10 ways churches jack people up

10 ways churches jack people upi do not think church systems wake up in the morning and think “i’m going to hurt a lot of people today.”  intentions are often good.  stirrings from God seem clear.  visions and strategies make total sense.  the desire to make a difference “for the kingdom” is strong.

for all kinds of reasons, though, many church systems are really unhealthy.  often our basic insecurity as christians is a flaw that crops up all over the place in the way we interact with the world.   our blindedness to our own dysfunctions and the fear of counseling & recovery (for ourselves & within the church) makes us even more unsafe.  sprinkle in power and a structure that has thrived with one charismatic leader on top, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

churches hurt people when they:

1. abuse power

2. put programs over people

3. perpetuate inequality 

4. demand certainty

5. expect conformity 

6. dismiss pain 

7. ignore giftedness

8. pull the God/here’s-what-the-Bible says trump card

9. create scapegoats

10. shame, and then shame some more

i’m sure there are many more. these are just a few off the top of my head.  what would you add?

i often wonder what Jesus would think of today’s contemporary church.  what we’ve created seems so similar to what he was railing against during his time on earth.  his call to a life centered on the beatitudes has been hijacked by many systems built on his name, and something far different has been promoted & modeled.  there’s a lot of carnage out here because of it.  beautiful, sincere, dear people who really believed in “church” and ended up on the outs for all kinds of reasons.

some days it just makes me cry.

i have a deep passion for those that we call “the walking wounded”–followers of Jesus hurt by the systems they have given their life, heart, time, passions to in all kinds of ways.  i know if i hadn’t had a safe place to process after my painful church experience a chunk of years ago, i am not sure where my faith would have ended up.  we crawled our way to healing together.

i don’t think the church is aware of how much hurt it has inflicted.  the wheels keep spinning.  self-preservation continues to be top priority.  very little confession & change appears to be happening. and those who are still “in” get mad at the people who are “out” and think they should just get over it, quit being so angry & hurt, and start playing again.

this ignoring of the reality of wounding is even more painful for those already hurt.

almost every day i hear new stories of people who have lost what they most held dear and now don’t know where to turn.  our brothers & sisters are on the side of the road, bleeding, bruised, and with no ability to find safe shelter since the one place they should be able to find comfort & spiritual care is the very place that jacked them up in the first place.

i wish there were safer spaces for healing from church woundedness, other than expensive therapy and blogs and people-left-to-figure-it-out-all-on-their-own.  but the truth is there aren’t a bunch of them.  i think these wounds scare people.  i understand why.  it’s tricky stuff because it’s often the deepest pain–damage to our souls.

but we’re trying to be brave and play our small part in creating one, a safe pocket of love and healing for those who have been hurt by church. 

a place to tell stories & garner strength & find hope.

we hosted a live event in denver in october & just wrapped up our first online class–walking wounded: hope for those hurt by the church.    it was really healing for those who participated, so we decided to offer it again, starting april 9th (registration details here).   online isn’t our first choice; we wish we could all be together in the same room, but this is the next best thing.  it’s our little contribution to the underground railroad.

meanwhile, my deepest desire is to not need a place for wounds to be healed because we’d begin to shift what’s creating the wounding in the first place.

that people who plant new trees would take a good, hard look at these 10 things and do everything possible to not re-create them.

that current systems would repent & change & embody a better way.

that the beatitudes would be infused in our hearts & our practices and we’d find ways to be people who heal & restore instead of jack up & hurt.

it’s so possible, it’s just a lot harder to do.

God, help us participate in healing & change in the church; we’re tired of seeing so many people hurt.

 

 

 

 

52 Comments

  • Just reading that list brings back so many bad memories, and makes me feel ill. Thankful that someone is addressing it (you :)) So sick of these things being swept under the carpet, or labeled “sour grapes,” etc.
    Hoping that at some point I can get to one of your seminars… But in the meantime I plug away at the whole forgiveness thing….. although I can’t imagine a scenario where I will ever fully trust again :/
    Your posts (your ministry!) give me hope, though, and a gratefulness that there is still authenticity out there 🙂
    Hugs 🙂

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    • hey my dear, sorry to make you feel sick….but yeah, you know the feeling. i really like what you said “so sick of these things being swept under the carpet or labeled sour grapes..” that is so true. it seems like those are everyone’s best 2 options and it is really hurtful. if you can carve a little time out online, would love to have you be part of our 4 week group. the nice part is that it’s all at your own pace, can do whatever works for you & the material might help in terms of continued healing. meanwhile, just know that you aren’t crazy & you aren’t alone. love and peace.

