“They were probably never real Christians anyway,” a friend remarked with despairing, cold comfort. We were discussing friends who had left Christianity after a messy church situation. Because of the church crisis, people became confused, scattered, and heartbroken. As a result, some who once seemed devoted to God were no longer sure what they believed. Through the years, I’ve had friends and family in various high-profile churches that blew up, including Mars Hill, Sovereign Grace, and a smaller denomination that went through turmoil. Whether from a leader’s moral failings, intense division, sexual abuse mishandling, or petty cruelty, the disruption of a church community always leaves havoc in its wake.
Another friend grimly told me that it just showed how little faith we should put in people, and we should instead put all of our faith in God alone. “God alone” is a significant emphasis for those discouraged and even traumatized by their church experience, as many are left wondering whether any church is worth the risk. Still others leave God behind, as well as the church.
I know of pastors’ kids who eventually left the faith, influenced by the unfair vitriol they saw their parents live through in the ministry. I’ve talked to women who have been deeply scarred by church discipline or corporate shaming for divorcing their abusive husband or church leaders who mishandled their abuse or the abuse of their children. They still have faith in God, but they couldn’t see how the church could be a help. After all, it was the church that made their situation far worse, instead of bringing healing. After my personal wounds in the church, I also struggled with wondering whether the church was a benefit when it had deeply hurt so many, including myself.
Yet we were made for community, and our faith was meant to be nurtured and encouraged within a church community. It feels difficult to see that design as beautiful again after community upheaval.
To my surprise, I found a striking lesson of hope (and a warning) in the way God created forests to grow. The same God who tells us to go to the ant when we are feeling lazy (Prov. 6:6) has given us a beautiful analogy and example in how trees grow together.
German forester Peter Wohlleben explains the communal nature of the forest in his book The Hidden Life of Trees. Ancient or undisturbed forests that have been allowed to grow without human intervention demonstrate breathtaking community support. He claims, “A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”
More recently in ecology, studies suggest that trees work socially together for the good of the forest as a whole, complicating the older theories that trees were competitors in a Darwinian struggle for resources.
Trees, Wohlleben shares, are interdependent. German scientists in the Harz mountain region found that “individual trees of the same species” are “connected to each other through their root system.” Through this root system, trees can communicate with each other through the “fungal networks around the root tips.” Trees also communicate by giving off a “warning gas” to neighboring trees about nearby threats. They warn each other of pests, drought, and disease, allowing other trees to make changes to better withstand such dangers.
Not only that, but trees use their root systems to help other trees in times of need by exchanging nutrients and sharing water. The social aspect of the forest is so strong that Wohlleben uses words such as “friends” in an interview to describe the relationship between two interconnected trees. He also explains that young trees under the heavy shade of mature trees can’t photosynthesize properly, so the “mother trees,” the mature trees, “suckle their young” by sharing nutrients through the root system. These strikingly human descriptors used by Wohlleben and other researchers have been criticized, yet they continue in use because they create helpful depictions to explain the community-orientated behavior of ancient forests. While trees of the same species have unique community lines, they will even form alliances with other tree species as well.
“But why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors?” Wohlleben asks. “The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.”
This doesn’t sound like a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest scenario. In fact, many evolutionary biologists today also tell the story of how organisms cooperate. And it sounds much more like how the church is supposed to be. Just as every church member is of value, so, Wohlleben says, “Every tree, therefore is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.”
Humans were created to need community, and research shows the clear benefits to healthy relationships and community. Having plenty of quality relationships results in better mental health, less disease, and longer life. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “One study…found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 percent—an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.” The quality of our relationships affects everything from our endocrine and immune function to our nervous system activity.
The same God that made undisturbed forests interdependent also made our bodies, minds, and spirits to need community for our mental and physical health. Spiritually, Christians aren’t standing alone, but rather are part of a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). We are equally part of the body of Christ, so that “members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:25–26, ESV).
Forests will care for sick trees and the young and tender trees growing underneath the shade, and they share information and nutrients with each other. Likewise, the Bible tells us to share with those who have less (2 Cor. 9); to care for the vulnerable (Ps. 82:3–4), the orphans and widows, the oppressed, and the downtrodden (Isa. 1:17); to warn others of danger (1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:15); and to act with unity (1 Cor. 1:10).
If communities strengthen us when we are weak, offer love and support, and help warn us of dangers, what happens when that community is suddenly gone? The forest gives us a grimmer analogy here.
Rather tragically, my parents had to cut down several majestic towering trees on their property shortly after they bought it. An arborist told them that without the root support of the forest that had been mostly cleared away already, they were at great risk of falling down in a high wind. This was likewise true for my friends who had grown rooted in a community where they found sustenance and support for their faith and lives. When the majority of it was suddenly cleared in upheaval, their faith, as well as my own, was buffeted without support in the stormy weather.
I still trust that God can and will bring my friends who left Christianity back to faith at the right time, but I no longer view their departure from the church as surprising. I view it instead as a distressing byproduct of the uprooting of an unhealthy community.
There is a cost to community living because if we can care for and help each other, we also have the power to greatly hurt and damage each other. Wohlleben describes the occasional cost of the forest being connected, including a tree that had been struck and killed by lightning. The surprise was that “another ten Douglas firs within a radius of 50 feet of the strike experienced the same fate. Clearly, the surrounding trees were connected to the victim underground, and that day, instead of life-giving sugar, what they received was a deadly serving of electricity.”
I have had to lean into my personal faith through the shattering pain I’ve experienced within the church. I’ve felt the jolting pain of receiving a shock through the actions of members in a church community I trusted who misused that trust. I did have to redirect my trust in “God alone.” Unlike trees, we aren’t merely connected to our local communities. We are grafted into Jesus himself. He is our source of faith and endurance (Rom. 11), and this is very good news for us when facing broken communities. Unlike trees, we are also empowered to leave unhealthy situations and find healthier communities.
It was my faith in Jesus, to my surprise, that led me to eventually trust again in his plan for us to thrive as part of a healthy community, as imperfect as that often looks. Despite the heartache I’ve seen far too often, I’ve found, like a tree in a forest, we can all be rooting for each other and grow stronger together. Wohlleben explains that the communal forest can withstand even hurricane-level winds as “the tree community stands together to help each individual tree.” It’s a beautiful picture of what the church community is capable of when we weather the storms of life together.
Kimi Harris is a writer, mother, and wife of a pastor. She and her husband serve in the Midwest.