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A Review of Trauma-Informed Evangelism
Cultivating Communities of Wounded Healers
Without question, Christianity in North America is in decline. Whether or not this decline continues, one of the byproducts of this decline is the rise of the so-called “nones” and “dones”. These are the people who have, at the very least, written off organized religion, and for many of them, this write-off includes church too. Far too many people have experienced spiritual abuse within toxic churches, which has left wounds that have yet to heal. So how might local churches begin to engage those who have been hurt in some way by a church? This is the question that Charles Kiser and Elaine A. Heath address in Trauma-Informed Evangelism: Cultivating Communities of Wounded Healers, which is published by Eerdmans and just recently released.
Before saying anything more about the book, a word about the authors is necessary because neither author is writing from the luxury of an ivory tower. In fact, both authors share their own experiences with trauma to go along with their experiences as practitioners and theologians. Elaine A. Heath, already a published author, is the former Dean of Divinity School at Duke University, holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Duquesne University, and lives at Spring Forest, a new monastic community in North Carolina. Charles Kiser lives in Dallas, where he has planted Storyline Church and holds a D.Min in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary. I have also had the pleasure of knowing Charles since we were both undergraduate students at Harding University, with both of us then becoming seminary students at Harding School of Theology.
The book is 213 pages, which is divided by an introduction and three major sections: Disordered Imagination, Healing Imagination, and Embodied Imagination. The end of the book contains all the reference notes and a bibliography. Anyone with an interest in leading a church into a presence and posture that will embrace the hospitality of people who have experienced trauma stemming from past church experiences should read this book. I also believe this book would be good for both undergraduate and seminary-level classes pertaining to missions and evangelism in the North American context.
What makes this book so valuable is that it offers a contextual theological praxis based on the ethnographic research that Kiser did with actual people from a board-gaming community in Uptown Dallas while engaging with traditional Christian theological resources.This ethnographic work is documented in a narrative fashion which not only helps the reader empathize but also, perhaps, identify similar experiences in his or her own ministry context. The authors never make any claim that the ethnographic descriptions in this book are universal to all experiences of spiritual abuse and trauma (p. 12). However, like any critical analysis of local cultures, the descriptions in this book offer a lens to help the readers evaluate spiritual abuse and trauma within their own contexts. Another reason why this ethnography matters is that, as the authors point out in reference to the abuse and trauma, regardless of our own theological convictions, “we must first reckon with the diseased fruit sickening our neighbors” (p. 44).
Trauma in the context of this book is the enduring harm caused by toxic church cultures and spiritual abuse committed by Christian leaders. The ethnographic research uncovered harm that particularly resulted from the loss of relationships, those who are mistreated as marginalized people (e.g., people who identify as LGBTQ+), witnessing the spiritual abuse of others, and those who were unable to differentiate between God and church and/or healthy and unhealthy churches. The toxicity behind such harm are cultures of patriarchy, racism, exploitive and abusive power, and phobias within churches.
The question of theological praxis driving this research is how a church might help those who suffer trauma as a result of such toxic expressions of Christianity heal. In short, the answer is the need for a “new reformation,” which means “the emergence of a generous, hospitable, equitable form of Christianity that heals the wounds of the world” (p. 61). Of course, just bad theology exists among toxic forms of Christianity, good theology is necessary for the formation of a healthy expression of the Christian faith. So the middle section of the book draws attention to the theological implications that flow from God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and particularly God’s choice to suffer with humanity in the crucifixion. The influence of people like Gregory A. Boyd, Jürgen Moltmann, and N.T. Wright is evident, and I consider a good selection of theologians to engage as part of the conversation.
The final section draws out the implications of the ethnographical and theological research, which is of great importance for churches seeking to embody a healthy expression of Christianity among people who are spiritually traumatized. The authors point out the difficulty of this task but rightfully suggest that evangelism must begin with an acknowledgment of the harm people have suffered. As a pastor myself, this means listening and learning, which we can do regardless of whether we agree or disagree with everything someone says.So the authors rightfully ask, “What if evangelism, when best conceived, is simply loving our neighbors well?" (p. 116). To this end, evangelism is understood as “‘witness-oriented’ rather than results-oriented,” in which the church’s faithfulness is measured by its willingness to embody the gospel among people rather than whatever outcomes may result.
The evangelistic posture of loving our neighbors as an embodied witness to the gospel has more practical implications. The authors suggest a flipped form of hospitality where instead of inviting our neighbors into the church environment, the church must go where the people are and receive their hospitality. As churches learn to do this and recognize the work of God already happening. In doing so, opportunities will arise for proclaiming the gospel in words, but the church must wait for God to open space for such opportunities in the midst of loving our neighbors. To this end, Kiser and Heath write:
In trauma-evangelism, we show up to God in ourselves in silence and solitude to pay attention both to our belovedness and two are brokenness. We show up and pay attention to our neighbors and world both is humble guests and as radically, inclusive hosts. We join God as empathetic and compassionate witnesses to the pain of our neighbors. And we release the outcomes to God, realizing that the goal of our participation in evangelism is not conversion, but faithful embodiment of the gospel in our shared life as a church with our neighbors (p.162).
The point is that since evangelism is loving our neighbors, particularly those who have suffered trauma stemming from spiritual abuse, our posture is one of presence without any ulterior agenda. Yet, we trust that God will bring about his redemptive good through our faithful presence.
It is without question that I recommend adding Trauma-Informed Evangelism to your reading list. In a time when Christianity in North America is in decline, and people are increasingly uninterested in church, we must at least consider some new approaches to the way we faithfully but contextually embody the gospel. This book offers us the opportunity to rethink our practice of evangelism. My one small complaint is that even though chapter seven ends with a brief discussion of hope, I thought a larger discussion would be helpful. After all, if our posture in evangelism includes a presence of listening to God and our neighbors, that listening must also be able to recognize what hope looks like for survivors rather than any expression of hope we might be tempted to impose.
Nevertheless, go buy this book and read it.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura, and together they have three children.
This book is a result of the D.Min thesis in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary that is directed by David E. Fitch, which Charles Kiser completed under the guidance of Elaine A. Heath. Having also received my D.Min in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary, I’m familiar with the rudiments of the research necessary to complete the work and draw the conclusions put forth in this book.
I recently wrote a Substack post about such listening from the perspective of both my pastoral experience and my experience of one who has lived with grief stemming from the death of my oldest son. See K. Rex Butts, “Listening is Loving: Caring For Those Who Suffer,” K. Rex Butts Newsletter, March 30, 2023.