How Do I Find a Safe Church after Leaving a Legalistic One?

Kelly-Jayne McGlynn | Crosswalk Contributor | Updated: Jun 21, 2023
How Do I Find a Safe Church after Leaving a Legalistic One?

How Do I Find a Safe Church after Leaving a Legalistic One?

It's no secret that younger generations are leaving the Church in droves –for all sorts of reasons. In her research, Sarah Margaret Vaughn cites spiritual wounds from exclusivity, inauthenticity, and dislike for the Church's involvement in politics, power, and money as the reason Millennials are leaving the Church. And if you are one of them but want to find a church community again, you may be asking, "How do I decide which church is right for me? How do I find a safe church?"

For anyone, when they've been burned by something – a relationship, a career path, or a church – it can feel overwhelming and scary to go back and try again with a different thing. And since the 2020 reckoning of faith that forced many young people to deconstruct and evaluate how social issues fit in with the bigger picture of their faith, there are many valid reasons to be filled with trepidation about finding a new church. Maybe you've had the time you needed to process your feelings about the organized church since then, and you know that while legalistic churches are harmful, our hearts were designed for community, and we need each other. The Bible is crystal clear on that. So how do you find a community that will help you spiritually – not harm you emotionally?

Here is the advice I would give to any young person that is in the process of finding a new church:

1. Evaluate a Potential Church as a Whole

In their book Safe People, authors Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend detail how to see red flags in unsafe people, find safe relationships and become a safe person yourself. They list nine characteristics of safe churches that would be extremely helpful for any Christian to read, not just those who are looking for a new church:

"Grace is preached from the pulpit and is the foundation for how people are to be treated."

Grace will be apparent in the church, not just in the sermons, but in how leaders and members treat each other and talk about people when they're not around.

"Truth is preached without compromise but also without a spirit of law and judgment."

The Gospel will not be watered down, and grace will not be cheap–but there is an emphasis on the Christian life as more than just sinning or trying not to sin.

"The church leaders are aware of their own weaknesses and need to grow and are open about their hurt, pain, failings and humanity. Instead of "having it all together" and being insulated from confrontation and change, they are in a process of healing and opening up to their own safe people for support and accountability."

This is probably the biggest thing to look for if you have experienced spiritual abuse before. Churches that have leaders who feel a) pressured to be perfect or b) pressure others to be perfect and are not open to input from regular non-leader members can be very dangerous. But if the leaders act like the normal people that they are and are full of humility, it should give you a ton of peace about the church you're in.

"The church uses small groups to touch people's lives, and sermons focus on community in the body of Christ as well as doctrine."

One of the biggest complaints from Millennials is that the Church is inauthentic. If the church has small groups or other ways that members are in each other's lives in a genuine way, that is a great sign that the church is safe and that love reigns.

"The culture is one of forgiven sinners, not self-righteous religious Pharisees."

This is another huge thing to look for if you have experienced spiritual abuse or legalism. We are all sinners and are all forgiven–there should be no hierarchy or pressure to be perfect.

"The church, instead of being a self-contained unit and thinking it has all the answers, is networked into the community, availing itself of input from other sources such as churches, professionals, and organizations."

No church should claim that it knows every secret of the cosmos – or knows exactly what a needy community needs. Humility will be obvious here.

"The teaching has a relational emphasis as well as a vertical one. Relationship between people is seen as part of spirituality as well as relationship to God."

The Body is meant to be a Body, after all! If the church focuses just on one or the other, that is a red flag.

"The teaching sees brokenness, struggle, and inability as normal parts of the sanctification process."

If a church ignores these facets of the Christian life, it means they don't go deep enough or that they aren't in touch with God's love and acceptance. Avoid it either way.

"There are opportunities to serve others through a variety of ministries."

This is another great sign that a church is in each other's lives and in the lives of the community in a genuine way.

Have this list pulled up on your phone the next Sunday that you go to visit a church. You may not be able to check every box just by sitting through a lesson, but you'll see a lot if you are looking for it! For every question you don't have answered, ask some friendly members around you what they think.

This list is a great starting point. Here are other things to look out for:

2. Pay Attention to How Your Body Feels When You're There

God has gifted our bodies with an amazing alarm system. It knows when something is not right. But the tricky thing with spiritual abuse is that it teaches you to shut down the part of you that listens when your body is saying, "Hey! This isn't safe! Get me out of here!"

In their podcast about spiritual abuse, Christian therapist Dan Allender and trauma practitioner Rachael Clinton Chen share about this dynamic. Chen wisely says:

"...spiritual abuse is inherently bodily... And the biggest thing is this kind of built in, you can't trust your body. Your body is deceitful, your body is sinful, your body is a liar, I'm your spiritual authority, you can't trust, you know, your doubts, your questions, where anything that you actually feel and in some ways where your body is actually being a good truth teller, is being reinterpreted to you as something wrong with you. Something out of line with you, something that's actually threatening the powers."

When spiritual abuse has shut down your natural truth-telling systems, it can be hard to trust your gut again. But you can heal this, and you can tune into this system again when you are trying a new church.

In the same way you feel physically at ease or physically on alert when you are with your family or a group of coworkers or in a new relationship, you can pay attention to these signs when you visit a new church, too.

God gave us our bodies for many incredible reasons! And one of those is to give you information about whether a situation is safe or not. Listen to it.

3. Discern If You Can Both Give and Be Given To

If you've been in a legalistic church before, you may have heard advice like "Bloom where you're planted" or "Go with where the need is" when discussing the possibility of moving to a new church. Of course, there is goodness and truth to this. We should try and make the best of any situation, and we should make sure that we're not just escaping to somewhere where we can be lazy.

But God also created the church to be a beautiful ecosystem of people giving and people receiving, and then those who are receiving giving right back. We can't enact any of the 59 "one another" scriptures in the Bible if there is no one to receive what we are giving! So it's good to look for opportunities where you can be given to at a new church as well.

You are a human with needs. That is good. God created you that way so that someone could have the opportunity to give!

Especially if you are limping into a new church, it's okay if you're not signing up to be a leader any time soon. We all go through seasons where our needs and capacities change.

So look for ways that you can give in joyful ways, and also look for ways that you can be given to. Are there small groups with people your age? Are there groups that participate in or discuss things you're interested in? Is there an overall feeling that others are hospitable, warm, and inviting, or does everyone seem stressed and overwhelmed?

If there is at least one gift you feel like you can share and one way you think the church will meet your heart's needs right back, then that is a great start.

4. Pray for God's Guidance

There are a million places God could have led you to go to college, but he put a few on your heart and helped you pick the best one. There are billions of people that could have been your spouse, but God made it clear who would be the best match. In the same way, there are thousands of churches you could attend – especially now that so many churches meet virtually – but God will lead you to the right one!

Asking for God's discernment is always the wisest first thing to do.

Proverbs 3:6 tells us to "in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."

Pray for God to lead you to the right conversations, the right sermons, the right small groups and the right events for this decision to become clear. Trust that God is your kind, loving Father, who created you for relationships to begin with. He knows how scared you are, but he also knows how important this is for your spiritual health. He's not going to remain silent on this one!

"If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you." James 1:5

God wants you to thrive spiritually way more than you do. Ask for his wisdom, and he will make it clear!

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: ©GettyImages/DedMityay

Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at She sees the act of expression, whether through writing or art, as a way to co-create with God and experience him deeper. Check out her handmade earrings on Instagram and her website for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.

How Do I Find a Safe Church after Leaving a Legalistic One?