Why We Believe in the Roles of Church & Scripture in Trauma Healing

Article written by Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin in the American Bible Society and the Barna Group’s E- book Trauma in America.

It started with a phone call from a mobile phone, in the forest outside of a little town in northern Congo. Elderly parents calling their adult son in Philadelphia, reporting that a violent militia group had ravaged that town, and they had fled for their safety. That son—Bagudekia Alobeyo—was on the staff of American Bible Society (ABS). He quickly raised funds and arranged for two evacuation flights for his extended family. Once they were resettled safely, Bagudekia’s boss, Robert Briggs*, organized a small team to evaluate the conditions within Congo. That trip in 2010 exposed the team to the harsh reality of trauma. Women, children, men, pastors, truck drivers, teachers … none were spared. Poverty was one thing, but debilitating, destructive violence had crashed through those lives leaving behind wreckage and a future marked by despair. The team returned home, convinced that the Bible had something to say, but it had to be said differently.

That realization coincided with the discovery of Healing the Wounds of Trauma: How the Church Can Help, a book written by staff from SIL International and Wycliffe Bible Translators that had been tested and refined in the field for nearly a decade. That year ABS began working with the authors and other ministry partners to refine and scale the program model and launch the Trauma Healing Institute. The book and the practice of Bible-based trauma healing have swept the world, proving particularly useful among vulnerable and underserved populations. But the Bible offers hope to hurting people everywhere, including in the United States. Today, in the spring of 2020, the world is caught up in a fight against a pandemic that, at the time of writing, has infected over 3.8 million people and claimed the lives of over 265,000 around the world. The SARS-CoV-2 virus first came to light in late 2019 and coronavirus disease (COVID-19) quickly circled the globe bringing disruption to everything from the global economy to individual families’ ability to earn a living, educate their children, celebrate their special days and mourn their dead. Tragically, the virus has proven so contagious that those who succumb to the disease often die alone, separated from their families and loved ones in order to protect public health. The pandemic is still raging. With it comes a need for the church to care for the emotional and spiritual wounds experienced by victims and their families. Wounds not dissimilar from what our brothers and sisters experienced in the Congo 10 years ago.

we knew that trauma is a part of the human condition in this fallen world.

When we started this research project with Barna Group in the summer of 2019, we had no idea that COVID-19 would be the next traumatic event, but we knew that trauma is a part of the human condition in this fallen world. Since the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the U.S. military has seen over 52,800 personnel wounded and nearly 7,000 killed in the Global War on Terrorism. The trauma of repeated deployment has been linked to record rates of suicide among both active duty personnel and veterans. Recent cultural shifts have highlighted the travesty of sexual harassment and violence often experienced by women. Even inside the church, women have been mistreated and too often children have not been safe. Cities in America are still shaken by racial conflict that has its roots in slavery, Jim Crow and redlining ( just to name a few). Generations of African Americans have faced oppression, producing a festering wound on America’s soul. Misogyny, child abuse, gun violence, extreme poverty and a litany of other ills work together to rob people of hope, often leaving some to define their lives by their trauma. Research into Adverse Childhood Events shows that many lives are actually shortened due to trauma’s lasting effects on health and vitality. And this does not include the traumas that individuals face on a regular basis through various disasters, mistreatment, grief and pain.

We defined trauma narrowly as physical, psychological or emotional trauma, such as extreme violence, abuse or a near-death experience that produces a response of intense fear, helplessness or horror lasting more than a few weeks. According to this definition and our findings, one in five American adults has been a victim or witness to events that traumatized them in just the past 10 years.

In this study, we defined trauma narrowly as physical, psychological or emotional trauma, such as extreme violence, abuse or a near-death experience that produces a response of intense fear, helplessness or horror lasting more than a few weeks. According to this definition and our findings, one in five American adults has been a victim or witness to events that traumatized them in just the past 10 years.

