Spiritual Abuse: My experience and recovery

On October 30th of last year, I attended a social event with my church on campus at CU. It was an incredibly fun evening, as it was our Halloween celebration, so everyone from the church was there and everyone was dressed up in their costumes. That evening, I spent time with some of the closest friends I’ve ever had in my lifetime, people that I’ve done life with and who I’ve had countless fun experiences and incredible conversations with. And as I left the party that night, I left knowing that I would most likely never see most of the people in that room ever again.

Simply because I was leaving the church.

Let’s rewind two years, to the beginning of my freshman year of college.

In August of 2013, I was setting foot on CU’s campus for the first time as a student, attending band camp for marching band as all first-year instrumental Music Education majors are required to do. At the time, I was interning at my then-current church, an internship that would end shortly after the start of the next year. I was looking for a new community of Christians, specifically people my age, to get connected and grow in community with. It was in these first few weeks during band camp and the early weeks of school that I met Sarah. I still firmly believe that Sarah is the closest and dearest friend that I have ever had. In my first few weeks on campus, Sarah and I spent a considerable amount of time together, discussing our interests, our lives and histories, and some of the finer points of faith. She invited me to come visit her church sometime, which wasn’t really possible at the time because of my internship.

During my first semester, I visited a few different campus ministries and got connected with one of the campus evangelists from Sarah’s church after hanging out with people at the events they hosted on Friday nights. He and I would meet and discuss the Bible and different Bible studies that his church made once a week. I didn’t always understand or agree with some of the things in these Bible studies when I first read them, but he was usually able to reference certain scriptures that would make me accept them. Once the second semester started, my internship ended and I was able to visit Sarah’s church. This church was filled with young people, people my age who were passionate about Jesus and sold out for Him.

And that was exactly what I was looking for.

Early on, I had my hesitations with this church because I had concerns with some of their odd exclusivity; There were certain things that made them seem like some sort of weird club, namely their special Saturday meetings that only members of the church were allowed to go to. But, as they continually referenced different scriptures to justify their reasonings for what they do, my defenses were gradually broken down and I eventually decided to become a member of their church.

During my 15-or-so month stint at this church, I made some of the closest friends I’ve ever had, and I felt for one of the first times in my life that I truly belonged. I also was gradually enlightened to all of the things that I was doing horribly wrong in my life and needed to change, was taught how to submit to and obey authority, was encouraged to practically sever all ties with my family, was taught legalism as some sort of misunderstood grace, and gradually lost who I was; My personality, my humanity, my calling, my agency.

What I endured during that time was a year and a half of spiritual abuse.

There were multiple instances during this time that my mom approached me and asked me to consider leaving; Each time I said no. Until, through miraculous circumstances, people who I’ve never met who live in Arizona got in contact with my mother and knew about my situation and certain situations happening behind the scenes at the church I had come to call home. I had had multiple instances of doubt and considered leaving the church multiple times during my time there, but the people on staff always convinced me otherwise, that Satan or demons or the fear of man or whatever were trying to make me leave. But this intervention from people several states away whom I’ve never met before was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I determined that October 30th, 2015 was the last event I would attend with this church, and that I’d never go to that church on Sunday ever again.

I left campus that night and haven’t seen or heard from most those people since.

Unfortunately, I knew it was coming.

On November 2nd (or perhaps a day or two after, I’m not entirely sure when anymore), I sat down with Sarah to break the news to her, that I was leaving. She knew what this meant as well. She was my closest friend, even in spite of the church intervening in our friendship, telling her on more than one occasion that she basically couldn’t be friends with me any more because we were getting too close (in one instance, we literally didn’t speak for two or three months because of this). But the fact that I was leaving meant that, most likely, we would never see each other again. Though at the time we both reached a conclusion that neither of us wanted that, I believe that deep down we both knew that would be the case. I reached out to my other close circle of friends as well and notified them that I’d be leaving. At the time, they were very accepting, and said that they still wanted to keep in contact with me, that I was still welcome to come over and hang out with them, that they didn’t want me to be completely cut out of their lives. Less than a week later, they changed their minds, deciding to cut all ties. The worst part was that I still had stuff at their house that I needed to get back. When I went to their house to retrieve it, they simply sat in the other room, continuing their conversation, denying my presence and existence for about half an hour as I separated out two sets of a card game that we had mixed together. Those were the most painful thirty minutes of my life.

