As a millennial pastor I must be a student of my own generation if I am going to reach it. What I am learning is that too many of us have a similar tale to tell.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
“The Church is Hurting People” is the name of a 2019 album by Christian metal band “The Blamed”. The album title will obviously cause two reactions. You may read it as an accusation, and that is partially intentional. However, it was also intended to be a way of identifying the Church as lead singer Jeff Locke noted on the first track “Hurting People are welcome here”: “The Church is hurting people, I am hurting, so I go to Church.” It is possible to affirm both prepositions and denounce one as “not the way it should be” and uphold the other, “exactly right.” The Church has done great harm as Five Iron Frenzy made clear in their 2021 release, “Until This Shakes Apart’, which I reviewed in January. This is a reality we must be willing to acknowledge and learn about the ways we have done harm to people’s lives, both with wrong doctrine and practice and wrong practice of good doctrine. If your bent as a Christian is that you are not willing to acknowledge that there is a serious problem, then you probably should not read the rest of this article. However, if you are, if you are willing to let the Church be a place where hurting people can come and find the healing and grace of God, then keep reading. This article is for you.
I am writing this because as I interact with other saints in my generation, I am noticing a very disturbing trend that is more visible with every deconstruction-reconstruction story that comes across my Twitter feed or I hear from a conversation with another millennial Christian. That trend is that for almost every Christian who has been through the journey of moving from deconstruction to reconstruction there is trauma involved that either triggered the deconstruction process or contributed in some way to it. The same is true with those who leave the faith altogether, like the girl who marries the abusive husband who the church she went to held up as a hero of the faith and then persecutes her when she comes forward about the abuse. For this article though, I only want to focus on the people who remain in the faith. David Kinnamen at Barna has tracked this trend in “You Lost Me” and gives the Church wisdom to help young people come back into the Church.
Take my own story: Most of you know that I was the victim of a spiritually and emotionally abusive pastor in high school. Most of you know that I really have no earthly reason to be a pastor or even a member of a congregation at all. I had no intention of doing so. I was going to do inner-city parachurch for the rest of my life. I wanted nothing to do with the Church. I do understand now that Christ did not intend it that way, but in my trauma, I wanted nothing to do with the Church. It was so bad that when I started attending First Baptist Church in Lyons Kansas my senior year of college a friend of mine commented: “Jonathan, I am surprised you have darkened the doors of the church again, let alone a Baptist Church.” While I did not ultimately stay in the American Baptist Church, (I am ordained CCCC), the first Church I pastored was a little ABC Church in Stafford Kansas.
But again, my story is not unique, nor is it as bad as it can get. Emotional and spiritual abuse are blights on the Church, but so are the girls who went through the process of deconstruction and reconstruction because of a sexual assault or rape or sexual harassment by a pastor or male elder in the Church, who then watched as coming forward only brought them shame and guilt while their abuser not only maintained a post the Bible says he should be removed from, was defended, and propped up by the Church, the girl’s story and testimony being deemed “false” before evidence was even considered. Or the girl was ostracized and kicked out of the congregation for “lying” even when the evidence was indisputably in her favor. We do not think this happens, but take a look at the report of RZIM and the text messages and phone calls, or the text messages that John Crist’s accuser released to the internet. In the case of RZIM, while the organization wrestles with what to do, some are still calling the women liars. These are just the high-profile cases, like the Catholic Churches sexual abuse scandals leaving young boys who are permanently affected because of what priests did to them. But this has happened in small town churches across the country, like a church in New Hampshire that required the girl to publicly apologize for what was done to her.
The Church has also hurt people by the way it has acted in the public square. Ask yourself, is the girl who receives an abortion going to want to come to church as the woman wearing the: “Jesus died for your baby” shirt screams “MURDERER” at her from behind the picket line? What about the young boy who struggles with his identify? The five people who died in the Capitol Riot that was orchestrated by Christian Nationalists and was replete with Christian Symbolism are permanently gone, but many more have injuries both emotional and physical that will haunt them forever. No matter how much the church may try to memory-hole these things, they really happened, and they are doing ongoing, serious damage to the church and her reputation among both Gen Y and Gen Z.
