For the past several years, very intentionally, my husband and I have sat in living rooms, at coffee shops and on back porches with self-identified deconstructors. Many of whom have realized the safe scaffolding of their religious upbringing was not so safe after all. It’s not so much that we are walking with people who are untangling their belief systems—though that is certainly a part of what we are doing—what we are actually doing is bearing witness to church pain, spiritual hurt and people with devastating heartbreak. The beloved community that formed them and shaped their faith so acutely was not good, and perhaps even dangerous. That’s enough to wreck a person.
“It wasn’t safe for me to be a person of color in my majority white church, especially after George Floyd was killed.”
“I wasn’t welcome to express my doubts or changing political views.”
“It was unsafe to be a woman in my church environment.”
These conversations have helped us note a difference between hurt feelings and church hurt. For instance, if a senior pastor calls out a worship leader for living with his girlfriend, and if that worship leader does not want to come under that authority (and grew angry in the process), that’s someone with hurt feelings. That’s important to work through relationally, but that pastor isn’t being inappropriate. That pastor is being a leader.
What we have found in our intentional discussions with deconstructors, and even nonbelievers, is that those who are leaving the church or Christianity altogether, might be doing so because of hurt feelings, but mostly, they are leaving—or not joining— because of the church’s sin, criminality and trauma cycles. And rightly so. God, forgive us, for we have sinned against you and others.
In her 2019 George Fox University dissertation on spiritual abuse titled “Breaking Evangelical: An Attachment-Focused Framework for Healing Spiritual Trauma,” Ashley Davis argues that the significant rise in religiously unaffiliated over the past two decades is attributable, at least in part, to spiritual abuse within Christian churches. Davis notes:
“Spiritually abusive practices in evangelical churches are nuanced and deeply embedded within the evangelical Christian subculture … creating a culture in which: a) narcissistic personalities thrive in leadership, among both clergy and lay leaders; b) patriarchal dynamics oppress women and minorities in families, churches and workplaces; c) suspicion of science, especially psychology, propagates trauma cycles; d) basic human sexuality is shamed or even exploited; and e) colonizing approaches to discipleship are normalized.”
For the church to heal, for evangelistic efforts to go forward, these systems must be dismantled, and the hard work of collective lament, repentance and restoration must begin.
I still believe the church is the very place where repair and healing should and can happen. I still believe Jesus is calling the church to be a safe haven, even from ourselves.
But we have to understand that this is where we are beginning. This—honest conversations with those recovering from church hurt—is our new starting ground as church leaders and evangelists. We can no longer be like, Well, not all leaders. We must own and acknowledge the systems of toxic abuse in the evangelical industrial complex. We have to lament publicly our sin of even making an industrial complex of God’s kingdom in the first place. We have to say, from our pulpits and our platforms and our porches, If you are hurting, we see you. We are so sorry. You are so brave.
Our call is the same as it always has been: Be like Jesus, who, in every interaction with the vulnerable and abused—in every interaction with those who were undignified and commodified and objectified—Jesus offered compassion, dignity and new destiny.
This topic came up recently—how Jesus treats the vulnerable—after an event where I was speaking. A woman approached me, saying, “I am not a Christian, but I buy what you are selling. I like this ‘Jesus’ concept.” She continued, “But I am hesitant to follow Jesus for one reason: I refuse to bow down before a male deity.”
Now look, I don’t know everything, but I know at least one thing to do in these kinds of spiritual conversations is ask people the question behind their question, or the story behind their story, and do so with empathy. I responded, “I can guess some of why that’s difficult for you, but do you mind sharing a bit more?”
She opened up about how she’d been demeaned and abused by men in her life, many of whom were in the church. Men, who were meant to be her equals, her partners, her brothers.
Having been the victim of sexual assault myself, and grooming at the hands of a youth pastor, I was able to enter her pain: “I am so sorry that happened to you. I know God hates that. When you are ready, I would encourage you to look at the life of Jesus in the Bible. I think you’ll be shocked, in a good way, how Jesus treats women.”
After that conversation, I thought of one of the saddest stories in Scripture—the rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon, found in 2 Samuel 13. It’s essentially another Genesis 3 story, where we find a man and woman, not a couple, but a sister and brother who should have been equal in dignity and image-bearing. Instead, evil, sin, trauma cycles, entered in their garden and perverted everything. The event and its aftermath were shameful, unlawful and atrocious. Yet what has always exasperated me is one simple verse, 2 Samuel 13:27: “When David heard all of this, he was furious.”
Here was David, this man after God’s own heart, who, yes, grew angry about his daughter being raped. He probably yelled and threw things. But that was it. And Tamar was left to spend the rest of her days in isolation and grief, wearing a torn royal robe and ashes on her head. King David did not do what a representative of God should do in a situation like this. He did not do what a shepherd should do. He did not attempt to care for Tamar, help her save face, or even bring justice to Amnon.
Like so many others in these circumstances, like our deconstructing friends, and like the woman at that event, Tamar was left abandoned by the one who should have had her back.
The world wracked by church hurt needs to encounter and experience—through the church—the God of Isaiah 61 (which I firmly believe is referencing Tamar), “The God who comforts all who mourn, provides for those who grieve, and bestows on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of despair” (Isa. 61:3).
This is what we are invited into, leaders. Stop excusing toxic power. Stop being silent. With the Spirit’s empowering, create safe spaces that repair torn robes, remove ashes, and pour out the oil of joy instead of mourning. This is how the ancient ruins, caused by church hurt, will be rebuilt.
To hear more from Aubrey Sampson and other forward-focused church leaders, join us in-person or online next week at the Amplify Conference on October 17th and 18th at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois.