When I saw Barna’s recent report that 61 percent of unchurched adults think of themselves as Christians, and that 37 percent of adults who aren’t church-goers say they have been hurt by an experience or person within the church, my first response was surprise that the number wasn’t higher. In 26 years as a pastor, I learned that a significant number of prospective members I visited had stories to tell about having been hurt or disappointed by a former church.
The combination of survey results and personal experience leads to a few quick observations:
1. It’s amazing how easily some folks can get their feelings hurt. Church is an interactive social milieu in which many people have a stake in how things turn out, so it’s not unexpected that people will often have run at cross-purposes with each other, and some turn out to be a lot more cross than you’d expect given the issue. Some folks, in addition, like to wear their hurt feelings on their sleeve, sort of like Bill Deal and the Rondells (from the ’60s) singing “I’ve Been Hurt.”
2. It’s equally amazing how insensitive some folks can be, even within the church context. Some folks get their feelings hurt for good reasons. In some cases, it’s a pastor who rails against those who don’t share his personal views on politics, creationism, homosexuality, single mothers or other matters. In other cases, it could be a heated exchange during the discussion period in a Sunday school class, or a snippy remark about someone’s appearance or children that wasn’t intended to be overheard. People go to church wanting to be accepted and appreciated – feeling excluded and alienated is not what they bargained for.
3. Church leaders have a responsibility to set a personal example of kindness and grace toward others and seek to cultivate a culture of compassion within the church. Leaders can help other members grow in maturity and learn when they need to offer or ask forgiveness, when they need to intentionally work out differences in respectful ways, and how they can develop relationship skills needed for the task.
One of my favorite texts is 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, in which Paul writes to congratulate the members of that church for their “work of faith,” their “labor of love” and their steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul went on to commend them for having followed the example that he, Timothy and Luke had set for them – and for becoming models in turn, “so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:3,6-7).
Sending hurt people out the church’s back door is more like bad advertising than setting a good example. Is your church a safe harbor that welcomes all people with their various issues? Or is it more like a yacht club that caters to a select group? Have you done what you can do to help those at loggerheads to be at peace with one another? Jesus didn’t say “blessed are the peaceful,” but “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).
Lord knows, we need them.