I left their house that night and haven’t seen any of them since.

Sarah and I still had classes together for the rest of the semester and things were still civil and, honestly, completely normal, as if nothing had happened, until the end of finals. The last day I saw Sarah that year, I didn’t say good-bye. I knew it would be too difficult. The only time I’ve seen Sarah since that day was when I helped one of her roommates, one of my fellow excommunicatees who left shortly before I did, move out. There were few words exchanged and you could feel the tension in the room.

I left her house that day and haven’t seen or heard from her since.

Though I did recently send her a message just giving an update on how I’m doing since I left. Which I don’t believe she’s read and hasn’t responded to. Not that I expect her to.

This church I became a member of thrives off exclusivity. They don’t associate with other churches besides their sister churches, and when people leave on terms they don’t agree with, they cut all ties, leaving the person isolated and alone. I, along with so many other people, made friends at school within that church and nowhere else. So when people want to leave, they have no one and nowhere else to go. This can cause people not to leave in the first place, though if they do they often don’t know what to do after that.

This is what spiritual abuse looks like.

Spiritual abuse isn’t talked about much in most circles, though it’s a common thread through many different churches and denominations. It’s also a main reason people decide to leave their faith and hate the church. There are actually several books and articles on the subject if you know what to look for. In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen define spiritual abuse, saying that

Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being.”

Spiritual abuse involves taking people and turning them into obedient, subservient shells of human beings in the name of Christ. This involves different levels of severity of leaders using these people for personal gain. In some situations, the pastor, or whoever may be in charge, may even use church finances for their own luxury, spending it on cars, houses, vacations, among many other things. In my own experience, there didn’t seem to be as much abuse for personal gain as in other scenarios, but there was a very clear hierarchical pyramid scheme in my environment. A pyramid scheme that was based entirely around submission to authority, the main authority being held by a single person.

Mary Demuth, a Christian writer and blogger who also does speaking tours around the world, identified ten main aspects of spiritually abusive ministries that I’ve abridged:

Spiritually abusive ministries…

  1. Have a distorted view of respect.
  2. Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ.
  3. Use exclusive language.
  4. Create a culture of fear and shame.
  5. Often have a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism, and pride.
  6. Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information.
  7. Demand servanthood from their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives.
  8. Buffer [themselves] from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader.
  9. Hold to outward performance but rejects authentic spirituality.
  10. Use exclusivity for allegiance.*

These ten aspects of spiritually abusive environments are a good measure and indicator when trying to recognize these environments. My church exhibited all ten of these to some degree. The control exhibited over followers or members can also delve into the realms of financial, emotional, relational, and, obviously, spiritual control. They will tell you what to feel, who to be friends with, what to believe, when and how much to give financially to the church. They will gradually break you down piece by piece, picking apart your personality until you’re whittled down to fit the mold they believe to be Christ-like living. In my situation specifically, control was forced onto children within the church. In this church, all children are literally beaten into submission, justifying physical abuse with scriptures like Proverbs 22:15, which says “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” So the rod of discipline is used as the solution to all instances of a child acting out at whatever age. More spankings are encouraged for children who have mental handicaps. I didn’t really know about any of this until after I left, unfortunately.

