I was so hurt by church, I wondered if I could ever go back. While wrapping up the semester at school in Chicago, I trudged through sloppy mud to catch the train. The foggy day enveloped me and I wondered if I’d ever discover a sense of belonging. Would the church I was visiting today finally be the right one? Would I ever find a church where the overwhelming pain I was experiencing didn’t resurface when I sat down in a pew? Growing up as a pastor’s kid, my negative church experiences caused some of the deepest pain I’ve ever navigated in my life. I loved Jesus Christ, the Bible, and many of the Christians in my life.
Despite the pain, I knew I was a member of the global (big-C) Church, which includes the assembly of believers—past, present, and future—who are in Christ’s Kingdom. I even acknowledged the importance of a local Christian community. Nevertheless, the painful memories that surged every time I entered a church building were inescapable and piercing. What was I going to do? Was I ever going to experience healing? Was I ever going to find a church that didn’t trigger this pain? Was forgiving those who hurt me even possible? These questions were a whirling hamster wheel in my mind, seemingly endless—and I was exhausted from running.
What should you do when a friend or family member is struggling with church hurt similar to what I experienced? It’s tempting to seek quick fixes to the pain, but there aren’t any. So what do we do? There are many ways to support your friend or family member as they navigate church hurt. Here are three ideas: First, be a true friend. Second, engage in conversations with your friend to help them untangle their bad experiences and theology from authentic biblical teaching. Third, embrace moments of joy together.
The most beneficial thing you can do to support someone who has been wounded by a church is to extend authentic friendship. We live in a preeminently lonely era. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis reminds us that for the ancient philosophers, “Friendship seemed the happiest and the most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”1 He is right; today our society de-values understanding, experiencing, and extending genuine friendship. As a result, many people have never experienced real friendship. A 2021 survey exposed the extent of this problem, revealing that half of the American population reported having fewer than three true friends. In contrast, a third reported having over ten close friends in the 1990s.2
A 2021 survey exposed the extent of this problem, revealing that half of the American population reported having fewer than three true friend
One of the rarest, most heartfelt things we can give to others is friendship. Yet, genuine friendship demands we cultivate key virtues. We must learn to pay close attention to others, striving to learn about them, their preferences, personality, thoughts, and emotions. Next, we must share their concerns, respecting their aspirations, projects, and struggles. As a result, we should take action on their behalf, helping to champion their pursuits. These virtues, when embodied, exhibit authentic friendship. Of course, mutual friendship requires an exchange of these sentiments, but learning to be a genuine friend is a virtue we can cultivate.
Have you ever seen a necklace or chain get twisted into knots? Sometimes string or hair become entangled in the chain. To restore the necklace, you need to patiently and gently untangle the knots, removing debris that have become intertwined. The process of disentangling church-related pain is similar. There is a robust theological and Christ-like way of genuine living that can become tangled with counterfeit experiences and teachings. To determine which teachings and experiences we have are true and which are counterfeit, we must disentangle them. Disentanglement involves critically analyzing your experiences, beliefs, and behaviors, attempting to separate authentic Christian beliefs and actions from the rest.
The Bible defines ‘church’ as a place where we can participate in fellowship with believers (Hebrews 10:25), declare Jesus is King, serve one another, and be reminded of God’s faithfulness. Church communities should edify the congregation in truth and send Christians out to make a positive impact on their communities. Church serves as a place to grieve together, confess sin, and address our doubts and questions.
Unfortunately, many of us have experienced a church marred by gossip, backbiting, politics, power struggles, exclusion, and divisions. We harbor pain, mistrust, and profoundly experience isolation. Misguided sermons can wield spiritual authority in harmful ways, fostering unhealthy fears about God’s wrath or pitting members of the community against each other. Church hurt isn’t solely the result of institutional or pastoral shortcomings; influential church members and peers can harm us too.
God does not condone everything that Christians do or pastors teach just because it is associated with the church. Instead, Scripture provides a blueprint for Christian community to embody, and anything that falls short of that standard is wrong. The same principle applies to theological instruction. If theology was ever leveraged to harm or manipulate you, that is neither biblical nor God-honoring. Christians, whether intentionally or unintentionally, can behave wrongly, hurting others. The process of disentanglement requires prayerfully asking God to help us separate our poor experiences (including our own sinful choices) from his flourishing way of living. The purpose of this is to get to know what God really says about our relationships with him, the world, others, and ourselves.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Have you ever experienced that warm feeling in your heart, the flutter of butterflies in your stomach, a surge of electricity up your spine, or a lightness in your body when someone’s face lights up upon seeing you? This sensation of happiness is what neuroscientists call neurological joy. Joy is fuel for our brains and emotions; we need it the same way a vehicle needs fuel. Our brains, when working through difficult ideas, emotions, and experiences, need joy to function properly. According to brain scientists, joy helps regulate painful emotions that we feel. Without joy, the brain looks to other things to stop feeling pain, priming our minds for addiction.3
The book, The Other Half of Church, explores the role of joy in the Christian life, demonstrating its importance for spiritual and emotional formation. When lacking joyful relationships, people experience feelings of isolation, poor identity formation, a lack of loving community, and unhealed trauma.4
In Scripture, the face of God shining on us is an image of joy; it’s a picture of God’s joy for you. If you are struggling with church hurt, I would encourage you to reflect on God’s sentiments in Scripture of joy and love for you. Moreover, find joy-filled relationships and cultivate them. We need joy to process the pain and heartbreak we’ve experienced.
Here are a few scriptures that express God’s joy for his people:
I hope if you’ve been hurt by the church that God would give you the same joy, friendships, and opportunities for healing that he’s given to me. Through thriving friendships, the disentanglement of fallacious theology and unfortunate experiences, and embracing joy, I believe we can move towards a vision and experience of the church that is profoundly life-giving. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).