T he post-Christian culture we live in today has forced church leaders to evaluate children’s and youth ministry. We seek answers to these questions: What happened? Where did we go wrong? What can we do better for the next generation? Additionally, there are new terms in our vocabulary and in our discussions, such as “nones” (people who claim no religion), “deconstruction” (the process of questioning and/or discarding beliefs), and “church hurt” (pain inflicted by a religious institution).
“Church hurt” is actually not a new term. I would argue it has existed since the church began. However, church hurt is one that children’s ministry leaders and parents today need to be acutely aware of. The future church depends on it.
In Stephen Mansfield’s 2012 book, Healing Your Church Hurt, George Barna describes church hurt as “Ecclesia exitus—the Latin term for church dropout—the decision to permanently withdraw from a congregation you had considered to be your ‘church home.’” The symptoms are many, but the outcome is unambiguous, he says: “Pain, disappointment, and spiritual anomie.” Barna further observes that “spiritual injury occurs more often than we would like to admit. … In our thirst to experience the righteousness of God, we sometimes forget that we have the capacity to wound others, even in a spiritual environment.”
As a child in third grade, I experienced the life-changing effects of church hurt for the first time, though not the last. My dad was a lifelong member of the church our family attended, and his deeply rooted beliefs extended back generations. Whether right or wrong, his faith was grounded in a specific hermeneutical foundation. He built a solid faith around that base, a faith that I admired, as did others. When the church to which our family belonged began going down a path my dad didn’t believe was biblical, he approached the pastor and church leadership and engaged in conversations. Those conversations became more and more painful. When it became clear that all parties would hold their ground, our family left that church.
No one thought to explain to me what was happening, and no one helped me process this painful experience. Suddenly, I could no longer attend the church I loved or interact with friends and mentors who had been influencing my life. I was confused and angry. No one involved handled the situation well, but I sure didn’t help matters either! The older I got, the angrier I became. The experience and the anger transformed me. It would have been easy for me to walk away from the greater church altogether, but through grace, God drew me closer to himself and strengthened my faith.
Today, some 30 years later, I work for a denomination in the thick of deep division. Sadly, we are not alone. Many congregations and denominations are currently in the midst of disagreements and differing beliefs. I’ve witnessed the pain in churches and seen the effects of church hurt among pastors, believers, and good friends. Reggie Joiner recently said these wise words: “It’s never okay to use your theology as an excuse to treat each other wrong.”
We have certainly grieved one another, but I can’t begin to comprehend how we have grieved God through our divisions and anger—how we in the church and as the church have caused hurt.
What does this have to do with children’s ministry? Absolutely everything. As adults navigate disagreements and the resulting fractured relationships within the church, children and young people are watching. There are little eyes on you and impressionable hearts involved.
Parents are the primary disciple-makers for children, raising children to know and follow Christ. That’s not a choice; it simply is a fact, whether for good or ill. Children watch, listen, and evaluate everything that their parents say and do. The words and actions of parents and caregivers are influencing the faith of children at any given moment.
The church is a secondary disciple-maker for the children of God. In this setting, too, children and youth are watching, listening, and evaluating everything people in the congregation say and do. For better or worse, the words and actions of adults and church leadership influence the faith of children and young adults.
Children are extraordinarily perceptive! No matter how hard we may try, we cannot hide our actions, words, or feelings from them. As disciple-makers and role models, we need to be careful, for the way we handle difficult conversations and church hurt has a significant impact on children. Our actions and words should never cause anyone to think that the church is a battleground or a place to be avoided.
Yet, hurt isn’t going away on this side of heaven, so how can we do better for our children and young people as we continue to experience broken relationships in the church?
There are questions we should consider regarding our interactions. Do our children—those in our homes, in our churches, in our neighborhoods and communities—
- hear a grace-filled tone or a divisive spirit?
- see us listening well or creating assumptions?
- hear us expressing humility or covering shame?
- see us honoring truth or cutting off relationships?
- hear us seeking to understand or avoiding conflict?
- see us being upright and uplifting or abdicating responsibility?
Most importantly, does the next generation see us seeking the Lord first for healing and wisdom? Do they see actions and words that reflect Christ? Let’s heed Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:1-2: “Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.”
Shelley Henning has been involved in children’s and family ministry for over two decades. She is the co-founder and CEO of GrowthRings (growthringsco.com) and has written a book, numerous articles, and curriculum related to children and family ministry.