If you attended a church service this weekend, you may have been sitting in a roomful of suitcases. There’s no way to tell what percentage of people in a given congregation are schlepping baggage from a previous negative church experience, but I suspect the numbers would startle even veteran church leaders. Bad baggage is often eagerly recycled by leaders. This may serve the needs of the organization. It may even be called good pastoral care by some leaders, who rationalize that putting hurting people back into service as quickly as possible will promote healing. In some cases, this may be true. But it is often self-serving expediency at work in this line of thinking.
I would like to suggest that creating an environment where it is safe for people to unpack their baggage is Discipleship 101 in a way that many other church activities packaged under that banner isn’t.
(Click here to read the first post in this series for descriptions of some of the bad baggage people carry with them into new churches.)
In addition to the nearly-invisible backpack (old pain hidden in needy, performance-driven behavior), the damaged-in-transit luggage (a warrior in search of a doctrinally-pure congregation), the steamer trunk (carrying ancient hurts from decades ago), and the invisible tote (the carrier lurking in the shadows, hoping not to be noticed), a couple of other categories were suggested to me:
- The Louis Vuitton Limited Edition: The kind of baggage the carrier acquires when people in their former church(es) tell him or her the doubts and questions s/he is voicing are completely unique, thus, they are completely weird and probably borderline heretical. It is a lovely parting gift of churches that value lockstep obedience to the doctrinal views and practices of the leaders. It is so lovely, in fact, that when it’s given to a person leaving the church, it comes with the label that its one-of-a-kind. And that label is not meant to be a blessing.
- The nearly-invisible briefcase: This comes in a print that matches the nearly-invisible backpack. Where the backpack carrier buries his or her hurt in go-getter behavior, the person carrying the nearly-invisible briefcase is completely unaware that there’s anything in his or her hand. “I’m good! It wasn’t a big deal!” the briefcase carrier will say, waving off questions with a loaded briefcase he or she is unable to see, perhaps clobbering inquirers with that baggage.
So what does discipleship look like for people who are carrying baggage? Jesus used different approaches with different people during his years of active ministry: prophetic conversation with the woman at the well, mud daubed twice in a blind man’s eyes, forgiving a paralyzed man before healed him. Caring for someone who is replaying their old war with their former church (the damaged-in-transit luggage, the steamer trunk) requires a different kind of approach than does someone who has been marginalized by others (the Louis Vuitton Limited Edition). Those who either melt into the wallpaper carrying backpack or briefcase or those who run like hamsters might not appear at first glance to be asking for care as they either seem uninterested in the life of the church or fine-just-fine-thank-you.
There’s no single approach that will cover all suitcase styles. Some people’s church baggage has been crafted out of other areas of brokenness in their lives. A troubled childhood can be a perfect set-up that draws an abused person to join an authoritarian church, for instance. That church experience creates new baggage out of family of origin wounds.
Whether we have a title or position of leadership in a local congregation or not, every single one of us who follows Jesus is called to love one another. What does this care look like when a “one another” in our life is carrying some baggage? A good place to start is some empathetic conversation and compassionate prayer, if they’re willing to receive it, with a goal of emphasizing that anything person says can’t and won’t be used against them. A person carrying baggage has had their trust damaged. Even if you see them toting 18 pieces of luggage on a huge cart, you are not the one to demand it be unloaded. You are there to simply point them toward Jesus with gentleness. Unpacking can only begin when the person carrying the luggage discovers that Jesus didn’t load him or her down with this baggage, and in fact big time grieves what has been done by others in his name to the baggage carrier.
Tell me your story if you feel ready to share it. (It’s OK if you don’t!)
What drew you to your previous church? What did you like about it? What were your friends from the church like when times were good?
When did you first sense something was wrong in the church? What happened after that?
What was it like to leave? How did other church members treat you after you left? How did this experience change the way you thought about God? That specific congregation? The big C Church?
What do you regret about the experience? What message do you wish you could give to those who hurt you?
You as the listener are charged with sharing your story in response. Your own icky previous experiences can be used to encourage others, showing them that they’re not alone – and that a wiser, stronger faith the gift God their Healer will work in their lives as they work through the hurt with his help. If you’re one of the few who has never experienced Christians Behaving Badly, then you must at least dignify the other person’s experience by not shaming them for what’s happened to them, and by praying for them. If the baggage has caused the person to become a member of the Christians Behaving Badly club, which is often the case, all the same rules apply. Recognize that their bullying behavior is a sign that they are “the weaker brother“, no matter how over-loaded they may be with pristine doctrine and all the right answers.
Your efforts toward exercising care may not work. The story may not have a happy ending at this time. The person with the baggage may not be ready to drop it, much less unpack it. Love them anyway. If you use these stories to dismiss, label or turn a hurting person into a project, it time to check and see what kind of baggage you’re lugging around with you.
In my next post in this series, I’ll take a look a look at what rebuilding trust in God and others in a church may or may not look like.
When you’ve run across someone who has been hurt by a previous church experience, what have you found to be helpful in caring for them and walking with them until they’re ready to crack open their baggage?