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.
And what about the last century? Churches were certainly more legalistic and moralistic in the 1940s than they are today, but I simply can't imagine a best-selling book from that era titled Disappointment with God. Can you see that featured at a 1950 Billy Graham rally? I don't mean that nobody felt disappointed with God, only that they processed their disappointment quite differently.
By disposition I am a get-over-it kind of guy. I mention this because I know I'm not the only one. A good portion of the church would counsel the hurting to get over it—or they would if they weren't afraid to seem insensitive.
You feel haunted by the legalistic church of your childhood? Get over it! You last attended that church 15 years ago.
A pastor failed you? Move on! There's a hurting world that needs your help.
When I went to Google and typed in "wounded by the church," the following links appeared:
"Eight Seriously Wounded in Church Blast"
"Ten Wounded Trapped Inside Nativity Church"
"Persecuted Church News—Indonesia—Churches Bombed, 60 Wounded"
"The Wounded Church in Croatia."
Even the most sensitive person would admit that such wounds make our psychological injuries seem small. We can afford the luxury of being wounded by the church because we are not in Pakistan, where we might get our heads blown off.
I confess, though, that when I want to urge people to "get over it," I don't have persecuted Christians in mind. I'm thinking, rather, of my own peace of mind. As a leader in my church, I want to get things done. I'm busy. I don't want to pause for the painstaking and repeated interaction that psychological wounds require.
Psychologist Diane Langberg might have me in mind when she says, "God uses people who are weaker to expose our hearts to us. I can tell myself that I am really patient as long as I am with people who are running at the same pace as I am. But when I begin to attend to people who are deeply wounded, I may find that I am not so patient after all."
Notre dame's George Marsden is the premier historian of fundamentalism, a movement that has a reputation for churning out wounded people. When I asked Marsden whether he thought there were more wounded people than ever, he answered that he thought not.
"Maybe I draw that from growing up in the church in the 1950s and knowing a lot of people who felt they were hurt by it. If I ever wrote a novel, that is what I would write it about."
The subject seemed important to Marsden. "In evangelical groups, it's always clear that a lot of people are converted, but there are a lot of people going out the back door." He added that faith is hard to pass on to the next generation—children react against their parents' religion.
Even so, Marsden mused that "maybe it's more okay to be out in the open about the church as a problem." The number of wounded people may be unchanged, but perhaps their wounds come to the surface more frequently.
Wheaton College historian Mark Noll answered similarly: "My guess is historically quite regularly people were wounded by the church." He mentioned women systematically denied opportunities to use their gifts, and people of color who have suffered discrimination and deprivation, often at the hands of other Christians. "Yet in diaries, you do not get the sense of personal disorder, disorientation, and wounding that is common today."
He added, "The amount of introspection, with the exception of Wesley, is negligible." (He later added another exception, David Brainerd.) And even in introspecting, he said, "They are consumed by their relationship to God. Am I living up to God's standard? They are not interested too much in the self."
Noll noted the significance of the psychological revolution, and wondered whether those wounded by the church "may be a small ripple in a large tide of people wounded by X, Y, and Z." He pointed out that our times produce people sensitized to psychological wounds, and yet modern business practices treat people increasingly as commodities.
People may be wounded by the world, but when they come to church, they hope for better treatment. If they perceive that the church has not treated them as they hoped it would, the pain may be intense.
Mark Labberton, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, related a poignant example. One of his elders had suffered through a Job-like series of personal tragedies—death, fire, and financial devastation. But the incident that caused him to pour out his heart to Labberton took place in the church.
He had tried to raise concerns about the church's direction, and the church leadership ignored him. "Of all the things that happened to me," he told Labberton, "this was the most brutal."
The offense, on most people's scale, might have seemed small—if, indeed, they saw any offense at all. After all, church leaders must ignore lots of well-meant advice. But the point is not whether the man was justified in his complaint. The church meant so much to him that a disappointment there mattered more than death, fire, and financial loss.
If we live in an age in which people become easily hurt, not all hurts are the same. Therapists and pastors I spoke with helped me distinguish between different kinds of wounds.
- Abused people. The Catholic Church's recent scandals offer many examples, but Catholic priests aren't alone. Protestant leaders, too, make improper sexual advances, misuse funds, or abuse their authority. Some people can shrug this off and "get over it." Others cannot. A single egregious incident, or more likely a pattern, may lead them to mistrust all church institutions and authorities.
