Why one rotten church experience can spoil the whole bunch (and some ideas for how churches can help change that)
How many times have you heard a Christian say: "I'm sorry you had a bad experience at your church but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater"? I understand where these (usually) well-meaning people are coming from: they don't want you to miss out on something good; which is to say, something that has been really great for them. But their words are not only shaming, they are ignorant. As in, literally ignorant.
Let me explain. There's a scientific explanation for what happens to some people when they are subjected to painful/harmful experiences. And I think it applies to some of us who can no longer tolerate church. It's called stimulus generalization (yes, I'm learning lots of stuff in my college psychology class and the connections I'm making to real-world situations is SO MUCH AWESOME, thanks for asking).
Here's what stimulus generalization looks like:
Imagine that as a child you were bitten by a big dog. Before this experience, you may have had a favorable/neutral view of big dogs but after being bitten, you feared them. And eventually, this fear spread to all dogs. No matter how many times other people told you that THEIR dog wasn't dangerous or that THEIR dog was friendly or not to "throw the baby...er, dogs...out with the bathwater," you still experienced an involuntary fear reaction upon seeing a dog. Just hearing a dog bark aggressively might scare you. This is stimulus generalization.
Stimulus generalization doesn't happen to everyone. Some people are more resilient than others. Some personalities are less prone to anxiety. Some bad experiences are more traumatic than others. I'm guessing that the more trauma there is around the negative experience—let's say you were chased by a big dog, then bitten, then had to walk home bleeding—the more likely that trauma is gonna stick with you.
When we've had a horrible experience, it's normal (and GOOD!) to be wary/fearful of similar situations and to avoid them.
Now, let's apply the idea of stimulus generalization to a church context.
For those of us who have had bad/traumatic experiences with churches or church-people, we may develop an aversion to All Things Church. The problem is that we are often shamed by other Christians for not being able to "get over" our bad experience. But as stimulus generalization demonstrates, our wariness is not an issue of sin. It is not an issue of rebellion or allowing "bitterness" in our hearts. It is, quite simply, a normal, biological response.
If you have a fear of dogs, can you imagine someone telling you that you need to confess your grudge against dogs? Or saying you need to repent of bitterness? Can you imagine someone telling you that you need to forgive the dog that bit you—or worse, turn the other cheek?
Of course not! And yet, this happens ALL THE TIME in a church context.
So, let's go back to the dog biting analogy. Maybe after many years have passed, we decide we'd like to be able to have an enjoyable—or, at least, SAFE—experience with dogs.
So, we decide to expose ourselves to friendly dogs in a controlled, safe environment with dog-owners we trust. This is process de-conditions our fear response because we are building new, positive associations and memories with dogs.
The catch is that this needs to be OUR decision. If someone else is pressuring us to to "get over" our fear of dogs, the healing/de-conditioning process will likely backfire.
Now, back to the church issue: it's even harder to get over a bad church experience because there are so few safe environments in which to do this. I mean, there are lots of loving, responsible dog owners whom we might meet throughout the course of our lives. But how many safe, accepting, sympathetic and affirming churches do we come across? Not many.
And even if we DO find a church where we feel safe, there are very few people and pastors who are knowledgeable about spiritual abuse and know how to care for us.
If Christians want to be known by our love for one another, then WE MUST PRIORITIZE caring for our own wounded.
We need churches that are well-trained in "spiritual abuse triage," so to speak. We need safe communities that are knowledgeable about "religious wound-care." We need hospitals for victims of spiritual abuse.
If churches really want to help those of us who have been hurt by bad churches, then they must be willing to do one major thing:
LET US REST
We are not going to join your Bible Studies or bring a casserole to your potluck. We probably won't even attend the potluck (because we'd rather not break out in hives).
Here's the thing, if churches want to be welcoming places for wounded Christians, they must take off all the pressure and expectations. Just the fact that a wounded Christian is showing up at your church at all is a MAJOR BIG DEAL. Don't ask for anything more.
SOME IDEAS FOR CREATING SAFE SPACES IN CHURCH:
- FOLDING CHAIRS NEAR EXITS: Many of us will arrive late (to avoid the nerve-wracking chit-chat) and leave early (for the same reason). We need a quick n' easy entrance and exit strategy. We don't want the ushers marching us to the front of the church where there are two empty spaces in the middle of the second row. HELLO PANIC ATTACK. Grant us the kindness of easy access.
- NEVER EVER DRAW ATTENTION TO US: some churches like to "welcome the visitor" and this can be intensely stressful for us. Please don't ask us to stand so the church can applaud us for visiting. Please don't ask personal questions if we happen to stay long enough for you to greet us. Grant us the courtesy of observation without the pressure to perform or participate.
- LET US BE VISITORS FOR AS LONG AS WE LIKE: in many churches there is pressure to "plug in" and "get connected." For those of us who have experienced spiritual abuse, it is much safer for us to NOT plug-in. Let us retain our Visitor status indefinitely. Maybe we'll always arrive late and leave early (thanks for the folding chairs by the exits). Let this be OK. Let there never be side-remarks or "encouragement" to join small groups/serve/volunteer. Grant us the freedom to decide when/if/how we want to become more involved.
- LET US TITHE ANONYMOUSLY: we might put a few dollars in the basket but we don't want to fill out those little offering envelopes with our name, address, phone number, email address, etc. We don't want to give you our bank information. Let this be OK. Let us tithe privately. In fact, let it be OK if we never tithe (we probably already gave thousands of dollars to the other church that hurt us). Grant us your trust, believing that how we handle our finances is between us and God and not a matter for church scrutiny.
- KINDNESS: so many of us come from church backgrounds that were unkind, judgmental, condemning, accusatory, gossipy and performance-based. Kindness goes a long way. A caveat, here: please don't be offended if at first we are suspicious of your kind gestures. We are all too familiar with Christians whose kindness comes with strings attached. It's not personal. We're just protecting ourselves. But if you keep showing up with kindness and without expectation, we will notice. Grant us unconditional love and acceptance and maybe, just maybe, we will feel safe enough to release our fears and free enough to love you back.