*By Jonathan Merritt
In 2010, Barna Group released a poll indicating that 4 out of 10 non-church Americans claim they do not attend due to negative experiences with churches or congregants. Seven years later, I doubt the numbers have improved. Countless Americans have been hurt by a church’s negative teachings, oppressive policies, immoral leaders, rigid expectations and misbehaving members.
But speaking of such matters has become taboo, creating a liability for religion writers like me. Some seem to believe that critiquing Christ’s church is the same as critiquing Christ. When I’ve engaged in the former, I’ve been called “hater,” “pessimist” and “whiner,” among other labels not suitable in print.
Maybe you’re like me. You love the church and have never left it. But you persist in belief that honesty is the only path to truth and confession opens the door to growth. If so, you need Carol Howard Merritt’s wonderful new book, “Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting With a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church.” She deals with how to share your suffering while healing from hurt.
Here we discuss the types of churches that inflict the most pain, how to heal, and of course, exactly how we are (not) related.
RNS: Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Explain to my readers exactly how we are related. I know it has to do with my Uncle Earnest’s second wife, but I can’t remember the details.
CHM: Over the years, people have asked me if I was your wife, sister or cousin. Alas, there is no immediate relation to my knowledge. Although, I think we should work out an honorary cousin agreement.
RNS: What are the most common spiritual wounds inflicted by churches today?
CHM: During my lifetime, it seems the most powerful damage the church inflicts has to do with gender and sexuality — when religion upholds complementarian gender roles, obsesses over purity culture or condemns LGBTQ relationships.
The judgment goes far beyond dirty looks when people try to attend a worship service. Christians work tirelessly to reduce access to birth control and dismantle vital health services for women. They launch powerful political campaigns to stop same-sex couples from entering into loving covenants. And churches encourage parents to reject their own sons and daughters, severing families in the most painful ways when they do not adhere to certain religious sexual norms. All of these diminish our faith until it shrinks into a regimen of behavior control at the expense of our most cherished relationships.
CHM: Augustine said that our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God. Most of us are spiritual people. We live with an innate understanding that we must connect with something larger than ourselves, that our lives will make more sense when we understand a greater purpose. Liberal thinkers identify this existential longing as a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Conservative Christians identify it as a “God-shaped vacuum.”
When a person has been spiritually wounded, that trauma carries the weight of God with it. The pain becomes entangled with our intimate knowledge of who God is, so we lose that link with something larger. When we try maintain this vital connection with God, we begin to think that God is the one who hurt us — so God must be cruel or perhaps we deserved punishment.
*Originally appeared 2/6/2017 in the On Faith & Culture section of Religion News Service.