- Neglected people. We live in a bureaucratic, impersonal world, and people are desperate to be noticed and cared for. Churches are one place people look to, sometimes unrealistically, for personal, psychological care.
Churches today can hurt people, says Langberg, "through a lack of knowledge or understanding of what they are going through." For example, one in four women and one in six men say they were sexually abused as children. Many of them desperately need to be understood and helped, but the church often doesn't feel comfortable addressing their problems. For some, this neglect proves as wounding as the original offense.
Pastor and writer Eugene Peterson says he is constantly confronted with wounds that come from neglect. "People come to church expecting to have their lives taken seriously, God taken seriously, and they're thrown into this secularized entertainment mode. They are not taken seriously as souls.
"I'm just appalled by the ways pastors use their power, not to deal with people as souls but to use them for their own purpose in building an image, building success. The pastor's identity is so wrapped up with performance."
I commented that most pastors don't feel powerful. Peterson agreed. "They don't feel powerful, and so they compensate." He added that the problem isn't restricted to megachurches. "It's an infection, and even pastors who aren't successful in a worldly way want to be. Their image of how to do it is to use methods that functionalize people."
- Lonely people. Modern society is full of people looking for love. Some come from broken or dysfunctional families, and they hope the church will offer warmth they never found at home. Churches often seem to promise exactly what they hope for.
Psychologist Larry Crabb receives letters every week that say, "You're talking about a kind of community where I can be nurtured. Is this a pipe dream? Is there any place where this is really happening?"
"People are aware as never before of their longing for community, for encounters with a supernatural God, for reality beneath the mess," he said. "They go to church thinking this is going to happen, but the deepest need of their soul is missed."
Crabb says that the church's big-event orientation misses people. They need the sense that somebody listens to them, and attends to their soul.
- Guilt-laden people. Though we live in a "guiltless society," stripped of all the old moralisms, many people today are still weighed down by guilt, some of it deserved, some of it not. Some churches really are good at dealing out even more guilt. They preach a compelling holiness that their members always fall short of. On the other hand, some people are prone to receive guilt. If, for example, the church emphasizes the value of daily prayer, some people will hear that as an overbearing and condemning set of commandments.
Pastor Gordon MacDonald suspects that someone raised in a fundamentalist environment "can break out." But, he says, "I'm not sure we ever leave it behind. For me at 63 years old, a simple, stupid thing like walking into a movie theater still gives me a sick sense that I'm on unholy ground.
"My parents were very involved with the church, but they had no desire to get to know their neighbors. They did not go to pta; they didn't get involved with the community. For them the only value to a person was going to church and hearing the gospel."
People raised this way spend their lives struggling in the tension of "we" and "they," he says. "I can remember my mother saying, whenever someone in the community did something worthy, 'Well, they're just trying to work their way to heaven.' "
As believers become aware of other realities—the impurity of Christians and the goodness of some nonbelievers—such a false separation between believers and unbelievers can create great internal discord.
I originally thought people wounded by guilt came mainly from fundamentalist or authoritarian churches. I came to see that Presbyterians and Lutherans and charismatics can be equally vulnerable. Any institution with high ethical ideals will at times place unfair burdens on people—or will be perceived as doing so. Not even churches emphasizing grace will be immune.
My wife, Popie, points out that the church today faces a dilemma. Few pastors preach judgment anymore, not so much because they don't believe it as because their audience won't put up with it. For example, when someone in our church has an affair and subsequently divorces, very few of us single out the offending parties and demand repentance. We know that they just wouldn't sit still for that; in a flash they'd be stomping out the door.
We certainly don't want to congratulate the adulterous couple on their newfound happiness, however, as though no moral fault were involved. So we often say nothing. Our discomfort is felt as disconnection and lack of feeling. And people still complain that the church is legalistic and judgmental.
- Overinvolved people. Churches attract idealists. Almost inevitably, some idealists become overinvolved, overidentifying themselves with their ministries. Burnout can become a psychic and spiritual wound that lasts long after the original fatigue.
When I think of my friend, the pastor's wife, I wonder whether her struggles are essentially burnout. But then, I suspect that as a highly conscientious person she may suffer from a false sense of guilt for not living up to her own expectations.
This may be magnified by the tendencies of the church to plug her into its programs without attending to her soul. And perhaps, too, she has a lonely side that the church has never truly met, despite its promises of community and family. Perhaps my friend, like most people, doesn't fit neatly into diagnostic categories, but spreads over all of them.
