These are times of naming the abuse by speaking out. Here they acknowledge indescribable pain, confusion, anger at their abuser(s), anger at God, layers of mistrust at the church and leaders, and also themselves. Cutting, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, sexual addictions, gender confusion, and self-loathing are common struggles of abuse survivors. But almost all of these students find such occasions to be a turning point in their life. It will get worse before it gets better, but they’ve started their journey of healing…even if someone named it for them. And here’s the thing, I know that churches could have similar healing services for the abused in their congregations…if only they would.
I should also mention that my own story was part of sermon series conducted at my church, Wheaton Bible Church, back in 2011. Here’s the link if anyone wants to see it.
PR: Nason-Clark and McMullin offer some practical steps that every church leader can take to overcome silence regarding sexual abuse. How have you seen these steps work out in congregations?
Andrew Schmutzer: I’ve seen regular mention of sexual abuse (and other difficult experiences) made from the pulpit. In other words, I’ve seen the pastor normalize the problem and invite people to seek: prayer, professional counseling or join one of several support groups for abuse (and other problems). My wife and I started support groups for men and women called CHAI (Courageous Healing of Abuse and Isolation). To this day I still visit regularly with some of the first men who went through that support group. They say that the support group was more helpful than counseling, though both are meant to work together.
Silence is also overcome when churches invite speakers with known abuse stories of their own (e.g., Josh McDowell, Wess Stafford). As president of Compassion International, Wess just recently began talking about his childhood abuse—but why didn’t he do this 30 years ago? Part of the reason is that the church had zero stomach for the abuse discussion. In many churches (especially on the conservative end), one couldn’t even mention divorce 30 years ago. The church still doesn’t have much stomach for the abuse stories, because it’s a type of evil and violence that someone doesn’t choose, and there’s always a power shake up. But younger men and women are now used to their favorite sports and movie stars “outing” their stories of sexual abuse. So the younger generation of church goers is wondering why the church is so silent about its abused men and women, boys and girls—I couldn’t agree more!
Pastors have an abundance of biblical texts to draw from—stories of real people—that can “break the ice,” if leaders would just teach and preach from these! (incest = Lot’s daughters; sibling abuse/rape = Amnon and Tamar; power seduction = Potiphar’s wife with Joseph; power rape = David and Bathsheba, etc.). Pain doesn’t market well in churches, but if sexual abuse was framed as an extension of stories biblical characters have also experienced, that could be a huge step forward. Finally, a well-stocked library could contain quality books on sexual abuse and healing, like The Long Journey Home.