Being hurt by church can actually become a growth point. Ericka Andersen shares how we can heal, and reenter God’s body of believers.
How to Try Again after Church Hurt
By Ericka Andersen
It was the week before Halloween, and my youth group was in the church van driving out to the country. None of us knew where we were going. It was part of my youth minister’s shtick—to surprise us with a new activity once a month.
Eventually, we arrived at a large, unlit house in the woods, which created an eerie aura as we unloaded from the van. We soon found out this would be a mock Judgment Day, a setup to mimic standing before the Pearly Gates. Would we be found worthy of entering?
I approached the fake judge’s table, and someone read this verse: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, . . . he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, kjv).
I was asked if I was willing to hate my parents in order to follow Jesus. The question seemed unfair. I couldn’t lie. There was no way I could hate my parents, whom I loved so much. I answered honestly and was ultimately sent to “hell” for my supposed lack of devotion.
At the time, I didn’t think much of the whole activity. I understood that hell was a place I hoped to avoid, so it made sense to scare people away from it. I later learned, however, that these “hell houses” were common among evangelical youth groups in the nineties and ultimately pushed many people away from the church.
For me, it was part of an ongoing, fear-based mentality of faith—one that was drilled into my teenage mind. It was a faith obsessed with winning souls for Jesus in the absolutely wrong way. I was told my friends might go to hell if I didn’t evangelize enough, and that demons were floating around my room at night.
After high school, I became a wishy-washy Christian—sometimes attending church during college, but often opting out. I felt burned by the unhealthy way I’d learned to see this works-based God who placed the world on my shoulders. God continued to pursue me even as I drifted away.
I never let go of my faith completely, and as I grew into adulthood, the draw to return to church and a deeper relationship with God was strong. He began to show me that what I had learned as a child wasn’t of him. In fact, it was the opposite of his way, which is deeply committed to our freedom to love him without coercion or fear. “There is no fear in love,” says 1 John 4:18, and that tells us so much about God’s desire for us.
Before I became involved in church again, I took several steps that helped me get there. The first was joining a parachurch organization that offered community and truth, a soft place to land as I found my footing in Christianity again.
The second step was confiding in Christian friends, those who could confirm that the hell house and the fear-based faith were not of God’s character. They were led by well-intentioned, but imperfect, humans.
One look at Matthew 5 told me what I needed to know: God is for me—for the brokenhearted, the merciful, the meek. A person who wouldn’t deny love for her parents (when presented with a poorly interpreted Bible verse) was actually the kind of obedient, loving person that God calls us to be.
My third step was taking time away from church to identify the negatives of my early experiences and reconcile with God. It’s so easy to conflate bad teaching with God himself, but that is never the case. It’s so important to keep focused on God in this journey, creating regular rhythms of prayer and believing that God will guide you on the right path. Hebrews 13:9 reminds us not to be “carried away by all kinds of strange teachings” but rather to be “strengthened by grace.” Humans may lead you astray, but God and his Word will not.
Looking back, I can see how important it is to accept our emotions of anger, disappointment, and hurt. We can’t bury our wounds and expect them to heal. By exposing the upsetting events we’ve experienced, we can begin the journey to truth, healing, and understanding.
Walking back into intimate church community can be daunting after experiencing church hurt. It can feel scary to trust leadership again, to wonder if their guidance is sound. This is why it’s so important to walk in prayer, armed with Scripture and a healthy curiosity that invites dialogue. As Christians, we can and should always seek the Word ourselves because God has equipped us to hear him through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Satan wants to keep us away from other believers, to convince us that we are better off alone. In isolation, we are at our weakest spiritually.
I’m more grateful today for my church community than I’ve ever been and can rationally process my church-hurt experiences. Despite our imperfections, he still created us for life with fellow believers here in the local church, a little piece of heaven on earth, before we are called home.
Ericka Andersen is a freelance journalist who has been writing professionally for over fifteen years. Her latest book is Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and a regular contributor to Christianity Today and WORLD. She has been published on topics of faith in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and more. Ericka is also the host of the popular Worth Your Time podcast. She is a wife and the mother of two children living in Indianapolis, Indiana.