One thing struck me repeatedly as I interviewed a wide variety of church leaders for this article: Everybody knew what I was talking about. They had different takes on the problem, but they didn't have to scour their memory banks to think of people who feel they've been wounded by the church.
As Crabb points out, this isn't the public image of church. "If you look at megachurches on tv, you think everybody must be happy."
Indeed, the wounded are a minority but a significant one. Perhaps like the canary in the mine, they serve as an indicator. By attending to their healing, we may help the whole church toward greater health and minister more effectively in this unique age.
Gordon MacDonald thinks so. He believes a fundamental reframing of the church is in the making. He speaks of reframing the gospel, reframing church structures, and reframing our calling. He has wounded people in mind at every point. He believes we need different language to describe Jesus' call. Whereas evangelicalism has followed Paul's model of total surrender, MacDonald thinks Abraham's commitment to a journey may speak better of the ambiguities of life—as well as the lifelong nature of discipleship, requiring long-term commitment and surrender.
Psychologist Langberg said, "We live in time and we heal in time, and you can't just apply a verse and get over it. People expect themselves to heal in that fashion, so they carry a tremendous amount of guilt when they do not."
Yancey speaks of another way of reframing the gospel: Jesus as the physician who calls for obedience because he wants to heal you. "My doctor gives me moralism. 'You need to do this. You must stop that.' I know that he cares about my health, so I don't resent it."
Yancey contrasts this healing emphasis with one of Jesus as judge, which suggests a punitive God. Biblically speaking, God as judge is not so much punitive as redemptive, setting things right for the oppressed and wounded. Still, these days, Jesus as healer—the wounded healer, as Henri Nouwen put it—speaks more directly to the wounded.
MacDonald wants to create church structures so that they are more personal—particularly small groups.
"I don't think you will find this problem … in a church that has a strong small groups ministry," he says. "If people are properly supported and prayed for, they climb out of their crisis and are stronger."
Those with perpetually bleeding wounds drain others in the congregation, he says.
"If you closed one wound, they would open another. I see a lot of those. They have a lot of complaining to do. Put them in a small group where week after week they get to talk, and it helps them. They get listened to, and they get lovingly confronted."
Psychologist Archibald Hart notes that church is not for the healthy: "We invite in everybody, and as a consequence we have a higher percentage of personality disorders than society generally. You should see pastors' eyes light up when I describe the different types of personality disorders. They recognize some of their members. People with personality disorders don't change, but they can be helped through an environment of tough love, one that sets limits."
That calls to mind pastor Roberta Hestenes's distinction between people who are wounded and those who are merely looking for a stick to hit someone with. Woe to churches that can't tell the difference.
Finally, several leaders speak of the need to reconsider the fast-paced, corporate model of church. "It does not allow for weakness," Langberg says. "It sees weakness as a hindrance or an annoyance that we need to get them over quick. That is very different than Scripture, which says that weaker members are important to the body."
Hart, who teaches at the Fuller Seminary School of Psychology, wishes churches would seek to lower stress, rather than ramping up activity. "Stress is messing with our brains' systems," he says, emphasizing lasting chemical changes brought on by overstimulation and a lack of rest. "Stress makes it more and more difficult for us to get along with people. We harbor hurts more." He said that modern society leaves no recovery time. "Even worship has become high adrenaline time. We don't provide Sabbath recovery.
"People have to work really hard these days, and come the weekend we offer another adrenaline fix. People need to understand that taking time to rest is part of my spirituality."
Hart thinks an almost Gnostic spirituality is part of the problem—one in which "people think they can be spiritual without attending to their bodies or their emotions. You don't have a lot of interest in working at emotional maturity, and people are not learning how to be patient and tolerant. That wouldn't be so bad if the stress levels weren't so high."
"Every week," Yancey says, "I probably get 20 letters from people who feel blocked from God by the church. The church is as likely to turn people away from God as to turn them toward him."
When those words come out of his mouth Yancey hesitates, as though testing his own opinion. "At least I hear from them. I hear from people who say that if they raise a question, even in a small group, people pounce on them. Churches should be places that reward honesty, rather than punish it."
Yancey would encourage churches to become more like those he reads about in the Bible. "Portrayals of the church in Galatians, James, and the Corinthians, not to mention the letters in Revelation, are rather devastating, yet the authors clearly have a love for it. I think one of the problems the church has in modern society is that we put on a good front, and people know better."
