January is “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month.” Awhile ago I had a friend contact me because they were having a hard time talking about the spiritual trauma that they have endured with someone close to them. This person close to them wanted a deep relationship but didn’t understand how certain things in the Christian environments that he was a part of were triggering PTSD in my friend. In this conversation, they asked what resources that there were to offer to this person who didn’t understand. I thought about it for a minute and realized that I couldn’t think of that many that would be helpful, so I thought that I would write some. The rest of this blog post is a section out of a project that I am working on to bring awareness to spiritual abuse and how someone can support people who have been victims of this kind of trauma.
The church over the last twenty years has done a great job of tooling its methods to reach people. Many of the people that have been successfully in reached, since the seeker-sensitive movement kicked off have been in one of two categories (defined by The Barna Group – https://www.barna.com/research/church-attendance-trends-around-country/).
- Unchurched – have not attended a church service in the past six months (not involved before), not including a special event such as a wedding or a funeral.
- De-churched – were formerly either very, somewhat or minimally active churchgoers, but have not attended a church service in the past six months, excluding a special event such as a wedding or a funeral.
These have been many of the conversations that I have been in over the last twenty years. Many of the methods, outreach tactics, and environments have been retooled to help reach the people in these categories. This is to help someone who maybe has walked away from the church and made a mess of their life, apathetic about the church, or just bored of a traditional church be attracted to a church community and consider committing or recommitting their life to Jesus.
The worship spaces often look less like older church environments and more like a performing arts center. The music sounds less like the stuff my grandparents grew up singing in their churches and more like stadium rock and roll from a U2 show. Pastors don’t dress in ties, but often have skinny jeans, trendy sneakers, and they rock tattoos. Church lobbies have gone from offering cheap coffee with off-brand powdered creamer in the fellowship hall to having a coffee shop that would rival some of the nicest coffee shops out there. You rarely see exegetical preaching anymore, for the sake of preaching on topics that are relevant and attractive for these categories of people. All of this comes from a shift in methods to reach the “unchurched” and the “de-churched”.
Megachurches have popped up in numbers, over the last twenty years. Church planting efforts stepped up and have been driven and defined for the desire to see the “unchurched” and the “de-churched” people come to know Jesus and have them plug into their churches.
These are all good things, but I believe that there is a demographic of people not being reached with the same intensity and these shifts in methods still won’t attract them. This unintentionally avoided demographic can be found in the “unchurched”, “de-churched”, and even “churched” categories. The things that churches have shifted to attract the “unchurched” and the “de-churched” will not necessarily work in engaging this people group. They might be averse to both churches running after new attractions methods and churches that are traditional in their approach.
Some of the people in this group write me and tell me stories of how, if they visit a church, they sit by the door and plan their escape route, knowing that they probably will not stay for the whole service. They expect something to be said or done that will trigger them in a way where they don’t feel safe and need to leave. While people in the seats are often laughing at clever jokes and nodding at tweetable phrases by the pastor, these people are on the edge of a panic attack in the seats.
This group of people wishes that people in Christian circles could understand why they are not comfortable in church environments, but many people can’t fully know what they are sensing unless they have walked through similar life experiences.
Even though we as the church have worked hard to change our outreach methods, we are still often unaware of the pains that we cause in many people in our seats (churched, unchurched, and de-churched). Our environments, conversations, and our sermons can trigger them into a PTSD type of response that is in the vein of someone who was raised in an abusive environment. This is because they have been in an abusive environment to a certain extreme or another. The group that I believe that the church unknowingly avoids is the category that I would call “victims of spiritual trauma”.
What is Trauma?
According to “Medical News Today” (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/trauma) there are different types of trauma, including:
- Acute trauma: This results from a single stressful or dangerous event.
- Chronic trauma: This results from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events. Examples include cases of child abuse, bullying, or domestic violence.
- Complex trauma: This results from exposure to multiple traumatic events.
There is a portion of people who have experienced a unique form of acute and chronic trauma that we are talking about in this post. These events, series of events, and exposures have happened in the context of a Christian environment. With that comes a whole other layer of complexity. Many people who have suffered a religious/spiritual form of chronic trauma (or chronic trauma that leads to an event or events of acute trauma), don’t know if, how, and to what extent that they have experienced spiritual trauma. Much of this has come from being shaped in unhealthy Christian environments that are all that they have known.
The constant pattern for victims of spiritual trauma is the fact that they have been shaped and conditioned by an environment of high control in the name of the Christian faith. It can be control of behavior, doctrinal stances, tribal tendencies (family, denominational, methods, values, etc.), and a view of an overbearing God. When victims of spiritual trauma are triggered, they often have a flight reaction because they are pulled back into the pain and trauma of their past abusive environment.
I can recall a Christmas in 2008 where my family (my wife, and son at the time), my sister’s family, my dad, and stepmom, my aunt and uncles, and all of my cousins got together. That Sunday, we attended a little fundamental church in a small town that some of my family lived in.
At this time, I was a worship leader at a church in the Boulder area and helped a church plant in Denver, but they were churches that didn’t have a system or environment of high control and/or abuse at all. The church plant in Denver was very spiritual trauma aware in their methods and style. Christmas of 2008 was the first time that I had been to a church like the one I was raised in since I was seventeen. People dressed up in suits, sang old hymns, and when we got to the preaching, the pastor was pounding the pulpit hard. He was preaching about Christian behavior from a legalistic perspective.
My palms began to sweat, my heart was beating quickly, and I began to breathe shallow breaths. I looked around and I was trapped in the middle of the pew with no way to get out quietly, so I just sat there and stared at the preacher as if I was a scared child.
I tried to talk about it with people, but I came across to them as too sensitive, splitting hairs on something that seemed like it wasn’t a big deal to them, and overly critical. One of my family members said, “it sounds like you just have an ax to grind.”
The Sunday after this Christmas church experience that triggered me, I was back leading worship at my home church in the Boulder area. I remember leading them in the song “In Christ Alone”. I began to weep right there in front of about 300-400 people and couldn’t sing. The emotions that I was feeling were a response to the church experience the week prior the feeling of being alone with no one to process with, because of being in a church environment similar to the one that I was raised in of chronic spiritual trauma and high control in the name of faith. I was triggered and in a tailspin.
Many people have been in church environments and have experienced trauma there. Some are “churched”, some are “unchurched”, and some are “de-churched’. Some are in modern attractional churches, and some are in traditional churches.
If we have the heart to reach all people, we need to be aware that, like for me, what they hear and experience from our Christian environments will either add to their pain or bring about healing. Unfortunately, the church at large has continually (and often unknowingly) contributed to environments and situations that don’t feel safe for victims of spiritual trauma.
I have had many conversations with people who have been victims of spiritual trauma. I am one myself. It is common to hear that we are misunderstood, judged, and wish that we could explain it better or have resources to share with loved ones to help them understand.
If we don’t seek to understand and walk with victims in their process, we might miss out on an opportunity for being a mechanism of healing that God might want to use us for, and we might contribute to their continual trauma and revictimization.
Will we listen, be aware of what we do and say, and make space for those who have walked through trauma because of an unhealthy Christian environment?