It's heartbreaking to admit, but a lot of people struggle with the gospel because of painful experiences they've had at the hands of other Christians. These negative experiences might spring from power struggles, church splits, or gossip—or from something much darker, like spiritual or sexual abuse.
These episodes can have a profound impact on someone's willingness to trust in the goodness of the church, and embrace the gospel. Here are some steps for walking with your friend through difficult circumstances, and helping them see Jesus with fresh eyes.
1. Pray for them
It seems like it should be obvious, but prayer is essential. Trauma's roots sink deep. And even if time dulls the pain, it doesn't always stop people from associating their bad experience with a Christian with the church itself. This correlation is hard to break and, when left alone, it becomes an enormous obstacle.
Pray for their healing. Ask God to work in their heart and bring them peace and, if necessary, justice. Above all, pray to become an empathetic listener. Eventually, you want to get to a place where you can speak hope to them, but you need to build trust—and that starts with listening well.
2. Listen to them
This is where a lot of good-intentioned people fail. Your hurting friend doesn’t need you to make judgments or give answers; they need you to be available, present, and attentive. Resist the urge to fix their feelings or solve their problems.
A lot of damage is done because of our tendency to try and repair things. This can lead us to fall back on clichés and platitudes that only make everything worse. Someone who's gone through a rough time doesn't need to hear "no church is perfect" or "God doesn't give you more than you can handle"—even if you're convinced those statements are completely true. We're doing a lot of the healing work by being present, and not by offering the right words.
3. Tread carefully
If someone's faith has been shaken by bad Christian behavior, it can be helped by the loving companionship of trustworthy Christians. But this demands an investment of time. It requires praying for them and choosing to walk alongside them.
In his Gospel, Matthew quotes Isaiah when he talks about Jesus' tender care for broken people:
"A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory" (Matthew 12:20, New International Version).
It doesn't say that Jesus sets the smoldering wick down to explain what they should have done differently to protect their flame. He takes the utmost care to ensure that the fire that remains is never blown out. He's the kind of caretaker that bruised reeds and smoldering wicks can trust, and we should be, too.
4. Read the signs
Eventually—after you've prayed for your friend, listened to them, and carefully walked beside them—you'll get to a place where you can point them to Jesus. But you have to pay attention to the signs that they're ready, because grief and offense have their own timeline. When you've built up trust, you can speak gospel truth to them.
You don't have to change their mind about the church. Just communicate how much they're loved by Jesus, and how grieved He is by their pain. And remember, your role here might be to get them back to zero from an emotional deficit. Someone else might come along who will harvest what you've planted. So don't feel like you have to push them back into the church. Take it slow, and be respectful of their boundaries.
Loving others into wholeness
"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35, NIV).
It's hard to see the church's reputation marred by the careless actions of Christians. But by loving others, we can restore trust in the goodness of the church and the hope that Jesus is in restoring all things to Himself.
People around the world can relate to feeling angry and hurt, and feel unwilling to forgive those they were hurt by. By reading a woman’s story in Ethiopia, you can feel encouraged and challenged by the power of forgiving someone who is hard to forgive—even if he is part of the church.
As you think about how you can be there for your friends and loved ones, you may also want to read these Bible verses about friendship. If you're looking for a strong church, check out the post "6 Signs of a Healthy Church." It will help you recognize churches where you can serve Jesus best.