Do you have Post Traumatic Church Syndrome?

housatonic-railroad-train-wreck-crash

Do you suffer from church related trauma? This is a post for those who do, and those who don’t.

Maybe the extent of your church trauma is having to sit through stuff like this:

Or, maybe your church related trauma is a little more serious.

When we were dating, one of the things my wife used to say that infuriated me was “I don’t like Christians”.

“How can you not like Christians? That’s what you are, you’re a Christian!” I’d respond with total disgust.

She’d further infuriate me by reading authors I was convinced were influenced by Satan himself, and would frequently laugh and yell out “yes! That’s so true!” while reading books like Blue Like Jazz. I couldn’t figure out how she could both be a Christian yet also express such hostile feelings toward expressions of American Christianity. She wholeheartedly was on board with Jesus, but was a lot more rough around the edges when it came to church, and other Christians.

That didn’t make sense to me- Jesus, and his followers, seemed mutually exclusive. It simply wasn’t possible to adore one, and yet want to jab the other in the eye with a hot stick.

Or so I thought.

I was convinced that she was spiritually rebellious, and had a serious “heart issue” that she needed to repent of. But, the truth I couldn’t yet see was that she was wounded, guarded, and in a protective mode around other Christians because of traumatic religious experiences in her past- like having the demon of rebellion prayed out of her (which from my observation, clearly didn’t work).

After breaking up with her for six months because I felt we were spiritually incompatible (she recoiled in horror at the mere mention of the word “submit” which was more evidence of her lingering rebellious spirit), I came to finally realize that she didn’t have a sin issue after all… she just had Post Traumatic Church Syndrome.

Post Traumatic Church Syndrome, or PTCS for short, doesn’t appear in the DSM IV and I’m quite sure it won’t make the DSM V either, no matter how controversial the new manual will be. However, I am convinced that thousands of Americans have experienced some level of PTCS as a result of church related trauma.

What is PTCS? Well, it’s not an official illness, so there’s not an official definition. If I were to develop a working definition for the concept however, I would describe it as the “normal and natural reaction to church trauma of any kind.” Which really means, everyone’s trauma reaction looks differently. People with PTCS have in one way or another, been wounded by the very place they went to seek healing. These wounds, create an emotional barrier for a person to engage in church, create barriers for them to connect with God, and create barriers for people to develop authentic community with other followers of Jesus.

The push back I experienced from my wife around issues in American Christianity and church, were simply a result of previous church related trauma. They weren’t evidence of anything that was wrong with her, but were evidence of wrong things that were done to her.

Perhaps the strangest realization was that I had PTCS too; we simply expressed our wounds in different ways. Her reaction was fight, flight, or flee and my equally broken expression of trauma was more similar to concepts of abuser loyalty, where I worked to assimilate my thinking to that of the oppressor in hopes that one day I’d be good enough… that one day I’d be accepted… that one day I’d be included and embraced.

Same syndrome, different expressions. She was having the demon of rebellion prayed out of her at church while I was sitting in the office of the Dean of Men at Word of Life Bible Institute being accused of practicing witchcraft on campus, because I was “rebellious” and “rebellion is the same as witchcraft“.

Ironically, neither one of us were actually rebellious, we were just individuals with inquisitive minds who questioned things… and let’s just say, that’s sorta frowned upon in fundamentalist circles.

Church trauma runs deep, because it cuts into our identity. When we want to be “good”, when we legitimately want to do the right thing and when we deeply want to be authentic Jesus followers, and someone tries to show us that we’re not very good at it, it messes with our concept of self.

Given enough experiential trauma or even one serious incident, people walk away. They get discouraged, depressed, and hurt, and they walk away.

Sometimes, they appear to walk away from Jesus entirely- which only encourages people to “lovingly” point out all over again that they suck at being a Christian (which, those of us who embrace authenticity, already know). However, usually the case isn’t at all that they’ve walked way from Jesus- it’s simply that they’ve just walked away from the organization associated with the people who have harmed them. People who have walked away because of church trauma will often externally appear resentful or even hostile toward anything that feels too “religious” to them, while internally they still want to follow Jesus and long to connect with God in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Church, ironically, becomes the barrier when in reality it should be the gateway.

