A Resource For Understanding Trauma And Abuse Care

A recent study estimates that 50% of the U.S. population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Bessel van der Kolk sheds some light on the types of traumatic experiences that are hurting half the country. He writes, “[O]ne in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence. Such experiences inevitably leave traces on minds, emotions, and even on biology. Sadly, trauma sufferers frequently pass on their stress to their partners and children.”  Trauma doesn’t remain in the past nor is it content to live inside the survivor. It is revisited in conscious and subconscious memories and transfers to family members. 

There is never a shortage of evidence displaying the fact that this world is broken. The challenge that the Church is always tasked with is responding well to all the breaks.

Trauma is a splintering break. It invariably involves external loss (e.g. physical health, a family member etc.) and internal loss (e.g. emotional health, a felt sense of control, etc.).  When someone or something precious is forcefully taken the experience has a debilatating impact on the victim. Trauma disturbs sleep, depletes motivation, disorders emotions and damages memory.

Those who have not suffered significant trauma struggle to understand what it means to have all personal control taken away through rape, child abuse, the persistent gaslighting of a spouse, etc. This is one of the reasons why those who have experienced something traumatic tend to be guarded. They do not talk to others about their distress because they do not expect to be understood. In an effort to self-protect, they instinctively carry their pain privately, which deepens the effect of the trauma and exacerbates the symptoms. 

Those who have succesfully helped trauma survivors universally agree that there is a common path to recovery. Victims must experience a recurring sense of safety, reconstruct the traumatic event and reconnect with their community. Healing requires community. The Preacher wisely writes, “[W]oe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). 

One ministry of the Church is to apply the love of God to the wounds that sin creates. However, trauma care is complex because trauma wounds are often hidden and evasive. Because of this the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) created Caring Well, an initiative designed to equip local churches to help those who have suffered abuse. The SBC is working to make the church a safe sanctuary for the those among us who are silently suffering. 

They have developed a 12 week curriculum (access the free ebook and videos here) that helps train local churches to 1) prevent abuse and 2) better care for those who have been abused. As an additional resource, the main stage sessions from 2019’s Caring Well conference, the largest gathering in SBC history, are available for viewing here.

Just as the Samaritan bound up the wounds of the trauma victim and brought him to a safe place to receive further care, we, the Church, must go and do likewise (Luke 10:25-37).

By B. Bouton

Missional Justice: Q/A with Jeremy Tam

Jeremy Tam oversees the missional justice ministry at Watermark Community Church in Hong Kong. He has a Juris Doctor degree from Western University and he is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree from Moody Theological Seminary. In our conversation below, he shares how his local church engages in mercy ministry and social justice pursuits in their surrounding community.

You have a unique background, Jeremy. Will you begin by telling us a bit about yourself and how you gained a personal awareness of God’s active interest in the area of social injustice?

I'm a Canadian who was born in Taiwan, raised in the U.S. and British Hong Kong, and studied and worked in Canada. I'm currently living back in Hong Kong, where my main role is being a husband to my wife, Julie. I got interested in social justice while studying at law school and working for International Justice Mission, a global anti-slavery organisation, where I learned first-hand that God is a God of justice. In this realm, Gary Haugen’s book, Good News About Injustice, was highly formative for me.

How did Watermark Community Church's missional justice ministry begin? 

The ministry began about a year after the church was founded, based on the vision that the church should begin to focus on areas of mercy and justice as it became more established. The idea of pursuing mercy and justice was there from the outset, but it was a matter of getting the church plant settled first before branching outwards, and seeing God provide the right personnel to begin engaging in this area. The idea of missional justice arose from the realisation that biblical justice was never independent of God’s mission. We wanted to ensure that loving the poor always included telling them about Jesus Christ.

What aspects of justice does your local church focus on?

