As I have been praying for the people I pastor this week I was struck by the realization of just how many of them have been harmed or carry scars from difficult church experiences. Now it is to be expected when you replant a church after leadership failure and abandoning of the church but even those new since my arrival have similar stories.
Thankfully we do have a few that are new to the faith and learning “church” as we worship together but the vast majority came seeking something different than their previous experience, a better polity, deeper theology, smaller numbers, quieter music. Even just a place to lay low and heal after a hard church break-up.
Truth be told I am okay with this. Of course I, and the people in our church, would like to have growth with new believers. But when we took this assignment Stacy and I knew we were going to be used by the Lord to help bring people to health. And I think I am learning to see what that health looks like, but there are challenges I didn’t expect pastoring spiritual refugees.
Patterns are hard to unlearn
Repeat “offenders” in church experiences are common. Why some left their last church might very well be why they leave yours or more likely, the way they left will be the way they make the next exit. Personalities are slow to change the things most traumatizing about church (except actual abuse) are quick to have an effect on those personalities prone to it.
Even the way in which people engage and the expectations they have cling tightly. For some, the patterns won’t break (but by prayer and fasting.)
It can be a challenge to understand the hurt
Because stories and experiences are all so varied in nature and you usually only have a narrow view of the reality, it can be hard to be empathetic. On top of that, those still healing can’t always articulate their pain or how to avoid it again.
I suppose if you have had a difficult experience yourself you might have a leg up in understanding the pain. Personally, however, I have never been so close to church difficulty as to be traumatized by it. There have certainly been difficult moments but none that forced me to leave. So I often feel disadvantaged in leading those most hurt from their history.
Even with these challenges, the remedy remains the same.
The gospel is the only remedy
It is grace we are all in need of and honestly if we each recognized that we are still “sick” we can get a long way on. Even when we come out the other side of church difficulty we can think our way is best, but the first inclination should be to see our sin and the greater grace of Jesus. That also goes for those leading the hurting. We have to be so passionate about the gospel that we respond to each challenge with grace and a willingness to listen and learn alongside each other.
Shared vision, direction, and unity are only found in that which brings us together, the good news of Jesus. So we endeavor to know nothing else but Christ and him crucified. He took on the cross to deal not only with my sin but also your bad church experience and by his grace we can get through it.
The gospel must be applied with gentleness
I am just learning this truth. While I have a litany of solutions to any situation and desire to run ahead as I lead, it is the gospel applied with patience and gentleness that is the salve for the burned and broken.
I am sure I will miss the mark on this and need to come back to the well myself and recognize Jesus’ gentleness toward me.
We are all refugees
While I have categorized spiritual refugees here, truth is that in the church we are all refugees in need of renewal and redemption. Far from home and waiting on our ultimate deliverance in Christ. So brothers and sisters, keep going. Preach the gospel to yourself and each other. Mine its depths for resolution and the fuel to keep going. And know that even when it feels like it, you are never alone.
“But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” 2 Timothy 4:17–18 (ESV)