Eight Weeks of Effective Witness Day 12: Sharing with People Who’ve Been Hurt by the Church

Last night I taught on sharing Jesus from my new book to a great group of folks in Ozark, Missouri, at Lifepoint Church, whose pastor Lane Harrison studied with me for his doctorate. During the break, a young lady named Sarah spoke to me about a ministry she’s involved with. She and others go into broken places where they encounter young ladies are — to put it gently — treated with less than respect. As they speak to these young adults, they find many have a church background, but their stories tell tales of hurt — judgment without grace, expectations without encouragement, and so on.

“How do I share Jesus with someone who’s been hurt by the church,” she asked. Here’s what I told her.

When you read the four Gospels you see Jesus generally responded to three different types of people three different ways:

First, he met the self-righteous with confrontation. Think of the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus told him to sell everything he had! Read his various encounters with the scribes and Pharisees. Or, simply read Matthew 23. In that chapter Jesus excoriates the hypocrites. I told Sarah when I meet someone who has really been hurt by the church in their past that some believers and some churches act more like Pharisees than Jesus, and no one condemned that more than Jesus. I’m sorry for any hurt the church gives to people — by the way, all believers are human, and we all are knuckleheads at times — but hateful, self-righteous people in church are no more a representation of Christianity than a father who abuses his children represents what it means to be a dad. In every arena of life there are counterfeits. We have counterfeit money, fake medicines peddled on the Internet, scam businesses, the list is endless. We shouldn’t be surprised when something as important as one’s relationship with God is also counterfeited by the self-righteous. Just as Jesus pointed out the failure of hypocrites to represent God fairly in his day, we should rebuke self-righteousness as a parasitic counterfeit to faith. And, as bank tellers are taught to recognize a legitimate $20 bill to be able to spot a counterfeit, we should seek to live as genuinely for Jesus as possible.

Second, to the broken, Jesus showed deep compassion. Think of the woman at the well, the lepers, the Gadarene demoniac, and many others. Jesus showed great patience, kindness, and mercy to the broken. He could have called out the Samaritan woman for her immorality, but he spoke to her with kindness, seeing her broken state. When we encounter broken people, including those hurt by past church experiences, let’s be merciful, gracious, patient, and kind. Too often today we switch these two, and show too much patience to the self-righteous and too little toward the broken. In a culture of outrage we would do well to err on the side of compassion. It’s no compromise of the gospel to be kind.

Third, to those who would follow him he expected complete surrender.  Think of the passages where Jesus told his disciples to count the cost: Luke 9:23, Luke 14, and others. Jesus did not allow for half-hearted discipleship.

If you share Jesus regularly — in the south in particular — you will encounter many people who have a church background but who are no longer involved. You will meet many who claimed to have made a decision or were baptized but who now give no evidence of conversion. As you talk with them about Jesus, you will find most are pretty self-righteous and just want to live for themselves. Share the beauty and the cost of following Jesus with them. But some you meet will be hurt, still struggling with the pain of past church experiences. Be patient with them. Show mercy. Admit hypocrisy is real in the church. Most of all, point them to Jesus.