A few days ago, someone left a very poignant anonymous comment on my blog. In response, I asked this person to email me. After reading her story, I’ve asked if I can share it here, and she has graciously allowed me to do that.
As you read this story, I hope you will listen carefully to what is being said. People are hurting all around us, and God has put us in their lives to help and encourage them. We are here to bring glory to God by caring for his people. Perhaps someone that you are acquainted with is hurting just like this sister.
Why I Said Church Hurts
by Mrs. Anonymous
In a recent anonymous post, I summarized my family’s experiences with church by saying that ‘church hurts’. That’s a strong statement, and maybe one that needs explanation. So I will attempt to briefly describe some of the circumstances that have led up to my comments. My intent is not to unload a ‘laundry list’ of gripes with my church. My hope is that in reading our story, some may find comfort that they are not alone in their own pain, and also, that perhaps leaders in churches will be reminded that their true calling is to tenderly nurture the believers in their midst, not to build programs, structures, attendance, or budgets.
First of all, let me say that I dearly love Christ, and I love His children. I believe in His design for the church– individual, uniquely gifted members ministering to one another with the goal of seeing one another grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. And I praise God for those few precious people He has brought into my life, who love Christ, and encourage me in the ‘fight of faith’. I can’t imagine life without their love. And so yes, I do have some interaction with the body of Christ that is very positive and loving and healing. But most of that occurs with friends who are outside of what we call our ‘church’.
In our church, there is a lot of ‘moving and shaking’ going on. Attendance is increasing. Additions are being built. New staff is being hired. Our image is one of ‘excellence’ (and image is very important). All this is exciting, and there is lots of enthusiasm for all that God is doing. But I look around each Sunday and wonder how many people are just pasting on a smile, hiding their hurts, believing they don’t really matter. Like my family does……
In our church, even though we have verbalized our financial situation more than once, there is no understanding of why my husband works so many Sundays and often misses church. Though the leaders are aware that he works upwards of eighty hours a week, at three different jobs, to meet the most basic needs of our family, their focus has not been on encouraging him, but rather on ‘reminding’ him of the importance of church attendance. It has been implied, subtly, and more overtly, that if we have financial problems, it must, at root, be ‘our fault’. I see the weariness in my husband, the disrespect he feels because he isn’t ‘white collar’, and I fear I see a wounding in my husband disguised as a growing indifference toward church.
Our oldest son is in his twenties, and since he moved out of our home a year ago, he hasn’t attended church. Nobody seemed to notice, even though for six years he was ‘faithful’, and even a leader in the youth program. Recently an elder called asking for his mailing address so he could be sent a letter ‘warning’ him that if he didn’t start attending church, he would be removed from the membership list. That letter will be the first attempt leadership has made to ‘reach out’ to him since he left. So, my son finds more caring and acceptance from his unbelieving friends than he does from the church where he was once held up as a ‘model teen’.
My sixteen year old daughter almost died last December. A very rare, life-threatening infection landed her in Intensive Care for over a week. The infection attacked all her organs. An athlete, she faced the possibility of having one or both feet amputated. Our church did respond with prayer, meals brought to us, and a visit from the pastor, for which I was, and remain, grateful. But once our daughter was home, she began processing what she had gone through: the reality of her own mortality, the fear that her weakened body would not return to its pre-illness state, and that she would have to let go of her athletic goals– her dreams. I shared her struggles with a couple leaders, one of which declared that this was probably God’s way of ‘shaking her tree’, and trying to get her attention, as though she had some sin issue that had brought on her illness. So my daughter and I spent a lot of long nights talking and crying together, as she came to terms with what she’d gone through. It was a faith-building time for her, and the church leaders missed their opportunity to be part of it. (By the way, she recovered fully, by God’s mercy, and went on to compete, athletically, at the state level.)
The latest wounds have been directed toward me. Because I gently cautioned against a controversial idea put forth by the women’s leadership board, I was labeled as ‘negative’ and told repeatedly, that I have a ‘heart issue’. I have been warned not to talk through, with my friends, any problems I have with the church, as this is ‘gossip’, even when it’s done in a genuine spirit of seeking clarity and balanced advice from trusted believers. The church leadership has proceeded with a concerted effort to marginalize and minimize my ‘influence’. Disparaging, suspicion-inducing comments about our family have been shared with others, including one of our best friends. If this weren’t all so hurtful, I could almost laugh at the Junior High-esque tactics of those who claim to be the leaders of God’s people. Maybe some day I will laugh. But I won’t laugh for the next family that ‘dares’ to not ‘support’ leadership, and suddenly finds themselves targeted.
So, I know, everyone has anecdotal evidence of failures in their church. We have all been hurt or disappointed at times. These are just a few of my stories. I can accept that imperfect people will behave imperfectly. We have had our share of minor church conflicts and issues that we have worked through, or chosen to simply forgive or ignore. In over two decades of being in Christ, we have only belonged to two churches, so we aren’t ‘quitters’. But what do you do when ‘going to church’ hurts more than staying away does? When faith in God’s acceptance, and nurturing, cherishing love for me is easier to maintain at home, than ‘at church’. What do I tell my kids? How do I help them avoid equating the failures of people with an ‘unloving’ God?
We are at a point of leaving the church we now attend. It’s sad. I love the people there. But the leadership seems to have put together a model for growth that doesn’t have room for ‘people like us’. I’m scared to look for a new assembly. I don’t want to get hurt again. And I fear that my fear is going to turn into a self-protective distancing of myself from the God-designed relationships He has in store for me. And by the strength that He supplies, I will resist that tendency. But fear of rejection is a powerful force in alienating people. I often wish we could be a wealthier, ‘stronger’ more ‘put together’ family. That seems to be what a lot of churches are looking for. Oddly different criteria than the weary, burdened, and heavy-laden folks Jesus called to Himself. But I also know that a lot of the struggles God has allowed in our lives have been used by Him to make us more compassionate, sympathetic, God-dependent people. We are in process. We are his workmanship. And praise Him, it’s a work He won’t abandon. He is growing my faith, even while I struggle with my hurts and disappointments. I know that God has not abandoned His church to His children’s foolish ideas of how to ‘manage’ or ‘improve’ or ‘grow’ it. I just struggle with the ‘how’ of living in a time and place where the ‘church’ seems to have moved so far of course. Which I guess, in part, is what Alan’s blog is all about. I am encouraged, strengthened, and provoked to Christlike love through Alan’s writings and the comments of others. Thanks for listening to mine.