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Can You Love God but Hate the Church?

Conversations for those feeling lost in the church

Can You Love God but Hate the Church?

Conversations for those feeling lost in the church

“I’ll always love Jesus, but I truly hate the church.”

One of my dear friends said this on a particularly hard day during her divorce. Her statement was not without precedent. When my friend went to her church leaders to describe the physical, emotional, and mental abuse she experienced at the hands of her husband—who was an elder at the church—she left feeling shamed and shunned. Her husband was never confronted. Rather than tending to her pain, these church leaders compounded it. They left her feeling like the church was no longer a place she could trust.

My friend was finished.

The Mass Exodus

A 2017 Barna Group study concluded that she’s not the only one. Ten percent of respondents self-identified as Christians whose faith mattered a great deal to them, and they also considered themselves “dechurched,” which means they used to attend church but had not done so for six months or more at the time of the study.

While this research revealed that loving Jesus but taking issue with the local church was a popular sentiment among white women, Barna’s Trends in the Black Church notes that three in five unchurched Black Americans consider themselves to be Christian, even while churched Black Americans remain one of the largest, most engaged demographics.

Young people, specifically members of Generation Z, are also expressing uncertainty about the church. When asked who or what they view a trustworthy source for their questions, many teens who consider themselves Christian were more likely to answer “myself” rather than “a pastor, priest or minister” or “a church leader.”

As these numbers continue to rise, so does a question: can someone both love God and hate the church? And, perhaps more importantly: are we even allowed to ask these kinds of questions?

Allowed to Ask

Many fear that wavering indicates some kind of spiritual deficit, and they feel unsure how to publicly, or even privately, search for answers. They struggle to believe that the local church can be a place that will address their questions with gentleness. Will church leadership be eager to feed their faith, they wonder, rather than their pain?

This doubt is warranted. Though the church itself is not inherently an agent of harm, when Christian institutions are made up of systems lacking in accountability or responsibility, the church can and does become an unsafe place. Churches don’t hurt people—but they can make it too easy for people to hurt people.

The approximately 16 million women who have left the church in the past decade express a variety of reasons for their departures, ranging from sexism and misogyny to lack of time and competing interests. Gen Z teens say that they want conversation partners who are open to talking about difficult topics related to faith. And many Black Americans speak to the importance of church as a place that offers spiritual comfort, fellowship, and sermons that address topics like racism or immigration.

While the reasons vary, most people who left share a sense that the church cannot meet them where they are.

But what if it could?

Finding a Way Forward

How do I heal wounds inflicted by the church?
How should my faith inform my politics?
How do I worship beside those who hurt me?

The Jude 3 Project is working to answer questions like these. Motivated by a mission to help Christians know what they believe and why, Jude 3 Project offers courses, podcasts, events, and resources that address current issues that Christians—specifically those of African descent—face in the world today. This week, their Courageous Conversations gathering brings together Black pastors, theologians, and experts to begin honest, inspiring dialogue around some of these questions.

Whether doubts come from wary Gen Zers or brokenhearted abuse survivors, the Jude 3 Project is helping people find the faith to give the church another chance. The answers may not be easy to understand, but they are rooted in the goodness of a God who loves to bring about joy and comfort. Learn more about engaging the questions, needs, and concerns of Christians and non-Christians alike with the library of resources from the Jude 3 Project.

Nicole Massie Martin, MDiv, DMin, is the chief impact officer for Christianity Today, an adjunct professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the author of Made to Lead: Empowering Women for Ministry.