On Hurt in the Church

I’ve been a pastor in one form or another for roughly the last seven years. (For five years before that) Before that, I went to a bible college to be trained as a pastor.

Beyond that, I first started following Jesus when I was five. (I can’t claim I knew exactly what following Jesus meant as a five-year-old but that’s a topic for another day.) I’ve literally been involved in church my entire life.

Which means that I’ve been involved in a lot of hurtful situations within the church, both on the giving and receiving ends.

On the receiving end, I was once told by the pastor of a church I attended that I was arrogant and a detriment to the church. One church I worked at let me go from my position because the board was unhappy with my “job performance”. They later admitted they weren’t entirely sure what my job was, let alone how well I was doing it.

Early in my pastoral career, I moved out to Calgary to start a new church. When my wife left me, the denomination I was working with shut down the church and let me know I was more or less on my own.

At another church I worked with, I watched our youth pastor’s life crumble around him. During the process, he made some poor decisions; those decisions cost him his job. When he asked our lead pastor if he could still attend the church, our pastor said it would probably confuse the teens. Later that week I sat in a meeting with our pastor and the parents of those teens and when one of the parents asked if our now-ex-youth pastor would still be allowed to attend the pastor said (with a completely straight face), “Absolutely. We’ve let him know that he’s always welcome here. However, I think we’ll let him make that decision.”

At the same time, as a leader in the church, I have to recognize that I’ve participated in hurting others. I once told a member of the LGBTQ community that they would be welcome in our church. I told them they could get involved in the ministries of the church. However, when they did, a vocal minority in the congregation went and complained to the board. They said we can’t have LGBTQ people involved in ministries since others would assume that we were an affirming church. The board decided that my friend wasn’t allowed to serve in any meaningful way, but could only attend.

Other times I’ve told people they can’t become a member of our church because they don’t act like our denomination says Christians should act.

I’ve made people feel like I see them as a resource to be used rather than a person to be loved. In all honesty, I probably made them feel that way because that’s how I saw them.

In my preaching, I’ve made people feel guilty for the ways they don’t yet look like Jesus. It wasn’t my intention to make them feel bad, but regardless my words hurt.

When you work in the church, it’s really easy to get carried away with your own thing; to forget that your job isn’t to build your own little church but rather to help people meet, love, and be changed by Jesus. It’s easy to forget that your church isn’t the Church.

I’d like to think that my heart was always good. I’d like to hope that my desire was always genuine. Most people who get into church work do it out of a desire to introduce people to Jesus and have him change them.

Be even though that desire is genuine, sometimes we can hurt people.

As far as I can tell, there are four primary ways we can hurt those that God has brought to our churches. We can hurt people through our theology, our methodology, our motivations, and our timing.

Here’s the reality: Your theology is wrong. So is mine. Probably not all of it, but some part of the way we think about what it means to follow Jesus is wrong. You are not the first person to definitively understand exactly how the Bible fits together, what God is up to, or how everything is going to play out in the end. And that’s okay. God doesn’t give us a theology test in order to get into heaven.

But what can often happen as we interpret the world through our current theological lens, is that we apply that interpretation to others. The best example of this in the Bible came from the book of Job. At the beginning of the story, Job, who the text claims was “blameless and upright”, was struck with a series of calamities. First, his oxen and donkeys were stolen, then his sheep were burned up in a fire, then some raiding parties came and ran off with all of his camels, killing his servants in the process, then a huge wind storm destroyed one of his sons’ houses killing all of Job’s children. (This all happened on the same day by the way.) Then later on Job himself developed open sores all over his body.

When Job’s friends came to see him they hardly recognized him. And according to their theology, the reason all these bad things happened to Job was that he had sinned against God and God was punishing him. As readers of the story, we know that this is wrong; that Job hasn’t done anything wrong. Job himself insists that this is the case. He insists that he’s innocent of any wrongdoing.

The vast majority of the rest of the book—all 42 chapters of it—is a series of monologues between Job and his friends. His friends insist that Job must be guilty of something while Job maintains his innocence. The more Job refuses to admit he’s sinned (you know, because he didn’t) they more they insist that he must have. And furthermore, that fact that he won’t admit it just goes to show how arrogant he is!

