Right after the NCAA National Championship game, the whole Crimson Tide fan base hurt. Why? They lost, and they were accustomed to winning.
What happens when a whole group of people are hurt? They look for someone to blame. For the first time, I saw people questioning Nick Saban's coaching genius. They withdraw. My friends who are 'Bama fans were strangely missing from social media the day after the game. They vow revenge. "Wait 'til next year," they say, naturally assuming a return to the National Championship. They trumpet their past accomplishments. Alabama fans reminded us they had more national championships than anyone else (which always has to be qualified by saying "in the poll era," since technically, that amazing football power, Yale, has the most). Oddly, they start to fight among themselves. This is the strangest phenomena of all. The Roll Tide fan sites were filled with debates about recruiting, quarterbacks, coaching and play-calling. They started calling each other names even though they were on the same side!
What happens when a church feels like it is losing? They look for someone to blame, usually the pastor. "If we just had the right pastor (my wife's cousin's brother-in-law), we'd be growing." One of the reasons pastors get fired so often is people think the pastor/coach is the reason the church isn't doing well. One pastor told me with frustration, "I can tell them what God wants, but I can't do it for them."
What happens when a church feels like it is losing? They withdraw. Outreach isn't a priority. "Let's take care of our own," is the unspoken priority. Preservation of the building receives the attention and the funding, not doing ministry. "We want a pastor who is good at visiting," not, "we want a pastor who will lead us." Everything the church does must be "safe." Real issues are not addressed.
What happens when a church feels like it is losing? They worship the past. "Remember when we filled up this sanctuary?" They have history rooms, not mission rooms. Old programs that worked in the 1950s are perpetuated because they worked in the old days, not because they meet needs today. Old nursery furniture is kept because "It was good enough for my children (who are now 45 and 38)."
What happens when a church feels like it is losing? They start to fight amongst themselves. They fight over spending money. They fight over decisions to update the building. They fight over staff. They fight over control. They do not fight, however, over the future, because it is too scary.
When churches fight, people get hurt. Staff are expected to make bricks without straw and are fired when they do not recreate the "good old days." People on the fringe are overlooked because they don't "belong." Grace is not given to people who threaten the status quo. The fights in church conference or in committee meeting get more vicious. Labels are applied. Sides are chosen. "Us vs. Them" becomes "Righteous vs. Evil."
Hurt churches hurt people. When a church feels like it is losing, it is hurting. Toxicity sets in. Healthier people will leave. Some will stay out of loyalty to the past. No one is asking, "How do I love the people in this church like Jesus?"
How do you heal church hurt? It's simple, really. The people in the church must decide they want to follow Jesus more than they want to blame, more than they want to withdraw, more than they want to remember the past, and more than they want to fight. They beg God for his power to overtake them. They commit themselves to discover God's mission. The only way a church heals its hurt is to love the Lord more than it loves the hurt.
This is hard work. It requires the leadership to seek the wisdom of God. It requires the people of the church to be humble and broken before the Lord, asking forgiveness as a church and desiring more than anything the wisdom and power of God. It requires the people to live in grace, being filled with His love and being grateful for His mercy.
Is this possible? Yes. I've seen churches do this hard work. The wounds heal. The divisions close. Health is returned. People are helped, not hurt.
Sometimes churches do not want to do this hard work. They choose the easier path of dysfunction. People in these churches must decide if they need to find a healthier church or if they are called to be part of the faithful remnant that is to reclaim God's power and wisdom for that church. Unfortunately, many decide to stay unhealthy in the unhealthy church. More people are hurt.
Churches are not meant to hurt people by their own hurt. Churches are meant to be places of grace, telling the good news of Jesus. Imagine the world if churches were healthy places of hope.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
More Articles to Read