An Open Letter to Those Who Have Been Hurt by Church

Since being on staff at my church, I’ve noticed a pattern with us. We have become sort of a triage to those who have been hurt by church. No lie, in the time I’ve been here, about 7 churches have closed their doors or split up, leaving a wake of disaster among their people. Many of these people have come to find refuge within our four walls. They have come to sit, wrestle, cry and find healing.

Not that we haven’t done any hurting mind you. Let’s get that disclaimer out of the way. We are after all, just another group of humans who have been flawed by sin. Trust me, I’m well aware some have walked away from us, wounded and disappointed. And for that – I’m very sad and sorry. I’m sorry we weren’t able to work things out so you could at least go in peace.

In any case, God has given me a heavy heart for you. I’ve listened to you, read your blogs, your tweets and your books and I’m sad because this isn’t the way it was supposed to be. I’m discouraged when I hear you say you can’t bring yourself to go back to church. It’s tragic when I read that you’ve given up and I want to beg you to believe there are churches that are really different. They will receive you and be in the mess with you, they will live in the tension of being in a broken world and will attempt to be humble in walking with you through your doubts and disagreements. They may not do it perfectly, they may mess things up even more for a while, but their heart is to do it right and to do it well.

I know the pain is real because I can hear it in your voice. I’ve seen how it has devastated your families and made you fearful of being with people. I see how you have become reluctant to serve the God you love and your rising skepticism has led to loneliness. I can feel you cringe when you hear certain words come from leaders and you can’t help but to doubt the integrity of most church leaders. Some of you were robbed by your pastors, ostracized by church members and physically, sexually, emotionally, mentally and/or spiritually abused by leaders. Some of you were leaders and pastors yourselves. You gave everything you had only to be severely let down and betrayed by those closest to you.

You had some questions and some doubts and got punished for thinking differently. You wanted to try new and creative ways of worship to reach people who need Jesus, but were shut down and criticized. You say things like, “I love Jesus but I just can’t set foot in a church again.” You want more of Him, but less of His people. You have been taken advantage of, you have been over worked in the name of “serving” and you have been ruled harshly and exploited for all kinds of unthinkable things. Some of you grew up in the church and didn’t realize you were in an abusive environment until you saw it in your adult lives, realized it made it’s way into your marriage, or just simply in your desire to be known. You were not allowed to be the person God created you to be, because someone along the way got their traditions mixed up with their theology and couldn’t tell the difference.

Your marriage failed. Your kids were difficult. Rather than being supported in the hardest season of your life you were abandoned because no one wanted to get their hands dirty with what was happening with you.

Along the way, the message got mixed up and it became hard for you to distinguish between the voices of the people around you and the voice of God himself. If your earthly father abandoned you, the words, “I will never leave you or forsake you” are hard to believe. If you were brought up in a critical environment, you have a hard time believing you are fully loved and welcomed just as you are. If someone attempted to control you or put a lot of unnecessary rules on you, you have a hard time believing God just wants to lavish you with love and grace.

Some of you saw your parents pastor churches only to have your families torn apart. Your parents weren’t there for you and now you have vowed to not do that same thing to another generation. Church may have its place on Sunday morning but you refuse to give them another hour of your week.

Last Sunday in church, we studied the Good Shepherd. The one who lays down His life for the sheep… by choice. The one who goes after the sheep who are lost, hurting and wounded. The Shepherd who knows His sheep and His sheep know His voice.

It occurred to me, the reason why I feel so sad for you my friends, is that the voice of the Good Shepherd… has been muffled by the noise bad sheep and shepherds have made in your life. Ezekiel 34:3-4 says:

Tell those shepherds, ‘God, the Master, says: Doom to you shepherds of Israel, feeding your own mouths! Aren’t shepherds supposed to feed sheep? You drink the milk, you make clothes from the wool, you roast the lambs, but you don’t feed the sheep. You don’t build up the weak ones, don’t heal the sick, don’t doctor the injured, don’t go after the strays, don’t look for the lost. You bully and badger them. And now they’re scattered every which way because there was no shepherd—scattered and easy pickings for wolves and coyotes. Scattered—my sheep!—exposed and vulnerable across mountains and hills. My sheep scattered all over the world, and no one out looking for them!

My friends, many of you who are sickened by the church, have been injured by its people… you who have been bullied, badgered and abused are now scattered. You don’t want to come back and if you have, you wake up ever Sunday morning with a knot in your stomach.

I want you to know, not every church is like this.

There are people who desperately want to walk with you in your healing and hold your hand while you cry.

There are churches who know and believe what has happened to you is wrong. In fact it is so wrong that God promises He will come and take care of you Himself. He will bind up your broken heart, and He will make you whole and will remind you what His voice really sounds like. He will be the balm to your pain.

And those fat shepherds who have hurt their sheep? Those fat sheep who bite other sheep? It is written, judgment will come upon them and it won’t be pretty.

Today, I’m asking you to consider how God sent us Jesus to restore what has been broken. He knows we have a tendency to screw things up and we need His unending flow of grace and mercy. And because this is still true, I want you to know the Church needs you. She needs your heart for Jesus. She needs your authenticity, your raw faith and your heart for justice. She needs your empathy because there are many like you, but she also needs your forgiveness. Because sheep are dumb and every shepherd is a sheep as well.

There is a place for you and a church who wants to strengthen you and see God restore what was broken in you. There is a Church that can be a place of healing and safety among its walls and there are Pastors who live to see you be free in that truth.

Please don’t give up. Taking a break is good and detox is necessary… but don’t confuse the voice in John 10:10 with the voices of Ezekiel 34:4.

There is One Shepherd and He is good. He is the lover and restorer of your soul and He has placed some more imperfect people who still believe there is hope found in His body of which you are very much a necessary and vital part.

I get it. I get the pain. I get the anger.

But please… don’t let their sin become yours and please… don’t give up.

With imperfect love and hope in grace,