Honoring the Power of Worship

By Hilary J. Scarsella

For the last several years, I have been talking with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse about how the worship and teachings of their faith communities impacted their experiences of abuse, its traumatic consequences, and their ability to eventually seek recovery.

A commitment to keeping children safe in communities of faith surely includes implementing child protection policies and educating ourselves to recognize signs of abuse and neglect. These tools are absolutely essential and can make a real difference to a child threatened by abuse or neglect. But our commitments shouldn’t stop there. What I’ve found tells me that if we want to protect children who are vulnerable to abuse and care for those who have survived it, we need to reflect on the ways we worship. 

What does worship have to do with child abuse, you might ask?

Well, as it turns out, plenty.

Let’s consider a practice central to Christian worship: communion.

The very name of this practice tells us that when we share bread and cup together our desire is to strengthen the bonds of community, both with one another and with God. We mean for this sacred meal to manifest the love of God among us. But, for various reasons, those who have been abused can experience it quite differently.

When we say during communion that Jesus demonstrated his faithfulness to God by being willing to endure bodily harm and execution as an expression of love for the people trying to hurt him, children who are being hurt are paying attention. Because we emphasize the need for Christians to follow Jesus’s example of loving enemies even to the point of death, many who are suffering harm interpret this message to mean the Christian way to regard one’s perpetrator is to show love by being willing to endure continued abuse, no matter how bad it gets. Even children who are not yet welcomed at the communion table understand that this space is especially sacred and sense the authority it has with the adult community. The fact that the communion table appears to be both important and trusted by adults is all the more reason for a child to internalize its message sincerely. 

Some adults whom I have spoken with recount that participating in communion as an adult is a traumatizing experience that brings back the pain of abuse they experienced as a child. Especially for those who were orally raped by adult men, the invitation to put Jesus’s body into one’s mouth is frightening and intrusive. Though many of these victims would have been too young to participate in communion during the time they were being abused, sharing bread and cup later in life derails processes of trauma recovery and exacerbates the pain they experienced as children.

These are two tiny windows into the significance that worship and wider congregational practices can have for children who are either vulnerable to abuse or have already been harmed by it.

In addition to implementing child protection policies, we need to reflect on what our faith practices teach our children about what Christian love looks like in situations of harm, about the value of safety in Christian life, and about a whole host of equally complex and pressing issues of faith in light of abuse.

In an attempt to do this sort of reflection, I have worked with four others to develop a communion liturgy informed by the experiences of abuse survivors. It will be published in Leader magazine in the summer of 2016 and is intended for broad and regular use in congregations as an attempt to offer insight into how we might worship together in ways that interrupt cycles of abuse rather than perpetuate them.

Our worship is powerfully formative. May we honor that power by giving our attention to the ways it impacts children vulnerable to harm.

Hilary J. Scarsella is a public educator for OurStoriesUntold as well as a founding member of SNAP-Menno. She is pursuing a PhD in theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and studies the intersection of traumatic experience with Christian faith and practice.