For Christians who have experienced spiritual abuse, the church building may not be a place for healing. Since spiritual abuse creates religious trauma, Christians who use guilt and shame to push them into a pew are not helping.
Appearing to care more about the numbers than the spiritual numbness that often results, Christians would do well to get in touch with what these spiritual abuse victims are feeling.
Consequently, it’s going to take more than your favorite scripture, your best sermon or your brightest smile during the welcome and announcements. Christians who have been wounded by the church will need its members to act like Jesus instead of Judas from here on out.
This means no spiritual bypassing, no “sweet by and by” promising, no padding God’s resume — because God is not using their experience of spiritual abuse for their good. Do not pray for them without permission, as it can appear condescending or evangelistic. They don’t need saving but defending.
When I was attending seminary, one of the students who was also pastoring said almost in passing, “Be careful when they pat you on the back because they are checking for soft spots to drive the knife deeper.”
The comment went over my head, as I had no ministerial experience and no interest in pastoring. After nearly 20 years in Christian ministry, I understand his warning more intimately now.
I enter church buildings with caution and my guard up now. I don’t suspect it will come down until Jesus comes back.
Raised in the South with the understanding that “everyone in this house is going to church” because “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” it was understood that children didn’t have a choice in becoming a Christian (Joshua 24:15). It was only a matter a time, 12 years old preferably, before one joined the church.
Evangelism began at home and with the belief that everyone would be a Christian. It was one of two choices — holiness or hell. This was the beginning of spiritual abuse for me.
Spiritual abuse occurs when someone uses a spiritual or religious belief to intimidate, harm or control you. Of course, it seemed harmless and the right thing to do at the time.
But as an adult, I can see that I lost my bodily autonomy and my voice, which was aided and abetted by the expectation that children not question the authority of adults, scripture or God.
Unfortunately, these signs of “surrender to God” can and do create more instances of victimization. And once Christians who are deconstructing their faith put these things together, it is nearly impossible to hear or experience Christianity the same way again.
Once you’ve heard a pastor use the pulpit to bully members into compliance with their vision or to create “another gospel” about himself, you listen to sermons differently.
If you’ve ever experienced a church split, then you may be leery when Christians gather because trauma now comes with it. Yes, you can just go to another church, but we all know that most churches multiply by division.
Parking lot and business meetings have consequences. “The most difficult traumas are those deliberately caused,” writes Carolyn Yoder in The Little Book of Trauma Healing: When Violence Strikes and Community Security is Threatened.
So, now you’re always on the defensive to protect your faith in Jesus from the hypocrites and charlatans. The scary thing is finding out that they are in the church and not “the world” as you had been told as a child.
Now you’re watching your back. So, you won’t gather with Christians in the same way again and maybe that’s the point. Because church attendance has been equated with a faithful walk with Jesus. But the two do not often produce the same results.
So, rather than blame those who have left the church building, perhaps we are entering a new phase of American Christianity. It is a return to embodiment, house-to-house gatherings and a healthy spirituality that believes in accountability and protecting the vulnerable.
Maybe we are leaving spaces that prop up abusers, cite scriptures to browbeat, and use isolation to get us back into a church building but no closer to Jesus. Because that’s not how you treat victims of spiritual abuse.