There are many reasons people avoid church. They may not think religious institutions have anything to offer modern life, or they may feel as if they've discovered all there is to learn from their experience with the church. Others have been hurt directly by the church itself and may not be able to trust that any spiritual organization can embody the values to which it gives lip service.
There are those, however, who want to find a loving church home but their shame holds them back. Brené Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging." She distinguishes this feeling from guilt, which is the acknowledgement that one has done something wrong. People may feel guilty about what they've done; they feel shame about who they are. As a person of faith, you can help others recover from shame and welcome them back into a church that can encourage them to heal.
Guilt, if left unchecked, can become a source of shame. If people are experiencing shame because they think they've done too many things wrong to ever be forgiven, the first thing they need to begin overcoming that feeling is an outlet. Lend a compassionate ear that is free from judgment. Later, they may need to seek professional help or make the appropriate amends, but first they need to know that starting over in a community is even a possibility. Listening to them is a good place to begin.
When people feel shame because of something others did to them, they need to talk to someone who believes their story. The #ChurchToo movement reveals so many abuses within the church that have been covered up to protect the perpetrators. Sexual abuse is more common in faith communities than many leaders want to admit, and blame is often shifted from the one committing the abuse to the one being abused. Other people have been told that, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, they do not belong. Even if they're able to separate that message from the true love of God, it leaves a mark. For many survivors, these experiences shape their self-image as people who are fundamentally flawed and unlovable. Listening to them fights that narrative.
Most people who experience shame are going to be understandably skittish when it comes to actually attending a church service. They may be quiet and withdrawn, or they may cancel at the last minute the first few times they agree to come with you. Be patient. It's pretty miraculous that they are considering a return to church at all. Give them all the time they need to feel comfortable doing so.
You alone are probably not going to be able to give them all the support they need to heal. It may be helpful to introduce them to those who have experience assisting others with coming out of shame:
- Licensed therapists
- Church counselors
- Support groups
Remaining trustworthy is paramount. People who experience shame may want your assistance finding support, but you should not seek professional help for them without their consent. This behavior is likely to reinforce their sense that something is fundamentally wrong with them, and revealing their struggles to others without their permission can quickly break down any trust you have established. They should be the ones who decide if and when to get help.
For many people who live with shame as a result of their experiences with the church, returning to any faith community is not an attractive option. Others, however, may miss the things they once loved about going to church and are looking for a way to come back. All they need to begin is someone willing to listen.