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      • Thanks for the reply (oh so long ago, my bad!!), and for the encouraging words! I hope to get in on one of the Walking Wounded seminars eventually; it’s all in the timing. Thanks for making me feel welcome 🙂 Hugs!!

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  • TEN COMMANDMENTS for doing church right!!! You truly must be healed to describe this immense challenge with such grace and poignancy. You are so right as to how often one can encounter people with just such an experience, whether they have broken free or still continue in turmoil within their own church community. I’ve been frustrated how so many people can leave and still be described as merely following the exodus of their friends or family when these people are often as loyal to their congregation, the Church and to God, as it gets.

    Very recently, I witnessed in our annual general meeting a motion to form a committee that would contact former members to help them bring closure to this experience. It’s basis was that you do not simply lose members of your body that were once part of you without concern for their personal well-being, to help release them to serve with their gifts freely and fully at a new church and to determine if their desire is to leave in the first place or if it is with a grievance.

    The “ten commandments” (hope that term doesn’t offend anyone) are a fabulous list because it encompasses a plethora of examples and problems if broken down or elaborated on. I think I have observed some RED FLAGS that have room for interpretation and discussion but are certainly worth considering if the leadership team is saying these things:

    – house gatherings are NOT Church.
    – unbelievers do NOT have spiritual gifts.
    – Jesus wants you to be FULLY committed to your (specific) church.
    OR, IF:
    – the shots are predominately called by PAID servants/rarely by other leaders.
    – church discipline ENFORCES separation from those outside the congregation.
    – hiring of individuals is replacing GROUP volunteering or leadership TEAMS.

    There are more obvious matters but it is not the simple wrongs that cause the deepest pain. I believe the “spiritual abuse” you are suggesting causes the most anguish because the conflict ends up inside the individual as he/she struggles with guilt, shame, faith, justification and love when right and wrong are not so clear and others are “demanding certainty”. That is not FREEDOM!!! — Lucas

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    • Lucas, Great comment! I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of days, especially the part about the committee that will contact former members.

      For many years my wife and I followed up on visitors to our church and kept track of who was attending (400-600 people). Several people volunteered to help us follow up on the occasional attenders and those who had stopped attending. Many had stopped because of job changes (worked Sunday) and similar reasons. But there were those who had stopped because of grievances.

      Except for my wife and I, we stopped following up on those who had left. Everyone else who did it could not handle it (Oh the stories you hear!) and left the church. Some of the grievances were valid to some extent, but most involved personality conflicts between the person who had left and someone else in the church. Hearing the stories is more than many people can bear.

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    • thanks so much lucas for taking time share. great stuff. i really like what you said about the realities of ending up struggling with so much guilt/shame/conflict inside about it. that is so not freedom but it does seem like such a common feeling for so many–“what’s wrong with us?” mixed in with God stuff and it gets really confusing. glad that your conference is considering ways to acknowledge some of this stuff, too.

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  • Oh man…I stumbled on this blog while killing some time on the internet…. obviously I was lead here on purpose! Your comments in “10 ways churches jack people up” hit a nail right on the head related to our experience in our church. ..” our brothers & sisters are on the side of the road, bleeding, bruised, and with no ability to find safe shelter since the one place they should be able to find comfort & spiritual care is the very place that jacked them up in the first place….”. For more than 30 years we were givers – we gave a ton of our time to help lead others to Christ, we help as teachers in Sunday School programs, nursery programs, VBS programs, youth sponsorship, door to door introductions to the church etc etc. We attended regularly – 2 x on Sunday and to the mid-week services. I served on the church board for 20+ years and my wife held several leadership roles including SS teacher for all of our time at this church (until recently).

    We have never really “needed” the church for any significant spiritual or physical emergency until recently. My wife’s father passed rather suddenly suddenly. He and his wife live about a 90 minute drive from our home (church). We were in contact with our pastor over a course of about 10 days, while keeping a bed side vigil in the hospital, keeping him informed of the status. He basically brushed us off but said he would make sure the information go into the churches prayer chain. In fact, when the father in law passed away he hadn’t even informed anyone in the congregation. Only one of our close friends from the church was able to come to the funeral at the last minute when we contacted them (since we had seen or heard from no one). No one else from our church (including the pastor) came to the visitation at the funeral home or to the funeral because he didn’t tell them.