He likes to point to the way Doubting Thomas was treated. "The disciples admitted him into the inner circle, where Jesus met him. Apparently they saw church as a safe place for those awaiting further revelation. I find very few places like that. Ordinarily, if you don't think like us, we don't want to have you around."
Nevertheless, "I do have a sense of optimism. I think the great strength and weakness of American evangelicalism is that it is market driven. That means it changes. The church is hearing the critique and responding. Traditional fundamentalists created a place where sinners felt miserable. Willow Creek says, 'Let's have a place where sinners feel comfortable.' That's a huge shift.
"Since coming back to the church, I'm an active and enthusiastic participant. I've been able to find grace churches—safe places for my own doubt. That's pretty important for somebody who is wounded."
I didn't grow up with fundamentalism, and I sometimes find it hard to credit Yancey's critical portrait of the church. It's not church as I've experienced it. All the same, my churches have had their share of wounded people—people who don't fit, lonely people, people who are sensitive and easily hurt, people who get overinvolved and burned out, people whose souls the church has never truly understood.
Should they "get over it" so the church can "get on with it"? An editor friend of mine articulates this well when he writes, "I think the problem with whining people is only exacerbated by us giving them more attention than they are due. We have to come up with gentle but firm ways of helping them out of their narcissism. Most of the time, people are hurt because of their own selfish expectations of what the church should do for them. I write as a former pastor, as you can probably surmise … "
He's at least partly right. What people want and what they need are not the same. Their expectations may be impossible, and their neediness endless. We may help them more by challenging them to serve others than by trying to fill their empty holes.
Still, I can't help remembering that Jesus showed impatience only toward those who defined themselves as healthy—never toward those in pain. He identified his mission with the lost sheep, and with those in need of healing. When such people accosted him in the street, he stopped for them. He never lost sight of his larger agenda, but he always stopped for them.
I find this extremely difficult to do. The busy American church finds it excruciating. Jesus seemed to do it instinctually and effortlessly. Those of us who want to "get on with it" must consider the possibility that we do precisely that when we halt the parade to attend to the weak.
Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Philip Yancey is editor at large and columnist for Christianity Today. His books, including Church: Why Bother?, Disappointment with God, and Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, are available at Christianbook.com.
Other Christianity Today articles by Tim Stafford include:
Violent Night, Holy Night | The Apocrypha tells us about the brutal and seductive world Jesus was born into. (Dec. 20, 2002)
A Regular Purpose-Driven Guy | Rick Warren's genius is in helping pastors see the obvious. (November 8, 2002)
How to Build Homes Without Putting Up Walls | Habitat for Humanity strives to keep its Christian identity—a tricky task, when everybody wants to join. (May 31, 2002)
Whatever Happened to Christian History? | Evangelical historians have finally earned the respect of the secular academy. A few critics say they've lost their Christian vision. Hardly. (March 22, 2001)
The First Black Liberation Movement | The untold story of the freed slaves who brought Christ—and liberty— to West Africa. An interview with Lamin Sanneh (July 14, 2000)
Taking Back Fresno | Working together, churches are breathing new life into a decaying California city. By Tim Stafford (Mar. 10, 2000)
CT Classic: Ron Sider's Unsettling Crusade | Why does this man irritate so many people? (originally published Apr. 27, 1992; posted online Mar. 13, 2000)
How God Won When Politics Failed | Learning from the abolitionists during a time of political discouragement. (Jan. 28, 2000)
CT Classic: Bethlehem on a Budget | Planning a church budget and the Christmas story share surprising similarities (originally published Dec. 15, 1989; posted online Dec. 23, 1999)
The Business of the Kingdom | Management guru Peter Drucker thinks the future of America is in the hands of churches (Nov. 8, 1999)
Anatomy of a Giver | American Christians are the nation's most generous givers, but we aren't exactly sacrificing. (May 19, 1997)
God's Green Acres | How DeWitt is helping Dunn, Wisconsin, reflect the glory of God's good creation. (June 15, 1998)
God Is in the Blueprints | Our deepest beliefs are reflected in the ways we construct our houses of worship. (Sept. 7, 1998)
The New Theologians | These top scholars are believers who want to speak to the church (Feb. 8, 1999)
The Criminologist Who Discovered Churches | Political scientist John DiIulio followed the data to see what would save America's urban youth. (June 14, 1999)
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