Generally speaking, we focus on social justice, in the sense of people in society who are marginalised and vulnerable in some way, taking our model from God’s particular concern for the quartet of the vulnerable (e.g. Zech. 7:9-10; cf. Ps. 146:7-9, James 1:27). At present, we focus on red-light districts, at-risk youth, and inner city minorities.

How did you settle on these aspects of justice?

We began by simply looking around our neighbourhood to see what needs existed. Knowing that we could not focus on everything, guidelines were developed over time to help clarify what kinds of ministries to support, and how to evaluate that support. Currently, we use the fourfold criteria of grassroots (historic or present involvement from Watermark members), proximate (serves Watermark’s neighbourhood or the city in general), holistic (engages a variety of resources beyond finances), and sustainable (potential to grow in long-term partnership). Our present areas of focus developed very organically, as God presented opportunities and established connections in and through the church.

What does the ministry look like practically? What does the church do?

Our current model is to support and partner with frontline ministries that have experience and expertise in particular areas of justice. Generally, we do not run “in-house” programs, but seek to mobilise a range of church resources to meet the needs of our mission partners, such as volunteers, finances, in-kind donations, and venue space. Undergirding all of these resources is a commitment to raising awareness and praying for our partners. A number of Watermark members also serve as staff or key volunteers in these ministries.

Our ministry to at-risk youth and children focuses primarily on teen moms, investing in them through platforms like support groups and camps. Another marginalised group in the city is the Nepali community, for which our mission partner has a comprehensive program, ranging from youth group to sewing skills training. The red-light district ministry involves building relationships with the women and men who live in sexual exploitation, and helping them to leave the industry. A key commonality among these differing mission partners is that the gospel and evangelism are central to their ministry philosophies.

Our model is certainly a work-in-progress, and our hope is to truly take ownership of these areas that God has led us to. There is much more growth that we wish to see, and we are continuing to explore how to better partner with these ministries. We are also open to new areas of justice, and are currently exploring the connection between our ministry to teen moms and the issue of adoption and foster care.

How many church members do you have and how many are involved in the justice ministry?

Our average Sunday service attendance is 200, and we have approximately 100 signed members. Approximately 15 serve regularly with our partners, while more will be involved in their own justice ministries and through specific appeals for support throughout the year.

How did/do you cultivate a concern for justice and mercy in the hearts of the people in your church?

Over the years, we have occasionally preached specific sermons that involved the theology of justice and mercy. Every year, we hold a special multi-week offering for our mission partners, which inherently involves awareness-raising. We will also spotlight these partners and deliver ministry updates throughout the course of the year. Above all, prayer and perseverance in continuing to seek justice in my own ministry, as I cannot wholeheartedly advocate something that is not flourishing in my own life.

What percentage of the church’s budget do you dedicate to mercy and justice ministry?

We do not currently dedicate a percentage of the church’s budget; instead, we establish financial giving goals for our annual special offering.

What lessons have you learned or what mistakes have you made through your ministry efforts?

An early lesson I learned was to not assume that the average Christian understands or appreciates the foundational connection between following Christ and doing justice. This is not to demean people’s experiences and abilities, but to appreciate that people are at different stages of their spiritual journeys, such that there may be normal and expected gaps in their understanding of biblical justice. Justice advocates have often had a life-changing or paradigm-altering experience, which we cannot necessarily expect others to also have experienced. This may seem obvious, but it was something that I needed to be reminded of so that I would not grow to become disillusioned, self-righteous, or judgmental. 

A related lesson is that God taught me patience. Depending on the demographics of a church, social injustice issues may be far-removed from the average member’s life. Most of the local churches that I have been a part of have been relatively wealthy or centred in areas of relative affluence. It takes significant effort for anyone to appreciate what lies beyond the regular rhythms of their lives. It takes time to cultivate culture.

Another key lesson I learned was to not just present people with a list of needs. There are enough petitions and appeals that the average person receives. One thing that really helped to catalyse our current missional justice work was a single project, originating from a non-staff member, that the whole church rallied around. I realised that it was much more effective to present our people with a couple things that we thought God had placed into the hands of the church, helping them to understand an issue or cause in greater depth.