This control has an incredibly powerful detrimental effect on people, and it can even be multiplied when people leave or attempt to leave these environments. Mike McHargue, commonly known as Science Mike, was asked how he would define spiritual abuse, and what happens to the brain when one experiences it. This was his response:

“I think when we hold our ideas and agreement on ideas as a test for fellowship in our life, that borders on spiritual abuse: ‘What you believe is more important than what you do.’ If people are doing harmful behaviors, confront them in love. But if people just believe things and we start to ostracize them and push them out of communities, it creates this state in the brain of escalated stress hormones, of reduced pre-frontal activity, because we’re a social species…Our only hope as a species is to stick together. And so we have an existential angst about rejection when we kick people out of churches or use the connection people feel, the good sense of connection religious communities offer, as a way to marshall people, and control them. Spiritual abuse and religious PTSD are inevitable results.”**

My own personal friendship and fellowship was based on agreement with the ideas of the church. When I decided I didn’t agree any more, they decided that they could not, and would not, associate with me any more. Their reasoning is that I would be a detriment to them; That I would corrupt their way of thinking and the unity (or mindless subservience) that they had established. When I left this church, I didn’t know what to do. I had lost my closest friends over night. I didn’t quite spiral into depression, but I was about two steps away from the edge of that cliff. I’m fortunate enough to have friends and family who live here and love and care for me dearly, but some of my friends who left that church and some people who are still there, having moved to Colorado from out of state, don’t have those faith communities to fall back on.

When I left this church, I had to re-learn so many things: Who I was, what I believed, what grace was and how it operated in my life. I also had to rewire my brain to block out the exclusive judgmentalism that the church had developed deep inside me. I’m still working through some of these things. All this to say, leaving wasn’t easy. It hurt. And I’m still recovering from the after-effects. Science Mike described his experience leaving his church when defining spiritual abuse:

“…When I left my Southern Baptist church, I went to pieces and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to go to therapy for weeks. And weeks, and weeks. And that leaving the church where my oldest daughter was baptized, and that I got married at the altar, hurt a lot more than when my parents got divorced. That leaving that church was a death in my life.”

Suffering from spiritual abuse is painful. But leaving the environment is just as painful, if not more so. And the fear of dealing with that pain, the fear of going through what people may have seen some of their closest friends go through, can cause people to remain in it, to continue submitting to the authorities that have worked so hard to break them and control them.

But even with the pain involved, if you happen to be in a spiritually abusive environment, my one exhortation is this: Leave. Get out as soon as possible. Staying in that environment is only toxic, and even though the church will try to convince you otherwise, you won’t grow in your faith. I firmly believe that faith grows through questioning it and God giving you the answers. When that pathway for growth is restricted by spiritual leaders, growth is practically impossible. So you need to leave. And, speaking from experience, it will hurt. A lot.

But there is hope. If you have suffered or are suffering from spiritual abuse, there is hope. When Science Mike was asked to define spiritual abuse, he was also asked how people can recover from spiritual abuse. He boils it down into a three-step process that I believe covers all of the bases. I’ll reflect on my own experiences with these steps here, too.

Step 1: Grieve.

Don’t try to be tough about it. Don’t try to avoid it. When we experience pain, oftentimes we try to turn away from it or leave it behind. My exhortation would be to face it head on. Press into it. Trying to put it in a box in the closet doesn’t change the fact that it’s there; If you don’t deal with it and allow yourself time to grieve (and honestly wallow in misery for a little bit), healing won’t come as easy, if it comes at all. If you’re not familiar with them, there are five stages of loss and grief: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. And sometimes all of them happen at the same time. Journaling, praying, and talking with people you trust through these phases are really good options to help you get through it. The best therapy I’ve had was talking through my experiences and pain with my friend Seth, who went through experiences similar to my own not long ago. Over six months later, I’m still working through my own grief. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. For some people, actual therapy may be a really good option. It will still take time. But have hope that things will get better.

Step 2: Re-engage with the Church.

This step will happen at different times for different people. Some people need to jump into a new church right away, some people need to take some time away from church to sort through their own issues with the capital-C Church during their phases of grieving. But, ultimately, you need to re-engage with the Church. Not the same church you went to before, obviously, but a different one. When it comes to finding the “right church,” I thoroughly appreciate Science Mike’s approach:

“One, your faith community must affirm, accept, and celebrate exactly who you are today. In all your beauty and all your warts. Your church has to love it. But your church must also challenge you to become who God is making you…It’s really just a two-prong formula: Accepts you as you are, helps you grow to who God is making you.”

