As I went into a shopping centre recently, I was greeted with a revolving door. I watched a child eager to enter trying to rush in. His mother told him to ‘take care! You could get hurt in there’.  There was a stream of people in and people out. It occurred to me that this is sadly sometimes a picture of church. Often people feel so eager at the start of their faith journey, however, for some people the experience of being in church can lead to hurt, pain and distrust. I am passionate about evangelism but I wonder how much good we are doing when we are losing people out the back door as we welcome new ones in the front.

I’ve spent the last nine years looking at people’s experiences of coercion and control in church: psychological and emotional abuse which is being called ‘spiritual abuse’.

Many people have spoken about feeling manipulated and controlled:

“Even in those early days I remember feeling pressurised.”

And silenced:

“He told me not to say anything.”

In the very place they thought should be safe and nurturing they find themselves damaged. Others have drawn parallels with other forms of abuse “that misuse of authority, power, leadership caused me to experience the same emotions that I have felt as I have come to terms with sexual and physical abuse in my life”.

Experiences of spiritual abuse are often hidden, because people are too scared, ashamed and worried to discuss them. “Generally, people leave churches quietly. They don’t want the world to think that the Church that preaches love can’t live it out.”

For many they hold onto their ‘hidden’ experience for years. For others it leads to self-doubt:

“I felt isolated and I couldn’t trust myself, my intellect, my instincts – this really messes with you.”

It’s devastating that spiritual abuse can lead to a crisis of faith, too:

It causes people to question everything, right up to the point of whether they believe anything anymore.”

And a deep distrust of attending any church in the future:

An ever growing number of individuals who either leave the Church, become cynical within the Church.”

You may be left wondering if there is any good news. I am certain that there is.  When church works it is healthy, helpful and full of hope.

While we may be tempted to believe that ‘going it alone’ with God is a better option, God makes it clear that being together is part of the plan. So what do we do so that we can be together, but safely? First, we need to admit this experience happens. Second, we need to find ways to make such issues less likely – we need to rethink church culture and to really ask ourselves ‘what makes a safe and healthy church?’ and to accept this is more than good safeguarding policies.  Finally, we all need to play our part in monitoring how we behave and act towards others.  Revolving doors are fine for shopping centres but not for churches.

Written by Lisa Oakley

Lisa is a University lecturer who has been married to Tim for 23 years. She has two children who are 21 & 18 and were born 3 years apart on the same day! She is passionate about seeing the church rise to the challenge of protecting people from abuse and helping those who have experienced it.

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