    We were shocked to find this out. Several others friends at the church broke down in tears when we told them what had gone on. We were abandoned. Left on the side of the road….and are still laying there. We feel like the church we love didn’t and doesn’t care. We were so wounded that we informed the pastor that we were stepping down from any of the service roles we had. One of the church board members, whom I sat with when I was on the board, got wind of all of this and apparently brought the topic up at a church board meeting where she was quickly told that this was not our (boards)concern. There is much more that I could write about this but it is not my intention to slander or demean anyone. But our spirits were broken in two. We needed the arms around the shoulder, the caring phone calls, the we Love You whispers in the ear.

    So – here we lay…still on the side of the road- feeling abandoned- now not attending regularly,no longer with a sense of being loved or wanted. But, God’s grace covers all and we continue to walk in his strength and in his light. I focus on him, his words and instructions. Another chapter will be written, another sun rise and sun set will delight our eyes and our mighty God still reigns!

    In his strength I feel the call to author a book about some of these experiences in an effort to help out church communities to insure they don’t fall into being complacent in nature and not to rely on a since leader. I know this is part of the healing process the Lord has for me.

    Thanks for your so very timely blog (comments). My soul was lifted a little more today!

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    • john, whoa, that is wild, just stumbling on this post considering what you are in the midst of. thanks for reading and taking time to share. so sorry for the pain and loneliness you are experiencing. there is something very healing about telling our stories, in whatever form works for us, so hope that continues to strengthen you. meanwhile, know you are not alone!

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      • Thanks – belive it or not there is even more to this story… but enough said! We appreciate your feedback. As 21st century churches seemed to be more focused on the entertainment of worship many have forgotten the foundational values set for to us in the Word about taking care of the needs of each other. Our faith in Him is intact; all glory to him as we know that he will never leave nor forsake us. Humans will always stumble and disappoint. Whom I feel the most sorry for are some of the newer Christians who are experiencing the similar disappontments through the support of their local church or congregation. With a less mature knowledge of Christ these poor soles are left in a sorrowed stake and many fall away. My heart breaks and prayers are lifting in support of those less mature in Christ whom are or have been disappointed in a church experience. Thank you again! You words are soothing for my heart.

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  • Hey, Kathy…wow, there’s so much here.

    It’s been an interesting time over here. 🙂
    I’ve run smack into the middle of the origins of my woundedness and was startled to find that the from-birth teachings of my denomination of origin were still playing little fear-based mind games with me. Sigh. In talking to my therapist (who is no Catholic, though raised Baptist), I told her I was more convinced than ever that Pentecostal guilt was stronger than Catholic guilt. She smiled, nodded and said she was glad she was not a ‘cradle Catholic’.

    That got me thinking in a way I hadn’t before. I am a cradle Pentecostal. And that is one of the sources of my pain and fear. It has been a long road to get to the place where I can look this square on and reject the religion of my upbringing. I know this will not consign me to outer darkness, but the fear still rises…letting go of something that was so foundational is scary. But I smell a whole new place of freedom….

    Wish I could participate in the Walking Wounded. Maybe next time. 🙂

    Peace, Jeannette

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    • you make me smile. i understood what you meant 🙂 i have a dear friend who was catholic first then pentecostal and he’d agree with you! i love that line “i smell a whole new place of freedom…” follow your nose. it is scary, oh so scary, the road you are walking on but you have had great courage to get out and make it to these new places with such honesty and grace. lots of love from over the hills. no snow here this week, yeah!

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  • I recently forgave 3 fellow staff/pastors from years past. I wonder how many I’ve hurt. Now being out of the contemporary church, I feel more true to who I am meant to be, among the secular, being Jesus in every day things. It’s not easy, the potential to hurt others is still there, but it’s no longer a frustration with church. I’ve also grown and changed a lot in the last few years, more focused, hopefully more humble and kind. Great post

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    • beautiful to hear how forgiveness, release, and acceptance is coming to fruition in all kinds of ways. also very happy that you are becoming more comfortable in your skin in this new place of ministry & life outside of the typical walls. i am glad we are all continuing to change & grow & heal & learn. a lot happens over the years, doesn’t it?

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    • thanks for reading, jeremy, and yeah, bummer that they resonate. wish they didn’t. but glad that we can learn from it all and move toward something better.

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  • This is significant. Hurt people, hurt people… unfortunately many of the people who hurt people are in denial about what is driving their behavior. Often times authenticity, genuine caring, vulnerability and weakness are just incompatible with any kind of position or status in the machine.
    Thank you for the constant reminder there are cracks, yet there is also light that shines through those cracks… this side of the grave we cannot have one without the other.

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    • thanks for reading, eli, and taking time to share. the denial is what gets us into the most trouble. and i am also grateful for the light that does shine through the cracks…

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  • I often get accused of being unloving when I speak up about things like this. The dysfunctional system perpetuates the dysfunctional system dysfunctionally. 😉

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    • oh yeah, it makes me so mad, how the system won’t tolerate any kind of calling out of its dysfunction. just like an unhealthy family. if one kid gets healthy and starts being honest, look out. but once we start getting healthy, we can’t keep participating in the dysfunction and maintain our integrity. thanks for reading and being a graceful voice into change.

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  • The pic of the house that is falling down represents the way lots of us see the Institutional Church, which is not the same thing as THE church, the body of Christ. Perhaps it needs to crumble. However, wherever there is religion, there will always be those who use it to control other people and line their pockets in the process.

    For many of us the only solution is to step out of that system. The system pretends it doesn’t understand. I think it really does, but assumes there will always be someone to replace those who are departing. (The system claims there is NO SUCH THING as spiritual/church abuse.) Time will tell, will it not?

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  • I could put all sorts of things in here regarding church and how church people can be incredibly mean and un-Christian, or I could put how church people can be valuably loving and caring. Both things exist, with indifference inbetween.

    But points have been made and I agree there is a lack of compassion and direct care for the body of Christ by the church, and I hear it all the time about most churches. Direct care of the body doesn’t mean outreach ends, but it means that healthy hearts have more open capacity to step outside themselves and extend a hand to lift up another or to listen with compassion the cries of a heart in so need of Christs’ forgiveness and love.

    How can this be changed (compassion negative state) when there are behavior-ingrained and stagnant groups? Why are some congregation members cared for exponentially while others with as urgent needs are ignored? Why the drive toward younger workers/leaders when newer members who may not be young could bring new, vibrant and workable ideas to the table? How can church practice examine people’s “life stories” yet be unable to address or deal effectively with emotional pain which could be based in spiritual need and resolved with spiritual healing? I just don’t know the answer.

    It’s quite one thing to determine to be a Christian, and quite another to survive a church experience.

    One thing I find difficult to agree with is that “hurt people = hurting people” – people who have been hurt often have the burgeoning need to HELP people, not hurt them. Pop psychology in the HP=HP scenario just doesn’t wash.

    God help us all.

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    • thanks gina for sharing. i really like that you pointed out paradox, that two contradicting things can exist at the same time. i have found that to be very true. in a church that i know of that is really unhealthy, a lot of really great things are also happening. it can be so confusing, but i think that we have to be willing to look at what is not okay to tolerate and what is just humanness. they are two different things. i don’t have any trouble with sin & struggles & brokenness when we are honest about it. but it’s the “we’ve got it buttoned down” and “God is on our side” stuff that is very dangerous. i so agree with your last line, we desperately need God’s help in this.

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  • It took me nearly 8 years to set foot back into a Christian church after they rejected my daughter who had special needs. It seems a child should be seen and not heard in the family service. I was destroyed dealing with my daughters disability was hard enough I needed God but unless you were going to sit quiet all through the service God didn’t want to know.

    Off course now I see that God was nowhere within that church, God was the one getting me through the long nights in the hospital, holding me up when I hadn’t got the strength to go on.

    But my journey back to God was a dangerous one, I went searching for love for faith in the wrong places and for two years got caught up in spiritualism, it was only by seeing the enemy i knew that God wasn’t part of it.

    Even now I still find myself questioning the need of conformity in the church, thankfully now i understand my bible more i see its people who try and make us conform not Jesus. Jesus was a radical, he loved all, he didn’t see their apart sunday best he saw their souls.

