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How to Support a Friend Who Has Been Hurt by the Church

Bronwyn Lea

Contributing Writer
Updated May 14, 2015
How to Support a Friend Who Has Been Hurt by the Church
Here are 5 key ways to support your friends who have been wounded by the church.

Sarah* hasn’t been to church in months. Sarah is my friend, Sarah is a Christian, and Sarah is hurting. For Sarah, the church has not been the great hospital St. Augustine described: a place for suffering sinners to heal and rest. Instead, church has been a battleground, the place where she was wounded.

Sarah is one of a number of people I know who, although they love the church, can’t be in church for a while. They remain at home, on ‘bed rest’, so to speak: feeling the tension of belonging to Christ’s universal church but finding it too painful to participate in its local congregation.

In the past twenty years, I have brewed many cups of tea for many Sarahs. In some situations, I fear I may have made it worse: saying too much too strongly, ignoring James’ words to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” (James 1:19) There are some Sarahs who no doubt count me among their aggressors; a fact that brings me great grief. From those Sarahs, I would ask forgiveness. Where my words were vinegar on an open wound, I am deeply sorry.

Over the years, though, I have had the privilege of brewing tea for some Sarahs for whom I was a better listener, and who have come a long way on their healing journeys. Just as athletes from a variety of sports can tell you how rest, ice, compression and elevation are key factors in recovering from any sports injury, my Sarahs from a variety of churches repeatedly tell me that these are some of the key ways they needed support as they recovered from their spiritual injuries:

Give them time

CS Lewis may have famously described God as the ‘Hound of Heaven’, describing His tenacious pursuit of His beloved and bedraggled wanderers. However, He does not hound, nag, pester or nip at our heels. He is patient and gentle, the one for whom a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day.

Those who belong to God and who have suffered hurts at the hands of fellow believers need the gift of unhurried time. You cannot speed the healing of a bruise: in fact, poking at a not-yet-healed bruise will impede its recovery.

Give them your ear

One of the greatest gifts we can give those who have been hurt by the church is the gift of listening. Perhaps you don’t need this detail spelled out, but I do: that means listening without talking back right away. Ask questions: ask them how they felt, ask what happened next – but don’t rush to trying to edit or interpret their story, or fix the situation. To receive someone’s story is to receive them.

It may be that you know something about the people or situation involved. More often than not, now is not the time to share those insights. Deciding what to do or to say with your friend’s story is something that should be a matter for prayer and discernment later. In the moment, though: listen.

Give them the benefit of the doubt

When someone who is hurting takes the risk—and it is a significant risk—of sharing something with you about a hurtful word or deed done within your church, give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there are extenuating circumstances, perhaps there is some miscommunication at work, perhaps (and sadly, this does happen) there is foul play and manipulation going on in the telling; but in my experience most Sarahs have nothing to gain and much to lose from speaking up.

If someone starts to tell you a story about being silenced, shamed or abused in some way, give them the grace of listening without further silencing or shaming them. The listening friend’s job is not to be the arbiter of truth, but to be a supportive sister in Christ.

Show them welcome

We are told this again and again: we are the church, we don’t go to church. When we have friends who are hurting because they’ve suffered at the hands of the church, we need to be the church to them: asking their forgiveness where we’ve wronged them, and making every effort to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). If they can’t come to Sunday services or Wednesday bible studies, make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit by welcoming them as the church should to your dinner table, your child’s birthday parties, the shower you’re throwing for your pregnant friend.

Even if they decline every invitation, just knowing that we, the church, hold out open arms makes the world of difference to a hurting friend, and one day, they may just say yes.

Show them Jesus

The prophet Isaiah spoke tenderly of the coming Messiah this way: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Isaiah 42:3) If our charge in life is to be conformed to the image of Christ, then we need to tread carefully around the bruised and smoldering lest we break or snuff them. What would Jesus do?, our bracelets ask. Just a few parables from the gospel of Luke paint a rich picture of Jesus’ way with the hurting: pulling a lame ox from a pit despite the reproach of doing so on the Sabbath, awaiting a prodigal with lavish welcome from a long way off, patiently searching for the one vulnerable sheep (Luke 14-16).

Such love, served with patience and maybe a cup of hot tea, will not solve all problems or heal all the hurts. But such love, shown to hurting Sarahs everywhere, is surely what Christ wants from his church. “This is how the world will know you are my disciples,” he said, “Love one another.” (John 13:35)

And, in time, we may get to do so on Sunday mornings once again.

*Not her real name

Bronwyn Lea is a South-African born writer-mama raising three littles with her husband in California. She survives on buckets of grace, caffeine and laughter. She writes regularly about the holy and hilarious at bronlea.com and other wonderful online spots. Connect with her on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest