Recently, the pastor of the church our family has been visiting asked a simple question on social media looking for responses. He asked what is a church?
I realized as I read the question, that thinking about what the church is hits a painful place in my soul. There was a time I loved the church and what it represented. I looked forward to attending. I enjoyed serving and teaching. But most of all I valued the close relationships that had developed over time in the church.
If you’ve read the rest of my story, you know our family wasn’t able to stay in the church where we were spiritually abused even after the pastor was deposed. Even though some of the leaders in the church offered to help our family heal, there was too much damage and too many lies for us to stay.
A friend of mine who works with victims of spiritual abuse said statistics reveal that the damage done by how the church mishandles abuse reporting is usually worse than the actual abuse itself. This certainly was true for us. It’s still confusing to think back to how things spun out of control at church after I exposed the truth.But the worst part of the church mishandling the abuse was that it led to losing fellowship with others in the church. The pain of my former pastor’s abuse has now begun to diminish. I realized after seeing the true nature of the relationship with him that I was never connected to him the way God intended. Breaking the relationship with him brought freedom. But breaking the relationship with others in the church was exceedingly painful. Even today when I think about all the friends I left behind, the pain becomes overwhelming. I really do miss the church.
Jesus prayed in John 15 that His disciples would be one. He prayed that our love would reveal to the rest of the world that we belong to Him. It makes sense that when spiritual abuse happens that the loss of fellowship in the church would bring the most pain. God created us for fellowship and oneness in Him. When I lost the church I felt as if I lost part of myself.
The pastor of the church we are visiting started a new sermon series on the church this past Sunday. He asked the question how many had had negative experiences in churches. Lots of hands went up, including mine! Then he asked the question about how many had had positive experiences, and hands went up, too, but I didn’t raise mine. The pain of the negative experiences at church seemed to overshadow all the rest in those moments. But as he continued to talk, I remembered the friends I’d lost. Even after all the pain, the moments of love and acceptance I’d experienced from other parts of the body of Christ was what had me sitting in another church hoping to experience those times again. Times like sitting in a car in a rainy parking with a friend and crying and praying together on an overwhelming day for both of us. Times when we shared dinners with good food and wine, joys and laughter. Times that we sang together and worshipped from our hearts. I even missed the times we went off on rabbit trails and argued our points in Sunday School. So many times when I felt a part of others who made me feel a part of a larger story that God was telling.
Today, I had lunch with the pastor’s wife of the church we’ve been visiting. I was cautiously optimistic about the meeting with her, but since I knew her and her husband’s own painful church stories I hoped that she might be someone I could connect with. It was clear as she shared some of her story and I shared mine that neither of us could throw stones. We’d been to the same dark places. We also couldn’t impress one another with stories of our victorious Christian life, because we’d both lost some tough battles with sin. But we could and did acknowledge how Jesus had miraculously saved us from ourselves, and that brought sweet relief.
And it felt like church.
There’s still so much that remains to be seen, but a little more hope broke through after our conversation.
And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.