    The church needs to open their arms wide just as Jesus did.

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    • sara, thanks so much for sharing a slice of your story. oh it’s always so painful to hear. i am glad that you are finding God in other places. i love what you said about people calling us to conform but Jesus doesn’t. that has been my experience, too. i dream of a wider church with that kind of wide open arms, too. time will tell and the odds don’t look great. fortunately, though, many of us are finding our way in other ways. peace to you.

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    • I’m the “John” in the string of this Blog. You’ll find our story up the list. We too have a special needs child (Down Syndrome); not outlined above. She is in her mid 20’s now and her “freinds” in the church basically have nothing to do with her. SAD how those in the church forget that God’s love is for everyone- not just the ‘perfect’ people! Sara you are so special. God has great things in store for you!

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  • As a recent participant in the Walkimg Wounded class, I wholeheartedly encourage those of you who’ve posted here to try to participate … For me, it was a safe place to share my story and to give and receive encouragement … It’s a long walk to freedom, but I can say this is a “safe cabin” on my own Underground Railroad experience…

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    • i am so thankful for you & your story & your hope & your voice & your honesty & your heart for people.

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  • My church has been and continues to be a community that (apparently) is not common in your (y’alls’) experiences. We alternate male-female leadership each year on council. Our main governing/pastoral bodies are 50/50. We embrace doubt. The book, “Being Wrong”, has been quoted and promoted from the pulpit. We empower individuals as the priesthood of all believers. One of our (female) pastors led a discussion of “Love Wins” — and it was actually a discussion, not a fight.

    We seldom allow ourselves to become distracted away from our relationship with the Divine by petty theological bickering.

    And yet, I empathize with your struggles, and am hurt deeply by your hurt. The pain in my soul mirrors, although dimly, the pain in the heart of our Creator.

    I pray that what I have been blessed with brings you all hope, for there are Christian communities (even large ones) which are at least trying to be the “safe pocket of love and healing” with large open doors and arms almost as wide.

    (((((((HUGS))))))) to you all.

    And for those of you who would enjoy a more right-brained response, go ahead and click on my name.

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    • i am so glad to hear that, jim, and to believe there are many good & healthy pockets of love there, of all shapes & sizes. it’s always great to hear about them. i will have to check out your right brained response, too! i need to check out the book “being wrong.” i haven’t heard of that one. really fun to hear so thanks for sharing.

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  • I still attend the church I started to go to when I was born again 17 years ago. I know what it feels like to be hurt by “the church”, I still hold a bit of the pain and find I am a little less likely to fully surrender to what God is leading me to do. I know in my heart that instead of holding the resentment and pain inside, I should confront the problem… yet I am afraid. That is the problem in most cases. I knwo that the church is primarily lead by broken people. We are all broken in some way or another so why would we expect anything different.

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    • thanks for sharing, maggie. yeah, it is always a tricky dance. accepting what is and our humanness and brokenness and flaws while at the same time not just seeing weird stuff and not saying anything about it out of fear. in healthy systems, we can bring out our fears or concerns and even though they may not change immediately or even change at all, they will at least be acknowledged and addressed in love and honesty. in unhealthy systems, people avoid it out of fear or shut any kind of dissonance down. peace to you.

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  • I wonder if those of us who have commented here started our own Christian community, if we’d do any better. I can find the seed of every oppressive system, religious or otherwise, within my own heart: greed, pride, lust, unforgiveness. There’s a latent Pharisee hidden within us all.

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    • thanks for taking time to comment, rick. oh yeah, no doubt that the “latent pharisee hidden within us all” is something we always need to be so aware of and seek God’s healing with. but i do think that it’s very possible to create something better, and i see it all over the place. the key ingredient is awareness, humility & honesty, which is often not present in a lot of systems. i know many church planters who are creating healthier communities. do they still harm people? sure, there’s no way for perfection but i do believe it’s far less.

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  • Why all the time spent on speaking of church. Why all the time looking at everything but Jesus. it is easier to attend, hear and then rebuke man’s system then to just go to the Lord. All abusive churches prove that we all need Jesus.

    Friends, go and get alone with the risen Lord. Pray and read the bible. believe in God believe also in Jesus. let the Spirit minister to you and not activities. Your life will never be the same and you won’t be wasting precious time writing about church.

