I believe God’s church is the hope of the world through Jesus Christ. When a church is healthy and vibrant it is the best thing going on the planet. As a pastor of 17 years, I have experienced the best and worst of what a church can become and do. There is no greater thrill than to find your place in God’s church and accomplish with others what you could never achieve on your own for the glory of God and the building of His Kingdom. Through God’s church, vital needs in life our met that can’t be met anywhere else. Indeed, church is a beautiful thing, praise be to God!
However, there are many who have not had the best experiences with “church.” Some would even say that they have been badly hurt by their church experiences. At the extreme level, there are those who have encountered spiritual, emotional, and physical abuse within their church life. The documentary, “Deliver us from Evil” is a sobering, disgusting example.
In a recent report from Focus on the Family, “Approximately 22 million Americans say they are Christians and made a faith commitment to Jesus Christ, and say that commitment is still important to them, but they have struggled with faith or relational issues and therefore quit going to church.”
I am sure that what constitutes as a bad church experience is a highly subjective matter of personal opinion. Furthermore, I have often seen where a bad church experience has become a convenient excuse for people to entirely disconnect from church and adopt a spiritually lazy life. The “church” has often become an easy blame and a perfect scapegoat from what are really problems with the person themselves and not the church as a whole. Churches are never perfect, but they aren’t always the problem.
Yet, there are many who have had legitimately hurtful church experiences that have had much more to do with the unhealth of a church than anything about them personally. These instances are disappointing and discouraging to say the least. It’s unfortunate when people who are trying to be good, go to a church gone bad. From my experience, I could even go so far as to say that in America we suffer from a church health crisis. This reality is truly the elephant sitting in the Christian culture room. In the name of christian, political correctness, not many want to really say it or even see it, but the truth is, in America, we have more clubs with crosses on top of them than mission centers focused on spreading the Gospel and creating worshipers of Jesus.
Dave Olson, the director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, has made some interesting projections regarding what is going to happen to church attendance in America if current trends continue. According to Olson, only 18.7 percent of all Americans regularly attend church. If this number continues to decline at the current pace, Olson says that the percentage of Americans attending church in 2050 will be about half of what it is today. Other research has concluded similar findings. According to a study accomplished by LifeWay Research, membership in Southern Baptist churches will fall nearly 50 percent by the year 2050 if current trends persist.
Is church health entirely to blame for the decline of people going to church? No. Is it a big factor? I would say, yes. If the saying, “As the family goes, so does the community and the culture” applies, than the saying, “As the church goes, so does Christianity” must also have some relevance.
Does the American christian church have a lot of work to do? Yes. Do people who attend churches additionally bare a lot of responsibility for their own church experiences? Yes, absolutely.
So, what do you do when Church hurts?
o.o1 Examine yourself- The last question that people typically ask after having a bad church experience is, “Was any of this my own fault?” Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Taking time for some soul-searching discernment will partner with God to help you move forward and grow through your experience. Bad church experiences can get very emotional and personal. Seeking the counsel of objective people who can speak the truth in love into your life would be a great step. As my mother would say to my sisters and I, “It takes two to tango.” Don’t be surprised if you find that part of the bad experience you had with church is at least in part your responsibility. It may or may not be your fault, but it may be some of your responsibility. Are there occasions when people are burnt by church entirely separate from any wrong doing or responsibility on their part? Yes, absolutely. Yet examining yourself will help to know what role if any you played in the negative experience.
o.o2 Gain perspective- As you take a hard look in the mirror, it will be important to really get a clear perspective on what actually happened. So often, in the midst of a bad church experiences, the truth and the facts can get highly distorted and emotionally charged. There typically are many issues at play behind the scenes… power, vision, structure, authority, heart, faith etc. Obviously, you may never be able to piece together everything, but doing your best to step outside of the experience and see thing clearly will be helpful. Conflict in churches is usually about issues of vision. Two or more people simply have different visions for things. Unfortunately, these issues of division get spiritualized and emotionalized. This is when things get ugly and hurtful. Most churches don’t have a shared vision to begin with nor a clear definition of what are essential issues of unity and what are not. Many churches are set up (likely unintentionally) in ways that breed conflict and harbor it.
Therefore, most bad church experiences are really symptomatic of underlying problems within the church’s DNA. Again, you may never be able to connect all the dots, but realizing there are probably a lot pieces to the puzzle that led to your negative church experience helps you to own what is your part and disown what is not.
o.o3 Curb expectations- Sometimes people have unrealistic expectations of church life. First, they think that people who go to church should be perfect. I firmly agree that church life should manifest a higher relational and moral standard than that of the world, but churches aren’t perfect. Not unlike the world, there are moments of conflict in church. How churches handle conflict and prevent it in the first place is what’s critical. Expecting church life to be conflict free and even hurt free is unrealistic. Second, many people expect church to be primarily about them. From the style of worship to what is offered for their children, many christians are spiritual consumers with a mindset that church should be about meeting their personal spiritual needs. They approach church like a spiritual vending machine. Thus, when some aspect of church becomes a little challenging, uncomfortable, or disheartening, they are quick to cry foul and label church as “not for me.” Well, in some ways they are correct, church isn’t just “for you.” Rather, church is primarily to be about people who are far from God. Therefore, when we expect church to be about aligning our hearts, lives, and resources towards a common vision and mission to reach people far from God and grow in Christ-likeness it is then that we are much better positioned to field the moments when church hurts. When we expect church to be a place where we connect with a spiritual family as we come under the authority and care of the shepherd of the church, we adopt a mindset of much better expectations. In fact, the expectations shift from “what’s in it for me?” to “what can I contribute?”
