Updated: Sep 16, 2021
By Andrena Sawyer
I’ve been in the church almost all my life. I know the nuances, rituals and the expectations. I am confident that I can walk into many church services and explain to a new church attendee the appropriate times to stand up, sit down, talk back to the preacher, and clap their hands. Most of the rituals are recognizable and beautiful as they reflect a collective commitment to a journey that’s not always easy. When I shout back “amen” as the preacher gets riled up, it’s because he’s speaking to a situation that I’m currently in, or found myself in at some point. I can assume the same for most of the people around me, and I appreciate that shared experience. Here’s what I don’t appreciate: for some reason, we don’t like to talk about some of the ugliness that comes with these rituals and nuances. The recent passing of Eddie Long led me down a path of exploring this too familiar topic.
Let’s be honest, church folks can be some of the meanest, most vindictive, gossipy, envious and manipulative people in the world. Church hurt works because of the double-edged sword known as grace. By grace, we have been saved, and by grace, we know we will be forgiven. The funny thing about grace is, once we begin to understand it, it is only the love of God Himself that will keep us from abusing it.
I used to joke with my friends that some of the worst men I’ve ever dated were Christian men. For some reason, the boys I dated in my missionary dating days appeared humbler, more gracious and more devoted. Same is true with my friendships with women—the un-churched were, many times, more friendly, less judgmental, and less eager to celebrate a misfortune. It bothered me, and to be honest, sometimes it still bothers me. In the church, I’ve seen or been victim to abuse of position, manipulation, sexual abuse, crowd-think or mafia culture, bullying, sabotage and too many other things to list. Beyond the actions, what hurt the most was the source of the action—brethren who are supposed to be connected to me by what we believe is thicker than the blood flowing through our veins.
I went through a season some time ago when the weight of church hurt almost crippled me. I remember visiting a good friend of mine who unknowingly shed some light. Apparently, she had been a victim, and so had I….for years, and didn’t even know it. As we talked, it was like my eyes were open for the first time, and the shock of daylight after a long night hit me. It explained why people I knew who were once zealots for the gospel said they no longer believed. It was also why those who once danced in church services questioned the existence of One they used to passionately cry out to. That moment hurt, and I began to wrestle with God. In my wrestling, I came away with a few things.
Church people sometimes hurt each other because church people are people. Hurt people hurt people, and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We expect better of church folks because we misalign our expectations.
Contrary to what some believe, church folks have never been God, and they will never be. That revelation humbled me, in a good way. It didn’t take away the hurt, but it loosened my expectations, especially when I think about ways I may have inflicted church hurt myself—knowingly and unknowingly. The truth is, there is one perfect savior. This doesn’t excuse recklessness with our words or actions, but it strengthens me to hold someone accountable when they want to enforce their man-made rules, or when they want to inflict their unhealed hurts on me. It makes me think about 1 Peter 4:10, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
Recognizing the source of church hurt strengthens me to move forward with a hopeful perspective. I now understand that others are merely working out their salvation in the same way that I am doing. It also allows me to fix my eyes on Jesus—the author and finisher of my faith.
Church folks are not God. Truth be told, some church folks aren’t even Christians. That understanding allows me to walk in freedom, victory, and a laser-sharp focus on the only One whose opinion matters.
If you have been a victim of church hurt, I pray you find the grace to walk in the freedom of forgiveness today. If you've been a perpetrator, I pray you find the strength to walk in humility to acknowledge any damage you may have caused.
Our ultimate devotion is not to be perfect people (here on earth), but to be a reflection of a divine work that is continuously unfolding in our hearts.
Andrena Sawyer is the President of P.E.R.K. Consulting, and the Founder of the Minority Christian Women Entrepreneurs Network. In addition to her work with nonprofits and small businesses, she leads workshops on personal and professional development for women across the country. She is the author of The Long Way Home, Ponder It In Her Heart, and The Other Side of Assertiveness.
Follow her on twitter or Instagram @Andrena_Sawyer