Confessions of a Spiritual Abuser

October 8th, 2009


The youth pastor tore the pages right out of the Bible. No one could believe what they were witnessing. The pages of Leviticus fluttered to the ground with a hardly a sound. He had asked them what was next, after Genesis and Exodus. Unlike the first two books, no one had spoken up. Thinking this was just another Bible quiz, they had waited for someone else to answer. Now only a few remaining pages of Leviticus were stuck to the binding.

With their complete and undivided attention, he asked, “Who can tell me what Numbers is all about?” No one moved. The students were still in shock. Their eyes were fixed on the torn Bible. Fortunately, a few were jolted out of their trance-like state when they realized what was at stake. The book of Numbers would face the same fate as Leviticus if they didn't come up with an answer soon.

To their credit, they tried as hard as they could to recall what Numbers was about. But they couldn't. Rip. The book of Numbers joined Leviticus on the floor. The students were desperate as they tried to save as much of the Bible as they could.

This continued for 40 minutes.

By the time the youth pastor had gone through the entire Bible, an eighth of the book remained in the binder. As he stood amidst the pages on the ground, he made his climactic statement, “What I am doing to this Bible is nothing compared to what you are doing to yours.

At least mine is being put to good use.” Then he walked out of the room.

Embarrassingly, I have to admit that youth pastor was me.

My intentions were good. I wanted the best for my students. I had hoped to instill in them a passion to read their Bibles. Isn't that a noble cause? Yet, as I reflect on that shocking experience, I now know I left them feeling guilty and ashamed, believing they couldn't measure up to the standard that I had placed on them.

Spiritual abuse has many heads. Trying to manipulate people's giving would be one example (“God will bless you if you give 10%” and implying “God won't bless you unless you give ten percent”). Using Scripture to gain power or authority would be another (“God says to ‘honor your mother and father,' so you better obey me”).

Some of the worst spiritual abuse is actually done by well-meaning youth pastors, ones with good intentions who love God passionately and long for their students to know and love God deeply.

Early in my ministry I focused on my student's behaviors and performances rather than on their faith. I thought if they attended church regularly, read their Bibles daily, and brought their friends as often as they could, they'd grow in love and knowledge of God. Now, there's nothing wrong with desiring those things for our students. However, when we teach our students to believe that “doing” is more important than “being,” they'll leave our ministries believing that one must religiously perform in order to be a mature Christian, regardless of whether or not we explicitly say that to them.

The problem comes when we focus on behavior rather than faith. Attending church and reading the Bible can lead to spiritual maturity, but those acts, in and of themselves, don't make one spiritually mature. Wouldn't we be better off demonstrating what it's like to “be” followers of Christ?

To make matters worse, most of us are rewarded by our students' parents and the leaders of our churches for controlling kids' behavior, which doesn't help us break the cycle. This is the kind of religiosity the parents and leaders (and many of us) were taught, so it's the type they pass down. Even if they don't mean to, how students act is one definitive measure of success for most youth workers. So long as our students behave well, we receive praise, an increased budget, and even a raise.

Unfortunately, since the focus in my early years was based on my students' behavior, they were left to believe that they had to do right to be good Christians. If they didn't meet my expectations for them, they felt tremendous shame and guilt and left feeling like they could never truly measure up to this thing we call Christianity.

Several years ago I talked with a student who had attended the “Bible ripping session,” as it has come to be known. He told me it took him several years to recover from the experience. His image of God had to be repaired to the point where he could feel like God would love and accept him just as he is.

Fortunately, there's a happy ending. I asked him for forgiveness, which he readily gave. Our conversation then moved on to our own spiritual journeys—the good, the bad, and the not-pretty. It was healing for both of us to discuss our struggles and triumphs. It was true spirituality…and it's what I should have done over fifteen years ago.


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