Do you have Post Traumatic Church Syndrome?

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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

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Uber Genie

    Enjoyed the post. Been in Evangelicals churches for over 30 years. Help plant two non-denominational churches, led home groups, youth groups and ministries to prisons, homeless, college campuses. But I’m burned out and have not darkened the door of a church in 6 years.

    Too much learned passivity in US now. No one seems to want to do the hard work of scripture exegesis, or hermeneutics. No one wants to take responsibility for their own spiritual development. I have challenged dozens of pastors to move from autocratic to facilatative in style, from monological to Socratic. But to no avail.

    I work in prisons, bars and smoke shops weaving a tapestry of relationships where people ask for the gospel (albeit after months or even years). This approach ends up producing 3-5 people a year that choose to become disciples of Christ. Imagine if our large “Field of Dreams” churches (if you build a large building non-christians will come) would take my approach. 3-fold growth per year.

    Finally to those on this blog that have been intellectually abused by crayon-toting Christians unable to give a philosophic grounding to their beliefs, articulate the paradigm carriers of Christianity or the recalcitrant facts such as God’s damning his creation to hell or Epicurus trilemma.

  • Uber Genie

    Sorry..post froze and wouldn’t let me continue(see Uber below)

    Finally …to those who have been intellectually abused…our churches turn out intellectual babies but there are real men out in the world that would love to have a respectful discussion about Christianity’s claims and how they differ from other religious views as well as some stuffy things such as epistemology and warrant. Provided these discussions are accompanied by a good Opus X cigar and a glenmorangie Nector D’Or single-malt scotch.

    P.S. in graduate school you learn to reject research that is not peer-reviewed (validated by a group with expertise in the body of knowledge of your research field). This stipulation enables new knowledge to progress and older debunked theories to not waste people’s time. The Jesus Seminar and Sponge are two of the time wasters. No Liberal scholarship supports their work! It floats without reference to historical fact. What ashamed to reject a historically accurate and philosophically defensible view because it is poorly articulated only to adopt a historically, philosophically, and theologically self-refuting view because it is well articulated. Due your diligence

  • Uber Genie

    Lol! Throwing up a little…! If you lived near Columbus Ohio we could grab a cigar and have a great discussion about God. Not to mention drinking bourbon or scotch and playing some bid-euchre.

    I will warn you, I am a recovering Fundamentalist, which means I have to drink and smoke every damn day!

  • Uber Genie

    Strange gloss on this post. Don’t throw baby out with bath water, don’t over generalize that all faith communities are the same, and forgive hardly seems like assimilation! These would be in the “logical thinking” category.

  • Uber Genie

    Bravo. A Christian who mentions Craig and Plantinga. Wow, were you raised at L’Abri in Switzerland? Remember James that your Pastor is supposed to do your thinking here in the States. Never less good recommendations.

  • April Selenskikh

    I see it this way…There is the organized church ..and then there is “THE Church.” The visible church is not “THE church…although some believers do attend it. It’s main goal is actually anti-christ…It’s to maintain, grow, and reproduce itself. Some people attend churches…but that does not mean they are in the Body of Christ. The Harlot Church System by Charles Newbold Jr really helped me put those feelings to words. The church system wants us to submit to it…the church covenants, tithing, core groups, smalls groups….all of the hoops we must jump through. But Jesus’ burden in LIGHT. Often people attend or serve in a church due to obligation or man pleasing…that is not being a cheerful giver.

    When you “go to church” you have to put on special clothing (often), sit through a staged display of “worship” that ends with offering (always when people are most open…the music softens you up to GOD…just then…the plate is passed). and the CEO/Pastor- casts his vision….This system is as corrupt as the RC…just as apostate…just as deceptive. People come, give, serve and leave feeling empty at beast, abused, used, and discarded at worst. This system covers up con-men, liars, adulterers, wife beaters, and child molesters on a regular basis. The list of victims is only growing…because these large visible, people pleasing churches are corporations!! They have “a name” but not HIS name.

    Come out from among them and be ye separate!

    I miss many aspects of attending church, but every time I go back…there is such a grieving in my spirit….it feel fake. It IS fake. It is a substitute for the life of Christ. A shabby one, that is planned by men such as Peter Drucker, Rick Warren and others….but led by the Holy Spirit.

    You can be the church without attending those buildings. You CAN have fellowship, growth, discipleship, edification, ministry, service, and worship…outside it’s walls.

  • April Selenskikh

    I recently met a new convert who was overcoming alcoholism…he was in a church and being taught to SUBMIT to the church traditions, habits, leadership, on par with following the Holy Spirit and growing in the Word. I was so upset by that…I felt like telling him and his wife…Just read your Bible and pray….God will teach you and lead you. After a few months of that…pray and ask Him if you should go to a church…or keep growing at home. (Because God could bring a more mature person into his life…easily…) The meeting was dead because of the obligations imposed by the pastor. Every ministry was controlled by that one man. It was very sad…,very office-like. Where was the joy, peace and freedom of the Holy Spirit? Not there – how could it be? Everyone was needed to gain approval of a man…there was not freedom. And yet the same system would wrongly call that man “rebellious” …There’s no need to compromise…Go where God is sending you…If He’s with you- there’s peace. It may be in a church for a season, or out of them all. We have to be led by the Holy spirit and not slaves of men.

  • Reg Borrow

    Russell, I was a member of the WCG for 29 years. I understand what you are saying about many “mainstream churches”. I was fortunate to find a healthy one that practices what it preaches. Been a member of it for the last 17 years. I’m not saying it’s perfect, it’s just healthy. They have had their share of problems yet, they are filled with a lot of grace-filled Christians. I was suspicious and cautious for the first few years, but came to feel like I belonged. A lot of my healing has come from attending it and fellow-shipping with the people in it. I now can say what I really think and not worry about any repercussions. They don’t dis-fellowship people there.

    It took me a few years to understand that I suffered from Spiritual Abuse after I exited. After reading a lot about it and talking to many on the Spiritual Abuse Forum for around 12 years, I started the Spiritual Abuse Recovery FB page in Dec 2010 https://www.facebook.com/pages/Spiritual-Abuse-Recovery/170742302956299?ref=hl
    to begin to share what I have learned. I didn’t know how it would go when I started it. I just had a passion to do it. I am pleasantly surprised that I have now over 400 who have liked it. It has a lot of info that has helped many. It just proves that there are so many who suffer from SA and are largely misunderstood by the “mainstream churches”.

  • Reg Borrow

    Cynthia, I also had to deal with PTSD. I learned a lot about it. I came to realize I could not fully overcome it but learned to manage it. Here’s what I wrote about my experience with it. There’s a LOT of info in the comments that further explain it and how I and others have dealt with it. Hope it helps.

    PTSD/DETACHING (Floating)
    https://www.facebook.com/notes/spiritual-abuse-recovery/ptsddetaching-floating/168308783206585

  • Raymond Hall

    Russell – just know that God really does love you. He knows the pain, the trials and the hardship. My journey parallels your own – was with the WCG for years. I’m currently pursuing an Anabaptist expression of the Christian faith in the worship community I attend. This is a continuing journey – not of other people’s faithfulness to God – but of my own. The challenge is to continue to draw ever closer to Jesus – no matter what twists and turns the path may take. The hardest things to look at are not found in other people’s doings, but in my own heart as I react to them.