How to Recognize Hurting People in Your Congregation

sympathy-hug-smallSome of the people who sit before the pastor on Sundays have open, untreated wounds on their souls.

The church can really help them through today’s ministries. Or it can damage them to the point that they will never recover.

Your work is so critical, church leaders.

If you are the pastor, your sermon can make a world of difference. If you are worship leader, the choices of hymns and choruses and Scriptures, and the manner in which they are conducted, can be a balm to those in great pain. If you teach a Sunday school class, ask the Father to go far beyond the lesson you will be commenting on and do something miraculous in the hearts and souls of all who will sit before you.

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There is so much hurting in your pews, in the class, in the choir, even in board and committee meetings. In the pews and in the classrooms, in the hallways and in the kitchen, hurting people have arrived at church today.

When the kitchen crew gathers to prepare a meal for the congregation, it’s a safe bet that some are carrying enormous burdens and are praying God will do a work of grace in them today.

When the ushers assemble to plan their ministry of greeting worshippers today, the leader reminds them to smile and be friendly. What goes unsaid is that more than one of the ushers is hurting also and needs a touch of love, a word of God, a hug of the Spirit.

The problem is it’s impossible to tell by their appearance who, of all the people coming in the doors, are vulnerable today and in great need of healing and blessing and the Savior’s touch.

It would be simple if they all did what the leper of Galilee did and run to Jesus and bow before Him and admit their need and voice their faith.

They won’t.

Sometimes the most hurting will be the most “together” people in church. Their pain is masked, their wounds are deep, their cries are silent and their faith is weak. But they are in church today; give them credit. They have come in great hope.

Since we cannot tell from the appearance what is inside, the only recourse is to treat everyone you meet as carefully and graciously and faithfully as you can.

Most of the people in church today are vulnerable, pastor.

By “vulnerable,” we mean they have needs that can be helped or worsened; they can go either way.  Teachers and leaders and pastors can be used of God to heal them, or they can maim them for life. That’s why no one must ever attempt this work in the flesh.

The newcomer feels vulnerable, since he/she may meet wonderful people who will become their friends for life. Or they may be rejected, turned away or ignored. Few things are sadder or more injurious than visitors being snubbed.

In conversation, I urge them not to judge a church by whether people speak to them. After all, the members have their own issues and may be hurting or seeking help also. Again, the people you meet may be newcomers also. Best to free the new church of all expectations and enter to worship God.

The hurting feel vulnerable, as they hope to find healing in the minister’s words, strength from the hymns and Scriptures, comfort from the people, inspiration from the worship. What if they receive none of these? Or worse, what if the pastor is having a bad day—or suffers from chronically bad mental health!—and his words are barbs and spears and arrows that widen the wounds and drive the pain deeper?

To my knowledge, no one goes to Angie’s List to check out whether a church is safe to enter or a pastor can be depended on for grace.

We go to church by faith.

The sinner carrying a staggering amount of guilt is in a precarious position, trapped as he is between looking for grace and forgiveness on one hand and searching for a reason to get mad, storm out of the church and write off God’s people as irrelevant on the other. Do the leaders of the church understand him—his weak will, his strong urgings, his deep guilt, his great need, his latent anger? Can God penetrate all his defensive body armor today with His truth and grace? Or will the church leaders be turned off by how he looks?

The elderly are vulnerable. They’ve been coming to this church for 40 years and have memories good and bad, and they are now at a critical time in their lives. The church is changing around them. The pastor is wearing jeans, and they’ve not seen a necktie in months, and what ever happened to those beloved hymns? But their grandson was saved in church recently, and aren’t the teenagers wonderful in their enthusiasm for the Lord? Will the church be there for the seniors in the future? they wonder. Does anyone care that the medical reports came back positive and they’re going into the hospital this week?

The church’s best workers may be vulnerable too. Because they teach the Word and can always be counted on to step up and volunteer, because they tithe and witness and go on mission trips, no one has a clue that today they are struggling with something—temptation to receive comfort outside marriage, guilt over a failure years ago, sorrow over their marriage deteriorating or a friend’s betrayal. The list is endless. These brothers and sisters can be ministered to or maimed by today’s sermon, pastor.

The pastor himself is vulnerable, for even though he is the God-sent leader and the one appointed to oversee the Lord’s church, he may as well have a target on his back. Cruel people, unthinking people, demonic people will attack him. Some who cannot get their way and care little for the will of God or the judgment they will face begin to work to get the pastor terminated. He’s usually the only person in the church who can lose his job for doing the will of God.

Is anyone praying for the pastor to be a tower of strength with a heart for God, a voice of truth and a wellspring of courage—and to sleep well on Saturday nights?

No one at church is more vulnerable than the pastor’s family. The pastor’s wife in particular is caught in a no-win situation in many churches. The expectations on her are enormous and different with every member. Some want to allow her to be the individual God made her to be, while others insist that while that’s true, it’s not asking too much for her to always be in church, to be the official hostess of the congregation (who knows everyone’s name and has instant recall), and always looks classy and raises great children!

Would you not be too shaken to learn that some pastors’ wives struggle with matters of faith, questions of doubt, guilt and anger, resentment and hurt?

Pray for your pastor’s wife and for their children.

“Seeing the multitudes, Jesus felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

Pastor, when you are preparing Sunday’s sermon, the question is not simply whether there will be unsaved people to hear your message. Every pew will be filled with needy, hungry people looking in your direction, expecting to receive something from the Lord.

If this doesn’t drive you to your knees in prayer, nothing will.

God bless you, friend.

“Not that we are adequate for these things, but our adequacy is of God” (2 Cor. 3:5).

Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.

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