The Barna Group has posted an article that says so many good things and intends the right thing, but in the end, it fails to address the problem it claims to answer.
“Millions of Unchurched Adults are Christians Hurt by Churches but can be Healed of the Pain” makes an assumption that reflects the worst of our culture: that problems are primarily emotional and not about truth.
The article, rightly, talks about the need to forgive, but it makes no mention of the doctrinal and theological content one should look for before re-joining church life.
Sometimes, bad doctrine and bad teaching cause pain.
Church-inflicted wounds are not always just about people. They can be the result of a pastoral failure to consistently and thoroughly teach the truth of the Gospel, grace, and love.
Let me use an exaggerated example to make my point clear. If a woman you know walks down a small city street and is attacked, you may commend her — after much time — for forgiving her attacker. But you would not require her to walk down that street again.
Or, for a less-exaggerated example, what if a young man becomes sucked into one of the Bible-based cults — horrible vortexes that are indistinguishable from nondenominational churches in our current American Protestant malaise. Surely we would say he should forgive, but we not suggest he return. In fact, we would give him books and counselling to shore up his understanding in direct opposition to the cult’s twisted teachings on Scripture.
If adults hurt by churches should forgive, they still shouldn’t repeat the same mistake twice: if the church they attended is weak on the Gospel, grace, and love, that church will hurt people on a regular basis. The Barna article only goes so far to address “insensitive and ignorant” actions. What about theological illiteracy? What about fashionable legalisms?
It’s wrong to make yourself vulnerable to certain groups, ideas, and beliefs when you are trying to heal. Just like it would be wrong for a woman to walk back down the same dark city street where she was once attacked; just like it would be wrong for the young man to return to the cult.
Furthermore, as Yale theologian Miroslav Volf rightly points out in The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World:
“As trauma literature consistently notes, the healing of wounded psyches involves not only remembering traumatic experiences; it must also include integrating the retrieved memories into a broader pattern of one’s life story, either by making sense of the traumatic experiences or by tagging them as elements gone awry in one’s life. Personal healing happens not so much by remembering traumatic events and their accompanying emotions as by interpreting memories and inscribing them into a larger pattern of meaning – stitching them into the patchwork quilt of one’s identity, as it were.
“For example, as I relive in memory the humiliation and pain of my interrogations by military police, I can tell myself that that suffering has made me a better person – say, in the way it has drawn me closer to God or made me more empathetic to sufferers. Or I can decide that my experience has contributed in some small way to exposing the injustice of a regime that controlled its citizens, curtailed their freedoms, and sacrificed their well-being out of a commitment to an unworkable ideology. In either case, healing will come about not simply by remembering but also by viewing the remembered experiences in a new light. Put more generally, the memory of suffering is a prerequisite for personal healing but not a means of healing itself. The means of healing is the interpretative work a person does with memory.”
I first found the Barna article via Kendall Harmon. Thank you, sir.