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When I think of wounded people, there’s one face I can’t get out of my mind. Cindy wrote a letter to our Voice of Prophecy ministry after we’d invited people who’d dropped out of church to contact us. Her letter overflowed with indignation. Cindy deeply resented anyone from a church trying to “reach out.”

So I wrote back, telling the young woman I was sorry her experiences with believers had been anything but positive.

Cindy fired off an even angrier reply. “You didn’t write that letter,” she said. “Someone else did it for you. Don’t pretend that you care.”

I replied again, assuring her that I really did write it and hoped we could help in some way.

She shot back again, calling me a liar and a hypocrite.

Still, I persisted. Reading between her fuming lines, I kept hearing a cry for help. And eventually Cindy opened up. She let the real wounds show. This woman had been the victim of sexual abuse. And all the “nice church people” around her just couldn’t bring themselves to believe it. They couldn’t accept the fact that one of their own had been the perpetrator.

So Cindy rebelled. In fact, she raced away from church as far as she could, immersing herself in the world of demonism and witchcraft.

Church wounds. They happen. They’re very real. People walk into the doors of a sanctuary expecting to find fellowship, and they find something else entirely—criticism, indifference, petty squabbles, or maybe even a cult-like atmosphere. Some people have been so wounded by a church that they never want to go back.

Fortunately, Cindy’s story doesn’t describe everyone. But it may describe you. Maybe it describes someone you know. When that happens, one of two scenarios is likely to be the cause. The first involves wounds inflicted by church members. The second involves disappointment with the church as a corporate body.

People wounds

Let’s face it, people in church can be unkind; they can be judgmental; they can betray you. It may even be a church leader or pastor that lets you down.

This kind of wound is horrible! If you’ve experienced it, I don’t want to minimize what happened. I don’t want to make excuses for it. Sometimes in our efforts to “defend” the church we end up hurting people. We play down the problem. We discount the wound.

Well, the fact is, it hurt. It may seem like a small thing to others. But it hurt you or it hurt someone you know. And that’s not OK. It’s very hurtful when someone in a church setting acts in such an un-Christian manner. That can create some very deep bitterness.

God intends the church to be a place of encouragement. It’s supposed to be a place where we build each other up, where we inspire one another to do better, to love more deeply. As one Bible writer said, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24, 25). I believe the majority of churches and the majority of church people live up to that advice.

Unfortunately, not all do. Church people can inflict deep wounds—and the wounds can be even more painful because of the high ideals we hold for the church. So, what can you do about this kind of church wound?

Let’s say you were hurt by a church member. You want to protest. You want to cry foul, right? And so, being a human being, you react by saying, “I’ll never go to church again.” The problem is that you had the misfortune of being in an unhealthy church. You got the wrong kind of fellowship. But some churches will welcome and support you through your pain. I know, because I’ve seen them. I’ve had the privilege of being a part of them.

Suppose you went to a clinic for treatment of a disease and you didn’t like the doctor. Would you refuse to take the treatment he prescribed because you didn’t like him? You might go in search of a different doctor, but you’d also take his medicine.

Similarly, the cure for a heart that’s been wounded by an unhealthy church is to find a church that can accept you and support you through your pain. Otherwise, you’re protesting the wound by spiting the medicine.

Please, don’t just lament the wrong kind of fellowship. Find the right kind of fellowship. Find a place of healing. That’s a much better way to protest. Living well is the best revenge!

The whole church failed you

Now, let’s look at the second major reason people turn away from church. Sometimes it’s not about a personal wound. It’s not that a particular person ignored you or betrayed you. It’s that the church as a whole didn’t live up to your expectations.

Maybe you walked into a service and the hymns just seemed to drone on and on and all the people looked like they were at a funeral. Maybe you sat down to a sermon and heard the preacher go off on some tangent about politics. Maybe you got tired of hearing someone’s pet doctrinal theories drown out the gospel all the time. Maybe people in church seemed superficial—much more concerned with who was wearing what than with who had some good news to share.

People get disappointed by the church in all kinds of ways. And again, I don’t want to diminish that disappointment. I don’t want to try to pretend that everything is really just fine in the church; that it’s all in your imagination. If you’ve been disappointed, you’ve been disappointed. That’s your experience.

Suppose you walk into a church, see something that doesn’t reflect real Christianity, and then walk out for good. “If that’s what church is,” you say, “I want no part of it.” The problem is that you’ve allowed a distortion of what church should be have the last word. That’s your last picture of fellowship. That’s what you take with you. That’s what you hang on to—by default.

Allow me to be so bold as to offer a suggestion: Whether your disappointment with the church is with an individual or an entire congregation, don’t let a distortion have the last word. Visit around. I believe you can find a group of believers where genuine friendship is nurtured.

Back to Cindy

At first Cindy seemed a long, long way from any place of healing. Her wounds went deep. But we kept up a correspondence and eventually even talked on the phone. In due time, she started calling me her Big Brother. She’d wail, “God is wasting His time; I’m not worth it.”

I kept telling her, “Little Sis, never forget you’re royalty, bought by heaven’s costliest gift.”

Fortunately, I was able to connect her with a pastor friend of mine. Cindy began to see church in a new way. She began to understand what true fellowship is like. And finally she gave in to Jesus and His wonderful love. She began to taste the grace that had eluded her for many years.

One of my greatest privileges was to welcome Cindy into the faith by baptizing her. She decided that she wanted her baptism to be like a marriage ceremony. She was going to be united to Jesus in a special way. I’d never seen a baptism conducted like that before, and I’ve never seen one since. But I knew that Cindy had been abused and terribly violated. And I knew it was important for her to understand how precious she was in the eyes of her heavenly Father. Conducting a baptismal service like a marriage ceremony meant so much to Cindy that I readily agreed. She wore a wedding dress, and she walked down the aisle, glowing like any bride. And she shared her vows happily with the witnesses present.

Cindy will never forget that special day. And I’ll never forget how joyful she was at the reception following her baptism. This young woman, who’d been so withdrawn and so troubled, interacted excitedly with all the guests as if she were at, well, her wedding. Later Cindy would write: “It was the best weekend of my life, absolutely the best. I’ve never been drawn to people like that. I felt such compassion and warmth and love. I wish I’d said more during the baptism, but I was choking up big time. I love Jesus so much.”

Yes, church may be the place where you were hurt. But it can also be the place where you can heal. It can be medicine for your wounds. People who’ve been violated can find a place of safety. If you are one of those who’s been hurt by the church, I apologize on behalf of the church, and I invite you to try once more to find a congregation that can provide you with the support and healing you failed to find the first time around.

Hurt by the Church

by Lonnie Melashenko
From the October 2007 Signs