When Church Hurts

I was nine or ten years old when I learned from firsthand experience that church is not always the haven people expect it to be. Until that point, it was like a second home for me. It was woven into almost every aspect of my life because it was a small, close knit community. We didn’t just see these people on Sunday. We participated in sports with some of them. We attended homeschool co-ops together. We saw each other all the time outside a weekly church service. When I think back on my childhood, I see that church was one of the most central and formative influences in my life. It would also become a place associated with deep pain.

I won’t get into specifics because it was a weird situation and I didn’t learn more of the details until years after everything happened, but suffice it to say, it left a mark. I believe it eventually led to at least one person taking their life and to many more suffering wounds that would take decades (if not lifetimes) to heal. Why? Because pride triumphed over love and grace and a group of Christians who were united by the blood of Christ became divided over (ultimately) trivial issues.

I remember the next few years being filled with a lot of turmoil and confusion. I started to recognize that church was really more of a social thing for me. I didn’t care as much for the religious aspect of it. I probably could have quoted more scripture at that point in my life than I can now, but any of the “fruit” that was present in my life was just for show. I knew how I was supposed to behave as a Christian kid and I knew that I would get in a lot of trouble if I didn’t follow rules. I did what I knew I was supposed to do.

After a few years of continuing to go to church because I knew I had to and because it was my main connection to the “outside” world (you do whatever you need to do to see people when you are stuck at home most of the time and think that your family is boring if you spend too much time with them…), I started to resent it. Granted it was mostly me resenting that church, but everything I watched so many loved ones endure as a result of what was happening within the church definitely made me wary. So I begged my parents to let me go to a different church. My primary motivation for attending the newer church was to see my friends (it was also a bonus that it didn’t seem as dysfunctional or cult-like).

Shockingly, I did not get my way. Less shockingly, I can see now how God used those years and that season as a time to show me that His ways are always higher (and better) than our own. My parents did eventually move our family to a different congregation and I slowly began to see the marks of a healthy church and to develop a biblical understanding of why the church was created.

I’ve read that there is such a thing as a “critical decade” in someone’s life. Supposedly this is when the average person will make the most important decisions of his or her life. I don’t know that it’s as critical as people say, but I can agree that it is a crucial time frame for the development and formation of core beliefs. By God’s grace, we moved churches just before I entered those critical years. Although I would say my collective experience with church hasn’t been the best, I can look back on the time I spent at FBC Groves fondly. It was the first time I saw the incredible beauty that is displayed and experienced when believers dwell in unity together. It was a place where I was constantly reminded to treasure Christ above all else and to fix my gaze upon His infinite glory. During this season, I realized that my affection for Christ’s church was directly impacted by my affection for Christ. The more I came to love Him, the more I came to love His bride.

Unfortunately, every season ends at some point. I was blessed to have a decade of enjoying and being involved in several healthy Christian communities. But the past two or three years have thrown me back to some of those earliest memories of turmoil and confusion. They have been filled with a lot of “whys” and feelings of sorrow over the brokenness I’ve observed and partaken in amidst other believers. How is it that we as people who have been rescued and redeemed from sin are still able to ruin relationships and beauty just the same as those who don’t know Christ? How can we as members of one body be so separated and dysfunctional?

The ugly truth of church hurt is this: it scars souls. Not for an eternity, but it can certainly prove to be a pain that lasts a lifetime. I’m twenty years removed from that first moment of disillusionment and sometimes it can still feel like yesterday. In some sense, it was yesterday. And every day before that. Because there hasn’t been a day that has gone by since I first realized how broken church can be that such a realization hasn’t impacted my life in some way or another. I heard someone recently describe this as “walking wounded.” You’re trying to move on and keep living your life but the place where you were supposed to experience the most rest and healing actually became the place where you experienced some of the deepest hurt and pain you never even knew existed. Going to church begins to feel like attending a funeral. It’s a reminder of the community you lost, the brothers and sisters you cared deeply for who you cared deeply for but are no longer able to share fellowship with.

I’m not advocating for ex-vangelicals or deconversionists by any means. But I also completely understand why some people leave the church and don’t look back. I understand why they see what they see and feel what they feel as a result of sinful human nature in the place where they least expect it to prevail. I can relate to the disorientation with other believers, especially Christian leaders, who speak highly of God and exalt His ways but then live inconsistently with the truths they claim to believe. It is a great tragedy when the church becomes a place that emphasizes human accomplishments, visions, or goals rather than being a place where people experience the glory of God and the forgiveness of Jesus Christ in a transformative way.

I love God. And I love His church. I have seen the beauty that comes when brothers dwell in unity together as well as the devastation that results when that same unity is fractured. What hope does the hurting Christian have but to turn to our Savior, the only Good Shepherd and Leader who never fails His flock?

I guess this is just another entry where I’m trying to honestly process something that hurts beyond what words can express. No matter how hard I’ve tried over the past three years, I still can’t really capture the agony or convey the pain through words. It’s just an aching and a longing. An awareness of the deep joy that exists in Christian community as well as a pervading caution at the casualties that can result if that community splits.

Despite my wavering and wandering and wanting to blame others for the reasons I’ve felt compelled to walk away from the church as an institution, God has remained faithful to remind me that He is present in all of the pain. In the end, He will renew all things. Every lost relationship, every convoluted circumstance, every hurtful word. All of it will be forgotten as He brings every redeemed soul into perfect union with Himself and one another. It’s hard to imagine now, but it is the hope we have for the age to come. There, we will stand before the throne and worship together, praising the Lamb who was slain for our shortcomings and failures, clinging to the perfect bond of love that can only be found in His name. I long for that day. I pray that my heart and mind will look toward it and remember the glory that awaits when it seems like sin is ruling even in the holiest place on earth.

I can’t say I’m okay. I can’t say I’m excited to become a member of a church ever again right now. But I can say that I know God is always working in ways I’ll never know. He is always restoring our souls, preparing us for this eternal reality: all will be made new and His glory will prevail among His saints. Heartache and hurt will not have the final say over Christ’s church.

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