The Church has hurt and is hurting people, but that does not mean we are without hope.
I say that, because something else is happening, and it is specific to those who have experienced deconstruction and reconstructed back into Christianity. Most have had some sort of supernatural experience either in the Church or outside of it, that has drawn them back to Christ at the crucial moment. Long time readers will know that this is what I experienced, on the ide of that mountain, praying that Labyrinth in Colorado during my semester in Denver. I am not sure I would have remained a believer going into my junior year of college had I not had that experience. I do want to guard against mere experientialism, to go beyond that, these seem to be acts of wondrous grace where God acts in a way that we were not expecting in a way that showed us where He was in the trauma and what He is doing now. Or, where he drew us to himself on our last whit’s end, when we were ready to leave the church and something happened and we just had to open up our bibles and read.
Because while trauma is common among deconstruction stories, it seems that supernatural experience is becoming more and more common among those who reconstruct back into Christianity. My story, as odd as it may seem to old Christians, seems to be more and more common among believers my age. It seems that it is becoming more and more common that, if you’re still a believer, you have had some sort of supernatural encounter with God Himself.
Theologically, this is what we should expect to happen in a church culture that has abandoned the Gospel and the historical methods by which it has been passed down (catechesis, teaching by example, etc.), in favor of an easy answer Christianity, or Christian Nationalism or whatever fancy is tickling the ears of the people. It should deeply concern us that this is happening because it means that the clergy class and the older generations have, in major ways, failed to properly teach and pass down the faith and have been the reason that so many younger Christians have left the church to begin with. The trauma in these stories has been caused by Christians who have not used the positions God gave them to build up the building, but instead to glorify their flesh. What is tragic, is that sometimes these men have done great work and then we find out they were sexually abusing women or inappropriately sexting. (By the way, if you missed yesterday’s podcast, take a listen to my conversation with Katie Mason about the RZIM report.) Now, it is not to say this has not always been 100% true 100% of the time. There have been great men and women of faith who have never been in the public spotlight or who have not sought it, but found it, who have been amazing advocates and teachings and leaders. But I am increasingly ware of how rare these saints are.
But God always has a way. Grace is always present for the life of the believer, and when God has a call on your life, He is going to reach you. If you are His, truly His, He is not going to let you slip out of his hand. So, what I think is happening in a very practical way is real-world application of John 10, where the sheep know the masters voice and the thief cannot steal anyone out of The Father’s Hand. Is it possible that these supernatural experiences are acts of grace performed to show the disillusioned individual that God is still there? It should also be noted that a majority of these experiences are happening to younger people not in the Pre-Christian Coasts, though I am sure they do, but the majority of the stories I have heard have come from the Midwest and South where Christianity is still a dominate social force, despite being in an ever-quickening decline. Christians in Pre-Christian parts of the country seem to have found communities that are willing to let them work though the trauma and walk with them through it, watch out for them and watch over them. That is, of course, how the Body of the Christ is supposed to act, it is supposed to be a place where trauma can be expressed and experienced and where healing can come through the corporate body acting as and pointing the hurting individual to Christ. After Rachel and I lost our baby in 2018, we were amazed at how the community at the seminary rallied around us, it was completely different than anything I ever experienced in the days following my brain injury when a lot of the help I received was a means of anonymous and uncounted on grace. I have seen this dynamic play out in several threads on Twitter, it’s rather amazing.
