The post-Christian culture we live in today has forced church leaders to evaluate, seeking answers to the questions such as: What happened? Where did we go wrong? What can we do better for the next generation? The search for answers has added words to our vocabulary such as nones, deconstruction, and church hurt.
Church hurt is not a new term. I would argue it has existed since the church began. However, church hurt is a term that children’s ministry leaders and parents today need to be acutely aware of. The future church depends on it.
In Stephen Mansfield’s 2012 book, Healing Your Church Hurt, George Barna describes church hurt as “Ecclesia exitus—the Latin term for church dropout. The decision to permanently withdraw from a congregation you had considered to be your ‘church home’.” The symptoms are many, but the outcome is unambiguous: “Pain, disappointment, and spiritual anomie.” He goes on to observe that “spiritual injury occurs more often than we would like to admit…In our thirst to experience the righteousness of God, we sometimes forget that we have the capacity to wound others, even in a spiritual environment.”
As a child in third grade, I experienced the life-changing effects of church hurt for the first time, though not the last. My dad was a lifelong member of the church, and his deeply rooted beliefs extended back generations. Whether right or wrong, his faith was grounded on a specific hermeneutical foundation. He built a solid faith around that, one that I and others admired. When the church our family belonged to began going down a path he didn’t believe was biblical, he approached the pastor and leadership and engaged in conversations. Those conversations became more and more painful. When it became clear that all parties would hold their ground, our family left.
No one knew to explain to me what was happening, or help me process it. Suddenly I could no longer attend the church I loved or interact in the lives of friends and mentors who had been impacting my life. I was confused and angry. No one involved handled the situation well, but I sure didn’t help matters any! Believe me when I say the older I got, the angrier I was. It transformed me. It would have been easier to walk away, but gratefully by His grace, God brought me close to Him to strengthen my faith instead.
Today, some thirty years later, I work for a denomination in the thick of a contentious split. Sadly, we are not alone. Many churches and denominations are currently embroiled in such. I’ve witnessed the pain caused between churches, between pastors, between believers, and between good friends in the epitome of church hurt. Reggie Joiner recently said these wise words: “It’s never okay to use your theology as an excuse to treat each other wrong.”
We have certainly grieved one another, but I can’t begin to comprehend how we have grieved God through this.
What does this have to do with children’s ministry? Absolutely everything. As adults navigate disagreements and the resulting fractured relationships within the church, all little eyes are on you.
Parents are primary disciplemakers for children. That’s not a choice; it simply is, whether for good or ill. It’s a fact that children are watching, listening, and evaluating everything their parents say and do. Their parents’ words and actions are influencing their faith at this very moment.
The church is a secondary disciplemaker for the children God has entrusted to your ministry. Children are watching, listening, and evaluating everything people in the congregation say and do. For better or worse, our words and actions also influence the children’s faith.
Children are extraordinarily perceptive! No matter how hard we may try, we cannot hide our actions, words, or feelings from them. As disciplemakers, the way we handle church hurt has a significant impact on children. Our actions and words should never cause anyone to think that the church is a battleground worth avoiding due to inevitable pain. Yet, hurt isn’t going away on this side of eternity. So how can we do better for our children as we continue to experience broken relationships in the church?
There are questions we should consider regarding our interactions. Do our children:
• hear a grace-filled tone or a divisive spirit?
• see us listening well or creating assumptions?
• hear us expressing humility or covering shame?
• see us honoring the body of believers or cutting off relationships?
• hear us seeking to understand or avoiding conflict?
• see us being upright and uplifting or abdicating responsibility?
Most importantly, do children see us seeking the Lord first for healing and wisdom? Let’s heed Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:1- 2a: “Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ” (NLT).
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