Church Growth Resistance #2: Does Your Church Have A Painful Past?

And can digging up the past help a church move forward?


Josephine can’t seem to get over her previous relationship where she was suddenly dumped. Even though she is currently dating, she fears being rejected again if she moves deeper into this relationship. Thus, she has decided to break off this current relationship. “It’s better to dump than to be dumped” she thinks.

Just as past hurts can prevent individuals from moving forward meaningfully in future relationships, I have observed how a painful memory can be a strong hindrance to a church’s embarking on change, even when the benefits are obvious. This pull-back effect of painful past may play out in some of the following ways:

Scenario 1:

Pastor Tom’s leaders are convicted about winning the church’s surrounding community to Christ. However, he is puzzled by the reluctance of certain key individuals to plan and set goals. When he probed further, he realizes that some members had experienced significant hurt & conflict in the past from a leader who had excessively pushed them to reach outreach targets

Scenario 2:

Pastor John has a team of capable and enthusiastic lay leaders. They are committed and have spoken about serving God with their whole lives! But when he challenges them to consider serving in church, few are willing to consider it, despite the need. As Pastor John spends more time querying about the past, he learns that a significant number of full time church staff had terminated their services in the past after encountering differences with the leadership. John’s team of current leaders are enthusiastic but perceive that they’re more likely to get badly hurt if they go full-time.These scenarios exemplify how hurt in the past can pull-back and prevent people from moving positively into the future.

Factors contributing to a  “pull-back effect” of painful memories 

  • Marked Differences

Strong personalities within the church may have different opinions on theological issues or church practices. These opinions are important and may be needed at different times, but can also trigger conflict if not handled well.

  • Poor Conflict Management

A negative pattern of negotiation and conflict resolution, especially by a leader, may lead to feelings of mistrust or betrayal among members. Policies may have been imposed but were not well received, and, as a result, certain groups of members may have left the church.

  • Growth-Limiting Convictions

To make sense of the past and prevent future hurt, members draw conclusions and take personal postures to protect themselves. This may not necessarily be in the best interest of the growth of the church.

“A church had a deep theological split many years ago relating to spiritual gifts. The extent of hurt was very different for different persons. Some came out fearing and resisting the Holy Spirit, which they did not even realize. Some came out resisting change totally. Some became very wary of leaders asserting their influence. Some came out sad and disillusioned, and have even left the church or the faith!” (Ps Beh S.Y.)

Helping Your Church To Navigate This Effect

Do not lose heart! As we partner with God to bring healing to a community, it may turn out be a defining growth opportunity for the church. Here are some ways to address painful memories for your consideration:

  • Patience, patience, patience…

Be patient and be willing to put aside hopes for corporate goals to work at the core issues involved. Take time to understand how these hurts arose and what impact they made.  Wait for the right time for the right champion / right healing / right window for that breakthrough the church needs to move towards new goals.

  • Create multiple opportunities for dialogue and prayer

Make private visits with those who are hurting simply to listen to their stories. This exhibits love, concern, understanding and empathy. Eventually, a good talk, visiting of issues, and having a good cry are all valid ways of bringing a closure to the past.

  • Be ready to apologize and affirm

An apology for mistakes made, even if done in-proxy for past leaders, can significantly help the community to heal. Affirmation and encouragement help to bond relationships in the present and create unity. This readies the community to move forward together.

  • Learn together before implementing change

I remember guiding a church that was very cautious about things of the Holy Spirit. Leaders came together to learn and read more about the topic and frank questions and concerns were shared. This built relationships and created openness for the church to foray into this new arena.

Hear what other Pastors and Leaders say

“It is important for people to deal with blind-spots, but it first begins with the leader. Taking the initiative to humble ourselves before other leaders, to admit our unbalanced views and prejudices against others goes a long way to bring a healing process.” (Rev. Keith Lai, Covenant Presbyterian Church Singapore)

Rev. Keith Lai

“Painful memories may not necessarily be bad as they are also part of the normal human learning process: our experiences shape us.” (Rev. Daniel Wee, Church Of Our Saviour)

Rev. Daniel Wee


What Do You Think?

What other factors contribute to this pull-back effect? How has your church failed or succeeded in navigating this effect in the past?

Share your thoughts and let me know how this post has helped you[1].

We will be blessing 5 readers of the blog with Ps Philip’s upcoming book so leave a comment below and we will be in touch with you!

[1] Please note that comments submitted, if helpful & edifying, may be integrated into a future book for the resourcing of churches

Rev. Dr. Philip Huan is the Principal Consultant at ChurchLife Resources, and is passionate about helping churches and leaders become strong and healthy!

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