o.o4 Choose carefully- If you ask most people why they go to the church they attend it’s typically primarily for emotional reasons… their friends or family go there, it’s convenient, it’s politically beneficial, it benefits their work, they have always gone there, they were married there, they like some ministry that is offered etc. Though many churches have developed membership classes where people are instructed on the vision, design, and beliefs of the church, most people don’t look into these aspects of a church. So many bad church experiences could have been prevented with a well developed and required membership class that the entire church must attend and buy into. Secondly, when a church is structured properly and the right people are serving in the right roles, bad church experiences are greatly reduced.
Before you consistently attend a church you should know…
1- What the vision of the church is.
If a church can’t tell you specifically what they are about, what their values are, and where they are going, you probably don’t want to get on board. Furthermore, if you sense there is division in the church, you will probably want to avoid it. Churches that are family run or without demographic diversity should be entered with caution. A church should be able to tell you specifically what God’s vision is for them, what they are focused on, what their values are, and what their goals are for the future. Ask the leadership these type of question and then also ask attenders of the church. If you consistently get conflicting answers, you may want to keep church shopping. Furthermore, if the church can’t give you clear answers, that may be a symptom of deeper problems.
A great follow up question is, “What have you done in the last six months towards the vision and future you just spoke of?” A church is becoming tomorrow what they are doing today. If they talk a big talk, but can’t show you how their current ministry is leading towards the future, you may want to proceed with caution. Unfortunately, some churches can be like a used car lot, they will tell you all kinds of things to close the deal.
A church should have a vision that 1) reaches people far from God and connects them to His Church 2) grows believers into spiritual maturity as they learn to follow Christ and reach nonbelievers 3) minsters to the poor and needy 4) builds healthy, spiritual community 5) equips people for spiritual service and leadership 6) and worships God with passion and Truth.
A church should be a mission center, not a maintenance ministry.
2- Where authority and power are placed.
Churches can become very political. Unfortunately, many churches are structured democratically in ways that attract political, power hungry people. If you detect that the pastor/and or staff are seen and handled as merely the hired hands, you probably want to take note. Pastors are leaving churches and even the ministry at staggering rates. Most of the time it’s because of an issue of power where a group of people or families want to run the church. On the other side of the coin, if you see a pastor/and or staff that has no accountability set up with other pastors/elders, you should also take note. Pastors need to have the freedom to lead and shepherd a church, but when you see them dictating people’s personal lives and taking the lone-ranger approach to ministry, this could be problematic. The best system I have seen of accountability is where a pastor/and or staff have a group of outside pastors that serve as an accountability team for their leadership and the overall ministry. This can also be formed with elders within the church as long as those elders are appointed (verses elected), approved by the congregation, and have been trained and tested. Healthy accountability never seeks to manage leadership, but rather to protect it.
3- How people are equipped and placed to serve.
Bad church experiences can be created by having the wrong people serving in the wrong places. In many churches, people are serving in ways that are based on merely what they want to do or feel obligated to do. This can be a prescription for negative experiences. When people serve merely from the motivation of self-satisfaction or desire, people can tend to get “sticky fingers” and personal agendas. They get territorial and see their role or area of ministry as “theirs.” We want people to serve in their area of passion, but not selfishly. Secondly, when people get roped or guilted into serving, they end up serving in areas outside of their passion and giftedness. This ends up being a loss for them and a loss for the ministry. On top of all this, when no discernment is given to spiritual maturity, people end up serving in areas beyond their ability to do so and a negative situation is almost certain to arise.
Finding a church where people are placed and equipped to serve by the staff based on their passion, spiritual gifting, and maturity apart from guilt, obligation, or personal desire alone is critical.
4- What the beliefs of the church are.
Most churches have a statement of their beliefs, make sure you have familiarized yourself with them before getting deeply connected. Furthermore, make sure that you are familiar with all their doctrinal beliefs. Not all critical doctrinal beliefs are necessarily articulated in a church’s beliefs statement.
5- What the church’s stance on critical issues are.
What does the church believe about politics, abortion, homosexuality, Calvinism, divorce, Masonic Lodge, racism, Bible translations, tithing etc.? Sometimes we get so inspired by our first experiences in a church that we don’t look under the hood before we get involved or join. Yet, these are the kind of issues that come up down the road that can lead to negative experiences. Make sure you go into a church “eyes wide opened” and thoroughly look behind the scenes to find out what that church is all about. First impressions are great, but can also be deceiving. A ounce of upfront discernment and information seeking can pay off tremendously later on in preventing negative church experiences.