I was asked recently by a reader whether I thought there was a connection between spiritual abuse victims and the repression of spiritual gifts, which made me think about a connection that has been ruminating in my heart and mind for quite awhile. From the number of people I have heard from who have experienced and are recovering from communities of faith that engaged in spiritual abuse, I have to wonder whether the use of spiritual abuse to coerce unquestioned adherence is the culprit for the decline we see across the board in mainline Protestant congregations. If spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power, then there is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. Those young people raised in these community of faiths would now be adults. Adults whose age happen to correspond with the missing demographic in most churches: the millennials.
Perhaps the rise of the nones and the decline in church attendance is because of the rampant spiritual abuse that has crept into and overtaken our communities of faith. Perhaps the next generation of church leaders and ministers weren’t ever allowed to voice or express their calls to ministry, and so instead have found places to express their calls to ministry in other ways. Perhaps the next generation of ministers have created churches in bars, nightclubs, clothing stores, financial advisor offices, and restaurants because that’s where they have been able to find employment. These would have been ministers can’t help but pour drinks, DJ, restock shelves, plan for your retirement, and serve food without using those spiritual gifts that found no place in their communities of faith. They, like Mary and Joseph, have found no room or warmth in churches and so instead have formed congregations, places of worship, and spaces for others like them to bring their gifts to lay at Jesus’ feet in the most unlikely places.
And now churches are interested in drawing in millennials because churches are starting to realize that millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Churches can no longer depend on the financial safety net of Baby Boomers. So, churches are desperately trying to woo the millennial back into their sanctuaries and back into giving pledges with overhauls in worship style and book studies about millennial culture, all the while avoiding the difficult conversations about spiritual abuse that’s being practiced through exclusion of members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and women. Those who have experienced spiritual abuse and have fought the hard battle of recovering and found faith again, are not going to be willing to participate in communities of faith still tainted and overrun with spiritual abuse practices.
The most important issue our communities of faith need to be addressing is not the decline in church attendance or giving, but why this is happening. Answering that question will require churches and church leaders to take a long, hard look at how they have participated in a culture of hate, exclusion, and spiritual abuse. But don’t expect these conversations to happen without a fight. Those who have engaged in spiritual abuse practices in order to maintain power have proven they are willing to use any means, even holy scripture, to protect their positions of power and privilege.