That’s really the key. Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today. You’ll have questions. You’ll likely be angry and confused. Find people who are okay with that. And, more importantly, are more than willing help you on your quest to find answers. For me, due to the fortunate situation I was in, I was able to find a church that does exactly that. It’s a church filled with people who really, authentically love Jesus (even the people on staff, which is honestly surprising in most mainstream churches today), who engage with their community, who pursue issues of social justice, and who love like Jesus. One of my church’s vision statements is that “We believe it’s okay not to be okay.” But my church also believes it’s not okay to stay that way. And that “We don’t go it alone.”*** Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today and help you grow into the person you were created to be. It may take some time, but it’s so worth it.

Step 3: Recognize the way your experience can and will transform the way that you love other people.

In our world today, it can often seem like the church does more harm than good. We live in a country full of spiritually abused people. They may not have a name for it, but so many people have been affected by spiritual abuse. Those of us who have gone through it and lived to tell the tale have an opportunity to touch the lives and hearts of those who may be in the thick of it, or who may be in the middle of their own stages of grief. We have an opportunity to be a light in the darkness they’ve found themselves in. So many people today have been hurt by the Church. So have we. The difference is that we can turn it around and speak into other peoples’ lives from it. I firmly believe in the promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” I believe that my experience at this church will be used for good. My experience at this church awakened me to what I believe to be my own mission field in my own ministry in the future. While I can’t say I’ve particularly enjoyed the experience, I wouldn’t trade where I’m at with God now because of it for anything. My heart’s been broken for people who have been hurt by the church, either by its action or its inaction. And there’s a desire in my heart to help people in those situations that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t gone through my own experience with spiritual abuse.

At the end of the day, the main issue with spiritually abusive communities is that they aren’t representative of Jesus and who He is and what He stands for. Jesus is about service and surrender. Spiritually abusive churches teach service that benefits those higher up in their pyramid scheme. Jesus taught love and acceptance. Spiritually abusive churches teach judgment and exclusivity. Jesus taught that we are saved by grace through faith. Spiritually abusive churches teach that you need to fit the Christ-like mold they’ve designed, and not fitting into it means you are not aligned with Christ. Jesus pursues us even on days when we are angry with Him, when we don’t know where He is or if He even exists. Spiritually abusive churches cut ties as soon as you decide you don’t agree with them any more.

I’m still dealing with my own grief and recovery from leaving this church. I’m still harboring bitterness and anger and resentment toward them in my heart. But, when it comes down to it, I still love each and every one of them. And I pray that my friends — that Sarah — will realize the lies they’re being told, and that they’ll wake up to the reality of who Jesus really is and what He truly stands for. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to reconnect with them again in this lifetime. But if not, I’ll wait until I see them on the other side.

As my final thought, I figured I’d share one final anecdote from a friend of mine. My friend Seth who I mentioned before has a specific story about leaving his church that has basically become my own mission statement when it comes to spiritual abuse. When he and his wife were leaving their church, his wife was still on staff at the time and decided to go into the church’s database to remove the two of them from the church membership archives. When she went to change their status, there were three check boxes that members could be categorized in: Dead, Missing, or Heretic. Only three options. Because simply deciding this toxic environment wasn’t one you belonged in any more isn’t an option. She checked the box for “Heretic” and left.

I’m a heretic.

But at the end of day, I’d rather be a heretic who loves and pursues Jesus with everything that I have than a lifeless shell of a human being that’s been forced into the mold deemed acceptable.

So if you’re in a spiritually abusive environment, please, come join me and countless others here in the body of Christ who would love nothing more than to meet you where you’re at and help you become who you’re meant to be.

Be a heretic.