Grace is a wonderful thing, but I think it should shock us to hear stories of people who have remained within the Church and Christianity in general. Precisely because it means that there has been a fundamental failure on the church to do a couple of things. 1.Hold our leaders accountable for their actions that have harmed others. 2. Take seriously the trauma of men and women who have been hurt by the people we refuse to hold accountable (and even apologize for). 3. Preach and teach the full Gospel based on the whole of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation and with that, 4. Catechize and instruct our kids in the faith in a way that teaches both emotional maturity and apologetics. 5. Engage the culture with the winsome love of Jesus rather than making everything either political or a culture war. Christians have a hard time admitting that we have done wrong, and there is a lot of shame around confession of sin in modern Christian Culture. In ancient Christianity though, confession and repentance from sin was celebrated. It was expected that those who made confessions of faith, commit to the life that was transformed by Jesus Christ. This was seen as a freeing experience, and there was no shame attached to it, just assurance that in making the confession, one was assured of forgiveness and could now live free from habitual sin. Today, instead of repentance, we hide behind excuses, and instead of contrition, we have reasons we needed to do it. And then we turn around and wonder why public trust of the Church stands just above the U.S Congress (which currently stands at 7% nationally).
With this, there is also a propensity to see any type of trauma response as weakness. We expect Christians to “toughen it up and get over it.” Mostly so we do not have to deal with the trauma of other image bearers. I preached a sermon after George Floyd’s death last year in which I compared the phrase Black Lives Matter to Bartimaeus call for Jesus healing touch in Mark 10. The parallel is that both Bartimaeus and BLM are crying out for healing because of trauma. We can have disagreements about how that is accomplished, but we must recognize it as a trauma response. Jonathan Metzl in his groundbreaking book “Dying of Whiteness” points out that the increase in gun and opiate deaths in poor, rural white communities is also a cry that comes from a trauma response. That the world is crying out for God and groaning and that groaning needs to be heard by the Church, not ignored. America, at least on the street level, is a traumatized nation. We are traumatized by our history, traumatized by our present and certain we will be traumatized by our future. Instead of this trauma being heard, those who experience the trauma are either ignored, or worse, gaslit by older Christians and politicians so they do not have to deal with the person, not the problem, but the person, before them.
And that is what it comes down to, most of the time when we talk about trauma of any kind it gets dismissed because hearing about our trauma requires people to deal with us as human beings, not just as inconvenient interruptions or as mindless robots who just need to “toughen up.” But while human beings may do that to one another, Jesus does not. Jesus who, having been transfigured in all his glory and talked with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop, leaned down and tenderly touched his disciples and said: “rise, be not afraid.” He saw Mary Magdalene who had been through, God only knows what in her life, and called her by name and healed her. That trauma was not too big for Him, and neither is the trauma of the girl who was raped by her father or the deacon or the pastor, or the trauma of the kid with a visual disability who was told he should kill himself by his peers, and who was spiritually and emotionally abused by a pastor. It’s not too big for Jesus. The trauma of the girl who was in an abusive marriage or relationship and was told by Church leaders she had to stay there without questioning it? Jesus hears her trauma, and it is not too big for Him. So what does Jesus do? He does what He always does, in his power and might he stoop down and gets incredibly close and tender and says: “Rise, do not be afraid.” Or “Rise, get up, take you mat and walk” and “Your sins are forgiven.” As Matt Chandler said so famously: “Jesus wants the rose”, and He wants it so He can make the rose new.
Victims of trauma should never find themselves alone. They do not always. If you know my story, you know I did not. But the fact that they do should give us pause, it should concern us. The fact that these things keep happening, should break our hearts. It should drive us to repentance and lamentation. I get so tired of seeing Christian Leaders act like the trauma people have experienced at the hands of the Church is the fault of the victim. It is the fault of the people who have harmed them and when they do not face accountability for their actions, the people in the pews do.
Praise God that He does not let His children out of His hands, praise God that His heart is for the victims Praise God that He is with the lowly and lifts up the broken hearted. Praise God that He will give Justice to the oppressed. Praise God that what is done in secret is coming out into the light. Praise God that He will one day dry every tear and heal every wound. Until then, may God have mercy on the broken and hold accountable those who would do them harm. Both as a Holy God and a gracious God and may we all be restored to one another through His death and resurrection on the cross.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.