Revitalisation and the traumatised church

I’ve mentioned a few times now that sometimes a church acts and feels as though it has been through a form of corporate or collective trauma and is suffering corporate PTSD.  There may have been a number of factors leading up to this including specific events within the life of the church such as the sudden death of a much-loved member, a serious split within the congregation or abusive and bullying behaviour by a significant person or group of people within the church.[1]

It is also possible that the trauma was not experienced directly within the church itself but rather reflects the experiences of those who have come into the church. It may be that the church has drawn a significant number of people from other churches who come with deep hurt from experience of unhealthy churches around. This will particularly be so when the church is a new church and has grown quickly on the back of transfer growth.  Alternatively, where a church has grown significantly as desired from conversions, those baby Christians may well bring with them past hurts.

At this stage, we may appear to be assuming that all, or a significant majority of church members have experienced the specific traumas, however, this does not need to be the case.  It may only be a few people who have been through the trauma but the wider church family carry the affects vicariously.  Indeed, if the trauma sufferers hold significant positions within the church, formally or informally, then you may find that the culture of the church is shaped by their experience and emotions.

A traumatised church is one that is likely to require a particular type of revitalisation.  You cannot go in there and expect to make some superficial changes and then everything will be okay. Rather, there will need to be a deeper pastoral work to be done. It comes back to the point I’ve made in earlier articles that the church will need to learn to be loved and to love.

What would I prioritise in such a context? Well, first I would look at the shape and tone of the gatherings. Do they have the feel of a family coming together? Is the church a place of love, joy and warmth? The important thing is not whether you have liturgy or not and whether or not you sing older songs or new songs. Think though about the feel of the service. Does it feel like performance from the front, school assembly, political rally or disciplinary process? If it feels like any of them then you will need to make some urgent changes.  One thing I would say is that churches in my experience is that churches that are not in a good way don’t seem to sign a lot. It may even be that they sing the same number of songs as other churches but it feels as though there isn’t much singing.  By the way, you won’t be able to go from 0-100. It will take a church time to feel able to sing again.

Secondly, think about ways in which you can show love and care with the whole gathering of the church. This might include anything from organising family social events, these might overflow to the community but they are not primarily evangelistic, through to the kinds of refreshments you serve.  Does it feel like the tea and coffee bit is a bit of an after-thought?  A church might plan to eat together -breakfast before a service, lunch after or even a meal during!  I know of one church that arranged for an ice cream van to be there to serve the members one Sunday after going through a difficult period leading up to and during the pandemic.

Thirdly, consider your small groups. If you don’t have them, then arrange some. These are the times when the leaders can begin to model love and hospitality.  I would not go heavy on prayer and Bible study at this stage. I’d use these groups first and foremost to encourage people to be looking out for each other and to enjoy being in each-others’ company.  Consider going for walks as a group during the summer of eating a meal together in the winter.  Don’t feel under pressure to rush the spiritual content, build that up naturally.

Fourthly, think about what you are teaching and how you are teaching both in the main meetings and through other forums including small groups and one to one. What is the tone and emphasis of your teaching programme. Is it fulfilling that purpose of encouraging the church to learn how to be loved and to love?

Fifth -consider how you as an individual leader can encourage this?  What are you prioritising in terms of your own time? Do you prioritise time in your study or getting out and about? Are the only times people see you at their door or get invited back to yours when there’s a pressing pastoral concern or when you are looking for them to do something?   Think about how you can show yourself to be given to hospitality.

Finally – but note these are not listed in order of importance or chronology look at when and how you spend time together as leaders. As with the church service, think about the feel of your meetings. Do they feel like a debating chamber, a board of directors, a committee or even a sounding board?  Or is there a sense that this is a form of family get together.  Do you only meet to make decisions or do you take time to hang out in one another’s company. Are you looking out for each other?

Remember that all of this will take time.

[1] This may have been an abusive pastor or eldership team but sometimes it can be bullies from within the congregation who even target the pastor, his family and other leaders.

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