P.S. — If you are currently in a spiritually abusive environment, I really do believe you need to get out as soon as possible. What I would recommend is connecting with someone outside of your church; It could be your family, a local campus ministry, or the pastor of another church, and get help leaving. Find people to fall back on. And then once you’re out, don’t turn back. Move forward. When I left my church, the biggest thing for me was re-learning the reality of grace. The best thing I’ve found for that is the book Proof: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace, by Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones. When it comes to dealing with the pain and the grief that comes with leaving, take time to press into it. I would recommend going to therapy to work through some of the more deeper-rooted issues you may not be able to recognize right away, but talking through your pain with trusted friends can be incredibly therapeutic as well.


P.P.S. — If you aren’t in a spiritually abusive environment but know someone who is, please, try to help them. They will most likely be resistant, and their church will most likely try to convince them not to leave, but trying is better than leaving them to suffer without doing anything. As someone who is able to see things from the other side, please, do what you can to help them, before it’s too late.


*For more details and information from this article, read it here: http://www.marydemuth.com/spiritual-abuse-10-ways-to-spot-it/

**I reference this several times throughout this blog. To hear Mike McHargue’s full answer, listen here, starting around 11:28. http://mikemchargue.com/asksciencemike/2016/4/10/episode-64-ask-science-mike-live-in-ventura-ca

***Taken from Northern Hills’s “Our Story” page: http://nhills.org/our-story-2/


Spiritual Privilege: The lost and the apathetic

There are a lot of debates going on in our country right now involving the issue of privilege. People are protesting in many different ways the issues of sexism and institutionalized racism in the U.S., all tied in to the issue of privilege. Whether or not you believe these issues exist in our country doesn’t really matter, since it really doesn’t have anything to do with my purpose for writing this. I’m not trying to awaken people to these issues since I don’t feel I know for sure where I stand on any of them, nor do I feel that I know enough about them to say anything relevant. What I do know is this: Privilege can be detrimental to all parties involved, both those who experience it and those who suffer from it. But the privilege I’m wanting to enlighten people to is drastically different from male privilege or white privilege. The privilege I feel the need to discuss, I feel has the potential to tear apart the American church as it stands today.

But before I get into that, a little background.

I grew up in the church. Both my parents have been in ministry for as long as I can remember. I grew up as a “pastor’s kid,” which generally comes with two potential stereotypes: Either you’re a hyper-sheltered goody-two-shoes who doesn’t do anything wrong and tattles on and/or judges the people who do “bad things,” or you just completely go off the deep end and end up doing all of the “bad things,” getting in trouble at school, possibly becoming a statistic in regards to teen pregnancy, and potentially even going to jail in some extreme cases. Fortunately for me, I feel that I don’t exactly fit into either of these categories, though I’m definitely more part of the first stereotype than the second. People always knew who I was growing up, because they knew my parents. And because they knew my parents, who were on staff, there always seemed to be some sort of unspoken rule about how I was meant to behave. But that’s a completely different topic. All this to say, I grew up in the church. I’ve known who Jesus is and what He’s done my whole life. I can’t remember a day when I didn’t. I grew up singing “Jesus Loves Me” and “Father Abraham,” and I even knew who Abraham was, along with Noah, Jonah, Joseph, Isaiah, Moses, Paul, all of the apostles, pretty much any biblical character you could come up with. I even went to a private Christian school that was run partly by my church until eighth grade. Growing up in the church absolutely has benefits. But, I believe, it can also have some detrimental effects.

Again, I feel the need to write a disclaimer: The points I am bringing up are speaking in general trends of the American church at large. I know that not all of these points apply to every church in this country, and in fact there are some churches that this post doesn’t even apply to, including the church that I’m fortunate enough to go to now. But, I would argue that the vast majority of churches in the U.S. suffer from some (or all) of the issues I plan to address. I am speaking from my own experience, having attended and volunteered at several different churches that suffered from these issues. That being said, I ask that you read with an open mind, and maybe take a moment to reflect on your own experience and see if any of these things may apply to you as well.

