The Abused: The Church Must Do Better

graphic PED

This is the speech I gave today at the For Such a Time as This rally.

There is an unspoken and seldom articulated crisis within the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) and the wider circles of the evangelical church. In the sunset of the attractional church model, we have succeeded in wooing many through our front doors with relevant teaching, powerful concert-like worship, and a myriad of family friendly programs. Yet our painful untold story lies in the crowd of broken people flooding through our back doors.

They are leaving because they are not shepherded. They are leaving because their brokenness is treated with contempt, inconvenience, or dismissal. They are leaving because we have preferred protecting our reputation over the cries of those who have been violated. They are leaving because they are not heard, valued, or welcomed. They are leaving because they feel utterly alone in their stories because so few abuse stories are even hinted at on Sunday mornings.

While we long to see the church grow deeper through discipleship and wider through evangelism, instead we are experiencing a shameful exodus of the very people who would offer the world the kind of authentic, raw hope the next generation craves and needs. We are losing our prophetic voice because of our nearsighted fear of how messy we perceive the abused can be. And yet, they are the ones Jesus pursued when he walked this earth. And, I would argue, are the very people who can teach us to love the world Jesus died for. The abused are our tutors, but we’ve expelled them.

Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, which is as relevant today as it was when he uttered it. Then, no religious leader would tend to the needs of the one who was robbed and beaten. And now, there are men, women and children who have been robbed, coerced, shamed, belittled, beaten, marginalized and sexually assaulted sitting quietly in padded chairs, feeling unseen.

They are afraid to speak.

And lately, we can see why. Leaders within the evangelical community have scoffed at victims daring to tell their stories. They have minimized abuse, using rhetoric that morphs it from felony to minor infraction. Some have stood to their feet, applauding sexual predation. They have covered up abuse within their well-protected and powerful ranks, then embarked on shame-campaigns toward anyone speaking out. They have re-victimized the survivor—something so grievous Jesus didn’t even place that in the Good Samaritan narrative. At least the religious people walked on by on the other side of the road. But today, we are guilty of grabbing the nearly-unconscious victim and re-harming him or her with our platitudes or downright harshness.

Here’s why there continues to be a revolving back door to our churches: the Good Samaritans of the world outside our churches have provided far more help and empathy than the church has.

This should not be.

We are living again in a time where Ezekiel’s words ring prophetic: “You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them” (Ezekiel 34:4-6 NLT).

We need to start searching.

We wonder why our collective back doors are spitting out people? It’s because we have not properly made disciples—the heartbeat and longing of the SBC. We love evangelism. Our mission boards espouse and revere the Great Commission. To disciple another is to walk alongside, to hear, to teach, to reproduce our faith in Jesus, infusing his love into the life of another. It’s about relationship, connection, conversation, prayer, and powerful empathy. But if we dismiss the hurting, the broken, and the abused, we cease being the discipling church, and we instead become citadels of unreality and privilege. In short, we shirk the joyful responsibility it is to truly disciple everyday people.

Ever notice how broken and outcasted people flocked to Jesus, the Good Shepherd? The hurting did this because The Good Shepherd exemplified the Good Samaritan. And that kind of love is powerful. Jesus was irresistible to the victimized. They couldn’t help but long to be in his presence because he listened, dignified, and healed them. He didn’t treat them as religious projects or numbers on a tally sheet. No, they were people. Unfortunately, we’ve lost our irresistibility, replacing it with the idol of stability and status quo, of protecting what is rather than redemptively dreaming of what could be.

We Baptists love a good turnaround story, don’t we?

We love testimonies of people moving from darkness to light. But if we continually push away those who are broken and beaten by the darkness, how will we ever see the audacity of light-infused redemption? The redemption of God shines brighter on the darkest canvasses, yet we have deemed those priceless works of art (Paul calls them poeimas, poems) as worthless. We have walked conveniently on the other side of the road, forgetting that Jesus wears the distressing disguise of the marginalized, bleeding in the ditch.

I am haunted by these words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 41-45: “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’”

It’s time to heed these difficult words of Jesus, friends. Because we find Jesus on the face of the domestic abuse survivor. He wears the pain of the sexually assaulted. He is the one left naked and bleeding and vulnerable—it’s how he’s depicted on the cross.

The pathway forward is not easy because it involves truth—the kind of truth that cuts through darkness and exposes the hidden motivations of all people’s hearts. It involves admitting systemic failure, religious pride, and, in some cases, denominational blindness. It will mean specific rather than generic apologies, genuine face-to-the-ground repentance, and a commitment to change backed by purposeful action. It will mean a radical recommitment to the Great Commission, making disciples of all people. It will mean a return to shepherding, to modeling good Samaritan behavior from our pulpits to our pews.

Atticus Finch is famously known to have said these words in To Kill a Mockingbird:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

In order to overcome this systemic loss of confidence by our most vulnerable members, we must put on the sandals of the Good Samaritan and Good Shepherd, cross over to the places where they are broken, bind up their wounds, and empower them to heal. A church that does this will change the landscape of the kingdom of God.

It’s my sincere longing to see the SBC do just that.