How would you describe the relationship between missional justice and the gospel? 

My conviction is that biblical justice is inseparable from God’s mission to bring restoration and reconciliation to His creation, which is necessarily relevant to the gospel. While the salvation that Jesus attained on the cross is eternally good news for all humanity, his day-to-day life displayed God’s particular interest in the vulnerable groups of society (Matt. 11:4-5). He explicitly condemned those who blatantly neglected justice (Luke 11:42). He taught that our mercy was to transcend all kinds of societal barriers (Luke 10:25-37, cf. Gal. 6:10).

Therefore, the gospel isn’t merely good news that God saves the soul from spiritual poverty into a disembodied heavenly experience, but good news that God saves the entire being from all poverty and restores it to wholeness. When God’s kingdom is consummated in the new creation, he will do that in its fullness. In the meantime, missional justice is a crucial way in which God shows that his kingdom is both already present and will one day be fully realised. As Christians embody the life of the Kingdom, we call ourselves and others to live under the rule of Jesus, the just and merciful King.

What advice would you give to a pastor who wants to begin a social justice ministry?

Pray and ask God to show you what to pursue, and don’t feel like you need to figure everything out in a particular period of time. Your social justice ministry will certainly change and evolve over time, so just start somewhere! One great way to begin is by looking for passions that are already present within the members of the church and coming alongside them to fan those flames. Certainly, this helps fulfill our calling to equip the saints (Eph. 4:11-16), but it helps you to develop a team of justice advocates who will be able to exhort others and model justice to them. For many observers, it may be more persuasive to see a non-staff member seeking justice, rather than a “professional” church leader. They will probably be able to relate to the former much better than the latter. 

Missional justice is a lifelong journey, so be prepared to persevere. Ultimately, look to a God who is the ultimate justice advocate, the one who is always on the frontlines. Strive tirelessly for justice but don’t bear the weight of injustice. God doesn’t need us to change the world; we simply get the amazing privilege of being a part of His work.

Crossing the Color Line: An Evangelical Imperative

On Wednesday the 17th of June 2015, a young white man opened fire and killed nine African-Americans at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

That following Sunday, on the other side of the country, my local church didn't grieve. Later that afternoon, I listened to one of the few black men that attended my local church process his pain. He had never met those who were murdered, but his grief was personal. The Charleston shooting wasn’t simply a tragic current event. It was the latest lynching in a long trauma narrative of white on black violence and oppression. 

The failure of our majority white congregation to set aside a time for lament reiterated to my friend what he already knew: his loss and grief were not ours.  

As a result of that conversation, I discovered an answer to the question that Walter Brueggemann posed in The Psalms and the Life of Faith. He asked, “What happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage?” What I learned was that my church’s inability to grieve and pray with our African-American brothers and sisters compromised our unity and worship.

Over the next few years, my church remained silent as the unjust deaths of many more black Americans were publicized and the small percentage of African-Americans that were members of our local body began to trickle out the door to other churches. It was a national trend. 

In 2018, Campbell Robertson wrote an op-ed piece in the The New York Times entitled A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches. In the article, he notes that “black congregregants – as recounted by people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Worth and elsewhere – had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans…It has been a scattered exodus – a few here, a few there – and mostly quiet, more in fatigue and heartbreak than outrage.” 

Generations ago, white Christians segregated the American church. Over the years, many African Americans have worked to erase the color line by joining white churches, but they’ve had to accept that much of their lived reality will be unseen or ignored. (See Why White Churches Are Hard for Black People by Isaac Adams)

Most white Christians now believe that God wants his church to be a united family where those from diverse ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds are bound up in beloved community. Yet, African Americans continue to be the ones most invested in building unity. Have you ever noticed that the iconic images of desegregation display black people crossing into a white context? In his book Reconciliation Blues, Edward Gilbreath writes, “To my mind, racial unity means fellowshipping and serving in the same churches and the same ministries…that typically means blacks going over to the white side to mix things up.” 