That said, here are some of the benefits of growing up in the church:

I’ve always known who Jesus is. There was never a day growing up that I didn’t know that Jesus died for me. I’ve always known that He loves me, and that He is on the throne, reigning as King and that one day I’ll get to be with Him forever.

I’ve never known a life outside of Christ. I’ve never had experience knowing what it’s like being “on the outside,” not knowing where I’m going or what my purpose in life is. I’ve always known that, when my time here comes to an end, I’ll get to be in heaven with Jesus forever, and that that’s the most important thing.

I’ve always known to avoid “bad stuff.” Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well, not as much rock and roll. But growing up in the church, you’re always taught about things that will stand in the way of your relationship with Christ, especially things that are addictive. I’ve never done drugs, never even been in a relationship, and I’ve always tended to avoid things that are considered “really bad.” And, in most cases, if I’ve had run-ins with any of these “really bad” things, I’ve usually gotten help to get out of them.

I’ve always had a community. When you grow up in the church, you always have like-minded people to do life with. Some of the closest friends I’ve ever had are the ones that I grew up in church with. They’re the people I hung out with on the weekends and, on occasion, discussed some of the finer points of religion and faith. I’m so thankful for those friendships and wouldn’t trade my experiences with those people for anything.

There are so many benefits to being raised in the church, so many things that I’m incredibly thankful for and that have led to so many great memories and experiences that I’ve had in life. I found my calling in the church, I’ve discovered who I am in the church, and I’ve come to know Jesus because of the church.

Now here are some of the detriments of growing up in the church:

I’ve always known who Jesus is. Growing up in the church, you always know who Jesus is. In fact, He’s one of the biggest points of conversation, especially when you’re young. Your parents and Sunday school teachers always talk about Jesus and how He died for you, even though you may not fully understand what that even means yet. You always know that Jesus died for your sin, even though you don’t even really know what sin is or why it’s important, or what Jesus’s substitutionary sacrifice really accomplished.

I’ve never known a life outside of Christ. Growing up in the church, living a life in Christ can almost become hereditary. It can become something that a child inherently receives because their parents also have it. Because I grew up in a Christian family–especially with parents in ministry–I was almost born into the body of Christ. I’m not trying to knock on my parents or anything at all, the way I was raised was incredibly beneficial and loving, more so than many kids from my generation have experienced. But at the same time, there has never been a point in my life that I felt separate from Christ, that I felt that I was part of the world, rather than among the saved. Because of this, the life I’ve always lived and experienced I’ve always assumed was what a life in Christ was like, even though deep down I never felt the true change and transition from being on the outside to being on the inside. I’m not sure that the “conversion,” that true point and feeling of change is something that I’ve ever really experienced. And I feel that the same could be said for many of my peers that I grew up with in the church.

I grew up very judgmental. One of the main things that happens when you grow up being told “don’t do this, don’t do that, this is bad for you” is you start judging people who do said things. This point doesn’t specifically apply to the church, it applies to anyone really, but the church especially. No one explicitly tells you to judge people, it just sort of happens. And that was always me. As I mentioned, I was more of a goody-two-shoes pastor’s kid, and so I didn’t really participate in all of the things that we had entire sermon series on. I was never sleeping around or engaging in any sort of substance abuse. And so whenever I encountered someone who was struggling with these things, I immediately felt disgust and contempt for that person, knowing that I would never do something like that. There were certain sins especially that had become demonized in my mind to the point where they had become “the worst thing you could do.” This judgmental view had me looking at other people in a negative light while not turning the lens on myself and observing all of my own issues. And, trust me, I have a lot of them.

