It’s hard when you’re hoping for answers, but end up getting hurt or disappointed. There are some things you can do when you’ve had a bad church experience.
I’ve made a few hospital visits this year to see some of my friends and their family members after surgery or a health scare. They’re actually really great places for the most part. Sure, you can complain about your country’s health care system or certain conditions in some rooms you might not like, but on the whole they are brilliant institutions. I remember being struck by the efforts of the countless staff and volunteers who go out of their way to look out for the wellbeing of their patients and their visitors. Hospitals are a place of healing.
Churches are supposed to be like hospitals. Every week, they are filled with people looking for answers to their problems. Trying to make sense of their existence. Trying to find out who they are, and if there is a God, who God is. People go to churches with similar expectations to hospitals – to be looked after, to find their needs met, and to work through some of the bigger issues in their lives.
Unfortunately, a lot of people end up encountering hurt and disappointment that they didn’t bargain for.
So many of us have been hurt in church before. Whether it’s in the past, or currently, there can be such a confusing tension when the place that’s supposed to be helping you actually feels like it’s doing more harm than good. Maybe it was a sermon spoken in condemnation or jest. Maybe it was a staff member or volunteer who made light of something in your life. Perhaps it is the mercilessness of burnout from serving too hard for too long.
I know what it’s like in my life to have bad church experiences. I can remember a time when I was in Grade 10 where my whole family shifted from a place we had grown up due to some difficult issues in the church at the time. It was a time of a lot of hurt and a lot of confusion for all of us. Even since then, there are times I have regularly found myself trying to negotiate the challenges of church life, and dealing with those people and events who may leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Perhaps you can relate with me.
I would like to put forward a few thoughts on what to do when you’ve had a bad church experience – how to deal with it, some things to consider, and hopefully some thoughts that can help you work through some things.
Accept you got hurt
Something I routinely write about when it comes to addressing pain or hurt in our lives, whether physical, emotional, sexual, or otherwise, is to accept that the hurt has taken place. Too often we dance around our pain and make light of how we’re actually feeling.
Some things in church life can be very hurtful. I think it’s important to fully acknowledge and accept that. There is certainly some behaviour that can’t be justified. I don’t want to in any way belittle what you may have experienced, and I don’t think you should either. Some people think that faith is blind and that you should just drown out your disappointment in spiritual activity. I think that faith means actually first accepting and acknowledging reality before moving forward from there.
Find the healing you need
Many people find themselves in a place where they would like to continue their relationship with God and explore how they grow in their faith after facing a difficult church event. A lot of us feel condemned or guilty in addition to the hurt we’ve experienced. You can’t really move forward in strength when your heart is in a place like this.
There are a lot of good books and resources on how to deal with the effects of the words and actions of others in a church setting. These are definitely worth exploring.
But I think one of the most underutilized resources in finding our healing is people. Sometimes just talking out what you’re feeling and what you’ve been through goes a long way to recovering from what you’ve been through.
I think in the midst of bad church experiences is usually uncertainty as to what God actually thinks about you. Sure, it may have been someone saying something that offended you or hurt you, but what really blows out the pain and the confusion is feeling like you’ve disappointed God, or that He’s mad at you for doing something you shouldn’t have done.
But to be held by this mindset is to forget that the Christian message is a message of acceptance and grace. That God isn’t mad at you, but He’s mad about you. He’s not looking down and shaking His head at you like a disappointed parent, He’s waiting for you to come back and talk to Him about what’s going on. He only wants the best for you.
People are people
I think sometimes when we consider the problems we’ve encountered in church, we forget that the church is full of people, and it is for that reason that we can get so hurt there so often. A Hebrew proverb says that where there are no oxen, the trough is clean. In other words, if you want no problems, don’t have any people.
The church is full of hypocrites, but there’s always room for one more. And I’m so grateful for that because a uncertain hypocrite like me can always find acceptance, answers, and purpose in the body of the Church.
I think there is so much to be said for recognizing that we hurt others as well, and accepting that people are going to disappoint us, whether it be in our families, our workplaces, our places of study, or even in our church. That people will need our grace from time to time, and we need to continue to grow in our ability to forgive, to keep short accounts, and to be open and upfront when conflict arises.
The reason is because we were made for each other. You and I can’t accomplish all we were purposed on this earth to do by ourselves. Many of us are living less happy and less fulfilled than we could be because we may still be stuck behind the actions of a few.
Be careful of isolating yourself
I have worked with church leaders in a lot of different environments and denominations for a number of years. One thing I always notice is that when people start to get rubbed the wrong way and start to tire out, is that they will slowly remove involvement from their lives. Well, maybe I’ll just stop running a small group for a little while. They stop for a while, and find themselves still tired. So, maybe I’ll stop volunteering at one of the services. They stop volunteering, and are still tired. Well, maybe I guess I just need to go less. So they start going less, and stop spending as much time with others.
And to this day, they are still tired.
Because the problem wasn’t necessarily their involvement, it was an issue of the heart.
Isolation is a very tempting solution, but it rarely fixes these sorts of problems. Proverbs actually tells us that he who isolates himself rages against all sound judgement. Wow, “rages against”. That’s pretty strong. But it is actually pretty true. It is very rarely the right thing to do for us to pull back completely from others. In fact, it’s usually more a reflection on us than it is on them.
Maybe it’s time to take a brave look in the mirror and really assess what is it that’s going on in your heart right now. Why are you still so angry at those people? Why does it mean that you have to pull away from other people as well, and not just that one group in particular?
And why is it that you’re still letting what happened days, months, years ago, to dictate how you’ll live your life from here?
There are a lot of components to consider when we get hurt or disappointed in church, but I think with some honesty and asking ourselves the right questions, we can work through our challenges with the Church and move on to see that there really is a lot of beauty in her. The way the Church will embrace the downcast and the lonely. The way she’ll rally together to provide aid where it is needed. The way she’ll point people to God and help people find the purpose and the answers they need. Sure, she’s not perfect, but the Church is one of the best investments of our time we can make. It’s a family that all of us can say that we belong in.
What do you think? How have you faced bad church experiences?