The movement toward a more unified church in America has largely relied on people of color moving into white spaces and adjusting to a community that neglects their traditions and experiences. Black Christians who do cross the church color line adapt to white relational culture, sing white worship songs and submit to majority white elder boards. They must endure a dynamic that falls short of unification.

Unfortunately, white Christians rarely experience the beauty of black community. The fact that the white church has not been lamenting the loss of black lives over the years is one example of how the color line continues to cut through the church in America and anything that divides God’s church is not only unbiblical…it is unevangelical.

Jesus declared that Church oneness helps convince the onlooking world that he is the Christ.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word [the future church], that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-22).

Church unity testifies that the gospel is true, which is one of the reasons why Paul commands Christians to eagerly maintain it (Ephesians 4:3). Jesus has made the Church one with God and our lives should declare that fact. In other words, Christian unity tells the truth about who Jesus is and what he has done.

In Insider Outsider, Bryan Lorrits provides white evangelicals with an example of how to live a more truth-proclaiming life. He writes, “We will never experience true Christian unity when one ethnicity demands of another that we keep silent about our pain and travails. The way forward is not an appeal to the facts as a first resort but an attempt to get inside each others skin as best we can to feel what they feel and seek to understand it. Tragedies such as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson are like MRI’s that reveal the hurt that still lingers and the chasm that exists between ethnicities can only be traversed if we move past facts and get into feelings…In what would be a historically unprecedented move, our white siblings can choose to follow minority leadership, serve in minority churches and learn from minority preaching.”

There are many avenues that the white church can take that will build toward greater unity along ethnic lines, but what’s clear is that the white church needs to work harder to erase the division that it created. If it does not I assume the inverse of Jesus’ prayer will continue to occur. As the onlooking world sees segregation in the church many will assume the Father has not sent the Son and that the gospel is false. 

By B. Bouton

*For further reading on ethnic division and the church in America, Jamar Tisby has written a compelling historical account entitled The Color of Compromise  

Wang Yi's Prophetic Practice

In 2004 a human rights lawyer named Wang Yi made the list of “50 Most Influential Public Intellectuals of China.” In 2005 he became a Christian and joined the persecuted church as an outspoken advocate not only for human rights, but for the cause of Jesus Christ. In 2006 he was invited to Washington D.C. to speak with president George W. Bush about the issue of religious freedom and in 2008 this young, distinguished legal scholar resigned his university position to pastor a church in Chengdu, China.

Since Wang Yi became a pastor he has had multiple run-ins with government officials, but he hasn’t quieted down. In 2015 his church published “Reaffirming Our Stance on the House Churches: 95 Theses” (view the English translation here) and in May of 2018 he was detained by the police for holding a prayer service. 

This past December Pastor Wang was arrested along with his wife and more than 100 Christians from Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC). Previous to his arrest he wrote “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience” (view the English translation here) and instructed his church to publish it if he was ever detained for more than 48 hours. So 48 hours into his detainment and while arrests of other ERCC members were still being made the church released it. 

As I’ve reflected on Pastor Wang’s uncompromising voice I have been reminded of what Walter Brueggemann expressed about Moses’ ministry in Egypt. In “The Prophetic Imagination” Brueggemann writes, “[Moses’] work is nothing less than an assault on the consciousness of the empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and in its mythic pretensions.” God used Moses to pronounce judgment on Egypt and God is using Pastor Wang to pronounce judgment on the government that is oppressing his people in China. 

However, there is a difference between Israel, God’s Old Covenant people, and the Church, God’s New Covenant people. God will likely not unleash plagues on China’s government to free his new covenant people from oppression. The practices and pretentions of China’s government will likely continue for a time and God will probably let his persecuted children endure suffering for his glory.