So, if this describes you– if you’re someone who’s been wounded by people in church to such a degree that you’ve walked away, please know that my heart is with you. I have been there, and I completely get it. I took years off from church because I was so turned off and so wounded by previous experiences. Ironically, when I finally took a risk and went to church one Sunday, the sermon was titled “Why Mother Teresa is in Hell Today”. Lets just say, I took another church vacation…

I get why walking away seems to make sense. But, I also know that walking away entirely doesn’t solve the problem. The path of Jesus was never one intended to be walked in isolation, but rather is one intended to be walked in the context of community– messy, bumpy, community. Sometimes it’s your lifeblood, and other times it’s a blood-sucker- but the alternative of isolation doesn’t look much better.

If you have church related trauma, let me encourage you in two ways:

1. While it is good and healthy to shed off all of the nonsense American Christian Culture often associates with Jesus, please don’t throw the baby Jesus out with the Church’s dirty bathwater. It’s easy to do, and often understandable. However, please know that the people who have hurt you did not actually represent the real Jesus. The real Jesus is loving beyond belief and preferred to spend his time with drunks, prostitutes, and tax collectors instead of people in church. He is patient and kind; he has reconciled you through the cross and is not holding your sin against you. Jesus is sooo different than what you have experienced.

In fact, Jesus reserved his harshest words for religious people who hurt and oppressed others in the name of God. It actually got him killed.

2. Please, consider giving a faith community another chance. Understand that as long as the Church is made up of broken people like you and me, we’re going to hurt each other. That doesn’t make it okay, and doesn’t mean we have to allow ourselves to be mistreated and abused, but it also doesn’t mean that we should walk away completely. Be willing to give things another chance, and seek out a loving Christian community. I’m not saying it is always easy to find- but I do know this: once you find one that is truly loving and understands the importance of community, it will be a life-giving experience. You may even see past wounds slowly closing and healing until there’s just a scar. That’s where I am at, and ironically, it was only through a re-engagement of a faith community that I found my deepest levels of healing.

3. Consider forgiving those who have hurt you. We often misunderstand forgiveness, thinking that it is an endorsement of the harmful behavior. In reality, forgiveness exists for the benefit of the one wounded, not the one who did the wounding. Forgiveness means you are unwilling to carry the heavy bag of resentment someone else put on your shoulders. Forgiveness flings it off, and helps your walk become a little easier.

If everything I’ve said until this point sounds like nonsense, great! That means you probably don’t have PTCS or church related trauma. I don’t expect you to understand it, but you do need to know the following:

Know that a miracle happens at your church each week, one that you simply don’t see. There are people sitting next to you who are only sitting in church because it’s an absolute miracle they are there. They have been so deeply wounded in their past, often in the name and representation of God, that it would be understandable if they never sat beneath a steeple again. These people have pushed beyond the hurt, beyond the fear, beyond the anxiety, so that they could have an opportunity to connect to God in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Their presence in the seat beside you, in front of you, or behind you is nothing short of a miracle. Which means…

You have the opportunity to partner with Jesus to be a part of their healing process.

You have the opportunity to help remove the barriers that others have placed between them and God.

Or, you can mess them up even worse. Your choice.

 Your judgement, gossip, and conditional love will further traumatize them to such a degree that it may result in them walking away completely. Or, your unconditional love, friendship and support can be the tool Jesus uses to bring radical healing in their life. Jesus weighed in on this issue many times. Perhaps the most dramatically was the cleansing of the temple, when he threw the moneychangers out. The system of money exchange, buying and selling, had created barriers to people being able to connect with God. These man made dams between humanity and the living water that flows from God, infuriated him. As a result, Jesus went to great lengths to remove these barriers between people, and God.

