1 in 10 Young Protestants Have Left a Church Over Abuse

As the generation most likely to report experiencing misconduct and least likely to tolerate it, Christians under 35 stand to shape how congregations respond.
1 in 10 Young Protestants Have Left a Church Over Abuse
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Getty/Envato

Surrounded by revelations of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, younger Christians are more keen to recognize sexual abuse—and less likely to put up with it.

According to a new study sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources, 10 percent of Protestant churchgoers under 35 have previously left a church because they felt sexual misconduct was not taken seriously. That’s twice as many as the 5 percent of all churchgoers who have done the same.

Among the younger demographic, 9 percent said they have stopped attending a former congregation because they personally did not feel safe from misconduct.

Churchgoers ages 18 to 34 are more likely than older generations to report experiencing sexual harassment—ranging from sexual comments and prolonged glances—at church and to know others at their church who are victims (23%).

“It is not surprising that young adults who have only known this frank ‘call it what it is’ sexual culture to be more likely to identify instances of misconduct than older adults,” Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research which conducted the survey, told CT.

Another factor: Younger churchgoers are also closest to the ages when most sexual assault takes place. The highest risk spans ages 12 to 34, peaking between 16 and 19, according to Justin Holcomb, an expert on sexual abuse in the church and a board member of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment).

While 14 percent of those ages 18 to 34 say that sexual advances from people at church have led them to attend less frequently, just 1 percent of those over 65 said the same. The youngest generation is two to three times more likely than the oldest generation to say they have experienced sexual harassment in the form of sexualized compliments and jokes, sexting, or prolonged glances.

These gaps between the youngest and oldest churchgoers around sexual misconduct are significant—and signal a growing demand for better ministry resources and procedures for victims.

“I believe the gaps are generational in that the younger generation has had it with fakery, and they are bent toward telling it like it is, whereas older generations grew up with the ‘don’t tell secrets’ unwritten mandate. To be sure, both ages have experienced sexual abuse, but younger believers are more apt to share them,” said Mary DeMuth, a survivor of child sexual abuse and an advocate.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have told my story, only to have people whisper their story to me for the first time. These are people who have never told and are 60, 70 years old.”

Most Christians have seen improvements in their own congregations, particularly with policies for ensuring children’s safety in Sunday school and ministry programs. A total of 69 percent believe their church is more prepared to protect children than it was a decade ago (46% say “much more” prepared; 23% say “somewhat more” prepared).



Evangelical congregations tend to report the greatest change, with more than half of Pentecostals, nondenominational Christians, and Baptists saying their church was “much more prepared,” compared to 35 percent of Lutherans and 38 percent of Presbyterians.

Again, younger generations may be the driving force spurring change in these evangelical congregations, since they tend to have more young families and “therefore are more attentive to issues of preparing to prevent and address abuse,” said Holcomb. “Also, the leadership of evangelical churches are also younger than mainline leaders and are more likely to not just have young families in their churches but also to have young families themselves.”

Despite some concerns that the abuse crisis in Protestant churches will continue to unfold—just under a third of respondents believed that there are “many more” abusive pastors than the public has heard about—most respondents showed a high degree of confidence in their own churches.

More than 90 percent said their churches were safe places for children, teens, and adults, and more than 80 percent believed their leaders would not cover up misconduct and would bear the cost of addressing incidents correctly, LifeWay found.

“These findings reveal that congregations assume the best about themselves and assume the best about their leadership. Unfortunately, these churchgoers’ optimistic views do not match up with the reality of a majority of churches,” said Holcomb, an Episcopal priest and co-author of three Christian books addressing sexual abuse.

Joshua Pease, a former pastor and abuse survivor, describes a “cognitive dissonance” when sexual abuse takes place in a context that churchgoers see as safe and healthy.

“Church members can’t reconcile their identity—my church is a good place with good people—with reality,” he said. “Far too often this leads to minimization (‘What happened wasn't THAT big a deal’), victim blaming (‘Well, if you had done _____, maybe it wouldn't have happened’), and denial (‘I know that person; they would never do that’).”

In the past year alone, major investigations have uncovered hundreds of victims among Southern Baptists and independent Baptists, while allegations of abuse among missionary kids and within other evangelical organizations continue to come out.

“I suppose the encouragement for me is that we're simply talking about it at all,” Pease told CT. “I think the next 5 to 10 years will be pivotal. There’s a rush to say, ‘Okay we’ve learned our lesson, and we’ll be better now.’ But until we create space to grieve and mourn and repent for the systemic sin of abuse in the evangelical church, we are in danger of letting it stay.”

Holcomb recommends nine steps for pastors who want to practically reflect Jesus’ heart for those who report abuse:

  • Stand with the vulnerable and powerless. God calls his people to resist those who use their power to oppress and harm others (Jer. 22:3). Institutions defend themselves at the expense of victims, but that is not God’s way.
  • Listen. Don’t judge or blame the victim for the assault. Research has proven that victims tend to have an easier adjustment after abuse or an assault when they are believed and listened to by others.
  • Believe survivors; don’t blame them. Assume they are telling you the truth unless you have evidence against them. Anyone disclosing abuse gets the benefit of the doubt. Blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only erroneous but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization because victims who experience negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that being believed and being listened to by others are crucial to victims’ healing. Because of the shame involved with being abused, sexual assault and domestic abuse are the least falsely reported crimes.
  • Clearly communicate the hope and healing for victims that is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the message victims hear most often is self-heal, self-love, and self-help. The church’s message is not self-help but the grace of God. Grace does not command “Heal thyself!” but declares “You will be healed!” God’s one-way love replaces self-love and is the true path to healing.
  • Assess your church culture first and make needed changes: Do your current members experience safety and freedom in sharing their own stories of suffering? Do you have a qualified counseling staff who know how to approach assault or exploitation survivors with care and competency? If a survivor comes into your church, will they hear stories of redemption from other survivors?
  • Do not ask probing questions about the assault. Probing questions can cause revictimization. Follow the victim’s lead and listen.
  • Say, “I believe you” and “It was not your fault.” The power you have as a pastor is enormous.
  • Empower the victim. Refrain from telling him or her what should be done and from making decisions on the victim’s behalf. Present the victim with options and help him or her think through them.
  • Encourage the victim to talk about the assault(s) with an advocate, pastor, mental health professional, law enforcement officer, another victim, or a trusted friend.
December

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