When people like Pastor Wang show up on the world scene we need to pay attention. You see…God’s beauty is put on glorious display in this world when his children choose to be faithful knowing it will bring pain. This was true of God’s Son as he chose to endure undeserved suffering and it continues to be true as Jesus carries on his ministry through the Father’s adopted children. (Colossians 1:24)

What we, the Church, too easily forget is that self-sacrifice is one of the most God glorifying strategies that we can use with God’s enemies. We forget about self-sacrifice because we don’t like it. Self-sacrifice hurts. It requires more from us than we want to give. Sometimes it even requires our lives. Yet, this is the strategy Jesus used and through his use of it he is both our Savior and our model. 

Most of us instinctively and unconsciously seek to preserve our physical lives. We try to limit our suffering as much as possible. We want to find a more conservative and comfortable expression of Christ-likeness. We want to find a middle ground where we can live in a way that is both faithful and safe. Pastor Wang and Early Rain Covenant Church jettisoned safe and in this they serve as an exhortation to faithful action. In this they serve as a living example of Jesus Christ.

To choose faithfulness to God in the face of suffering is a declaration that God is greater than this world. We Christians know this fact in our heads, but our hearts are slow to learn and so we rarely display this truth with our actions. Pastor Wang is leading a charge into suffering and in doing so he is calling attention to the suffering Servant, his glorious Savior Jesus Christ. And in his display of faithfulness he is energizing God’s oppressed children.  

God has raised up a prophet in China to stir up the imagination of his persecuted people so they may not forget that their current, worldly rulers will ultimately be taken down. 

Pastor Wang is proclaiming the imperishable quality of the Ruler of the universe. The one who created the heavens and the earth. The one who appoints current political authority and declares them all temporary. Pastor Wang is pronouncing loudly that Jesus is the final Moses and no matter what a Christian’s current circumstances look like or feel like, God’s people can have absolute confidence that he has ultimately delivered them from all worldly empires and will eternally place his people in the Promised Land…his eternal Kingdom.

And the Chinese government doesn’t like that. They imprisoned Pastor Wang because they are frightened of him. They are scared he will stir up the Christian imagination. Oppressive systems of government do not like it when people’s thoughts stray to consider an alternative reality. Brueggemann writes, “…imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of the imagination, to keep conjuring and proposing future alternatives to the single one the [regime] wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” 

Just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would not bow down to their totalitarian regime and were thrown into a furnace (Daniel 3). Just as Daniel would not stop bowing down to the true King and was thrown into a lion’s den (Daniel 6). Wang Yi and his little family of Christian exiles have engaged in faithful disobedience and have been thrown into prison. And I hope their faithful suffering has a similar effect. I hope the Chinese government is moved to declare that the God of Pastor Wang Yi “is the living God, enduring forever, [whose] kingdom shall never be destroyed, and [whose] dominion shall be to the end” (Daniel 6:26).

Learn more about Pastor Wang Yi here.

The Female Voice and the Local Church

The night before Jesus was crucified he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17) and served them bread and wine (Luke 22:14-23). Jesus then patiently taught them that those who are great serve others (Luke 22:25-27). The disciples struggled to get their heads and hearts around this lesson (Mark 9:33-36; Matthew 18:1-4; Luke 9:46-47, 22:24).

On that symbol and service filled evening, Jesus was somberly preparing the disciples for the hell storm that was about to break. He was hours away from the cross where he would complete his most loving act of service. The next day Jesus would suffer to death and a few days later he would have a story that would need to be shared. 

To whom did Jesus first entrust this story? It wasn’t one of the disciples. The resurrection account that gave life to the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:14) was first communicated to women (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:1-7; Luke 23:55-24:10; John 20:1-2). Female voices carried the finale of Jesus’ supreme act of service back to the disciples. Women were the perfect choice. 