Church related trauma is a barrier between individuals, and the fulness of life Jesus promised in John 10.

We are called to remove these barriers at all cost. We are called to kick the tables over, to love our neighbors in the pew next to us, and to be agents of reconciliation for their healing.

So, please- if you’ve been wounded, don’t give up and walk away. There is hope and healing in continuing to press forward in pursuit of the Jesus who is better than you ever imagined.

Finally, if you’re someone who hasn’t experienced church related trauma, please remember the words of Jesus, and take them seriously:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” – Matthew 5:9

______________

 

 

 

About Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Theology & Missiology), is currently a 3rd year Doctor of Missiology student (a subset of practical theology) at Fuller Seminary, and is a member of the Phi Alpha Chi Honors Society. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore. He is also a contributor for Time, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, Evangelicals for Social Action, Mennonite World Review, has been a guest on Huffington Post Live, and is one of the CANA Initiators. Ben is also a syndicated author for MennoNerds, a collective of Mennonite and Anabaptist writers. Ben is also co-host of That God Show with Matthew Paul Turner. Ben lives in Auburn, Maine with his wife Tracy and his daughter Johanna.

You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

  • ~Sil in Corea

    You struck a chord which resonated with my experiences. There are ignorant lay preachers out there who have the gift of gab and set themselves up as false prophets (profits). They’re doing just fine, living on the donations of their gullible congregations.

  • http://www.whatsthemotivation.wordpress.com Don Coldwell

    You just made my night with that video. “i wore him out”

    LOL rolling…

  • Russell Miller

    There are many reasons why I don’t attend a church at the moment, but the biggest is conformity. I refuse to conform to what people in a church expect me to act like, do, and be. Utterly refuse.

  • Lena Erickson

    Thank you for this. It is so encouraging to me.

  • http://www.graceandgoodnews.blogspot.com Holly

    I definitely have PTCS!! I get your article and thank you. The only problem with going back is we were warned by Jesus Himself to stay away from the Leaven of the teaching of Pharisees. :/ I have yet to find a place that doesn’t have a mixed message (performance/redemption).

  • Ty Duncan

    That video … wow

  • SMW

    I didn’t have to read the whole post to know I am the poster child for PTCS. ( but I did) I wanted to e-mail this to everyone of my friends who attended private christian school with me. I just am afraid it might offend the half who still belive they are one day going to be good enough. I am one who walked away, came back, ran away, came back and then fled. I want to teach my offspring about the Lord but am terrifed to let them go to church….or spend too much time with certain relatives.

  • donna harris

    I came across this article and it pretty much sums up how I fee.

    As a new Christian I was so happy and peaceful until I started to see the hypocrisy of the people who were lifelong Christians telling me what I was to believe, how I should behave. The biggest thing was our Pastor dying and finding a replacement. It divided the church completely and became a bone of contention among it’s members.

    There is so much more that I find reprehensible with organized religion..I could go on. I love the Lord, love Jesus, but not a great fan of HIS fanclub. Peace

  • Pingback: Saturday News Links: June 29, 2013

  • James

    As flawed as Christians can be sometimes, I hardly think Jesus finds it amusing or praiseworthy when we slander his bride. How would you like it if your friend told you, “I like you, but I’m not a big fan of your wife. She’s kind of a whore.” Even if it’s true, it still reflects on the one who chose her.

  • Russell Miller

    James, there’s a difference between slandering and being honest. I don’t think Jesus would also appreciate us pretending there’s nothing wrong and enabling poor behavior. There are good ways to say it and bad ways to say it, but not saying it is not acceptable.

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com Benjamin L. Corey

    Who slandered his bride?

    As kids, we love our mom’s and think she’s perfect. As adults, we realize she’s not perfect and love her anyways. Spiritual maturity is realizing the church isn’t perfect, but loving her anyway.

    Not sure how a very serious post about a very serious issue, was remotely slanderous.

