It's no secret that the evangelical church is in the middle of a reckoning when it comes to the membership of younger generations. I don't want to start this article out with a handful of depressing statistics about how many people are leaving the church. I want to start out by saying I get it – I understand why. Spiritual abuse is a very real tragedy that many have faced at the hands of the church. But I'd also like to say that there may be a middle ground. Maybe there is a way not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe there is hope for the evangelical churches being a safe environment for younger generations, hope that they can thrive together.
I have personally left a church that I felt to be spiritually abusive. But I haven't left the Church. Believe me, I thought about it. When I sat in the congregation during fearful, condemning sermons that made me bristle with anger. When I had friends receive harsh discipling that completely missed the point of grace, even when they were going through incredible personal suffering. When every Scripture, no matter what it was, felt oppressive because of all the twisted ways it had been used to make me feel unworthy, dirty, or in danger of losing God's love. I definitely thought about leaving the Church. But certain convictions kept me on a path that I believe was best for me spiritually and kept me from reacting only out of bitterness and hurt – even if I did leave the particular church that I felt was harming me. Here are three reasons why I still am part of the evangelical church (for now).
1. The Bible Makes It Clear That We Are Meant for Community
I share this reason first because it was the loudest thought that rang in my head whenever I would think about leaving altogether. It is undeniable. We. Were. Built. For. Community.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in continual community with each other, and we were made in God's image. From the garden, we see that God himself is so incredibly relational. God even declares of Adam that "it is not good for man to be alone" (Gen 2:18). The phrase "one another" occurs 100 times in the New Testament, and the phrase "brothers and sisters" appears even more than that. The 27 epistles are written to churches, not to individuals.
Romans 12:5 tells us that "so in Christ, we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." Jesus implores his disciples in John 15: "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends" (v. 12-13).
And the longest prayer from Jesus that was recorded in all of the gospels was specifically for the church's unity: "My prayer is not for [the apostles] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you" (see John 17 for the whole passage).
Jesus knew that because humans were made in God's image, we are also deeply relational. This means that cutting ourselves off from community means cutting ourselves off from our true nature, our very selves – the glorious being that God created us to be.
It is clear from Scripture that it isn't just community that humans need; it is spiritual community. Community that builds each other up according to everyone's needs. So as anxious as I felt in the church that I was a part of, I knew that to leave the spiritual community altogether would be deadly to my relationship with God.
I'm not saying that leaving an unhealthy or abusive community isn't a valid stop along the way on some people's spiritual journeys – it can be a very necessary one for some people's healing. But it cannot be the final destination. Our spirits wouldn't survive it.
As I held that conviction close to my heart, there was another truth that I kept telling myself over and over:
2. The People That Hurt Me Don't Constitute the Entire Church, and They're Certainly Not God
While I was transitioning from my old church and considering a new one, I went through a period where when I thought of "the Church," I only thought of people who had twisted my view of God. And, of course, that made me want to run far away in the other direction from a spiritual community.
So, I had to constantly tell myself that although people in the church had hurt me, they did not make up the entire church.
There were still so, so many people whose faith I admired and who I desired to be in fellowship with. In fact, many people I know are repenting of exactly the kind of mindset that had been causing me harm.
I kept a mental list of these people and would intentionally bring their faces to mind whenever thinking of "the Church" made me anxious. I had to remind myself that just because some members of the church might not be taking responsibility or open to change, that didn't mean that nobody was.
It was also so helpful to remember that not a single one of these people, safe or not, was God.
One of the most healing practices I ever did was to sit down and write out every spiritual abuse I could remember. I wrote down every untruth that rang through my head years later, every harsh discipling time, every person that I felt harmed by. I don't even think I intended to heal anything at that moment – I was just trying to let out the poison and make sense of why I felt so triggered by my church setting. But God did something so loving as I scrolled down that long list: he just simply told me, "None of these people are me."
It was so freeing. That practice helped calm down automatic reactions that I had towards leadership or the church and allowed me to separate the twisted god that was presented to me and the true, loving God that I desperately wanted to know.
If you're in a similar boat, I recommend that you do the same! Write down every abuse, and then write down what you know to be true of God. See what a stark difference there is and be set free.
The final reason that I am still in the evangelical church is that I was fortunate to find a church that has helped heal past abuses rather than cause more.
3. I Joined a Church That Makes Me Feel Safe and Heard
Everyone's journey to spiritual health and spiritual healing is different. The same way that in some dysfunctional families, it's best to stay in them and fight to change unhealthy patterns and dynamics, but in others, it's best to protect yourself from those relationships altogether – so it is with our unique needs and decisions for where we attend church, or if we do at all, for the time being.
For me, I was able to join a church that was a breath of fresh air from the toxic environment I had been experiencing.
I believe that God opened a door for me to leave my former church and move to a new city and join a new church family. It was a smaller congregation, with leaders that were much more accessible and much more grace-centered than what I was used to. It was so obvious from just a few visits, before I even moved, that the church had deep bonds with each other and families that were deeply committed to being in community for the long haul.
I had a few friends already there who could tell me their own experiences and share what they did and didn't like about the church so that I could make an informed decision.
I have been a member there for a little over a year now, and I know it much better. I'm still wrestling with the idea that I know that the evangelical church has, intentionally or not, hurt a great deal of people, many of my close friends, and it makes it hard to feel completely comfortable here, being a part of it. Even if I am trying to change its culture, it's still not a comfortable place to be. My understanding of God and the gospel is ever-evolving, so I'll never be able to say for sure that I'll be with one school of thought forever.
But something that struck me recently is that I shared a podcast about spiritual abuse with my woman's leader and told her I wanted to talk about it. Instead of immediately getting defensive or telling me that every church leader has good intentions or questioning my spirituality, she simply texted back, "Just listened to it. Looking forward to seeing you tonight :)." That single text made me feel so heard, and our conversation later at my favorite coffee shop only underlined that.
She laid out for me exactly how she and her husband were combating very specific ways that they had seen spiritual abuse in our church's culture. She shared her own experiences with spiritual abuse and what helped her to heal. And probably most importantly, she validated every experience I shared of my own.
It wasn't a conversation that would convince me to stay with the evangelical church no matter what. But it was a conversation that gave me hope – hope that people are listening, they are waking up, the true gospel is being preached, and God is working.
To know that I need community and that my community needs me, that the people who have hurt me in the past do not make up the entire Church, and that there are churches out there that are safe and open to change is what I need for now to feel confident that I am where God wants me to be.
I feel wholly allowed to evaluate that changing, as with any other category in life. But God currently has me in the evangelical church, so I'm going to do what I can to change it.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Kadirdemir
Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at Crosswalk.com. 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 earring Instagram and Etsy for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.