Thankfully, awareness of trauma is growing around the world, including in the U.S. church. Trauma affects every part of a person: mind, body and spirit. It affects individuals and communities, young and old, men and women. Privileged people can experience trauma. So can people who are already the victims of injustice. Trauma, sadly, is part of the human condition.

While some people heal without much intervention, trauma can result in long-term problems not only for individuals but also for their families and communities. Symptoms of trauma can lead to some of the suffering explored in this report: sleeplessness, anxiety, difficulty feeling close to loved ones, intrusive thoughts and more.

As prevalent as it is, trauma can still be hard to talk about, and it can be difficult to know how to help. Many traumatized people also keep their pain hidden. Others would seek help and relief—if they knew where to find it. ABS desires to look at how hardships and traumatic experiences affect relationships with God, self and others, as well as how the Bible offers hope. This study is meant to give a better picture of trauma among adults in the United States—and where they seek and find healing.

Why the Church is in a Unique Position to be Involved

Mental health professionals play a key role in addressing trauma. So do communities, such as churches, small groups and families. There are practical, illuminating and caring ways for non-professionals to come alongside traumatized people. A community’s acknowledgment and support can make all the difference to people who are suffering. They can take actions that lead to justice for victims. They can prevent similar trauma from happening to others. They can heal together. The benefits of a welcoming network of friends go beyond what any individual can do to help.

American Bible Society believes that churches —who know firsthand the life-changing effects of an encounter with the message of the
Bible—have a special opportunity and responsibility to help people heal from trauma. And we are not the only ones who think this way. Most pastors agree that trauma is an issue for the church to address. About two-thirds of Protestant pastors (68%) say churches should be equipped to help congregants with trauma. More than one-third (37%) says the church should extend that care to their neighborhoods and communities, even if those in need are not members of their congregation.

American Bible Society believes that churches —who know firsthand the life-changing effects of an encounter with the message of the
Bible—have a special opportunity and responsibility to help people heal from trauma.

It seems that many outside the church also have this expectation. As this report shows, many people suffering from trauma are open to the church’s help, even if they aren’t regular church-goers. Pastors who signal the church’s willingness and ability to help tend to see an increase in the number of people who come to them for help with trauma.

Sadly, some people in the church, including church leaders, have caused trauma through their actions. Roles that can offer healing can also be manipulated in the hands of ill-equipped and traumatized individuals. Beyond following protocols for allegations of abuse, church leaders will likely be called on to address different forms of trauma in different ways, even among leaders. Churches should be prepared to prevent injury and provide aid so that all may be healed. This begins with understanding and planning for inevitable experiences from the pulpit to the pew. We believe that the church and the Bible offer hope for healing in Christ. Christians can create an environment for bringing light and relief to those who are suffering. As trauma is woven through the stories of the Bible, from captivity to crucifixion, so, too, is hope. The stories of characters like Tamar and Rahab, Joseph and Paul may well reflect the trauma in the lives of many churchgoers today and the hope that is available in God.

ABS seeks to empower churches to help effectively. Our efforts are coordinated with those of the Trauma Healing Institute, which provides proven strategies for healing. With the help of an advisory council, the authors behind Healing the Wounds of Trauma, the member organizations of Trauma Healing Alliance and its staff, the Trauma Healing Institute produces a series of Bible-based curriculum resources to be used by groups for transformation and hope. You can visit TraumaInAmerica.Bible to learn more about what you can do to heal the wounds of trauma around you.

We hope this study gives hope for healing to those affected by trauma and becomes a starting place for communities and churches who
bring light to the suffering.

REV. DR. NICOLE MARTIN leads the Trauma Healing enterprise at American Bible Society. She is also an Assistant Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and founder of Soulfire International Ministries. She has published numerous articles in Christianity Today and is the author of two books, Made to Lead: Empowering Women for Ministry and Leaning In and Letting Go: A Lenten Devotional. She serves on the board for the National Association of Evangelicals and on the Board of Trustees at Gordon College. Nicole is a nationally recognized speaker, focusing on engaging all people in the life changing power of God’s Word.


August 27, 2021
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