A lot of people suffer from a bit of shortsightedness in regards to their local congregations when it comes to spiritual abuse survivors. I can’t speak for those in fundamentalist/evangelical/charismatic settings, but in my own experiences within liberal mainline Christianity, I think a lot of people simply aren’t aware of either spiritual abuse or its implications.
Remember, not everyone who has just exited a cult experience is going to advertise what happened to them. Many people dealing with the aftermath of an abusive church situation simply want to test the waters at another church without committing to anything.
Even in situations where someone has not been in an abusive church, inadvertently pressuring someone into something that does not suit their needs or interests can pose a problem. Here are some things to keep in mind that are helpful all around to keep your church a safe zone, adapted from one of my earlier publications:
- Be welcoming, in an agenda-free way – A casual visitor checking out different churches should be just as welcome as a serious inquirer. Don’t befriend someone just in hopes of drawing them in, then dump them because they ultimately go elsewhere. This includes not doing such things on social media, too, such as one case that came to mind where someone did just that to a family member.
- Don’t pressure them into getting involved with activities – Home groups, classes, or men’s/women’s groups don’t have universal appeal for all. Some toxic religious groups even use involvement as a pretext for bullying people who aren’t involved “enough”. Let newcomers know what’s available, but don’t make assumptions about what suits them or put on pressure, even jokingly.
- Understand that some parts of the worship service might act as triggers – Formally welcoming new people by asking them to come forward, if practiced, should be optional. Also, if your congregation practices the laying on of hands, be aware that some groups use this practice in a manipulative way. Participation should always be optional, and explaining how your faith tradition uses this practice can help ease any concerns.
- Always be open about your denomination’s history and beliefs – Most spiritually abusive groups teach that their group is the “one true church” and people in other groups can inadvertently give this impression about theirs. Keep in mind that no modern denomination existed in its present form in the New Testament era. When citing differences between your church and theirs, explain the differences without denouncing them.
- Think about the “user-friendliness” of your service – While you may be able to navigate through your own service without difficulty, the same might not be true for newcomers. Make sure your bulletin is user-friendly and you have literature that explains the hows and whys of your service structure, including how communion is received, if applicable. Don’t pressure visitors into taking part in actions they are not comfortable with.