My community was very exclusive. As part of the in crowd, it can be difficult to remember the people locked outside. I have distinct memories throughout student ministry (middle school and high school) that we rarely had new people visit. And when they did, they usually didn’t stick around very long. And within this community in our student ministry, there were sub-communities, cliques of people who didn’t engage with other cliques. My experience in college was drastically different. I found a church that had new people coming in all the time and many of these people ended up staying. But then, once you were in, you were in. You became part of the meetings that only members could attend, and you only hung out with people within the church (specifically your church) and didn’t hang out with people who weren’t saved. Like, ever. (Involving myself in this community also led to a year and a half of spiritual abuse, but, once again, that’s another story.) And neither of these church environments really engaged their community in the sense of going out into the surrounding area and serving the people around them: Feeding the homeless, helping local schools with fundraisers, nothing of that sort. At least, not on a macro scale (I’m sure there are individuals who engaged in these things). Sure, we would raise money for organizations or take donations of food and clothing for different non-profits, and we would even have people go on the occasional missions trip overseas, but in terms of actual, active going out and engaging the community, being the hands and feet of Jesus, there was basically nothing. It was so exclusive, and the people who we engaged with outside of the church walls on a daily basis never would have known that our lives were “changed.” That we were “different.” When I was young, we just kept seeing the same people every week. In college, we brought people in and then wouldn’t allow them to be a light in the environments where the lost felt they were in a normal, comfortable space. And ultimately, I feel the communities in our surrounding area suffered from a terminal case of the church’s inaction.

So those are some of the benefits and detriments of growing up in the church. But, clearly, I haven’t gotten to my point yet. I started this off talking about privilege and then went straight into defining benefits and detriments of growing up in the church. My reasoning is this: I believe that the pros and cons of growing up in the church all add up to what I like to call spiritual privilege. Now, thinking through this, there are two main types of spiritual privilege: a purely spiritual privilege, and a socioeconomic/sociocultural spiritual privilege. The latter is determined by race and social class and is, quite frankly, its own beast that I don’t feel fully prepared to address at this present time, though the realities of socioeconomic spiritual privilege may be fairly obvious (to hear a good discussion involving some issues of socioeconomic spiritual privilege, check out The Liturgists Podcast, episode 34: Black and White). So, for now, I’ll be addressing the purely spiritual aspect of spiritual privilege.

If I were to give a specific definition to spiritual privilege, it would be this:

Spiritual privilege is the combination of the set of both positive and negative effects that growing up within the church has on an individual and the church at large. This set of beliefs and their effects is most commonly possessed by those who have lived their entire lives as part of the church, and haven’t truly known life without faith. These effects, which include a salvation based on heritage rather than faith, lead an individual and the church to a state of judgmental apathy and inaction due to the lack of experience of a true “conversion,” in the sense of transitioning from one state of being to another.

A very academic-sounding definition, I know. But here’s what I’m getting at: Spiritual privilege can cause those who have been raised in the church to be blind to the lost, the key word here being can. People who suffer from spiritual privilege are often unable to empathize with the lost, because they’ve never known a life other than the one they’re living. The conversion experience they’ve had is often based around a baptism, rather than a true life change. When people are raised having inherited salvation in Christ, rather than being taught that they are undeserving of grace, that they are just as flawed as the people that they’re told not to hang out with, and that they are saved by grace through faith in the One who was perfect and lived a perfect life in their place, life doesn’t change when you come back up from the baptismal. It stays the same, except you got dunked in a pool in front of the whole church so that they all know that you’re a Christian now, too. Any baggage you may have had before is the same baggage you have now, and the salvation of Christ has always been not only available, but a “reality” that you live in. Oftentimes, the “saved” are just as lost as the lost, if not more so. When your life hasn’t truly been changed by the power of Christ, the desire to share the good news of Christ about this change doesn’t truly exist. When there isn’t an empathy with the lost, because you have never truly lived life in their shoes, there’s no real desire to try to bring them out of their current state. After all, your life didn’t change when you were saved. So why would theirs? If their life ends up being the same after accepting Christ as it is now, what difference is there if they don’t ever accept Christ to begin with? Based on experience, the drug addict or the prostitute who gives their life to Jesus will become a drug addict or prostitute who’s apparently going to heaven now. Their life won’t change, there will just be Jesus sprinkled on top. Why should those people have the same right into the Kingdom of God as me, someone who has tried to do the right thing my whole life even though I fail most of the time and been super judgmental and hypocritical towards the very people I’m meant to help save? Their sin will just reflect badly on the body of Christ, won’t it?

