The Church’s Response to Human Trafficking

“I shared my story with the pastor of my church and felt judged, and it was as if they had no idea how else to respond.” Haunting statements like this one no longer shock me. In the past ten years, survivors have shared similar reports more times than I can count. On the one hand, I believe local churches around the country are well-meaning and want to push back on this global scourge. But on the other hand, if we as leaders were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we don’t know exactly where to start or how to best care for vulnerable people or those identifying as trafficking survivors.

Understanding the Nature of Human Trafficking

A clear understanding of the nature of trafficking is the first step toward an appropriate response for the local church. According to the United Nations, “trafficking in persons” is defined as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power, or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery, or practices like slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs.” When much passive education on social issues comes from viral tweets, movies, and instantaneous news briefs, a definition like the one above can be a plumb line for understanding how to recognize and respond to various forms of trafficking.

Whether it is for sexual exploitation, labor, or organ trafficking, at its core, human trafficking is the unlawful exploitation of vulnerability for commercial gain. It impacts as many as 50 million people globally. For perspective, that is 1 out of every 150 people.   Regardless of whether it occurs in emerging nations or just down the street, vulnerability is a critical factor that traffickers exploit. This vulnerability can be due to poverty, lack of education, homelessness, lack of job opportunities, natural disasters, or even someone looking for belonging or connection.

The Church as a Beacon of Hope

As a Christian and ordained minister, I believe the local church can address this issue and be a beacon of hope for those suffering. The church, aware and equipped, can be a force for good in the fight against human trafficking, providing support, training, and resources to those in need and raising awareness in the community. Additionally, your church, once equipped, can provide training on how to recognize and report suspected cases of human trafficking, as well as how to provide support to survivors.

Focusing on survivor care and creating an atmosphere of empowerment in the local church is the missing ingredient in most approaches. The church can play a vital role in supporting survivors of human trafficking. This support can come in many forms, including providing a safe place to stay, medical care, counseling, and job training. But more than merely supporting survivors, the church should listen to survivors. For example, the leader may be blind to how certain routine aspects of the weekly experience, like greeting, preaching, and small groups, are experienced by someone that has experienced trauma.

In addition to listening to and supporting survivors, the church can also help prevent human trafficking by addressing the root causes of vulnerability. In my book, Vulnerable: Rethinking Human trafficking, I explain that God motivates vulnerable people to love other vulnerable people by becoming vulnerable for us. In that way, vulnerability is the theme that binds your congregation to your vulnerable neighbors. For example, the church can provide education and job training programs to help individuals improve their economic stability and reduce their risk of exploitation. The church can also work to address poverty, homelessness, and other social issues that make individuals vulnerable to trafficking and use its influence to call for more robust measures to protect vulnerable individuals and hold traffickers accountable.

Creating this culture of awareness, where the congregation recognizes and responds to those most vulnerable healthily, is the only thing that will change the narrative. The Gospel, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in our place, frees us to operate from a humble stance. In humility, we can admit that we may not know those most vulnerable or know precisely where to start. But we don’t have to stay that way.

Creating a Culture of Awareness

Here are a few things that you can do: 1) “Google” not-for-profits in your zip code. Pay careful attention to what you find. Are there more services for those experiencing homelessness than children’s services? 2) Set up an interview with a representative for local nonprofits, social services, and law enforcement. Ask them about what they are seeing. Ask about the gaps in services and how churches have collaborated historically. 3) After multiple conversations, you will see who is most susceptible to exploitation in your community. Not only will you identify those most vulnerable, but also potential collaborative partners.

Regardless of whether it occurs in emerging nations or just down the street, vulnerability is a critical factor that traffickers exploit. This vulnerability can be due to poverty, lack of education, homelessness, lack of job opportunities, natural disasters, or even someone looking for belonging or connection.

Human trafficking is a serious issue that requires the attention and action of the entire community, including the local church. By providing education, support, advocacy, and through collaboration, the church can play a vital role in the fight against human trafficking and in supporting survivors. Human trafficking can happen in every community but let us not forget that there is a local church in every community that has Good News for those in need of it.


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