Charles Kiser and Elaine A. Heath. Trauma-Informed Evangelism: Cultivating Communities of Wounded Healers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2023. 213 pp. $18.59.
Emerging from a Doctor of Ministry thesis written by Charles Kiser, and with contributions from his professor Elaine Heath, Trauma-Informed Evangelism represents an important and timely contribution to re-thinking evangelism by lifting up the voices of those who have experienced abuse by the church and by pointing to theological resources and practical strategies for better pointing to God’s unconditional love. Christians sometimes fail to grasp fully how much damage centuries of cultural power and privilege have done to our witness. But that damage is all the more problematic in cases where the church and its leaders have harmed and abused individuals, causing trauma and closing off possibilities of redemption and restoration. Both Heath and Kiser have considerable pastoral experience that guides their approach. The integration of practical wisdom and robust theological engagement when it comes to thinking about evangelism is refreshing and welcome.
The book is divided into three parts. The first outlines the problem of spiritual abuse and trauma that is a significant factor in the documented rise of those with no religious affiliation, including both the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) and the “dones” (those, including Christians, who have given up on the church). It is hard as a church to evangelize those for whom the church is the very source of their trauma, exclusion, and woundedness. The authors begin by recounting their experiences of listening to stories of those who were ostracized or shunned by the church or who have experienced the church as such a toxic environment that the thought of re-entering that space is a non-starter. This might be because of the social and religious marginality of those persons (as is the case, for example, with women, persons of color, and persons who identify as LGBTQ+), their experience with religious leaders who exploit and abuse their authority, or their experience of witnessing harm done to others.
One of the important contributions of the book is its offer of a brief but sophisticated understanding of spiritual abuse and trauma, which then informs the authors’ approach to evangelism, leadership, ecclesiology, and the very nature of God in Christ. Until the church understands that trauma is not something people must simply learn to “get over” and move on, the entire evangelistic enterprise will remain misshapen as an exercise in fixing people rather than coming alongside them in a posture of listening, openness, and vulnerability. One might draw the conclusion that this book is geared toward only a small population of persons who have experienced harm at the hands of the church. However, the book does a powerful job of connecting the dots to the larger problem of a Christendom imagination that continues to haunt Christian evangelism, born of centuries upon centuries of hegemony and superiority wedded to political power, patriarchy, colonialism, and clericalism.
Part two of the book turns to biblical and theological resources that can heal our evangelistic imaginations and help them become more healing. Jesus himself can be understood as a trauma survivor, and the authors narrate his life, death, and resurrection in that light rather than from the standpoint of theories of atonement that attempt to interpret suffering as redemptive and that turn Jesus into a victim of God’s abuse. This move makes critical space for imagining God as found in our suffering rather than as one who requires it, and it also shifts evangelism toward a practice of solidarity with those who suffer rather than triumphantly being predisposed to think that Christians come with “answers” and “solutions.” Healing is possible, but only as “wounded healers,” an insight from Henri Nouwen the authors use to good purpose. Again, this move is not just for the sake of evangelism focused on a niche population of those who have been wounded by Christians. The authors make a compelling case for theological education and pastoral leadership preparation being “trauma-informed.” It is the church rather than just a handful of specialized evangelists that must be transformed kenotically (through self-emptying) into a community that faithfully embodies witness to Christ. The authors do a masterful job of calling the church to shift its missional engagement to one that exemplifies an empathic Christlikeness rather than striving to have the largest or fastest-growing church on the block.
In part three of the book, the authors move toward what an embodiment of this trauma-informed theological imagination might look like in terms of the practice of evangelism. Parallel to the path of walking with survivors of trauma, they describe three stages: (1) establishing safety, (2) witnessing the story (with an emphasis on listening), and (3) reconnecting with life. The latter might find expression in a variety of forms of healing and belonging, including community groups, therapy, and even the possibility of journeying toward faith, as unlikely as that might initially seem for victims of spiritual abuse. The authors only hint at what some of those practices of journeying might be (one might imagine pilgrimages, art, or some other liberative faith practice). The authors introduce the concept of a “flipped hospitality” (allowing ourselves to receive rather than only demonstrate hospitality) as a practical example of the church reversing its well-intended “host” mentality to attract persons to the faith. The tendency to focus on hospitality without mutuality can lead to a one-sided, top-down approach to evangelism that is not only off-putting but fails to embody the gospel of Jesus, who made himself vulnerable by eating and ministering on the turf of those who had been marginalized or rejected. Again, the posture here is that of vulnerability and openness rather than having all the answers—solidarity rather than condescension.
Those who are looking for a “twelve easy steps to grow your church” sort of evangelism tutorial will be disappointed and frustrated by this book, which instead operates primarily at the level of re-imagining and re-orienting the practice of evangelism in light of what we now know about trauma. As such, it joins a growing literature that includes “trauma-informed” schools, pedagogies, classrooms, education, workplaces, and pastoral care. Perhaps in the past, churches could just build big enough and attractive enough ministries, programs, churches, and staffs with an endless number of hooks to catch the fish they wished to convert. But in post-Christendom and pluralistic contexts, the church cannot simply rely on its previous cultural advantages, size, and power to win converts. Its very existence and mission need to be reconsidered in light of the harm that a Christendom imagination has done to itself and to others. Many of those who have left the church due to spiritual abuse and trauma will never return. But it may be that a vulnerable church, willing to walk with survivors and to be open and receptive, can become communities of belonging and healing of the sort that Kiser and Heath imagine.
E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism
Boston University School of Theology
Boston, Massachusetts, USA