Trigger warnings: violence, blood, spiritual abuse
Disclaimer: Not all children are traumatized by the teachings referred to in this article. Every person is different and processes things differently. But I have become increasingly aware of the thousands of now-adults who were indeed traumatized by their church’s teachings of topics such as hell, martyrdom, and being left behind. If you have not been traumatized, consider yourself fortunate, but please do not discount the very real experiences of trauma by others who lived alongside you.
“Please feel free to leave now if you are sensitive,” came the snarky introduction to another video about Christian martyrs.
Seriously??? We had just been through this. One Sunday morning several weeks before, a pastor and his committee had decided to pull all the kids ages 8 and older out of children’s Sunday school to be in with the adults. Without any warning, two very sensational (somewhat bloody, definitely traumatizing) videos were shown to the congregation that now included kids ages 8 and up. In one video, a terrifying attack on a family ends with children eerily screaming, “Mommy! Daddy!” And then the camera pans to two lifeless figures on the floor. A phone reading “Mom” on the screen rings incessantly between the two murdered children as the scene fades out.
After the videos, the mixed-age congregation broke up into smaller groups to discuss very heavy topics with discussion cards that contained graphic stories of things like children being beaten for their faith, young girls being trafficked for sex, and so on.
I wasn’t personally there to witness it—I was home with a sick kid that day. When my husband Dom came home from church, he mentioned that the service had been a little much. I asked him why. His explanation gave me some concern, but our then-8-year-old son didn’t seem traumatized. So I went about my life until my friend Nicole called me the next day.
Nicole asked if I had been in Sunday school the day before and if I had seen or heard what went on. I said I hadn’t been there, but that Dom had expressed some concern. She went on to tell me how her 8-year-old daughter had been crying non-stop since that previous morning and wasn’t able to sleep or function at all. Nicole had also been home with a sick child, and her husband had been volunteering with the younger church children Sunday morning. Her husband had left their two older children in the sanctuary, feeling there were plenty of adults to supervise—Oakwood Baptist Church was like that, one big family.
I told her I’d talk to Dom and get back to her. I asked Dom if he could please try to find the videos that were shown on YouTube. He found them easily, and I sat down and watched. Here are the two short videos if you’d like to watch:
My blood-pressure rose with every passing second. Of course this was not age appropriate viewing! Did these people remember being children? Did they remember the fears of losing their parents? Or dying themselves? Did they have any knowledge of children or trauma at all? I was furious!!!
I immediately wrote the following email to 4 of Oakwood’s pastor/elders:
Hello Pastors, Dom just passed along to me the videos that were shown in Sunday school yesterday with the children present. I am horrified! I found these videos wildly inappropriate for the age group that was present! Fortunately, Alex was not paying attention to the videos and has not had any negative reaction. I can only hope that is true for the other children present. This would have scarred me terribly as an eight-year-old. I have lost much trust in the judgment of the pastors to keep my children emotionally safe. I realize our kids might need to learn about these issues, but not in a graphic visual way. In the same way I would not show my children a graphic video to teach them about sex, I would have never chosen to show them these videos to teach them about martyrdom. Please, in the future, will you consider giving the parents more info about things like this ahead of time so that we can determine if it is appropriate for our children? One more thought: Even the secular world recognizes that parents have a responsibility to guard their children’s hearts and have graciously given ratings on movies, video games, tv shows, etc. The videos shown on Sunday definitely fall in the PG-13 category by the world’s standards. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motion_Picture_Association_of_America_film_rating_system
One pastor responded that same day saying he didn’t know anything about it. Then a day or two later, a different pastor made a home visit to us. Apparently, he was responsible for approving the videos, and we were the first and only people during his 40-year ministry to have a problem with teaching kids about martyrdom. I asked if he had always shown such graphic videos, and he said yes he had. So we were the problem.
RED FLAG: Statements that make you feel like you are the only one having a problem with someone’s obviously bad behavior are, plain and simple, spiritual/emotional abuse.
We talked for quite a while, and I never wavered in my insistence that this behavior was unacceptable. “Well, we just won’t show any videos in church anymore, I suppose,” he said in a sour-grapes, passive-aggressive tone.
“Well, that’s not what we’re saying. But maybe warn the parents ahead of time about the content of the video so they can make their own decision about whether or not their child can handle it.” He seemed to agree to this, although we ended the meeting not feeling at all understood.
The gentler head pastor came to visit us several weeks later, claiming he had not been allowed to visit us because he had been put on a mandatory hiatus from his pastoral duties. It was unfortunate because we had no relief from the feeling we were crazy (can you say gaslighting?) until he showed up with his ever-merciful response. He was so sorry that had happened and he understood our response. (Although he did get a little dig in about our kids being sheltered since they were homeschoolers—but that’s a conversation for another day).
Yet here we were again on a Sunday morning, with a very last-minute warning to leave if we were “sensitive.” The condescension was palpable. I sat through the video red-faced, while directing my three young children to color on the floor. The video was indeed too much for them if they’d been watching. I remembered feeling traumatized as a child in my Christian school being made to watch end-times rapture videos. I remembered lying awake at night, terrified I would be left behind with no one to take care of me. And I wondered again what these people were thinking!
The worship music started, I felt my temperature rising. I was starting to shake and my heart began to race. I was holding my three-year-old and started swaying violently to the beat of the music to try to disguise my impending meltdown. Finally, Dom left his worship-leading position on the stage. I immediately handed the little one off to him and rushed outside to breathe. I spent most of the rest of the service walking and breathing and trying to calm myself down from this very obvious assault on my dignity.
This was only one example of many that were happening with increasing frequency once the mysterious conflict between the elders was started. I had panic or rage attacks nearly every Sunday toward the end of our time at Oakwood. Especially after the gentle head pastor left, when the pastors began preaching constantly about forgiveness, gossip, being over sensitive. There was a definite us/them mentality from leadership. We, the congregation, were perceived as immature, over sensitive, unforgiving, gossiping (and therefore not loving God). They, the leadership, fancied themselves as “better than,” needing to reprimand us more for our sinful rebellion against them, the ones God had chosen to have authority over us. They were not outright vocal with these opinions, but their behavior spoke clearly, and we have heard reliable testimony that they did indeed talk about things in these terms behind closed doors. (Tricia Nadolny did a wonderful job painting a picture of the abusive atmosphere we ended up with. You can read her USA TODAY article about Oakwood Baptist Church here. And you can find supplemental documentation to that article here.)
Spiritual abuse creeps up on you until one day you realize you’re walking on eggshells, afraid of disappointing your leaders and therefore God. They deny that anything is wrong, and you feel like you might just be crazy. Seemingly small things like this are actually big red flags. Run away from an atmosphere like this! You are not breaking some covenant with God’s people. You belong to God’s family, even if you stand completely alone for a time. You can leave. The world will not end. And you can find another group of people if you want. You don’t need anyone’s permission, and you are not disappointing God. In fact, I’d guess he’s be proud of you leaving a place that misuses his word to make people feel small.
And I will be here for you if you need some encouragement, too.