Anyone can have a bad church experience. Just ask Colleen and Eric.
At first, Colleen and Eric felt great about the church they attended. After all, that's where they had met, were married, and had started raising their family.
At that point in their lives, Colleen and Eric weren't really searching for God — just the acceptance of a group of peers. So when they started noticing the church leadership's apparent contradictions and deception, they kept quiet. What they didn't know for several years: their church was part of a now-discredited cult.
After Colleen and Eric left the cult, pain, guilt, and doubts plagued them. The experience "caused me to question my own ability to see the truth," Colleen says. "I had guilt for seeing red flags along the way, but not doing anything about it. You ask God for forgiveness and He gives it, but it's hard to forgive yourself. I felt cheated, like I had wasted all those years."
Within a year, however, Colleen and Eric joined the Vista Del Sol church in El Paso, Texas, and began the second religious journey of their life — this time in a healthy church environment.
Colleen's desire to be accepted was met — this time in a positive environment. "We felt genuinely loved by everyone," she says. "Walter Muller [the pastor] embraced us and loved us. I think his Austrian background made him have a heart for people who were a little different."
Despite the guilt that Colleen felt from being in a cult, she wouldn't change her past. Why? God has allowed her to share her story with and assist others who have had bad church experiences.
It Could Happen to You
You don't have to join a cult to have a bad church experience.
Approximately 22 million Americans say they are Christians and made a faith commitment to Jesus Christ, and say that commitment is still important to them, but they have struggled with faith or relational issues and therefore quit going to church.
Tens of thousands more will join their ranks this week.
Like a safe harbor, local churches can be a second home for many people.
Sadly, churches also can be the setting for some of the harshest attacks against our faith.
Problems can arise when you and I are:
- Unsure of where we fit in a local church.
- Confused or overwhelmed by church expectations.
- Rejected, humiliated, or hurt by someone in the church.
Steps to Recovery
If you're still struggling with a bad church experience, you're not alone. The good news: like Colleen and Eric, it's possible for you to make a healthy recovery.
Many people have found it helpful to use a journal to record some of their recovery steps. Pursue whatever steps sound most applicable to you:
- List the ways you've been wounded by others. Write down who hurt you and how.
- Describe any times you've been confused or overwhelmed while attending a particular church.
- Describe any times you wondered how you fit in a local church.
- Study what the Bible teaches about experiencing God's forgiveness and forgiving others. Read the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 39-45. If you have an opportunity, look up verses on "Forgive" (and related words) in a Bible concordance. In your journal, make a list of what you learn.
- Pray about what you've learned about forgiveness. Ask God to make each truth real in your own experience.
- Identify who you need to meet with to ask for forgiveness for the wrongs you have done. Pray ahead of time that they will graciously forgive you. If a lot of time has passed, it's even okay to pray that they've forgotten what you did.
- Identify who has wronged you. Tell the Lord how badly you were hurt. Thank God for understanding how you were wounded. Ask Him to give you the ability to forgive each person in your heart, no matter what they did, even if they never apologize to you.Identify the individual(s) you can't seem to forgive. Do you need to meet with that person and a third party to seek repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation? If so, who could you ask to serve as that third party? A Christian counselor? Your pastor? Another godly older friend?
- Start the process of finding a new, healthy church home (see below).
Finding a Good Local Church
Perhaps, like Colleen and Eric, it's time for you to begin a new spiritual journey — this time in a healthy church environment. Research studies have documented numerous benefits for couples and families.
Here's how to find a good local church that's right for you:
- Take a minute to determine what you're looking for. Choose what interests you, then print out a quick assessment of your spiritual wishes. Do you want resources to enrich your marriage? Positive spiritual, moral, and social training for your children? What other benefits do you want?
- Take another minute to determine your current religious preferences. Describe what matters to you, then print out an assessment of your spiritual preferences. What's your religious background? Your spouse's religious background? What other spiritual factors are significant to your family?
- Then take another minute or two to decide what options to pursue. Discover and begin exploring your local options. Learn how to get the most out of the church you decide to attend.
Leaving your church under bad circumstances can lead to the temptation to abandon church entirely. Here's what some prominent Christians have had to say about spiritual drifiting:
"At a deep level I sense the church contains something I desperately need. Whenever I abandon church for a time, I find that I am the one who suffers. My faith fades, and the crusty shell of lovelessness grows over me again. I grow colder rather than hotter. And so my journeys away from church have always circled back inside." — Philip Yancey
"Life is full of people who 'used to believe.' But because things turned out darkerand tougher than they supposed, they have decided that 'there can't be a God to let things like that happen.' But 'things like that' have always happened, to all sorts of people; even to Christ." — J. B. Phillips
"Maybe if you have money, health and a busy schedule, you don't feel the need to fellowship with other Christians. But when the storms of life hit — and they will — suddenly you'll find nobody's there. If you remain shallow in your relationship to your local church, you will lose out on the support of other Christians when you need it most." — Luis Palau