A great challenge for folks who have had a bad church experience is how to recover from it and move forward. Sometimes folks feel very alone. Former friends often abandon you. You feel like you might have even made a mistake (Certainly everyone who stays in your former affiliation will try to get you to think so). The sense of hurt and betrayal can at times be paralyzing.
Obviously, our Father is for us and grieves over what we may have experienced and desires a fruitful future going forward. There is a human-psychological-relational element in every spiritual reality. Extraction from, or recovery from a bad church experience is no exception. Sometimes, just understanding what is happening in me, and around me during a season of painful transition can be of great help to both provide light in that season and shorten it as well!
Change is inescapably woven into the fabric of life. Social scientists tell us that 66% of humanity temperamentally dislikes and resists change. That’s a setup for some issues! The resist-change percentage is even higher in “religious” environments. When we believe we’ve found the absolutely right “it” (whatever “it” may be) we will cling to it like hungry dog to a piece of meat. Since the Christian life is characterized by change (2Cor. 3:18) it’s as futile for a Christian to try to maintain the status quo as it is for winter to rage against spring. Resist if you want to. It doesn’t matter. Change is coming. Navigating change in our souls and relationships can be one of the biggest challenges of the Christian life.
Transitioning out of a church, a fellowship, an organization, or a belief system in which one has been emotionally, relationally, spiritually, or financially invested for years is one of the most difficult seasons a believer can experience. Calling it a “transition” is like calling Hiroshima a “slight bombing.” Trauma is more like it. The trauma is sometimes compounded by distorted teachings regarding covenant, commitment, loyalty, authority, submission, etc. In those situations, making such a change is morally equated with Stalinist genocide. A. T. Robertson said one proof that the Bible is inspired is that it has withstood so much bad teaching. He had a point.
Obedience to biblical principles regarding the correct way to conduct myself in transition does not necessarily guarantee things will be easy on my soul or in my relationships. My obedience is not an impenetrable trauma shield when others are involved. Obedience is my reasonable service and the necessary platform for redemptive opportunity, not the guarantee of immunity from pain.
Understanding that there are distinct stages of transition that everyone experiences in some degree, can help us understand ourselves, and others, thereby maximizing the hope of a redemptive outcome of the inevitable. Let’s look at them.
5 Stages in Recovering from a Bad Church Experience
A soup company once had a motto of “Mmmmm . . . good.” When life is good, savor it. Sometimes in our pursuit of the ideal future we forget that it’s all right to enjoy the imperfect today. It’s “ok” to be “ok.” Prophetic, hard charging, or high-calling folk can be particularly vulnerable to seeing only that which must be changed at the expense of that which can be enjoyed. Corrie Ten Boom described the condition of the Church like a piece of embroidery. From the bottom it’s a mess, but from the top it’s a work of art—at the same time.
The Church is disastrously wonderful and wonderfully disastrous. In the early stages of a transition there can be a tendency to see our past or present as wholly disastrous. Maybe circumstantially it is, but when swallowed up in redemptive resurrection power, it’s transformed into our redemptive history for the purposes of God and the benefit of humanity. It becomes a wondrous disaster–just like the greater Church that is a collection of wondrous disasters–people like you and me!
In order to experience change, there must be some element of discontent with the present. Divine discontent is the energy of change. Discontinuity begins when questions arise that cause us to disconnect with former belief systems. The old belief systems and associations simply no longer “work” or satisfy. This is often accompanied by severe internal and external conflicts. We can’t deny the impulse to an unknown future, but we fear leaving familiar places and faces. Often we can’t even explain to others the root of our discontent. This puts strain on our relationships.
You begin to question yourself: What is wrong with me? Why am I the only one having difficulties? Why can’t I express myself? Why don’t people understand me? How could I have been so stupid to believe_______? Why did I agree with ______? Why did I let “them” do that to me? Why did I agree with that?
At this time the enemy will also attempt to ally with our fears of what we’ve never done as a way of keeping us from receiving what we’ve never received. Our critics will join this chorus. Be of good cheer. All this is faith. It’s being Abrahamic. He left everything not knowing where he was going, looking for a city he had never seen and couldn’t explain. We’re in good company. People staying in Ur really have nothing to say to those on a journey looking for an invisible city.
3. EXTRACTION – DISEMBEDDING
At this stage an individual begins to withdraw: physically emotionally, and spiritually. You try to make things work for the sake of maintaining lifelong relationships, but you just can’t. You will go through the motions, sit in meetings, and behave yourself, all in the hope that that you will find acceptance, only to discover that no matter how nice everyone tries to be, it doesn’t work . . . for anyone.