  • James

    I completely agree, Russell. A balance needs to be struck. I never suggested that nothing be said. To continue the analogy of marriage, I would certainly appreciate someone lovingly telling me if they saw my wife making out with another man.

    But in what I observe, it’s “cool” to bash the church these days, and I think we need to take a deep breath and remember that this is Christ’s bride we’re talking about. She’s not perfect, and never will be. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to correct what wrongs we see; but it also doesn’t give us free license to swing for the fences with the sort of judgmentalism we condemn in others.

    It’s almost as if we think ourselves too good for those hypocrites. I can certainly be a hypocrite too.

  • James

    Benjamin,

    I wasn’t referring to your post, which was very balanced, but to the follow-up comments. My apologies.

  • Russell Miller

    To me, “Christ’s Bride” is made up of everyone who follows Christ. This does not mean the Church as an institution or organization. This means everyone who follows Christ. And I think this tent is big enough to include even atheists and Muslims. So the person who is being critical of the “church” may just be someone who is more a member of the church than the church is!

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com Benjamin L. Corey

    No worries James, I misunderstood.

    I would throw in, however, that it might be judicious for us to be gracious when we perceive others are bashing the church. Often, it is a result of trauma the church has inflicted, and we- by group association- are somewhat culpable. These situations can provide us the opportunity to be agents of healing, which requires grace and patience on our part.

    Blessings,

    Ben

  • James

    I struggle to understand how an atheist or Muslim can follow Christ in any significantly salvific way, or in any way that makes them part of the church as the New Testament presents it, and remain atheist or Muslim.

    But that’s probably a fundamental difference in yours and my ecclesiology and soteriology, which I’m sure is beyond the scope of this post and has been rehashed ad nauseum :)

  • James

    That’s certainly fair, Ben. It is a tough balance to find, and I completely understand erring on the side of empathy.

  • Russell Miller

    Indeed, maybe not the best forum on which to get into that debate. There’s no doubt that we disagree on some fundamental things. But let me put forth the idea that if the church (the organization and the body as per your view of it) had treated me even halfways decently the disagreement may not even have been necessary in the first place.

    Thanks, Benjamin, you get it. :)

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com Benjamin L. Corey

    I don’t think an atheist or Muslim can follow in a salvific way and remain anything other than a Jesus follower. I believe in the Catholic (Universal) church of believers, as defined by the Nicean creed. Did I say something that hinted otherwise? If so, would be happy to correct it. I affirm every element of historic, orthodox Christianity, including the doctrine of nonviolence.

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com Benjamin L. Corey

    LOL. I think I keep jumping in on your conversation, thinking the question was directed to me. Sorry!

  • Russell Miller

    Benjamin, my opinions have recently been very much influenced by Spong lately, and I’m finding myself taking a much larger tent than perhaps you’re willing to. I don’t care, as long as you think love is more important than anything else, we’re cool.

  • James

    Ben, the atheist/Muslim comment was in response to Russell.

    Russell, it hurts my soul to hear of stories like yours where those claiming Christ can cause such injuries. I obviously don’t know your story, but I would encourage you that in my journies I have found that loving and understanding churches have far been the rule rather than the exception, even churches that teach the doctrine of exclusivism. Maybe that’s an oxymoron to you, I don’t know. But I do pray you find a community of believers that not only makes you feel welcomed and loved, but is able to facilitate your knowledge of the truth.

    James

  • Russell Miller

    James, I was raised in the Worldwide Church of God. Please look it up if you are so inclined. I then attempted to go to “mainstream” Christian churches, and found them full of facile, hypocritical, frankly stupid people who did not understand me even a little bit, and found the questions that I was asking threatening and could not answer them, in fact, they never even tried. I have known a very few people whom I actually consider “true” Christians, the rest I have no time for, because they won’t even follow what they say they believe.

    Honestly, it hasn’t even been until the past few days that I’ve even found an interpretation of the Christian faith that I can consider to be anything but completely ludicrous on its face, because I finally found someone who could answer the questions I had. :P

    I hope I don’t sound too harsh.