    In this post modern, interpret things however I like, churches(people) have sought their own way in doing what is right in their own eyes.

    The truth is that Jesus is real and if we look unto the author of our salvation we will find the real truth. Please read the Bible and pray if you want that relationship with God alone. it will forever change your life. then you go to church whose members are like minded or share what they have in common. The Lord jesus alive in their life. What a waste to spend time on complaining about man’s meetings.

    Seek God and share Him. The Holy Spirit makes it easy if you try.

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  • I’ve grown up in a church that has a lot of refugees from other churches in it. This is something the congregations prides itself on, but usually there isn’t any active healing — we’re just as a passive refuge so people don’t have to think about those things, and their hatred of Evangelical Christianity or the Roman Catholic Church is free to fester until there is no hope of them reconciling with their past or someone helping them work through these issues because they stick around broken long enough that they become elders in the church and nobody can question them. It drives me crazy sometimes.

    Sra. Escobar, is your Shift key broken?

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  • Stumbled here through a Facebook connection. My feelings on people and he church (people). This will positive, I hope. Random thoughts.
    I believe 90+% of the people want to do good. At the job or in relationships we all fail somewhere along the way. I have had to go to others and apologize for my actions or comments and ask for forgiveness.
    My church is not the ONLY church. Worship is between me and God. I can attend other church’s and worship. I attend the church I do because I believe that Christ is the head of the church (not man), the bible is taught, people care for each other.
    Over my years of being a Christian (50+) I have grown and experienced the love and hurts that come with people. And been the cause of some myself. We say the wrong words and do the wrong things with the best intentions. But, the love shown by Christ on the cross overshadows everything else. Put your faith and trust in Him.
    I hope the rambling thoughts are positive. I tried to put a lot in a few paragraphs. May God bless you.

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  • Hey, just stumbled on the site (through facebook) and am reading through a few of your blogposts, I love what you are getting at with this blog and I support you all the way
    My comment here may be a bit nit picky, but I think it is important,

    You stated that Jesus made a call for a life centered on the beatitudes, I see no call for that in the scriptures, he certainly said that certain behaviors have blessings attached, but the beatitudes start off a sermon that can be summed up with “Be perfect like God is perfect”
    Add to that the fact that he was preaching near the beginning of his ministry to a large crowd, many of whom were probably his enemies, I think it more likely that the teaching of Jesus most central to our faith would be a bit later on, to his close disciples, like In John 13-17 at the last supper. Where he said, ‘love each other as I love you’ and ‘stay connected to me’
    I don’t think we need a life centered on any sort of works, just centered on love and Jesus, it’s simpler that way, and that way we don’t need to expect perfection out of ourselves

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    • thanks for sharing, alex. i hear what you are saying and of course the sermon on the mount is a mind-bender for everyone, but to me, i don’t see the beatitudes as some far-off-impossibility for us but rather a guiding framework for life in the kingdom of God. it doesn’t make sense with eyes of the world (or religiosity) but i think Jesus is saying “there’s a better way, and here’s what it is….” these ways are far harder & costlier. i also love john 13-17 & completely agree with you that those texts teach us so many important things that we could spend lifetimes practicing and learning and embracing. i am glad you took time to share, i always appreciate and learn from everyone’s perspectives.

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  • This is gold! I’m convinced everyone who’s been around the church for any length of time has been through many (if not most) of these experiences. I don’t think most “church professionals” get how deep those hurts can run. My worst hurt was from a tiny church I had helped start and served faithfully as associate pastor/chief cook & bottle washer for 4 1/2 years, only to get handed my “pink slip” (even though I paid many of the bills) when the “senior” pastor wanted me out. But The Lord had my back and I’m now associate pastor of another small ministry that values what The Lord does through me.
    When King Jesus said the real shepherd will leave the 99 and go after the 1, I believe that’s to be our model — loving the nones and the dones and helping them understand how much our King loves, values and treasures them. No matter what they’ve done. No matter who they are. Many people are broken. The more we can love them and value them for who they are (not what they can do), the more we reflect our Lord’s heart for them. We’re to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), not eat our wounded.
    Great job, Pastor Escobar, and all involved here!
    God bless

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  • i have been badly hurt, but thank God HE kept my mind sane enough to know that it was man that hurt me and not HIM! #AMEN

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