Faith Forays

Divine Pain: When Church Hurts

As I’ve been going through the process of changing from a teenager in the chrysalis of angst into a big beautiful butterfly of an adult, decorated with stress lines from too many bills and too little money, I’ve found that church attendance can be a really great thing. I don’t just mean slinking into the back row a few Sundays a month; I mean really connecting with a group of people who meet once a week in order to support each other and grow in community.

I’ve grown up in church, and while I resented enforced church attendance during my cocoon years, I have since come to really appreciate the idea of community and the encouragement it can bring. I’ve come to define church as the meeting of people, of fellow believers, rather than the building in which that happens. There’s a feeling of buoyancy that comes with knowing there’s a group of people who know you exist. That’s a feeling you can get from any group of friends, but the added spirituality inherent in church attendance makes it seem like something really special at times.

But church, as in any environment in which there are people who intermingle regularly, can sometimes be a place in which you can get really, really hurt. Add in that spiritual element, and things can get very messy and very painful, very quickly.

I’ve had some of the best, most formative experiences of my life in a church environment. I’ve also been hurt the deepest there. Church has both built me and devastated me, in equal parts. I forged friendships and a belief in both myself and in something greater than myself there. The things that wounded me were people who meant well and thought they knew best, and it can be hard to reconcile the idea that these people whom I trusted were the ones who inflicted terrible pain on me with their words and their ideas.

For a while, I left. I didn’t go to any church because the idea of it was just too painful. But it’s something I value, and I knew that a healthy church community could be a good thing. I believed in it still. The time came when I was asking myself, “Where do I go from here?”

Obviously, in any church environment there are going to be problems. If there’s ever been a time when you felt stung by someone’s judgmental comment, you won’t escape that anywhere. There will always be problems wherever there are people. However, if there’s an obvious thing happening that makes you think this is not okay, you should remember that it’s always okay to leave. No one should be able to dictate your personal spiritual journey to you. I left the church of my childhood because I felt unsafe. If that’s the case with you, just know that it’s always okay to walk away (and you should tell someone you trust about it too). However, not everyone who’s been hurt comes from an abusive church like I did; sometimes it can be one person who ruins your time there.

The community found in a church setting is helpful so much more often than not. When you’ve been hurt by a church family, it can sometimes be hard to give that trust out to anyone else. The problem is, we have this idea that church should be a perfect place filled with perfect people, and that’s just not the case. People will always hurt you, and they will always let you down, just as you yourself will hurt someone one day. That’s the reality of life on our planet. But that doesn’t mean the search for community isn’t worth the risk.

Sometimes church can hurt us. We give our trust to those who share our faith simply because we think they’ll treat us kindly. That’s not always what happens. Moving on can be hard too. But when you feel ready, I encourage you to slip into a back row one morning. You aren’t handing a victory slip to those who hurt you by doing so. You’re just reclaiming your faith as your own.

Have any of you ever had a difficult experience inside a faith community? Please feel free to share your story in the comments.