I hear the statement quite often. Usually it’s raised in discussions of church membership. People want to know how to help a wounded friend or family member re-engage the church. Or, they’re the ones who have been hurt and they’re wrestling with whether church is worth it. Some want to be convinced to join a church and others want to be told it’s okay to leave. Answering well depends, in part, on knowing which way the person leans.

But recently I’ve been thinking that part of the answer must include questioning the way the problem is phrased. What does the person mean when they say, “The church hurt me”? Let’s walk the possibilities backward from the most sweeping accusation to the most narrow.

The Universal Church

The person could mean the big-C Church has hurt them–all Christians everywhere. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But think about it. When a person says “The church has hurt me” and they’re refusing to visit or join any local congregation of believers they have practically projected their hurt onto the entire universal body of Christ! They have assigned their offense to every possible Christian and Christian congregation imaginable. Practically, their distrust has reached universal proportions. In every case this is false. We might provide some of our best care by helping our friends recognize the practical universalism in some of their reactions. Hopefully we can get them to dial it down to the next possible  level.

The Local Church

Our hurting friends could also mean an entire congregation of people–a whole local church–has joined together to harm them. In some way they feel the body treated them like an anti-body and perhaps made them unwelcome. Perhaps they’ve been the subjects of church discipline, or maybe they have been the subjects of gossip, or maybe they have been shunned in some way. We need to admit that there may be situations where a congregation has taken action (as in the case of discipline) and such actions can feel like hurt inflicted by the entire body. And those actions may be taken in imperfect ways, causing some of the hurt. Moreover, there have been instances where a person, usually in a small church, has felt judged, shunned and/or gossiped about.

But, in my experience, this is not what most people who blame the local church for hurting them have in mind. Honestly, too few churches practice discipline. And unless we’re Amish or something, shunning doesn’t happen very often either. Gossip can work its way through significant parts of the congregation. But I don’t think most churches are made up completely of gossips; sooner or later rumors and the like will die at the ears of the godly persons God places in most every local congregation. Usually it’s worth asking: “Are you saying that every person in the local church hurt you in this way?” Hopefully that gets us down to a smaller level.

The Church’s Leadership

Sometimes those who say they have been “hurt by the church” really have in view the leaders of a local congregation. In some way the pastor, elders, deacons, or ministry leaders have failed the person. It could have been a position the elders took on a controversial issue or the leaders’ apparent failure to hear the person’s feedback. Maybe it was something a pastor said in a sermon or a ministry leader’s refusal to allow some kind of service. Leaders do fail their people in various ways. But the main task in this scenario is to help the person see that the difficult lies with the leaders–not the entire local church. It’s easy to project the leaders’ faults onto the entire body, and sometimes the leaders’ positions or teaching necessarily becomes the congregations’. But rarely is the offended party served by rolling the “fault” all the way up to the congregation. In fact, in most cases where this happens the person invariably walks out on a lot of love in the congregation. Their tendency to say “the church hurt me” blinds them to seeing how the church loves them.