voice, value, vitality: the face of healthy community

There's so much stuff that's wrong in the world today.  

I guess that's always been true, but with the explosion of social media, the amount of wrong seems overwhelming at times.  

I mean, I used to live on an island in the South Pacific.  No TV, no internet, no phone, snail mail every two weeks if the ship happened to stop by.  

Mostly we got our news by listening to the Voice of America.  The.  News.  In.  Easy.  English.  

I'd be twitchy by the end of the first sentence.  In-depth reporting it was not.  I missed out on both of Bill Clinton's administrations that way.  With all that blue dress stuff, I count myself lucky.

 Makira, Solomon Islands,  Photo:  Andy Bruner

Makira, Solomon Islands,  Photo:  Andy Bruner

Now I live in Dallas.  I have unlimited access to media, and with the overwhelming flow of endless information, I sometimes wish myself back on the island.  (Until dinner time.  Then I want to call for pizza.)  

I wonder this:  what am I supposed to do with all this information?

I find I am just too old and too tired to sustain a great level of outrage for every single thing I find outrageous.  

Believe me, I find many, many things outrageous.

I'm often tempted to throw something up on the blog here and rant.  

But mostly I pray the prayer that Anne Lamott taught me:  "Help!"


Today there is something I need to write about.  Not just to be outraged, although the story is pretty outrageous.  

But so that we can all learn to look with open eyes at our communities of faith, and asses how healthy or unhealthy they are.

If they are healthy, oh happy day!  If they are unhealthy, it's time to get busy.

Here's the nutshell of the story:  Bob Jones University, a very conservative Christian college, has brought in the nonprofit organization, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), to investigate how the university has dealt with sexual abuse.

(Hint:  when the GRACE team gets called in, sexual abuse has not been dealt with very well.)

According to this news article, released yesterday:

"More than 100 people have come forward to GRACE investigators, and the report is due out in the next few months.  Boz Tchvidjian, the head of GRACE, believes Christian organizations across the country have failed victims in similar ways, and that the Protestant world could in fact be 'worse' than the Catholic Church."

Did you get that?  It's not just BJU.  The whole Protestant world needs to take a good hard look at itself.  

That's not THEM.  

That's US.  Anybody who sits in a Protestant pew on a Sunday morning.

While only a few people are the actual victims in a situation like this, many times there are systemic patterns that make the environment a safe haven for potential abusers.  

And while only a few people are the actual abusers, many of us can blindly participate in the patterns that create the unhealthy environment.

Edmund Burke famously said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Too many times in unhealthy Christian environments, good people do nothing.  

The problem is, we don't know what to look for.  What's healthy?  What's unhealthy?  

As I said a couple of weeks ago, I am not much interested in the nitty gritty of theology.  I'm mostly interested in how people get treated on the other end.  

How people get treated is the biggest clue to me in whether a theology, whether a system, is healthy or unhealthy.  

Jesus said it this way:  "By their fruits, you shall know them."  (Matthew 7:16)

So here's how I judge healthy.

Diane Langberg is a Christian therapist who works with the victims of sexual abuse.  She has identified three key components of healthy personhood:  voice, relationship, and power.  These, she says are our gifts from God, and these are the things we find devalued in abusive situations.

When we honor the personhood of ourselves and those around us, we are honoring God's loving intention for healthy community.

Alliteration helps me remember better, so I'll call these elements of personhood voice, value, and vitality.

Voice:  we should be able to speak up, ask questions, and have our story be respected.  When we are told to sit down and be quiet, when our questions are dismissed, and our story is devalued, we are not in an environment of Godly truth.  Simple as that. 

Value:  we should feel valued and welcomed in relationships.  When we are isolated and rejected, accidentally or on purpose, this is not an environment of Godly truth.

Vitality:  we're supposed to be powerful people, growing more and more into the image of God.  When we feel powerless, helpless, hopeless and ignored, this is not a place of Godly truth.

Langberg says this:

"Again and again throughout history, whenever one human beings acts toward another in a way that is not rooted in the truth of God, the same results occur: silence, isolation, and helplessness.  this devastation can occur in milder forms, as when one person speaks sharply or critically to another.  We have all know the experience of being rendered silent in the face of a cutting remark.  Severe destruction occurs whenever one human perpetrates an atrocity against another.  It is here, in our understanding of the nature of personhood, that we can begin to grasp the evil perpetrated in the life of a human being when trauma occurs."  (Diane Langberg,  Counseling the Survivors of Sexual Abuse)

Whenever we have a system or a family or an organizational culture that produces silence, isolation, and helplessness in its members, we've got a problem.  It may not necessarily be a sexual abuse issue yet, although it's an attractive environment for abusers, because it is a place that essentially does not function in the truth of God.

A healthy faith community is a place of voice, value, and vitality for all its members.

He is the Vine, we are the branches.  All necessary, all valued, all growing together.

How do you feel in your faith community?  

  • Do you have a voice, and is your voice welcome?  
  • Are you honestly, openly, truly valued in loving relationships?  
  • Are you experiencing an emotional and spiritual vitality that leads to love, joy, and peace in your life?

Remember this as you evaluate:

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.  2 Timothy 1:7

(Next time, I'll talk about what to do when you find yourself in an unhealthy community.)

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