wh30-ways-toI get to decide where I’m safe.

No amount of guilt or shame will ever change that.

-Michelle Pendergrass

I sat in the church classroom, completely paralyzed. For ten years I’d loved these kids and others like them, watching each heart and each trial and each suicidal tendency… only to see these fragile stems become torn and beaten down by spiritual pressure.

The leaders, the ones I’d grown to love… didn’t see their admonishments as verbal abuse. They saw it as verbal encouragement to do the right thing.

Looking back, I realize that the “encouragement” of those days was a result of fear.

Fear that these kids would fail.

Fear of the tough questions.

Fear that they would make the same mistakes we did.

Fear that they would get hurt.

Fear that they would leave the church.

My youth leader friends had good hearts. They may have been in the right place, but the pressure they placed week after week on the kids to perform — to ignore the tough questions — to serve wholeheartedly when they were hurting — all of this pressure left everyone disappointed because it didn’t work.

At some point we have to stop caring more about results than people.

There were attempted suicides. Broken relationships. Agnosticism. Anger. And on that day, in that classroom where I could no longer bear to see so much heartbreak, I walked away from what I saw.  

if-they-did-notBecause on that day, I began to realize that I could make a bigger difference in these kids’ lives if they did not associate me with this church and the “God” who had no grace or room for brokenness.

(My relationships with the group deepened immensely when I walked away. They gathered in my house (with leaders’ permission), shared in my life, walked and talked and cared deep. We cried together. We laughed together. I moved on to serve in another church simultaneously.)

I left on good terms. I sat down with leadership, and we talked.

But it felt like I was speaking a foreign language… like when I used the words “spiritual abuse”, I was a hypochondriac diagnosing all of us with an imaginary disease.

Looking back, I wish I would have thought through it more. Explained my heart, explained the damage I saw, explained what I wanted to see happen for these kids.

Because here’s what I find again and again now that I’m older: people who are being spiritually abusive, or spiritually abused, don’t often recognize it until it’s too late.

And it will be too late. Because spiritual pressure–a focus on what Christianity looks like, rather than caring like Christ no matter the results–doesn’t work. It might yield the desired results for a time, but eventually people who buck up and conform without grace fail. I see it here and I see it here again. 

Pressure doesn’t work. Loving people does. We were never designed to be the Holy Spirit in anyone else’s life. 


This is the beginning of a series on Spiritual abuse and the damage it can create.

Your thoughts? Please share in the comments.


14 thoughts on “Why Kids Are Leaving Church

  1. I have seen many well meaning people mis step by attempting to play the role of the Holy Spirit. I agree 110% we were never called to do that in another’s life. What is meant for good turns into manipulation and judgement. It is like looking at God and saying step aside I think I can fix this. I was recently ask by a teen leader “well how do we reach the teens if we don’t step in?” My answer: Teach God’s word, pray and trust Him to do His part.

  2. This could be a break through series—i plan to stay up to date on it. As I plan to start college to become a youth pastor this motivates me to be a part of a better future…as a kid as part of a struggling youth group all of the things here hit home. I am excited to read more.

  3. I see so much of this with my very sensitive kids. They are always coming home saying I don’t read my Bible enough or I don’t have a close enough relationship with Jesus. We have got to stop preaching works. Their question to me over and over again is now that we are saved by grace, what next? Rather than hearing ‘Help others’ or ‘Wrestle with the tough questions in life’ they hear ‘Work, work work because you are not really good enough.’

  4. I like your thoughts. I’ve seen it too and sometimes I wonder if now as a youth leader I have fallen in the same trap. If you say leaders don’t recognize this behavior in themselves, what about a follow-up post on ways to identify the behavior and ways to fix it…?

  5. In light of the challenges I’m facing with two of my teens (and what I’m seeing in our small church), this is a subject I would like to better understand. Where can I read more on the topic?

  6. Tammy, ,I couldn’t have summarized it better. Thank you for your heart for teens. So many times I think it’s a personality deal–I’m planning on posting about that next.

  7. GirlMom, That is so hard. I understand it so well because I came from the “works” camp. And I witnessed, over and over again, that it just doesn’t work. I’m looking forward to tackling the rest of this series.

  8. Jeremy, I’ll shoot you an e-mail. There will be another part or two to this series (I try to keep each post digestable in size), and after that I’ll be giving some resources. Thanks for loving your kids so well.

  9. I really hope you’re planning on talking more about this. It’s something that’s almost never discussed anywhere and I love that you brought it here with so much grace. You rock ❤

  10. Excellent observations, Bekah. I suppose most of us parents have been (and are) guilty of what you describe. We’re so afraid our children will fail in “things that matter.” We don’t trust God with our children, I guess.

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