We’re singing “How Great Thou Art”—the joy of being able to sing together as a church gathering has not yet worn off. My husband is standing beside me with our eldest beside him. I find myself wondering, “how is our eldest experiencing this?”
I try to put myself in his shoes while our voices join with those around us singing “… then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee, How great Thou art, how great Thou art … ” I wonder if how he is feeling is far from how he appears.
He mostly looks the same as other boys his age … But a closer look reveals a few differences: the sad expression that passes fleetingly between smiles …
Because he mostly looks the same as other boys his age. He wears sporty clothes, Nike trainers, a cool haircut that is too long on one side and shaved on the other. He has a cheeky smile, and he is up to his dad’s shoulders in height. But a closer look reveals a few differences: the sad expression that passes fleetingly between smiles; the dark shadows under his eyes; his obvious desperation to connect as he talks.
I reflect on the many conversations we’ve had about kids’ church, and I suddenly understand what he has been trying to tell us. He feels disconnected. Disconnected, because as other kids talk about their week, he hears about a life he wishes he had. While he is just trying to survive, held hostage by anxiety, others are enjoying life; growing and thriving.
What makes my son different? Well, I’m not so sure he is different. There will be one or two like him in every church if the statistics are right. If 1 in 6 women have experienced domestic violence, then in a gathering of 60 or more, at least six women have been or are in situations of intimate partner violence. If 1 in 16 men have experienced domestic violence, then approximately four men in a gathering of 60 have been or are in situations of intimate partner violence too. And it is highly likely that at least half of these survivors, irrespective of whether they are men or women, have children. Their children might now be adults and they may not be part of the church community, but they also might look like my son, who is a tween. While I say, “my son”, he is technically my stepson. For while, sadly, my husband had to seek the protection of divorce in a previous marriage, the protections for our son are not yet in place and he lives part of his week in a situation of family violence where we are unable to protect him. But each Sunday he is standing with us in church singing like everyone else.
There are good weeks and average weeks, but then there are bad weeks and, well, weeks that are beyond what other eleven-year-olds could even imagine (and should ever have occasion to). My husband and I welcome him home each week; ready to listen, ready to be shouted at, ready to love, ready to pray and cry with him, ready to be the safe place he so desperately needs.
I know he has come into church feeling angry and deeply hurt, both physically and emotionally.
So as we stand singing “How Great Thou Art,” I know he has come into church feeling angry and deeply hurt, both physically and emotionally. I know that he comes into church wondering whether he belongs. I know that he comes into church wondering whether God desires his good because surely a good God would want to protect him. I know he longs for connection—to be seen and to be understood.
On a hypothetical level, I’m sure many of us know that children like my son are in our church gatherings. Those in ministry have done our safer ministry training where we were reminded of the reality of child abuse. We were taught to identify the signs and to know our mandatory reporting protocols. Our Faithfulness in Ministry guidelines require us to report situations of family violence to the next leadership level.
But here is the issue. These are risk-mitigating strategies (necessary ones, I should say), designed to protect the church and its leadership as well as the vulnerable. But once all risk-mitigating is done, there is still a child who stands in our gatherings deeply wounded. This child doesn’t understand risk-mitigation—and the drawn-out pace of its operation—he or she is dealing with bruises. So, as the process unwinds and months, or even years, go past, that deeply wounded child is still standing there in our midst singing, “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee, How great Thou art.”
As ministry workers, we may have taken care of our obligations, but for children like my son, this is a gospel issue. He is at a critical point in his life where he is deciding whether he will confess Jesus to be his Lord or whether he will opt for short-term comforts and easier desires that offer less discomfort and conflict.
How might we connect the gospel message to the life of the wounded child so that they can know the power of Jesus?
So we need to do more. After we’ve finished with our risk-mitigation and our consciences are eased, we still need to put ourselves in the wounded child’s shoes and ask how we can live-out the gospel in such a way that we point him or her to Jesus who has set the imprisoned free (Luke 4:16–19). Because, for the wounded child, being forced to live in a situation of family violence feels like being imprisoned. How might we connect the gospel message to the life of the wounded child so that they can know the power of Jesus to bring down the proud and lift up the humble (1 Sam. 2:6–8)? Where might the wounded child experience the gospel as a healing balm to their hurts?
How Pastors can Help
I would suggest that it starts with the gathering pastor. As a ministry worker, I know that conversations on Sundays are hectic and there are so many people that need to be connected with, including visitors. But it is so important to prioritise wounded children—maybe just for three minutes:
- making eye contact (not with a look of pity);
- talking to them in a public setting briefly (not privately);
- listening to them;
- asking them how their week was—giving them permission to use the descriptions, “good”, “alright”, “bad,” or even not to answer.
If they say “bad”, you could answer by saying, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Please don’t ask for details. Irrespective of the answer, try asking a question that invites them to reflect on a helpful part of their week. For instance, you could say, “I hear you’ve had a bad week, but was there something in your week that you are thankful for?” or “was there a time that you laughed? What happened?”
By inviting them to remember the positives, you are helping to build their resilience. By showing curiosity, you are also showing a willingness to connect and to listen. Then please ask how you can pray for them. They might not engage for the first couple of weeks (and that’s okay), but the weekly act of initiating this conversation could make an eternity of difference. This weekly conversation could, over time, impress upon the wounded child that they are not forgotten; that they are seen, and that they matter.
Why does this need to be a gathering pastor? Because the wounded child sees and hears you at the front of the church and you represent the church family to them.
A Daily Reality
While the wider church has only just started to awaken to the realities of family violence, there are families like ours, where family violence and its after-effects colour our daily life. Having a child-safe strategy for engaging these wounded children is critical. I know, because I have seen it in action. I will never forget the profound effect on our son when our senior pastor sat beside us momentarily one Sunday and asked him how he was travelling, acknowledging he had some idea about what his week was like.
In that moment, our son knew he was seen.