I am about to write some fairly harsh observations about the church. Please know that I LOVE the church. Church is where I have learnt about and worshipped my greatest love, Jesus Christ. Within the context of the church I have felt love deeper than I thought possible. Through the church I have met my husband and so many of the best people you could hope to meet. Every significant life event has centred around the church – births, deaths and marriage. I am for Jesus and I am for his church.
When using the phrase “the church” I am predominantly talking about the institutionalised church. I am drawing on my knowledge and experience of different expressions of church, far and wide, rather than pinpointing only one particular church. If some or all of this does not represent your experience of church then be grateful. If this rings true, may you be filled with fresh hope today.
Over the last few years my heart has been broken for a very broken church. Far too much of the church had become like a private members club. It was in denial about the lack of opportunity for almost anyone who didn’t look or behave like it’s leaders (predominantly white, middle class men). It was in denial about the true number of people regularly attending. Bullying and abuse by leaders was at best not properly dealt with and at worst completely denied, all to the detriment of the people they were there to serve. People were judged on the amount of service they could offer which meant mothers, carers, disabled people and anyone with too many pressures outside of the church to commit to ardent service inside it were not given a voice, influence or opportunity within it. Anyone who had an alternative view to the leaders was promptly silenced. Children were tolerated but shunned while the adults were doing the “serious work of Jesus”. Anyone could come into the church building, but not everyone was truly welcome. The back door was wide open and people were leaving without anyone even noticing. Vast numbers of people had left the church, many of whom were completely broken by what they had experienced within it.
A few weeks ago, an old friend shared a post on social media about different types of Religious Trauma Syndrome and her personal experience of abuse in the church. The list in the post included:
- Sexual misconduct
- Sin watching
- Obsessions with spiritual gifts and warfare
- Purity culture (shame culture)
- Financial abuse
- Mental health abuse
- Fear driven theology
- Service abuse (overworking/underpaying people)
- Destiny or bust (you only have one destiny and your sin can blow it)
- Political abuse (you’re only a true Christian if you vote for this party)
- Narcissistic leadership
- Revelation (end times) conspiracy
- Parental abuse
- Disabled body discrimination
- The invalidity of other beliefs.
It’s a painful list to read but a vital one. It genuinely took my breath away. But it also vocalised and validated some of the experiences I have seen others go through and some I have personally experienced, within a place that should be the safest on earth. My friend, though still deeply spiritual, has decided to leave the church. She’s one of far, far too many.
Abuse in the church, like in many institutions, has been rife. Over recent years many instances of horrific, historical abuse have come to light. A recent BBC article says “The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse’s report says the Church’s failure to respond consistently to abuse victims added to their trauma.” It added that “alleged perpetrators were often given more support than victims.” and “The Church of England…created a culture where abusers “could hide”.”
Abuse is a stark and scary word but its definition is important. The Google definitions are: 1. use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse. 2. treat with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly.
Some abuse is illegal and horrific and deserving of long, if not life-time custodial punishment, but this is not the only type of abuse. Some abuse is far more subtle and though not illegal, is morally and/or spiritually wrong. In some ways this is harder to address. It is more subjective and can go unseen forever. There are not necessarily clear avenues to raise grievances. Many wouldn’t even call it abuse, but if words and actions are being used, especially regularly and repeatedly, to bad effect or purpose then we must not shy away from using the word abuse. To do so allows it to go unaddressed and freely continue.
While child sex abuse is the most extreme and horrific form, this report highlights some of the issues that are so prevalent in the church today:
- The protection and support of the powerful rather than the powerless.
- A culture which silences failure.
- A hierarchy with a serious power imbalance.
- A church in which victims of abuse are made unwelcome by those who have caused it or are protecting those who have.
That church doesn’t sound like a very nice place to be, does it? It doesn’t much reflect the Jesus that it professes to worship. Jesus, who invites anyone and everyone to come to him and be a part of his church. Jesus, who when he walked on earth, chose 12 of the most unlikely people, different to him, to be the closest to him. Jesus, who doesn’t lie or bend the truth. Jesus who condemns people who abuse their power. Jesus who is drawn to those who have been abused and forgotten and rejected. Jesus who gives a voice to the voiceless. Jesus who invites children to come to him and tells adults to be like them. Jesus who seeks out people who are carrying heavy burdens and takes on their pain. Again, Jesus, who invites anyone and everyone to come to him and be a part of his church. Jesus who left the ninety-nine to find the one who had got lost. Jesus who runs, with wide open arms and holds the biggest party for the one who chose to leave but now wants to return.
If so much of the church was so unlike the Jesus, they claim to be all about, why then were many pews still full on a Sunday? Why, though declining, were the numbers of people attending church still huge? Because despite its failings. Despite far too much corruption and bullying and abusive power, the church was and is still home to many, many wonderful, decent, God-fearing, Jesus loving people. For every bad egg (or bad decision made by an otherwise good egg) there were and are a dozen people who, though not perfect, are reading God’s word, daily loving others, daily serving him and becoming like him. There were and are people who want to learn together and worship together and laugh together. There were and are people who shine with the heart and love of Jesus. At its best, the church is truly the most wonderful place to be. But the balance between what was good and what was bad (not to mention all of the subjective grey areas in between) was wrong. I was so frustrated because I SO DESPERATELY wanted to see balance restored. Despite my best efforts I, and so many others wanting to call out what had gone wrong in order to make the church a better place, had been shunned and silenced. The church has remained a vehicle of pain for too many.