  • James

    It sounds like you ran smack into one of the major imperfections of American Christianity: anti-intellectualism. It’s one of the problems I’m trying to correct in my own church, because I do believe the church hurts itself by being willfully ignorant of the deeper questions in religion and philosophy. I don’t know the nature of your questions, but scholars like William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, and others are doing and have done great work to help the church start loving God with their minds again.

    I’m sorry to hear that was your experience. Questions should always be welcome by followers of the truth!

  • Russell Miller

    I’m a very intellectual person. I really try to use my heart, and I have a pretty sensitive heart, but my mind tends to rule. If something doesn’t make sense, I can’t incorporate it into my worldview until it does. The questions that I’ve had about Christianity strike to its very heart – in a very literal sense, because many of the foundational doctrines of Christianity seem cobbled together and mismatched to me. I *understand* them – honest I do – but I can’t *accept* them because even in understanding them there are too many inconsistencies and questions that just can’t be answered. And the answer I always get is “pray about it” or “you just have to take it on faith”. I’m OK with praying about it, but I want answers, dagnabit. Not platitudes, or inconsistencies, or things forced together that were never meant to be forced together, but real, honest to goodness ANSWERS. Most Christians simply cannot provide them, because they’ve accepted those fundamental doctrines without actually understanding them, so there’s no way that they can explain them to me in a way that makes sense.

    To bring it around, to me the PTCS comes from the fact that I’m treated like my questions don’t matter. I ask the question, and all it really serves to do is separate me from the people who think it’s not a legitimate question. Why the trinity? Why should I believe the Bible is inerrant? Why should I believe Jesus died for our sins and was bodily resurrected? Why should I believe that Christianity is the one true religion? The answers to these questions are fully NOT forthcoming from any conservative Christian I’ve met. None. Zero. In fact, rather than exploring the answers, I’m just patted on the head and told to pray about it, the answers will come eventually.

    Well, y’know, they’re right. They did. In Liberal Christianity. Sigh.

  • James

    I’m the same way, taking a very intellectual approach to my faith. And I find the answer to “just pray about it and have faith” to be an intellectually lazy response, and a devaluation of what true, Biblical faith really is – it’s a certainty, not in the absence of evidence, but in cooperation with it.

    If you haven’t already, read the guys I mentioned above. They are conservative Christians who aren’t afraid of those questions, but address them with solid intellectual rigor. They hate those pat answers as well. You might not be satisfied with their answers or agree with their conclusions, but you can at least see the best of what conservative Christianity has to offer.

  • Russell Miller

    I’ll look into it. So far I’m finding John Shelby Spong (as I mentioned earlier) to make a LOT of sense to me. But tomorrow’s Sunday, and I suppose if there’s a day to read about this stuff, that would be it.

  • James

    I haven’t read Spong, but will definitely check him out.

  • Pingback: Do you have Post Traumatic Church Syndrome? - Christian Forums

  • gimpi1

    When I was “accused” of the “sin” of rebellion and therefore “practicing witchcraft,” I came back with, “I don’t really need to practice much anymore. I’m pretty good already.” You should have seen the shock. It was good for a laugh, anyway.

  • Erica

    I was really into this post right up to the point where you gave your three recommendations, and at that point I honestly wondered if you might still be trying to “assimilate my thinking to that of the oppressor in hopes that one day I’d be good enough… that one day I’d be accepted… that one day I’d be included and embraced. “

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com Benjamin L. Corey

    Erica,

    I’m definitely not suggesting that; you should be loved, embraced, and included regardless of anything. My hope is simply that people will realize that it’s not Jesus who is excluding or rejecting them- it’s people.

