Evangelicals love to talk about how the good news of reconciliation to God through Jesus is life-saving good news for people “from every nation, people group, tribe, and language.” (Revelation 7:9).
But at the same time, our actions undermine our words when we treat trauma-informed practices as if they are an optional extra for a ‘special’ kind of church or a specialisation for a select few ministry workers to learn about while everyone else carries on happily with ‘normal’ ministry.
But here’s the thing: we can’t have it both ways. A community that is not trauma-informed is a community where the gospel is inaccessible to a sizeable number of people. There are many reasons why trauma-informed ministry practices are not only good but right for every church community to pursue, but at the very least, even within a reductionistic evangelical framework that puts gospel proclamation as the number one priority, we are morally obligated to make the gospel accessible to all people by cultivating trauma-informed spaces.
I was talking to a Christian couple this morning at a party about how their experience as foster carers in the Church has largely been that church communities have not been inclusive of their family or accessible to their children. Why? Because the churches they had encountered had not been trauma-informed. They shared that the first time they visited our church community, our pastor had been preaching about trauma [amongst other things], and that was the first time they’d experienced anything like a trauma-informed approach at church. This made Christian community accessible to them again. Keep in mind these are people who are already Christians. Imagine how much more inaccessible our communities are to people whose starting point is as outsiders to our world. No one should have to leave their existing church family and search high and low to find a ‘special’ kind of church just so they and their kids can feel safely included.
I sometimes sense a resistance from evangelical Christians when people speak about the importance of understanding trauma and preventing re-traumatisation in Christian spaces. There’s a widespread assumption that even if this stuff were important, what’s most important–and the primary focus of any ‘real’ Christian minister–is gospel work that saves souls. Here’s why that’s a false dichotomy: Your gospel cannot save anyone your ministry cannot reach.
Being trauma-informed broadens our gospel reach because it makes our communities, our practices, and our teaching, accessible to people by breaking down barriers that kept them away. Even in cases where people are physically in our pews, their hearts are distant and the prefrontal cortexes of our brains are not capable of learning when we do not feel safe
So. In case you think this is still just a fringe topic for a few specialised people to think about, here is a [non-exhaustive] list of all the people groups you may be making the gospel inaccessible to when your ministry/church lacks a trauma-informed approach. A decision not to become trauma-informed is a decision to be okay with excluding these people:
People who have experienced domestic violence
Children of people who have experienced domestic violence
Children and youth in the foster care system
People who have experienced bullying
Refugees and asylum seekers
People who have experienced persecution
People who have served time in prison
People who have served time in youth detention
People who have experienced physical abuse
People who have experienced sexual abuse
People who have experienced emotional abuse
People who have experienced spiritual abuse
People who have experienced religious trauma
People who have suffered poverty
People of Colour – especially those who have experienced harm from racial prejudice
Women – especially those who have felt unsafe because of their gender
People who have been harmed by human trafficking
People who have suffered loss of a loved one
People who have been estranged from family or loved ones
People who have struggled with infertility
People who have lost a child to miscarriage, stillbirth, or terminated pregnancy
People who have experienced unplanned and/or unwanted pregnancy
People who have suffered birth trauma
People who have grieved childlessness
People who have struggled with unwanted singleness
People who have experienced marriage break-downs
Children of divorce
Children of single parents
People who have experienced moral injury
People with anxiety disorders
People with depression
People with bipolar disorder
People with post-traumatic stress disorder
People with developmental trauma
People with personality disorders
People with schizoaffective disorders
People with dissociative disorders
People with eating disorders
People with obsessive compulsive disorder
People who have suffered from relationship with a narcissistic person
People affected by alcoholism, including children, family, friends, and carers of alcoholics
People affected by other addictions including children, family, friends, and carers of users
People suffering chronic illnesses
People suffering acute illnesses
Children of any of the above people (because intergenerational trauma is a real thing that quite literally affects the physical neurodevelopment of babies before they’ve even been born)
(Like I said, this list is non-exhaustive. Please let me know who I’ve missed and I will keep updating the list.)
When we relate to people on the ‘presumption of safety‘ (I’ll write more about this phrase soon), we inadvertently create a system where only people who look and think like the leaders, or people who are privileged enough to experience safety by default, will find that space accessible. Because of the phenomenon of ‘survivorship bias,’ we will usually be blind to the exclusionary dynamics making these spaces inaccessible to others; because the people who stay, and who are privileged enough to experience inclusion, are going to be the only voices we end up hearing–and they will be the same voices loudly assuring us that this space works for them.
When our systems fail to practice trauma-informed ministry, we reveal the kind of person we want to see in that system: a person who looks, thinks, and feels like us.
I believe the Bible’s consistent teaching is that God’s radically inclusive mission extends to those from every single tribe, nation, people group, and demographic, and that all Christians are called to participate in this expansive mission. Gospel accessibility through trauma-informed practices needs to be one of our highest priorities if we want the Church’s mission to be aligned with God’s mission.
7 thoughts on “Making the gospel [in]accessible”
First time on your blog and I really appreciate this passionate argument, Matt. As a Pastor for almost 20 years, it’s taken me that long to realise the necessity of trauma-informed ministry. As you’ve put it so forthrightly, ‘your gospel cannot save anyone your ministry cannot reach’.
Perhaps I can see the importance of trauma-informed (eg) preaching, pastoral care, Sunday ministry, by looking back at its absence, and how easily that’s discernible. I hope I’ll be able to put that more positively in the time to come.
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Hey Rob, thanks so much for reading and dropping a comment! You’re spot on that sometimes the importance is most apparent by the harm experienced in its absence… that’s certainly been my personal experience. I sometimes struggle to speak about these things in ways that other people find ‘encouraging’ because so much of my lived experience relates to seeing the very high stakes for inadequacies in the Church… but I hope to share some more concrete positive visions for what trauma-informed worshipping communities might look like in the near future, especially as I am blessed to be embedded in a very special church community aspiring to be exactly this. So stay tuned for some more stories on that!
I feel persuaded by your argument. My next question then is, what is trauma-informed ministry? What are its principles? What could it look like? Perhaps you’ve addressed this elsewhere on your blog… I’m a first time reader having seen the link on NC’s page
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That’s a great question, Kirsty, and not one I’ve addressed here yet, though I have quite a few projects in the works that will appear here soon! I do think there is a lot more work to be done in applying the general principles of trauma-informed practice to religious community contexts, but in the meantime, you might find the following guidelines helpful food for thought (these are just general principles common to most trauma-informed frameworks, quoted from the NSW health website):
“Core trauma-informed principles:
• Safety – emotional as well as physical e.g. is the environment welcoming?
• Trust – is the service sensitive to people’s needs?
• Choice – do you provide opportunity for choice?
• Collaboration – do you communicate a sense of ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’?
• Empowerment – is empowering people a key focus?
• Respect for Diversity – do you respect diversity in all its forms?
You might also find this fact sheet that elaborates on the principles quite interesting: https://blueknot.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/26_BK_FS_TalkingAboutTrauma_GeneralPublic_JULY21.pdf
I think the most obvious areas churches need to address are emotional safety, choice, and collaboration. In fact, I find the very systems of most Western evangelical churches are set up to limit choice and collaboration and this can feel extremely disempowering or unsafe for trauma survivors. I’m very happy to say more about this and I do have concrete examples, but I fear that it may turn into another blog post all itself (which I hope to write soon!) so I’ll leave you with this for now.
I’d add to your list,
* people with chronic illness (different from disabled)
* people with acute illness.
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Thank you so much for your input, Jan! I’ll definitely add these to the list