By James C. Sprouse, Senior Pastor
I read a lot, especially non-fiction works about the Bible, the church, and the church’s struggles in the 21st century. Talking with a number of my colleagues at Annual Conference in June, we discovered that the usual suspects of church attendance, giving, and the need for more outreach, were the main things on our minds. We spoke a lot about the drop off in church attendance over the last 3 or 4 years. I listened mostly, thinking how much our conversations mirrored the concerns in a book I recently read. Here is a bit of what I observed.
For centuries pastors and lay leaders have watched the ebb and flow of church attendance, members coming and going, and some dropping out of attendance. Studies of those who drop out of or avoid Christian churches, show that a major driving force behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church. One study by the George Barna Group among non-church-going adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people. This is no big surprise to pastors and lay leaders.
Stephen Mansfield’s new book, ReChurch, sheds light on some of those experiences. As one who was wounded by past church experiences, Mansfield encourages others who have been wounded by their local church to overcome their pain and suffering. He says they need to overcome their sense of woundedness for two reasons: 1, in response to a biblical command or for the benefit of the church, and 2, for their own healing and maturation.
Mansfield cites numerous examples as he reminds us that God uses our anguish, pain, and our own immaturity, to reshape and mature us and the church. We are fully aware that many churchgoers are wounded as a result of the insensitive or thoughtless actions of others in the church. Mansfield suggests that these instances are opportunities for us to practice the commandment to love one another. All of us are flawed sinners. Avoiding or fleeing from the source of pain and suffering, rather than addressing it, overcoming it, and working through it leaves us wounded and bitter. Even worse, it does nothing to enhance the spiritual health of the congregation or that of the person or persons responsible for the suffering.
It is no big surprise that the way through it all is forgiveness – the same forgiveness that Jesus offers to each of us who have wounded Him. Christianity, after all, is about receiving love and grace through God’s forgiveness and unmerited favor extended to us. Offering that same forgiveness to others is the only means to us for becoming healthy and whole again.