But then Covid..
For all the awful things it has done, Covid-19 has shaken the church in a way none of us have ever seen before. I am convinced that through this shaking, God is reshaping us to become as we should be (read Hebrews 12:25-29). There is hope. With Jesus, there is always unfathomable hope. A new day is dawning and I’m excited. But as we look forward to what God is doing, we must look hard at the hurt and damage that the church has caused. We must repent and make good that damage that has been done. We must repent for what humankind has created in its own strength, for its own gain and recognise that God is undoing a toxic culture which he did not create. God is reclaiming his HIS church.
The church’s rise in leadership programmes, schools and conferences has been astronomical. We have become obsessed with “raising up leaders” – calling people leaders and freely giving them authority over people. While I am not disputing that leadership is important for many reasons, such attention on it, such reverence on the positions of people rather than on Christ the King and his authority is very dangerous ground. Many leaders have claimed too much power. Many people have given leaders too much power.
Leadership is a tough, often thankless role but we must remember that people in leadership are powerful people. Although leadership can certainly be a tough place, we have allowed leaders to adopt an elitist victim mentality. “It’s lonely up here”, “no-one knows what I’m going through”, “I’m facing a hard time because I’m a leader and that is why I have behaved in this way.” All people go through hard times. It is not the exclusive right of leaders and we must never underestimate the pain all will go through and will have to deal with, merely because we are human. To view leaders as victims allows the potential for it to be forgotten that they have a powerful position over who may truly be the victim.
All leaders have to make tough decisions and tough choices to serve the greater good. In the church that greater good is Jesus Christ and the principles of his kingdom. If the actions of the leaders conflict HIS teaching and do not mimic HIS actions, then it is not the church that God intended. Power has been wrongfully taken.
To put it simply, I want you to think of church as a party. Jesus is the host and leaders are the ones who put on the party on his behalf. They are key in helping logistically organise it, making sure there’s a speech all about the wonderful host, organising music and dancing and a feast as well as boring things like toilets and health and safety. But while the organisation is probably largely facilitated by the leaders, the whole church has a responsibility to pull their weight and party in a way that honours the host.
Jesus is the host and that means EVERYONE is welcome. If not everyone (and I mean everyone) is welcomed with open arms, the party does not honour the host. If there is not enough food for the poor (both inside and outside the party), but the buffet is topped up and people are filling their plates inside, the party does not honour the host. If people are being bullied, shamed or abused at the party, the party does not honour the host. If people serving at the party are being overworked or taken advantage of, the party does not honour the host. If the best seats are not prioritised for the vulnerable, the party does not honour the host. If the children are not allowed to dance and sing and laugh and help the adults be like them, the party does not honour the host. If people are not being included, even subconsciously, because of their colour, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, political preference, disability or any other reason, the party does not honour the host.
Remember every single time your church meets, Jesus is standing at the door of the party, looking for people who want to come in or for those who have been pushed out. He is looking for people who have chosen to leave loudly or silently, or have never been, running towards them to welcome them to the party. If the church does not honour Jesus and the people he welcomes, they are not hosting his church, they are hosting their own.
Too many churches have been hosting their own parties. I believe that through this pandemic (though I in absolutely no way think that the pandemic is God’s doing – that’s another blog) Jesus is reclaiming his party. He is reclaiming and rebuilding his broken church. While on earth there is no such thing as a perfect church, he is building it into something far, far better than any human could. But we have some work to do.
We are in an essential time of repentance and renewal. We must search deep within our own hearts and repent for our sins of action and of complacency. We must seek out those who need an apology from the church. We must seek out justice for those who have been wronged within or by the church. If this is you, I am so sorry.
We must take this time to dig into Jesus and rediscover him. It is only through knowing him and receiving revelation from him that we will be able to identify when he or his people are being dishonoured.
We must trust that God is in control.
With Covid-19 and everything that’s happening globally, never more have we needed hope. Never more have we needed a solid plan. Never more have we needed a perfect leader. Never more have we needed Jesus. Never more have we needed his church, but one that is transformed.
But what does church look like during a pandemic? The buildings are shut and although I truly believe there are many very Godly, wise and wonderful leaders that fit this profile, in the words of Claire Underwood – “the reign of the middle aged white man is over”. We’re all in now.
Church looks like a million different things – it looks like walks in the park and chats in the school playground. It looks like friends huddled around garden fires and kitchen tables. It looks like staff rooms and nursing stations and games of frisby. It looks like 20 people in a village hall or 5 people in a front room. It even looks like zoom calls. It looks inviting and inclusive. It looks like doing whatever it is Jesus is asking you to do. Yes you. Get stuck in. One day church might even include going back into church buildings. Whatever It looks like, it looks like Jesus, and everyone’s invited.
If you want to find out more about Jesus, please ask a Christian you trust or go to www.alpha.org.
If you have experienced physical or sexual abuse please click here.