“When I was 17-years-old, I realized the church was full of hypocrites.”
“The [denomination of churches] are a crock.”
“After my church experiences, I wanted my children to grow up believing in God or in the universe or whatever they wanted to believe in. I didn’t take them to church.”
“The man who was teaching Sunday school was having an affair with a woman in town, but he would show up on Sundays like he was living a perfect life. How dare he teach people about God when he was nothing but a hypocrite the rest of the week?”
“The church would probably catch fire if I ever stepped inside again.”
Those sentences break my heart. Those words make me want to hold the hearts that words like that flow from. And realizing the anguish behind those statements drives me to prayer.
The above sentences are just a few I’ve been privileged to hear in recent months. And I say that it is a privilege, because a hurting heart is behind what is being shared. The more often I hear things like the above expressed by people I know, the more I long to respond in ways that reflect the heart and grace of Christ. So what can we do when people spill bitterness, anger, or hatred about the church?
Lean into the Spirit
As I drive into work in the mornings, I am often praying for gospel moments with my coworkers. It is in the darkness of my car that I am asking Jesus to open my eyes to see what is going on around me, and that he would give me an awareness to where his Spirit is working, so that I would be ready and willing to engage in these moments. How desperately I need the Spirit to open my eyes to see where he is moving or in the busyness of the day, I will completely miss him and what he wants to do in the lives of those around me. Or I will be entirely taken aback by the conversations that come up and will respond from a place of fear and dependence on my own words, rather than leaning heavy on Christ.
For most of us, we feel woefully inadequate to enter into these conversations about how the church has wounded people. How much more so, if we are caught off-guard by them? We are not in a fight with flesh and blood. Rather, all around us, spiritual battles are taking place, and we are called to be properly prepared for them (Eph. 6:10-20). In this section, Paul asks his readers to pray that he would have boldness in proclaiming the mysteries of the gospel “as I ought to speak” (19-20). We need the help of the Spirit to be ready for these conversations and to know how to respond and speak when statements like the above come up.
When people tell us things that are an overflow of a painful church experience, we should feel the weight behind their words. We should be far quicker to listen than to speak or become angry (James 1:19). Sometimes, people will say things that cut us, because it is either about the church we attend or a denomination we are affiliated with. In these instances, our first response may often be prone to be defensive.
But rather than jumping right in with righteous indignation to “defend the church,” we should honor our friends by letting them express their heart. Just be quiet. They are taking a risk to share such raw things with us, especially when they know how much Jesus and his church mean to us. We need to look to Jesus and walk softly in these moments.
If you have ever experienced a less-than-desirable church experience, it likely gave you a certain empathy for others in a similar position. God will not waste your suffering, and often times, he will use your own painful experience to minister to others in their own painful seasons. Suffering is a gift if we allow Christ to use it for our good and the good of others (Phil. 1:29), and sharing in the sufferings of others is something we have been called to (Gal. 6:2).
When people we care about recount a hurtful church experience, not only should we be quick to listen and slow to speak, but we should also love them in the moment and the moments following. Our hearts should break for the hypocrisy, hatred, and harm that people go through by people who wear the name of Christ.
In the moment when they share a past pain with the church, they do not need us to try to “fix” them or give them a list of reasons on why our church isn’t like that one. Instead, we should respond in love, by acknowledging their pain as real and relevant. Something as simple as, “I’m sorry you were hurt in that way” carries a weight that goes beyond the mere words.
Our friends need the real Jesus, but oftentimes the pain of a past experience is so great, that they are unable to receive anything related to Christ in the moment. And while we may not be able to share the gospel of Christ with them until the relationship has developed further, we can love them with the deep love of Christ. And we can pray that the Spirit would open their eyes to truly see Jesus for who he really is.
May Jesus give us eyes to both see where he is moving and a gracious boldness to step into hard conversations. And in these conversations, may we listen deeply and love greatly. And may he use these conversations as stepping stones for gospel moments that lead to our people finding saving faith in Christ Jesus.