The church can provide ample tools for propping up self-worth and numbing the pain of shame. Religious performance is one really great way to shore up flagging self worth. Lots of people immerse themselves in a variety of church activities to prove to themselves and others what a great Christian they are. Many church people are truly broken people that try to soak all the meaning and purpose they can out of pastoring others or becoming an impressive preacher, teacher or church planter.
There are others who use church activities to numb the pain of their existence. Some lose themselves in worship services or power encounters. They run from conference to conference trying to get a new word or a new touch or a new anointing. The desire to run to and fro isn’t a desire for Christ, who is always available to them where they are at, it is to find a religious band aid for a very deep wound that never seems to get healed.
The church is a double edged sword when it comes to guilt and shame. There is lots of shame that rains down from pulpits all across the world. We are constantly being told that we are not enough that we ought to be more. We ought to be better fathers and mothers, we need to give more, we need be more missional or more evangelistic, we need to this, that and the other thing. It is no wonder we are always tired but never seem to accomplish much.
On the flip side church can be a source of truth and empathy, vulnerability and compassion. There are many great teachers and preachers that have no intention to shame anyone, they just want to build people up and give them tools, knowledge and helpful principles. Unfortunately truth without love expressed in an empathetic relationship tends to result in shame rather than guilt.
Put people in a room once a week where they are continually reminded of everything they aren’t and you will have a community of shame. Few will experience empathy because they are too full of shame to be honest about who they are or what they are going through. When they do ask for help it will only be about things that they feel they can share without being judged. Even when there are opportunities for people to connect with each other their shame prevents people from transparency and vulnerability. So even where you might expect to experience life giving fellowship like a small group you only experience shadows of it because everyone is too afraid to be real. Fellowship becomes a routine of exchanging pleasantries and doing and saying what is expected of you. Does that sound like church to you? Sadly, this is church for a great many people.
Foster relationships with tangible empathy and vulnerability. When people know that they matter to you you will then have an opportunity to speak the truth to people’s brokenness. As Paul said, you can’t accomplish anything without love. The truth spoken outside the context of a loving relationship often hurts more than it helps. The key in this is to set the foundation of Christ which so many assume is having the right ideas about God. In one sense this is the truth, but it needs to occur at a deep heart level as well as at an intellectual level. The foundation of the gospel is that while we are lost in our sin and brokenness, God demonstrated his love towards us through Christ’s death. We can give him our sin and shame so that we can participate in the fellowship of God unencumbered, and by being filled with his love and righteousness we are restored to a place of health filled with faith, hope and love.
With Jesus’ life and sacrifice as our model and inspiration, we continue to affirm people’s worth through our own acts of love and genuine sacrifice. Nothing communicates worth more than setting aside something that is rightfully yours in order to help someone else. Jesus said this a different way: “Greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down their life for a friend.”
Our first thought in church ministry isn’t to tell people how they don’t measure up, but to communicate that in Christ they matter. When people know they are genuinely cared for you will have lots of opportunities to help them realize their dysfunctional patterns, their self-destructive coping strategies, their sin. It takes time and near surgical precision to do this in a way that helps more than it hurts.
The traditional ways that we dispense biblical principles in a broadcast medium like preaching, books or conferences will help some people. If they are already fairly secure in themselves and in Christ they will take these principles, apply them to their lives, process whatever mistakes they make, and grow. Most people are far too broken for this to work. At worst it just adds to their inner despair and shame for not measuring up. Even if they hear principles that apply to them it washes over them like water off a ducks back. Some might even engage enough to rationalize how this applies to someone else and not them. The primary modes of ministry the church is so invested in aren’t working.