How Churches Can Stand for Survivors, Not the Accused



By Jenna Barnett


Twice this year, standing ovations have knocked the wind out of me. The first one came after Andy Savage, a pastor of Highpoint church at the time, tearfully and vaguely admitted to what he called “an incident” — and what the law calls “an abuse” — of Jules Woodson, a teenager in his youth group when the assault occurred. The Memphis congregation responded with applause.

The second ovation came after Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, announced that, in light of allegations of sexual harassment by several women in his congregation, he would be stepping down as senior pastor six months ahead of schedule. He denied all allegations and Willow Creek came to their feet in applause.

Standing ovations in these situations create a false narrative of forgiveness and consensus. They convey:

We prioritize those who are accused over those who are calling out for justice and healing.

We offer hasty forgiveness without confession or accountability.

I reject these messages. I also believe that these messages reflect neither the message of Jesus nor the actual feelings and perspectives of many at Willow Creek, High Point, and beyond.

Inevitably, several people in these churches stayed seated. Several members of Willow Creek stood because of the peer pressure intrinsic to standing ovations. And certainly, several members of both congregations left their sanctuary long ago, whether from personal experiences of harassment or disappointment in a church unwilling to prioritize the voices of survivors.

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