How We Stay in Church Matters as Much as Why

Spiritual abuse survivors who join a new congregation still need to heal from their hurt.

People are leaving the church today for numerous reasons—from spiritual or sexual abuse by leaders, church division, legalism, or hyper-politicization. A recent Barna survey found that two of the top sources of doubt for most believers are negative past experiences with a religious institution and the hypocrisy of religious people.

But not all who’ve had a bad experience with a faith community choose to leave church or Christianity altogether. Some remain in the congregation that wounded them, often held there by treasured relationships or a sense of loyalty to the institution. Others attempt to hit the reset button by starting afresh in a new church, denomination, or tradition.

In any case, those past wounds don’t disappear. In fact, new church experiences layered on top of old may exacerbate the pain for some of those who stay. Today’s pews are full of people who bear scars—or still-oozing wounds—from church hurt. We often talk about why people should stay in church, but sometimes that’s the wrong question. Instead, I think we need to talk more about how we stay in church.

I’ve had to answer this question for myself as a survivor of church hurt. I’m now attending a different congregation, but the journey to stay connected to the local church in the wake of the abuse hasn’t been easy.

I’m also learning from how others have navigated their relationship with the local church after being wounded by their brothers and sisters in Christ. And what I’ve found is that those who choose to stay connected to a local faith community despite their trauma have wise insights about trust, forgiveness, and discernment—which are valuable not just for those who’ve …

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