The Church's Walking Wounded
I received a letter from an old friend, a pastor's wife. She used shaded and painstaking words, language intended to convey deep personal struggle without giving too much in the way of detail. To this day I don't know exactly what happened to her and who ultimately was at fault—if anyone. Nevertheless, the tone of her letter made miserably clear that she was wounded.
Not, apparently, wounded by any single person or event but—as she saw it—wounded by the church. After a lifetime of engagement, she has dropped out of active involvement. She indicated she needed to learn how to experience Jesus' love instead of guilt and duty.
This friend had sought help. Philip Yancey's writings have meant a great deal to her. A therapist has provided support and insight, helping her learn to care for herself. As if to allay any misunderstandings, she wrote that her husband had been supportive and understanding.
But when she would be back in circulation, she could not say.
I read the letter with a sinking feeling, not just from pity for my friend, but also because she reminded me of an epidemic I have been uneasily witnessing. Every time I turn around, I meet another person like her, who feels wounded by the church.
Of course, churches are human institutions, and they have been disappointing people since the time of Peter. I doubt, though, that this has ever translated so readily into individuals who carry around their pain, who suffer emotionally and spiritually so deeply that they are virtually disabled. I think we have more such people about than ever before—many more.
Wounded people are real, and their injuries are real. We may never authoritatively establish the real source of the problem—whether a failure of the church, or a failure of the wounded individual. How much does it matter? "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' … Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable" (1 Cor. 12:21-22).
If you're not sure whom I'm talking about, ask a pastor. Most pastors seem very familiar with the wounded, who don't necessarily leave the church—many stay and walk around in it, like unhappy ghosts.
Or ask a therapist. My wife, counselor-in-residence at our church, sees many people whose troubles include severe issues with church. The wounds vary. Some of her clients were sexually abused as children by a pastor. Others were embittered by the church's lack of grace, as they define it.
My friend Philip Yancey provides the clinching evidence for me. His work appeals powerfully to the wounded, and it's grown increasingly popular. Best-selling titles like Church: Why Bother?, Disappointment with God, and Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church convey Yancey's struggles to make sense of faith and overcome barriers that a fundamentalist, legalistic church threw in his way.
Not everyone appreciates his efforts. Yancey told me of one pastor who wrote, "I'm so tired of your negativity. I want to write a book and call it How My Church Survived Your Faith." That pastor apparently does not see Yancey's redemptive intention.
By addressing people who are struggling, Yancey validates their emotions and tries to help them to see a way beyond.
I greatly respect what Yancey does, but I can't imagine it being popular in any other era. Reformation Christians were angry at the church's failings, but they didn't walk around disabled and wounded. They started a movement to change the church.
In 19th-century America, abolitionist Christians felt heartsick over the church's lukewarm response to slavery. Some of them left the faith because of it. In my extensive reading in abolitionist history, though, I haven't encountered anybody who wrote letters like that of my friend, the pastor's wife, focusing on inner anguish. Maybe they felt such wounds, but they didn't write about it.