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The Problem with Church: Pain in the Pew

“I don’t know why I’m about to tell you this, but ever since you shared your story, I knew I had to talk to you.”

This was the first time someone I knew personally reached out to me, after reading the story of my recovery from a suicide attempt. It’s been a few years since this conversation, but I remember how the words immediately grabbed my attention. This was someone I had known at least twenty years. I was growing used to being contacted by strangers from the internet, but not from someone in my own hometown.

The Problem with Church: Pain in the Pew

Pain in the Pew

As the story goes, a week or so before, my friend was called into the Principal’s Pastor’s office.  (I’ve been there before, sitting in “the hot seat”, fully aware of my guilt, anxious as hell, wondering what version of the story my “shepherd” was told.)

Isn’t it sad that so many of us fear a call from the preacher?

I wonder what would happen if preachers handled people like Jesus?

  1. Jesus, the one who loved the whore.
  2. Jesus, the one who made space in the Kingdom for a thief who was likely a terrorist.
  3. Jesus, the one who sheltered the adulterous woman from the stones of death.

Church leaders would have just as easily murdered those with a less-than perfect past, but Jesus accepted them as they were, before ever trying to show them a better way. Instead of being put on the “hot seat”, when Jesus showed up, people began to understand mercy. Jesus was fully aware that shame and love cannot co-exist.

​Shame and love can't co-exist. #graceismessy #lovewins via @iamsteveaustin

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​After a time of shaming in the pastor’s office, my friend met with her closest friends and bared her soul. She was desperate for a safe place, longing to be loved, to have the balm of compassion applied to her deep and festering wounds. And isn’t that what we all want, in times of struggle and failure?

My friend sat with three people she trusted deeply and shared her story.  She not only shared her struggle, but in a moment of transparency, even asked her confidants to walk with her through this trial. She was hoping for a moment of rest and companionship in the middle of a storm. She was even willing to have some accountability.

Unfortunately, as the weeks went on, my friend didn’t make as much progress as one of her “accountability partners” thought she should, and was told, “You might as well just go live in your sin.”

It is heart-breaking when people, who have been so far removed from their struggles, forget what it’s like to crawl out of the pit. In many cases, the Church has placed so many demands on Grace, that hurting have people begun to ask, “Why even waste my time? I could never measure up.”

Today’s brand of Americanized Christianity comes complete with bright lights, loud music, and perfect teeth. We have slick suits and Starbucks in our foyers. We look great at first-glance, but we are decaying from the inside out. And the worst part? We're taking down hurting people with us.

Never again,” said my broken friend, “will I allow the person in the pew next to me to go unnoticed”. Beautiful words from someone who has felt not only unnoticed, but unwanted, unlovely, and unlovable. Week after week, our pews are filled with ragamuffins, in need of messy grace. Each Sunday, our churches are host to many who live ashamed of their story, fearing someone will find out just what they’ve done.

Whether it is from the pew or the pulpit, we have created a culture of white-washed tombs: a church more concerned with the external demands of religion, than the internal gift of Grace.

From our pulpits and in private conversations, may we focus more on unconditional love than legalistic demands.

May we be compelled by never-ending grace, rather than being fearful of the flames of judgment.

May we find the strength to walk away from toxic people and those who abuse power.

May we stop buying the rotten goods the church is selling and continue to proclaim freedom for those who feel stuck.

May those of us who are fully convinced that we are loved at the very core of our being continue to cross the street and share the Good Samaritan’s legacy.

Dear God,

Give us eyes that seek out those in need. Open our ears to hear the cries of everyone hiding in shadows and lurking in doorways. May our hands be used to wipe away the bleeding tears of those who have been wounded in the name of God. And for those who have nothing kind to say, shut their damn mouths.


​The Problem with Church: Pain in the Pew #graceismessy #lovewins via @iamsteveaustin

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By Steve Austin

Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.

  • Profoundly true. Demands on grace…wow. Sadly, it teaches people how to hide what needs to be healed–and walk away from God rather than toward him.

  • One good thing about being an Episcopalian is that I can talk to clergy without being judged. The church is for everyone, no exclusions. We’re all sinners, we all screw up some of the time, including the clergy and we all need to support each other and to let each other know that they are ok and are not being judged.