Healing church, hurtful church

We had dinner with friends last night and we began talking about the emerging church phenomenon — the latest effort to re-boot the church by breaking ties with the long-established denominational structures that have dominated recent Christian history. In passing, one of our friends observed, “Well, I haven’t been hurt by the church, so I find it much harder to turn my back on the day to day reality that we identify as church.”

I was really jarred by the observation (though I didn’t say so), but that is precisely the point for a lot of people. Many — not all — but many who are ready to start over with church have been hurt by it.  So they are ready to tear the walls down, start over, or simply abandon it altogether.

And who could blame them?  Between the big-news-abuse and the small-world-cruelties, the institution that holds out hope to people in Jesus’ name is often the engine of just as much hurtful behavior, as it is healing touch.

The problem, of course, does not lie in the established structures themselves.  Oh, the structures have institutionalized some of the abusive behavior to be sure.  But over time, new structures, no matter how small, homegrown, or local in orientation will begin to manifest the same range of healing and hurtful behaviors.

“Wherever we go there we are.”

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

The fundamental difficulty in any reformation of institutions is that it is devoted to reforming the wrong thing.  That is why churches that are devoted to anything but God will fail and hurt us.  It is only God who can call the church’s behavior into question and the reformation starts with the people who attend it.


Lay people need to take responsibility to call their clergy to account for their behavior.

Clergy need to hold one another and their bishops accountable for their behavior.

And together, lay people and clergy need to insist on the primacy of worship and devotion.

That last one may seem a bit strange, but if God isn’t a living reality for a church that calls the people who attend them into a life of vulnerable service and care for one another and those around them, then the church will do what people do when they are left to their own devices:

They will hurt one another without repenting.

They will live out of their own brokenness and pride.

And over time the vanity on display in individual lives will grow large and take on a life of its own.

That’s not an easy assignment.  It is certainly harder than pushing the old thing over and starting all over.  And the fact that starting all over won’t change anything should be no source of comfort to the powers that be.  But healing follows on acknowledging hurts.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.