This causes the spiritually privileged to interact exclusively with the spiritually privileged. This is why there isn’t a Gospel message preached in most churches most weekends, why so many churches devolve into a weekly self-help seminar on how to find the blessing of God in your life, rather than dealing with the secret sin you’re hiding. We carry Good News meant for the lost in this world, and we often hide it on Sundays because the people sitting in those seats are the same people every week. And they’re the same people every week because when visitors come, there’s no message that applies to them. There’s no Gospel, and the message being delivered is only applicable to those who are already on the inside. Hearing about how God can increase your finances and pour out abundant blessings in your life isn’t helpful when you feel the very life you have is hopeless. And if there’s nothing in this place to give you hope, there’s no reason to come back.

This is the struggle that I and so many others who have grown up spiritually privileged have wrestled with. Many people have grown up in these environments, reached my age and come to conclusions similar to my own. But the reality now is that people are waking up. Through one means or another, God is breaking through the sheltered Christian wall we’ve built and enlightening people to the reality that the lives of those we interact with on a daily basis are no less valuable than our own, that every person should have the same equal access to Jesus that we do. Whether or not they accept it is their own decision, but that doesn’t change the fact that we carry Good News. A Gospel message that leads to salvation and true life change. A Gospel message that, if I’m being honest, sometimes needs to be preached to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

So with issues like this, I suppose one question that comes up is, “How do I know if I suffer from spiritual privilege?” Well, that can be a hard question to answer. But, my guess is that if you read this and you felt something uncomfortable start stirring in your soul a little bit, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege to some degree. If you grew up in the church and you spend more time feeling lost and insecure with no direction, rather than being secure in your identity in Christ, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege. If you feel like you’re white-knuckling your walk in Christ most of the time, trying your hardest to do the right thing and feeling guilty when you don’t, you probably suffer from spiritual privilege, amongst other things (mainly the issue of depravity, a common struggle for people who have grown up spiritually privileged). If you can’t really remember a before Christ and after Christ moment in your life, I’d venture to say that you’ve definitely grown up spiritually privileged.

So then the question becomes, “How do I fix it?” This is where things get difficult, because everyone is different. In my own specific scenario, in order to truly understand the relevance and value of Christ in my life, I basically had to discover who I was apart from Him. For a few months, I kind of walked away from my faith in a sense, simply because struggling to maintain it was becoming a tiring, fruitless exercise that was wearing thin on my sanity. When I took a step back and stopped trying to be something I wasn’t for a little bit, I was able to recognize the areas of my life that I truly need Jesus to come in and drastically change, rather than me constantly trying to change them myself. I don’t exactly recommend doing that, and it probably won’t work for everyone. Another recommendation I’d have is just to simply pray that God would reveal to you areas in your life that really need true, drastic change (though, let’s be honest, you probably know a few off hand) and ask Him to really change those areas. Having an awareness of your privilege in and of itself can cause dramatic change. And most importantly, ask God to help you develop a heart for the lost. Ask Him to break your heart and give you His heart for these people in the world. Develop a desire for a true sense of empathy that relates to where real people are and looks forward to who they can become by the power of Christ. And then, once some of these things have started to flesh themselves out, pursue God. Find security in Him, and solidify your own identity and who you really are in Him.

The American church is suffering from atrophied evangelism muscles due to apathetic judgmentalism towards the rest of the world. My belief is that if this issue of spiritual privilege persists in our own lives and the lives of the next generation, the American church as we know it could die out. Partly because we’ll become so exclusive that no one new will come in, and partly because people will take Christians even less seriously than they do now. So be the one to break the pattern and become a truly new creation in Christ. Take the love we’ve found, this Gospel message, and change your families, churches, communities, and the world. There’s still hope for the future of the Church in the US, but it starts with true life change.