by Cheryl Shireman
You are likely reading this book because you believe that you have been hurt by a church or you know someone who has. Or perhaps you were forced to witness a harmful church fight, and the experience has wrenched your soul ever since. Whatever the case, there was an incident, a turning point, and since then you have been different. So begins Stephen Mansfield’s latest book, ReChurch: Healing Your Way Back to the People of God.
If you are a Christian, chances are you either know someone who has been hurt by their church, or you are nursing your own church-inflicted wounds. This is a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless. Perhaps you, or someone you know, left the church amid bitterness and pain. There were feelings of anguish and despair. Perhaps resignation and bitterness followed. Mansfield looks at this reality in a direct and straight-forward manner. This is not a book that whines about the inadequacies of the modern church or the injustices of Christians hurting other Christians. It is a book about reality. Using examples from the Bible, examples from his own life, and examples from the lives of other Christians, Mansfield will help the reader shed some of that pain and bitterness and begin to heal by being grounded in reality.
While the examples from his own life are revealing as far as his feelings and his own contribution to his personal pain, he never uses the book to “tell all” or seek a little revenge. He skirts the actual events while still pulling back the curtain to the pain those events caused.
For nearly a decade, I had been the pastor of a growing and influential church. It had been a glorious experience and I had loved the life that we shared and the history that we had made as this nearly four thousand-member congregation pursued the things of God. But then, for reasons that don’t need airing here, it all came to an end amidst conflict and uproar….Frankly, it was a soul-deforming season of hell, and it ended with me leaving the church I had led for more than a decade, suffering all the isolation and suspicion that such departures usually entail. I was stunned by the humiliation, lashed by the loss and the loneliness. Each morning when I awoke, I had to remember what was happening to me, my soul so fractured at the time. And when it was all over, it wasn’t over. Thought I thought I had gone through all the required horrors and had begun to move on, I soon found that those horrors kept cycling through me.
Mansfield does not replay his hurt through the pages of this book, although he admits to nursing and replaying the hurt over and over again in the past. Instead, he looks at his reaction to the hurt, and how the end result might have been different had he not only reacted differently, but also had different expectations of what it means to be a church. He challenges the reader to look at the circumstances and people who have hurt them in a different light. More importantly, Mansfield challenges the reader to look at their own role in the hurt. How was the hurt handled at the time? How is it being handled today? I want to show you how to get clean and free from what you have done to yourself in your church hurt.
He begins by telling stories of Christians who have been hurt by their church, and yet went on to not only overcome it, but to serve in a greater way because of the hurt. He writes of the struggles of famous Christians such as George Whitefeld, John Wesley, St. Patrick, and Jonathan Edwards. Here is the lesson: Great men and women of God are not exempt from hurt and offense. Instead, enduring the wounds of fellow Christians with mercy and grace seems to be the call of every true saint, and we should not expect it to be any different in our own lives. Despite their trials, these men went on to serve God in a courageous and exceptional manner. After reading of the struggles of these Christians, primarily caused due to pain inflicted upon them from other Christians, it is hard to see our own personal grievances in quite the same light.
The book then walks the reader through his own journey of forgiveness, which was led by a group of pastors who came to him and refused to allow him to sink into his personal form of despair and hopelessness. He guides the reader through the same steps that he took in seeking healing. One of those steps is recognizing our own role in our pain.
He writes that much of our hurt is the result of our love for the church. When it works, when it all comes together and there is peace, finding the joy of a good church feels like finding the meaning of life. The danger, though, is the more we love, the more we are opening ourselves to hurt. In our love of the church, and our devotion to individual people of that church, we begin to forget the very nature of humanity. In our sentimentality about our church and those we love in it, we forget to stand guard against the natural failings of humanity. As a result, when someone in our church hurts us, someone we loved and respected, we are devastated. We never saw it coming from them. We expected more of them. How could they hurt us in this manner?
I have listened by the hour to the talks of what people have suffered as they have endured the blows of human nature in the one place they never expected harm – their church. I am more sorry than I can express. I grieve for them. Yet I also must say that to be surprised that human nature would rear its ugly head – in the very place where it is under the greatest pressure to change, where the stakes are high and the devil strikes hard – is simply biblical ignorance and a failure to live in any sort of connection to the real world. Mansfield does not pull any punches. He recognizes our sentimentality over the church, and even identifies with it, but then smashes it against the rocks and identifies it as folly. For whatever else you believe about the church, circumstances that have hurt you and have driven you to this book, you must admit that much of your hurt is your astonished horror that people you trusted could be so cruel. True? And you must own your own foolishness in over-trusting, over-lauding, and over-resting your sense of God and self on what mere human beings promised to do.
Mansfield writes of lost hope. He describes two men walking on the road to Emmaus in bitter disappointment. These men are approached by a third man. Unbeknownst to them, this man is Jesus. He asks them about their down trodden manner and they tell him of a man named Jesus. He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and the crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel (Luke 24:19b-21a, NIV). Mansfield compares the loss of hope in these two men to the loss of hope experienced by those who have been hurt by the church. I suspect that we can utter those desperate words along with the two men on the road to Emmaus. We had hoped.
He then opens his own heart. I had hoped –for friendship and loyalty and for someone to act biblically. I had hoped – for belonging and for truth and for a role to call my own. Throughout the pages of this book, Mansfield shows you how to climb back out of your pit of despair, ground yourself in reality, and begin to hope again. He knows your story. He has lived it. He respects your pain. But he also firmly coaches you right through that pain by walking beside you as you experience it again, this time with a critical eye to your own short-comings and unhealthy expectations.
He knows that many of us are hiding. We have walked through the hurt and come out on the other side, but we still nurse our scars and cover tender wounds. Your story is different than mine. Perhaps the day you walked out of that church is the last time you’ve ever been back – there or anywhere else. Or maybe you’ve found a comfortable, protected place at the back of a big cathedral, where no one knows and no one can press in on your scars. Or perhaps you tried to jump right back in and find another church as soon as you could. But in your wounded and bleeding state, it all seemed thin and fearful and not worth the cost. And so you’ve floated or you’ve fed where you could on television programs or through books. Or maybe you’ve simply remade your beliefs so you don’t need the people of God anymore. This book is a lifeline, thrown out to those who are ready to move beyond the scars and into the Glory that God has called us to. It is well written, thought-provoking, and inspiring. In fact, I believe it should be required reading for every pastor. Perhaps required reading for anyone who belongs to a church.
As a writer, he does not pull any punches, and yet he is often inspirational. The confirmation of history is that we are not called despite our wounding and betrayal; we are wounded and betrayed because we are called. And God yearns to make your pain redemptive in your life.
ReChurch is not always comfortable reading. Mansfield is not a hand holder or a back patter. He won’t shake his head in worry over your wound. If you are ready to get on your feet and begin to shake it off, though, he will walk beside you and lead you down the path he has walked, the path toward healing and finding your way back to the people of God.
Cheryl Shireman is the Purpose Driven Small Group Network Coordinator.