How to Treat a (Church) Burn

–Daniel S. Ferguson

Since this blog started, I’ve heard dozens of people’s stories (and published more than a few) about why people have left church. Each of these stories details the various causes of these departures from faith or organized religion. They range everything from personal struggles with faith to issues with the church community to a general sense of hypocrisy and exclusion.

But one thing has, at least so far, not been mentioned in any story. And that really surprises me. Of the dozens of stories I’ve listened to, it has shocked me–floored me–that it hasn’t come up once.

So many people have a personal hurt toward faith because a person of faith hurt them. (Click to Tweet)

How do I know that without anyone telling me? Because every one of their stories at some point mentions a specific person that in some way catalyzed the exit.

They don’t ever say that person’s name. They usually don’t even identify that person as an individual. Those telling their story, over time, start to use more general terms to describe the church as a whole instead of referring to this individual.

But when I really know these people, when they tell me their story in more than general terms, there are always specific people who set them on a course away from church.

Sometimes it’s a pastor. Sometimes it’s a friend. Sometimes it’s a trusted leader. Sometimes it’s a parent.

No matter who it is, nearly all of us can point to someone from church who hurt us. Hurt us bad. (Click to Tweet)

Hurt us so bad we never wanted to come back. Ever.

I don’t have to think long before I can identify these people. It takes ten seconds for ten specific people to come to mind.

But here’s the thing. When I think about the damage I’ve received from church, I can’t think of a time when a whole church hurt me. I can only think of times when one or two people at church hurt me. (Even my very worst church experience ever capped out at just four people doing the damage.)

I’ve written before that the best way into church is to start one relationship. Unfortunately, the best way out is the same: one broken relationship.

One church burn is often all it takes to turn a person off from church forever. (Click to Tweet)

Why don’t people identify this? Because it happens gradually, and often the pain is so relational, so personal, that they don’t want to relive it. So they converge a broken relationship with one person into a broken relationship with the whole group, even the whole religion.

I do this, too. I’ll hear something that triggers a negative response, like catching a tinge of hypocrisy or fakeness, and I’ll think, “Man, church can be so fake sometimes.”

But really, it’s not that person being fake. I’m making that up based on a bias I have. That bias is based on an experience. And if I’m really honest, I’m simply connecting the neutral thing that’s happening right in front of me with a negative thing that happened somewhere else at some other time. And I’m just conflating the two.

I think this is a natural human response. We tend to paint a whole group with the brush with which we would paint its worst members. Unfortunately, churches make this really easy on us.

So I have two pieces of advice to help with this. One for churches, and one for the church-burned.

Churches, be exceptionally intentional about how you answer questions. Make intentional space for doubts. Build such strong relationships and such safe spaces that even the most ardent doubter feels completely welcomed and free to discuss his concerns. Have so much grace toward the disagreeable and so much humility toward the questioner that they cannot ascribe you with any of the traits of those people who may have previously burned them.

Don’t dismiss children’s and teenagers’ questions; answer them with as much truth and grace as you can. They deserve it. (Click to Tweet).

Don’t be afraid of not knowing; they don’t know either. Connect on that.

Church-burned, ask yourself who specifically hurt you and how. Recognize that some of your negative responses toward church now come from that singular pain and do your best not to conflate the church in front of you with the person who hurt you.

Exhibit the grace you want, not the lack of grace you were given. (Click to Tweet)

Be willing to ask questions more than once. Give people more than one chance in one meeting to say and do the right thing. Know from the outset that your questions are hard to answer and may set people on edge. Don’t see this as them being recalcitrant; instead, realize that they might be struggling with the same thing as you. Connect on that.

We’re all in this together, after all. I really do believe that church can be an amazing place to doubt and ask questions. Maybe even the best place.


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