Job’s friends had the best of intentions. They wanted to comfort their friend in his misery. However, their theology led them to a place of hurting rather than healing.

Unfortunately, we still see this today. Back in 2010, after a massive earthquake rocked Haiti, Pat Robertson claimed the earthquake was a result of a pact Haitians made with the devil.

But as much as it’s easy for us to point to Job’s friends or Pat Robertson and understand how their theology can cause people hurt, it’s harder for us to recognize that our own inaccurate theology has the same potential.

Part of my story as a follower of Jesus involves being called into ministry. When Jesus called me to become a pastor I felt as if my life had purpose and direction. However, while that’s part of what Jesus did with me, it would be wrong of me to tell everyone that if they surrender their life to Jesus he will give them purpose and direction as well. That’s not how Jesus works.

If I were to tell people that Jesus will always give them purpose and direction, there are going to be people who spend hours praying and asking God to give them that sense of purpose. And those very same people will end up confused and hurt, wondering if God doesn’t actually care about them if they never feel like they receive the same kind of calling in life.

I’ve heard church leaders claim that if you don’t agree with them on a particular point of theology that it’s evidence that you haven’t truly “entered in” to life in Christ. As if becoming a Christian automatically provides you with an absolute understanding of morality or theological matters.

Our theology can unintentionally hurt people when we claim that following Jesus looks different than it actually does. (And remember, just because you’re convinced your theology is correct doesn’t mean it is.)

Beyond that, sometimes it’s our methods that are wrong. Sometimes our theology itself is right, but the way we communicate it is entirely wrong.

I’m a huge fan of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor who in the 1960’s coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.” What he meant by that is that how we communicate often communicates more than the words themselves do.

For example, I used to drive by a church all the time that had a sign out front. The sign itself said “All welcome!” But the church didn’t have a website, nor did they have their worship times posted on the sign. As far as I could tell the only way to know when their Sunday morning worship service was held was to be told directly by someone who attended that church. Their sign said “All welcome!” but their actions said, “This is a private club.” In the same way, the way we communicate our theology can be wrong and hurtful, even if the theology itself isn’t.

For example, if you grew up going to church youth groups in the 90s you probably had at least one run-in with the idea of purity culture. Purity culture was all about getting kids to wait until they’re married to have sex, typically by telling young women that they were responsible for the actions of their male counterparts. Purity culture would tell young women that it was important to dress modestly because you don’t want the guys to “stumble.” Purity culture also loved getting both boys and girls to take vows of abstinence and maybe wear purity rings.

From a theological standpoint, I don’t have any problem telling teens that sex comes with risks and that God probably doesn’t want you to go around and sleep with everyone. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that self-control is something the Bible speaks of admirably and that we should all strive to be more self-controlled in many areas of our lives.

But even though our youth pastor’s theology itself wasn’t necessarily wrong, the way they ended up communicating that theology was. Their methods ultimately told us that sex was the biggest of deals. They inadvertently told us that if we waited until marriage to have sex that God would bless our marriages (and our sex lives), but if we failed to remain abstinent until marriage that God would be seriously disappointed in us. The hurt purity culture caused was less from the theology itself (don’t have sex until you’re married) and more from methods that theology used (guilt, shame, peer pressure, etc.).

In the same way, I’ve probably unintentionally hurt others by the methods I’ve used to teach people what God desires for them. Just because our theology is right doesn’t mean the ways we communicate that theology are right.

Sometimes our theology is wrong. Sometimes our theology is right but our methods are wrong. Other times our theology is right but it’s our motivation that’s wrong.

A few years ago I read a story in a book (I have no idea where I read this if you know the source I’d love to find it again). In the story a homeless man was walking down the street when he smelled the scent of bread, fresh out of the oven.

He looked across the street and saw a sign in the window “Fresh hot bread! Absolutely free! Come get it!”

He was starving, so he rushed across the street and entered the building, but inside he didn’t find any loaves of bread at all. Instead, there were only people passing out flyers advertising the bread while someone was pumping the scent out through the roof.

The people inside simply wanted the man to go tell other people about the bread, rather than enjoying any bread themselves himself.

Often times the Church can do the same thing. While our theology may be right, at least broadly speaking, our motivations can be way off. I’ve been a part of too many churches that wanted people to come not so that they could experience the radical life change of Jesus, but so the pastors could brag about how big their church was.

Too often at denominational meetings, you see pastors trying to one-up each other by talking about the number of new attendees, number of baptisms, number of new members or whatever.

I’m just as guilty of this. I’ve preached more than one sermon talking about the importance of serving and community and if I’m honest my motivation wasn’t simply because I think those things are helpful in making people more like Jesus. They are, but I didn’t care about that. I cared about being able to say that I ran a program that saw 300% growth.

I’ve tried to convince people to fulfill the Great Commission simply so that I can be the pastor of a large, faster-growing church. Yes, I believe Jesus is the hope of the world. Yes, I believe that Jesus alone has the ability to change people on a fundamental level. But I wasn’t telling people to follow Jesus because of that, or, at least, not exclusively because of that.

Often times my motivation for telling people about Jesus, inviting them to church, or encouraging them to get involved in the church was not entirely because I thought it was the best way to live. It was because I wanted to brag. I wanted to feel more important and I thought leading a growing church would give me worth and value.

Was my theology right? Will Jesus change people? Is Jesus continuing to redeem and reconcile the world? Of course, he is. But people can smell a sales job from a mile away. People know when you care about them or if you’re just using them as a means to an end.

And when people know you’re using them, they don’t care how good your theology is; they don’t care if you can rattle off a million Bible verses to support your position. Instead, they’re going to feel as if the Church doesn’t care about them. They’re going to start to question whether God cares for them. Or maybe they’ll simply walk away from the Church as a whole.

Sometimes, while our theology is right, our motivation for getting people to live like Jesus is wrong and hurtful.

Finally, there are times when it’s not our theology, our methods or our motivation that are hurtful, but it’s our timing.

In university I had a professor that said, “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

I know some pastors and church leaders who have no problem confronting anyone and everyone on any sin issues they see. The problem with that is that people need time to establish a relationship with you and really truly know that your words are coming from a place of genuine love. It takes time to build a relationship to the point where you’re given permission to speak into someone’s life and call them to account.

I have a friend from university that I still keep in regular contact with. He lives in Iowa and I’m in Nova Scotia, but we try to FaceTime at least once a month. There have been times in both of our lives that we’ve been brutally honest with each other. We’ve called each other out on some of the ways we’re not living like Jesus.

Does it suck to hear that stuff? Absolutely. But I know my friend loves me. I know his desire is to see me look, think, and act as much like Jesus as I can. Because of our relationship, he’s allowed to ask tough questions and give honest answers in a way that I wouldn’t receive well from others.

But sometimes as pastors and church leaders, we can forget that. We think it’s our job to simply speak the truth, lay it all out there and tell people how much they’re not living like Jesus. But being brutally honest with those whom we don’t have a relationship can be just as hurtful as bad theology, methods, or motivations.

Does this mean you can never challenge people as a pastor? Does all this mean there’s no room in the church to encourage people to live more like Jesus? Of course not. It just means there is a time and a place. You need to build relationships with people. You need to earn the right to speak into their lives.

As church leaders and pastors, we need to recognize the ways that we can hurt people. Sometimes it’s our theology that’s wrong. Other times it’s the ways we communicate our theology or even our motivation. At other times it’s simply that we haven’t taken the time to build a sufficient relationship with someone and we’re overstepping our authority.

Finally, I want to point something out. All of these ways we hurt people—bad theology, bad methodology, bad motivation, or bad timing—all of them stem in one form or another from bad theology. It stems from a misunderstanding of who God is and what it means to follow him. It’s bad theology that allows us to hurt others through our words and actions.

Whatever the reasons, we need to recognize that we are responsible for the hurts we’ve caused. We need to own up to the fact that our words and actions have power and, whether we intended it or not, we have hurt people.

Next week we’ll talk more about what we can do if we have hurt people in the past and we’ll follow that up by talking about what to do if we’ve experienced hurt in the church.

What about you? What are some other ways you’ve been hurt by the Church?

3 thoughts on “On Hurt in the Church

  1. I was hurt by purity culture within the church. We were told that since our “hearts were deceitful,” we could not trust our attraction to the opposite sex and that feeling that attraction meant we had developed an emotional STD that would follow us into our marriage. We were expected to marry our first crush, among other things.

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