Pastoring Spiritual Refugees

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)

In Christ… We Are Being Built Together

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in The Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God by the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19-22

Of all the benefits of union with Christ, this is my least favorite. Can I be honest? Thanks. I don’t always “like” other people in the church. I realize that many don’t like me either so we are probably all on the same page with this one. There are many days I wish by fellow citizens in Jesus were still strangers and aliens. But in the same way that I now have a place, in Christ, you have a place and we are being built together.

I occasionally think that I could built a better church than God but alas he humbles me and shows me his way is better. And that is the beautiful thing of our union with Christ. It is the work of the Spirit that is transforming us – together – into a dwelling place of God.

The next time I prefer a “brother” would be a stranger, I need to be reminded that the Spirit is building us together into something so glorious we can’t even imagine.

In Christ, we are being built together. Take that into you next church meeting!

Shall we have unity?

In so many contexts I see first hand how the lack of unity leads to a lack of vision, continuity and eventually chaos. In the church – and across those that claim Christ – unity is something we should be pursuing, after all it is what Jesus prayed for. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has this to say of unity:

“The starting point in considering the question of unity must always be regeneration and belief of the truth. Nothing else produces unity, and, as we have seen clearly, it is impossible apart from this.”

He further indicates that we must share agreement on submission to revealed truth (versus our own thinking), the reality of sin in our lives and the world, and Christ as our substitutionary atonement for sin.

Our culture says we should unite for other reasons (peace, charity, good manners) but I think Lloyd-Jones has a better idea why.

HT: Kevin DeYoung