  • http://www.callmekirt.blogspot.com Kirstyn

    This is incredibly well said, and it hits close to home. I’m probably on a “church vacation” right now. I’ve been browsing your blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with the Internet world :)

  • Justice

    I’m so glad to read other people who feel the same way and have been through what i have. i felt like such a crappy christian before i started reading stuff from the christian left and kissing fish. i wish i could get my mom to read this but she’d probably interpret it as me hating her church even more. as of right now, i’ve been ‘out of the church circuit’ for several years now. every time i have hope that i’ll find something different, new, or better, i give it a try and find it’s all the same. honestly it’s hard to even walk through a church door without feeling like rolling my eyes or throwing up a little in my mouth. i’m not sure how to get past that. at the same time, i feel closer to god being OUT of church than i ever did participating in potlucks and small groups. i really wish i could find a group of open minded people to just hang out somewhere and chat with once in a while about god. i think that’d be the ideal situation.

  • Paula

    Justice, your comment moved me to respond. I don’t know if you have tried a Universal Unitarian church. It, for me, was a breath of fresh air

  • Cynthia Mahan

    Thanks for this.

    I went through a period of PTSD which was brought about by being born and raised in a cult-like religion that happened to also be dispensational.

    And this is what led me to your blog. I plan on reading all your articles.

  • twinkie1cat

    I have had a few PTSC experiences, the last one being after Hurricane Katrina in 2005-06 when I lived for 10 months in a tiny FEMA trailer in Vidalia Louisiana for 10 months. I was seriously accustomed to attending church and had been in leadership in a Methodist and Worship Leader in a Presbyterian USA in the previous two decades. I moved to New Orleans and found a Presby. I liked fairly well where I learned to eat crawfish and helped with Vacation Bible School. Then Katrina came and I was churchless. I tried out a couple in nearby Natchez Mississippi but they were either too conservative, had the choir in the back (a no-no for me) or a preacher who put me to sleep. So here I go to my roots, Southern Baptist. Music was good. Preacher could preach. People were pretty nice. So I integrated their church with my little African-American neighbor child because she needed to be in church and the other kids there went to her school. She was well cared for there by some members even after I left. This was something I really wanted, for her mama to have someone to take her to the store or the doctor and kind of put both of them under their wings once I was gone.

    But I was real troubled. First of all, I felt like I had to be undercover because I am not a conservative. I have been a Christian for a long time and seriously believe that it is hard to be a Christian and a political conservative. God says to love them anyway. That is difficult for me. But when the preacher preached the “submission” verses straight, I knew I could not be there for long without having a long discussion with him. I had often heard it preached, but with the emphasis on husbands loving their wives like Christ loved the church, not on women being passive little robots. The preacher was kind of fortunate I was leaving soon.

    The people were quite good to me. They gave me a bed and some other furniture when I moved and even gas money and rented and paid for a U-Haul. But I was absolutely PTSC. When I got to another small city about 25 miles from Baton Rouge LA for my job, I did not go to church at all for about 2 years. I could not bring myself to go anywhere like that one again so I did not go at all. I just watched church on TV. They were good people, but I cannot be that undercover, constantly watching what I say so as not to appear radical. I think they knew, however, somehow, some of them, that I did not quite fit.

    Finally I saw in the newspaper a write up and picture about a Pride Picnic a church sponsored. I went online and located Metropolitian Community Church of Baton Rouge (Rev. Keith Mozingo). I headed into Baton Rouge and felt AT HOME even though I have remained partially undercover about being heterosexual even now. ( We have about 10% straight at this MCC). I had been to an MCC many years before in a large city and did not like it. But this one was right for me and I have been there over 6 years now and made some good friends. Pride, by the way, which is partially sponsored by the church, has grown to about 4000 attendees and even had a march last year. Probably the only Pridefest in America held indoors at a hotel. (If you have ever been to Louisiana in the summer, you know a lot of the reason.)! Small, by city standards, but Louisiana is past conservative. So I got past my PTSC, but we have quite a few recovering Catholics and Pentecostals plus some recovering Baptists in our congregation.

  • twinkie1cat

    That’s PTCS. Got the initials out of order and this blog does not have correction.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X