness dissipates.
5. Christ is supposedly your first love. No amount of stupid in a church should drive you away from Him. The church, the actual people who sit in your local congregation, are not all saved. Your faith is not in people; your faith is in Christ. For some this is empty-headed, “Yeah, no kidding.” But it’s a real point. People who walk away from faith because of the pain they experienced in the church maybe did not have Christ as their first love. And I’m not minimizing the seriousness of the pain that can be experienced in church. There’s some sick stuff going on out there. But Christ didn’t abuse you. People sinned against you, Christ did not. The pain I experienced in church has driven me closer to Christ. I lost all confidence in people and had Him left. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me spiritually, although completely miserable in experience.
These are some points that have helped me. But it still hurts.
There may be some who think all this is weird. They haven’t experienced pain in church. This could be for any number of reasons. Maybe they are in a really good church. Maybe they are oblivious. Maybe they aren’t really loving people truly, just doing actions and busy stuff that look like love, but their heart has been kept back. Maybe they are the ones hurting others. Maybe they are so happy they just don’t see bad stuff. Who knows.
But to the rest of us, those beaten down, those who have contemplated walking away from the church because who needs it? For those who struggle to open their heart again because what will they do next? For those whose hearts drop just walking through the doors of a church:
Don’t leave it. God’s people are in churches. You might have to look harder in some churches, and sometimes you might need to go to a different church. But God’s people are out there. The fellowship of believers, the like-mindedness and peace the fellowship of the Spirit can bring is worth the search and the effort. In the midst of all my pastoral pain, there were always faithful people who loved me and encouraged me, and I hope I did the same for them. They are worth all the other junk. They really are. Hard to believe at some points, but it’s true. You need them and they need you.
There are no easy answers. I have no pithy strategies to enact this Sunday that will take the pain away. But I know the Gospel is all about this issue. If you think the Gospel is only for unbelievers, you got another thing coming!
There is new life in Christ and there is hope. The glories of the new earth will be so great we will not remember anything from this old dump (Isaiah 65:17. Let me just say again: read the prophets!). Eternity with Christ is the only thing that will fully remove all pain, hurt, and bitterness. When we are made like Him when we see Him as He is. Rejoice that your name is written in heaven, press toward the mark, lay hold of eternal life.
Even so, Lord, come quickly.
If you want to hear more about my failed attempt to do what I could do help a diseased church, I wrote a book about it. CLICK HERE to get a copy, because I went through the trouble of writing it!