When the Bully Comes to Church

Some time ago, the general perception was that bullying only happens between kids at school. I think we now know that perception is not true — bullies and bullying can be found in all areas of life. Behavior that may first begin at school can easily find its way into other areas of life. The sad reality is that now, through the accessibility of technology, bullying behavior can follow victims beyond the physical environment and can create feelings of entrapment with no escape from the torment.

What happens, then, when the bully comes to church? What is our responsibility as leaders and youth for the safety of all involved in these situations? What can we do to be images of Christ in the lives of the bully, the victims, and others? If we are not careful, negative situations can easily spiral out of control.

The church, or youth group, is meant to be a safe place. If that feeling of safety and security is threatened by the appearance of a feared individual, we risk our effectiveness in ministering to one another and jeopardize our ability to speak into people’s lives. As Christians, we are called to minister to all people, including those who engage in destructive and inappropriate behavior. It is important, therefore, to be prepared to manage the potential, and highly possible situation of when the bully comes to church.

Accept that Bullying Exists

We cannot sweep this reality under the rug. By ignoring that the problem exists we run the risk of turning a blind eye to the pain and danger that exists in the lives of our church family. We must accept that bullying happens. It’s also important to realize that the agony of bullying is not just experienced by the victims but that there is a terrible place of hurt in the hearts of those who find themselves driven to bully others. Bullying is a reality in our communities, schools, streets, on the internet, and yes, in our churches. Once we accept its existence, we can then move forward and do something to address the problem.

Create a Safe Atmosphere with Expectations, Rules, and Boundaries

While church and youth leaders have little control over what happens outside the boundaries of their church and ministries, they have a very real responsibility to cultivate and nurture a safe, secure, and caring atmosphere and culture within ministry. During the times when we gather in worship or fellowship as a group, there can be no tolerance for rude, unkind, and exclusive behavior. As leaders, we must clearly communicate the expectations and rules of the group which include the need to be respectful of everyone. The youth and leaders must know that they are safe and additionally, that there are clearly understood consequences should anyone cross the boundaries.

Lead by Example

One way of creating a culture of safety and mutual respect is by modeling preferred behavior. Leaders have the responsibility to model Christ-like behavior to youth and colleagues. Being human, I have found that leaders often experience the temptation of wanting to be liked and of trying to be friends with the youth in their church or group. While it is not wrong to be friendly and the building of relationships is important, we must be watchful of how we build rapport with the youth of our church. Jokes and teasing at the expense of others, the overuse of sarcasm, and a berating attitude teach others that this behavior is condoned and even welcomed. In turn, this can create a culture where bullying can blossom. Creating a safe culture begins with the leaders; it starts with leaders intentionally acting out and displaying kindness and caring to those around them. We must model radical respect and lead in a context of Christ-like love and compassion.

Allow Space for Restoration

As a church, we exist to see lives saved and souls transformed through a relationship with Jesus Christ. In order for this to happen, we must recognize the reality that all of us are sinners and in need of saving. We all have pasts; we have all done things we are not proud of and are dealing with areas in our lives where the Holy Spirit may be convicting and teaching us.

The realization of our own sin allows us to appreciate and acknowledge that others are also on a journey, and we cannot expect everyone to be in the same place in their travels as we are in ours. If we approach people with pre-conceived notions or in judgment, we are not allowing a space for the Holy Spirit to use us to work in the lives of those He brings alongside us. In truth, we all need restoration. We all need forgiveness and redemption. In Matthew 5:43-44 Jesus tells us, “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you” (NLT). It is easy to welcome friends and those who do not create a challenge or conflict. But Jesus tells us we must extend that same love to those who challenge us, bullies included. We must give space and time for the Holy Spirit to influence and work in the lives of those around us. We should never operate from a platform of judgment and with preconceived notions about people, but instead, live and build relationships in, and with, the love of Christ.

Teach about Bullying and Forgiveness; Pray

By allowing space for the Holy Spirit to move and restoration to happen, deeper conversations can take place where we can teach and talk openly about bullying and the negative effects it has on those who bully, those who are being bullied, and those who are witnesses to it. It is important to pray – for the bullies, pray for forgiveness and a change of heart; for those who are victims, pray for the ability to forgive; for those who are witnesses, pray for strength to love both the bully and the victim.


In all of this, we must understand the opportunity God has given us in being part of the lives of our youth. The relationships we have with our youth and their families give us the opportunity to share and express Christ-like love. In situations where bullying is present, we have a responsibility to minister with a compassion that can only come from the Lord God. Overall, we must remember to bathe our ministries in prayer and create and nurture cultures that are filled with the love of God. God has chosen us to serve where we are and to be a part of the lives around us. Let us not be afraid to confront the sins, the pain, and the fear in the lives of our students and youth. By doing so, we are living out our faith, “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Colossians 3:12, NLT).

Andrew Barker