It’s like a pregnant woman’s wardrobe. Her old clothes are not “bad” clothes. They just can’t accommodate her new condition. That’s the way it is with us. The germ of new life makes it impossible to fit into yesterday’s clothes. Our past is not necessarily bad. It just doesn’t fit anymore. A man cannot know what it’s like to be pregnant. He lacks the necessary equipment. He can be sensitive, caring and try to be understanding, but bottom line, he cannot know. Individuals who are not feeling the impulse of the germ of new life (which is a GIFT to us, the planting of Another) simply cannot understand us. They are not bad people. They simply don’t have faculty to understand . . . yet.
It’s common for people who remain where we have been to resent our change. Our departure is unavoidably a statement about the present not being satisfactory in some way. This puts folks who are happy with the present, or who may have an illicit reason or vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the present, into a difficult situation. Legitimately or not, they feel judged as deficient by the mere fact of our departure. The ability to maintain relationship when a fellow believer embarks on a journey we do not understand is a fairly reliable barometer of spiritual maturity. Too often, not “like” us degenerates into not “with” us. This is unfortunate. This is a season for the cream of spiritual maturity to rise to the top: love, tolerance, forgiveness, patience, non-judgmentalism, and a “wait and see” attitude.
At this stage individuals are usually out of the formal systems and relationships, but the former values are not out of them. This is the most dangerous and delusional stage of transition. Typically our subjective evaluation of where we are spiritually is not in touch with reality. Having understanding of a matter is not the same as possessing the life of a matter. Light(revelation/understanding) in us, must become life in us, before it can become lightin others. We cannot go from light to light. The kingdom doesn’t work that way.
At this stage we tend to be in reaction against the old rather than living in the new. We tend to see no value in our past. We often feel like those years were wasted. Of course this is just practical unbelief (do all things work together for good or not?) and is part of our delusion. We think we’re enlightened in some new way when we’re just in reaction to our past. It’s ok, to leave the cradle. It’s not ok to kick it on the way out and curse the hands that rocked it.
This is a very critical season. You simply cannot build a profitable future in God by merely being against something, or God forbid, someone. There can be a legitimate season of tearing down the old (Jer. 1:10), but you simply cannot camp there and expect to live abundantly in God.
During this stage our attitudes and behaviors most closely resemble those of a reformed smoker or reformed alcoholic. A crusading zealousness for the new thing, new understanding, new perspective, new association pretty much contaminates everything we do. We begin to believe that anyone who is truly sincere and committed should be able to understand that our new place is the best and only “place” that anyone who is serious or conscientious should be. We will be quick to cut off and separate from others who don’t jump on board with us as being spiritually inferior in some way.
Rarely can this season be avoided. It has been my subjective experience that it is quite an incubating Holy Spirit hot house. It can take as long as a few months to six years to really clear this stage and come to a healthy place through forgiveness of others, and ourselves. It takes a mature fellow traveler to love us and stay with us during this reactionary season while we are spewing death thinking we are in life. It is so critical to know one another in Christ, to know a man by his heart, not his actions, in a sense, knowing another deeper than he knows himself, which is exactly the heart of God toward all of us. When our actions betray our heart, it takes a patient and wise friend to not cut us loose.
Because of God’s great faithfulness and with the help of fellow travelers, the miracle of miracles is that even this death will be turned to life before the transition process is over.
5. RESURRECTION LIFE
We go for broke. We embrace reformation. We make the change . . . fully. We accept the cost, inconvenience, and misunderstanding that comes with making a change. We stop crusading and start living. Even when our own carnality in pursuit of what we think we are seeing would render us useless to Him, He preserves us. We become the incarnation of what we have seen, rather than a parrot for what we think we know. What previously we held in various degrees of reaction has become, in us, food fit for consumption by others by an inwrought work of grace.
An abusive church experience need not define us as individuals, nor determine our future in Christ going forward. Recovering from a bad church experience is possible. There is healing, hope, life, love, liberty and power for you going forward. If we do not allow the Spirit of the Lord, and normally a new set of human relationships to touch our pain and heal us, the likelihood of sliding into debilitating bitterness and unforgiveness, is very high. It does not have to be so for you. God can redeem our pain and make it the seedbed of effective ministry to others who are in similar situations, and to help others who may not be in similar situations, avoid them!
We hope that many of the articles on this blog as well as the resources and partnering opportunities at www.stevecrosby.com will help you move past your past!
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