When Church Has Betrayed You

January 3, 2015

My studies of “the missional church” in the last seven years have heightened my awareness of those the church-growth movement used to call the unchurched. Sixty years ago, the people in this category were less likely to have ever gone to church to be exposed to the basic claims of the Christian gospel. They were probably in the minority in post WWII American culture, which in the 1950s was seeing the filling and exponential growth of church congregations nationwide.

Consequently, attention to the unchurched was largely a ministry of evangelism. During this era, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), Young Life, the Navigators, and other faith-sharing and decision-focused ministries took root and drew an entire generation into the household of faith. Overall, church attendance in America peaked in the late 1960s and evangelicalism was legitimized and anchored in places like Fuller Theological Seminary.

About this time, the Jesus Movement and, for instance, the Catholic Charismatic Movement (through which I discovered Jesus and a New Life) challenged the assumptions of cultural Christianity (Ray Stedman used to call it “churchianity”). Emphasis shifted from evangelism-leading-to-church-membership to evangelism-leading-to-radical-Christian-discipleship. A growing mistrust of authoritative institutions, including government but also the institutional church, grew in this country, and two things happened: non-denominational churches surged, and people started going off the grid church-wise.

Meanwhile, the church growth movement promoted the idea that a growing church is a healthy church, and adopted a set of values that relied on strong leadership, specialized structures, and working the numbers and economy of scale. Success was measured in church attendance, financial giving, new memberships, and baptisms. While the overall number of folks affiliated with a church diminished, the public became aware of the growth of large churches in their towns and cities. Naturally, a charismatic preacher and full-service church program drew people from their shrinking churches to the new successful thing. Small churches continued to struggle as larger churches attracted the dissatisfied, the tired, the new parents, and the Me Generation. “Church growth” was largely the result of member migration, alongside new conversions which continued in lesser numbers.

I myself have participated on church staffs numbering in the dozens, and once in a church that had over 150 on staff. After leaving the rarified air of “the large church” (we now call the mega-church), I discovered that bigger is not necessarily better, that evangelism of attraction tends to foster a consumer mentality, and that the professionalizing and specializing of church ministers often dismisses the priesthood of all believers. Emphasis on the excellent execution of programs, worship services, preaching, and even architecture, has drawn people into the church environment but not necessarily into a transformed life aligned with Christ and his Kingdom.

I have also learned that discipleship begins with first contact between a Christian and a non-believer, and that there are lots of reasons why people have not set foot in a church lately (lack or loss of commitment to Jesus Christ being only one of them).

What I have discovered in the last few years is that among the unchurched now are the de-churched—those who have church attendance in their past, and who retain core Christian beliefs, but who for one of many reasons have stopped meeting regularly for worship with other believers. For them, it is not necessarily evangelism that will bring them back into fellowship; it is healing.

Healing is required when a person has felt betrayed by leaders who abuse, usurp power, or foster a celebrity culture. Healing is required when a person is displaced by the professional minister and cannot use his or her gifts for the building up of the Body, negating the good news of 1 Corinthians 12. Healing is required when a church twists the truth, accommodates the culture, loses the truth-and-grace balance of Jesus Christ, or otherwise diminishes the transformational impact of the gospel.

Healing is best accomplished in community, but when that community has been the site for hurt—deep injury to the spirits of its members—healing and spiritual health must be pursued another way. I feel drawn to offer encouragement for this journey, to do what I do best (teach) among those who cannot gather in a classroom or even a coffee-shop for spiritual conversation just yet, but who are hungry. To those who are hungry, I offer the Word of God, the Bread of Life, a bit of spiritual nourishment . . . all with an eye to finding Christ at the center, the conviction of the Holy Spirit at the heart, and the grace and mercy of the Father to try again to participate in fellowship.

Next time: What will feed us?

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3 Responses to “When Church Has Betrayed You”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Such wisdom and boldness, revmary: Surely this blog series will bring along a book. Yes and thank you.

  2. Jodie Gallo Says:

    Happy New Year Mary,

    Many years ago, when I was betrayed by the Church and quit going for a few years, Jesus woke me up one morning and told me in a quiet voice while I lay in bed to get up and to go to such and such a church because He had something there for me that day.

    So I went.

    They were having a service of reconciliation that day. There had been a fight in the church, and a pastor had left, and there were many hard feelings. There was an invitation to those who wished to stay for an afternoon session of workshops, and I stayed.

    In a small group I found myself sharing I do not remember what, but was told later by several folks that it meant a lot to them.

    What I do remember was that while my mouth was running, something else quite different was going on inside my head. He said to me “repeat after me: Father forgive them BECAUSE they do not know what they do” And in my head I repeated that prayer as instructed, and in doing so, I forgave “them” as well, and all the anger and treason that was poisoning my soul was lifted, and has never returned.

    I don’t know what works for other people, but for me it is about unconditional forgiveness, and the door-way to that forgiveness is Jesus. I almost think that what His forgiveness is really all about is an object lesson, an example for us to follow.

    It is the only thing that heals.

    And even though other strangers put in a lot of effort and prayer that Sunday to bring about reconciliation, and the effort provided a framework for my own healing which has been permanent, long lasting, and proactive to all later injuries and betrayals, it was the work of the Holy Spirit that healed me, not what any one person said or how they said it. And that has taught me to always look for what good thing the Holy Spirit is saying and doing more than what any person is saying or doing.

    Shakespeare nailed it in the little speech he snuck in the “Merchant of Venice” on the quality of mercy. And he concludes: “Therefore, though justice be thy plea, remember this: That in the course of justice, none of us shall see salvation. We do all pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy”.

    I hope the next time He fills His churches, it will be with Forgiveness and doers of Mercy.

    Jodie Gallo,
    Los Angeles, CA

    • revmary Says:

      Hello Jodie, thanks for sharing your story. You will love the Colossian punch-line. Wait for it . . . . Best regards, Mary

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