Women understand the beauty of service. When we hear from women in Scripture it is often while they are in service to others. Shiphrah and Puah risk their lives to save Hebrew baby boys, which unfolds into the more personal narrative of Moses’ mother risking her own safety to keep him safe (Exodus 1-2). Ruth lovingly commits herself to Naomi’s care (Ruth 1). Abigail pleads with David to let her take the punishment that her husband deserved (1 Samuel 25:24). Jehosheba saves her nephew and preserves the royal line of David (2 Kings 11:2-3; 2 Chronicles 22:11). Esther places herself in peril by standing in front of the king in order to save the Jewish people (Esther 4:11). Tabitha was full of good works and acts of charity (Acts 9:36).

In many of the biblical accounts women are speaking up for the oppressed, a service they are well equipped to perform. Women have a long history of being marginilized. They know what it is to have their experience and voice neglected. This is one reason why the Me Too and Church Too movements emerged so quickly. Platforms finally existed that amplified the voices of women who were suffering. 

Unfortunately, the church often struggles to be a sanctuary where women find refuge from marginilization. In Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah writes, “In recent years, the American evangelical community has attempted to silence the voices of women.” Thabiti Anyabwile comments on this silencing. “I’m a complementarian, but women should pray to God in public. Restrictions in public prayer provides an example, I think, of the protective fences of complementarity being pushed over into our neighbor’s yard. In an effort to rightly protect areas God sovereignly reserves for qualified male leadership, some have began to annex and ‘protect’ anything that looks like ‘leadership.’ In their practice, some have basically reduced the complementarian vision to ‘never allow a woman to do anything ‘up front’ in the public meeting,’ including prayer. In the process, they’ve also reduced ‘leadership’ to up front marquee performance, rather than humble, loving, sacrificial service to all” (read full article here).

Loving service is designed by God to be the fundamental principle that drives leadership. Yet, few church leaders have inherited a local church culture where female voices are sought out. In response, church practice often moves along with limited reference to the female experience. In Co-Laborers, Co-Heirs: A Family Conversation, Jessica Ribera provides this example, “Subtle messaging comes across every time someone in front of the congregation says, ‘If you have any questions or needs, please feel free to speak to one of the pastors, elders, or deacons.’ The implication: there aren’t any women you can talk to. For many, I’m convinced this is a major barrier to women receiving help and spiritual care. Some things are just too hard to say to a man, especially a man you don’t know very well, no matter how much you love his preaching…”

When we, the church, repress the voice of women we compromise the expression of our service. I think this is true in two senses. First, when women are not fully exercising their gifts and voices the church is not fully displaying the Christ-like qualities that are expressed in unique ways by women. Second, if men aren’t regularly seeking to hear women men won’t know how to sacrificially serve them well. 

Commenting on the practice of servant leadership, Tim Keller writes, “Christ’s headship of man is clearly one of authority (there is submission), and yet his authority is expressed through sacrificial service. He discovers our needs and meets them…A ‘head’s’ job is to use authority to please, to meet needs, to serve.” Keller’s counsel is that any man who has a leadership role needs to be actively seeking to learn how to serve everyone who is under his authority. 

How prominent is the female voice in your local church? How often are their experiences and opinions sought out? Do the insights and perspectives of women significantly shape your preaching, teaching and practice?

Here is the primary point. If God manifests himself by the Spirit through the lives of his children then the church can’t reflect the full voice of God until all of his children's voices are harmonized. The voice of the church is Christ-centered, biblically grounded and expressed uniquely by each gender. When the male voice is not fully complemented by the female voice the church’s expression of Christ’s greatness will be compromised.  

By B. Bouton

*One way to become more attuned to the female voice is to read, quote and teach books by female authors. Here are a few recommendations to get you going:  United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity or anything by Trillia Newbell, A Practical Theology for Women by Wendy Horger Alsup, 1 Peter: A Living Hope in Christ or anything by Jen Wilkin.