Is church meant to be safe?
Recently I had an experience where I was sharing in a group with other Christians. We were all speaking very openly about some of the issues that we were struggling with in our lives. As one member of the group spoke about the difficulties that being experienced, I felt myself be drawn into the struggles that this person was going through. I also started feeling a little…unsafe. I don’t like to use that word too often to describe how I feel but it’s probably the best description for what I was sensing. Because of this person’s struggles, emotions, dark thought patterns and the harmful actions that could happen as a result of the difficulties being experienced, I felt cautious. I felt my defences go up. I knew my internal barriers were being slowly erected as I listened.
I wanted to send this person to a counsellor. I wanted to fix this person. I wanted to leave that room and not return.
But there was something else going on inside of me. I think it was God. Thoughts were formulating in me such as; “This person doesn’t need fixing, this person needs community”, “How can I be generous towards this person even while being cautious?” “Isn’t this exactly the kind of person that actually needs church community?” and “There are broken bits in me that connect with the broken bits of this person”.
There was my flesh functioning from a place of fear telling me to flee from that room and try to control the situation and there was also God’s voice asking me sharp yet poignant questions, telling me to stay as thoughts surfaced within me that were challenging yet from the Spirit. All of this also made me ask the question: Is Church meant to be safe?
I often hear Christians saying that they are trying to create a ‘safe space’ in their church so that people who are weary, broken by life can get healing and so that there is a sense of sanctuary for the troubled who are looking for a place of rest. On the one hand I think this is a wonderful thing. Of course the church should be a safe place for those who have come out of traumatic circumstances and who want to experience community in Christ which brings true life. The leaders of a church are responsible for creating this safe place so that people are able to flourish in life.
But on the other hand I wonder if we can truly say that church community is safe. I wonder if we are trying to control our circumstances again. I wonder if continually stating that a church is safe sends wrong messages to the congregation and sets up expectations and practices that in the end stop disciples of Christ from maturing.
I have always expected church to be a safe place. But that expectation led me to want to flee the room when my friend in Christ shared about the struggles being experienced. It stopped me from taking a risk to build community. It made me want to retreat and withdraw and pass this person on to a professional who might fix that person.
I’m not saying that when we are faced with truly unsafe circumstances we should not leave. That’s different. I’m talking about when we experience discomfort, disruption and disorientation in church community and our first instinct is to want to evacuate the situation rather than process what God might be trying to tell us and indeed how God might be trying to shape us as his radical people who belong to an upside down kingdom.
I remember a pastor sharing once that when they moved their church from a lovely multi-purpose building in suburbia to a not so nice part of the neighbourhood closer to the city, many people in the church struggled with the transition. Announcements from the platform started to change from, “Coffee and tea at Ted and Sue’s place this afternoon. All welcome” to “Please do not leave your valuable belongings unattended in the building”. Items were getting stolen and strange looking people were attending the services. Homeless, transgender and ethnic people started poking their heads through the doors on Sundays and that made people nervous. Is this because we have become used to the idea that church should be a safe place? Once again that does not mean that we should not try to create a space in church community where people feel a sense of shalom, this is an admirable thing, however I wonder to what extent we can establish this as an expectation? What messages does this fixation on a culture of safety send to people in the congregation? What messages does this send about the kinds of people that will be a part of the church? Do these messages create expectations in church members which are unrealistic and counter disciple formation?
If we are all broken by life, some more than others, then church will be a place where people say mean things, they might hurt one another or we might occasionally experience our own wounds rubbing against other people’s wounds. That is bound to cause problems!
However, Christian community is what shapes us into ‘truly human’ people.
I think we need to be a community that is comfortable with the thought of risk rather than focusing so much on safety. I was struck again as I read the book of Acts recently by the provocative and life-changing concept of resurrection. Because we know that this world is not all there is, because we know that we will rise again, because our hope is not only in the now but also in the not yet, we have nothing to lose. We know that the early Christians put this into practice. In the third century when a devastating plague swept across the ancient world, the Christians were the ones who went out onto the streets to care for the sick and diseased. They took the risk of being infected by the disease themselves. Some who were not Christians left their infected family members to die rather than risk being themselves infected. We still see examples in the world today where many Christians take the risk to live in parts of the world which are plagued by sickness in order to bring health. Surely resurrection is foremost in their thoughts. Death cannot ultimately harm them since they are looking forward to the new Jerusalem in a restored universe. The cross in not enough, instead living out the resurrection is what will change our world.
Alan Hirsch in his book The Forgotten Ways writes about creating communitas rather than community in church, saying that communitas, is a “type of community that develops in the context of danger, an ordeal or an overwhelming task. It happens when faced with such a challenge, the participants ‘find each other’ in a new and deeper way. The social bonds are strengthened and restructured. Friends become comrades”. He also says thatcommunitas is a critique of the usual “huddle and cuddle” atmosphere that we find in most church communities, “It involves adventure and movement and describes that unique experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people inspired by the vision of a better world who attempt to do something about it.”
How can we who live in relatively safe environments in our comfy suburban homes take more risks in our church community as we keep in mind the resurrection knowing that ultimately nothing can harm us? How do we do that as we discuss the hot topic of sexuality? In what ways does this influence discipleship? What about as we think about gender, power and privilege?
So I’d rather avoid the term ‘safe church’. Which doesn’t mean that I would promote an unsafe church or want an unsafe environment. But we need to as Christians somehow use language that helps us realise that all of us have our broken parts, some more than others and that each of us is on a journey towards recovery and transformation. As we walk along that road, pilgrims together along the same path, we know that the adventure will sometimes and even often, be disturbing and uncomfortable. But we do not abandon that shared pilgrimage because God is at work to shape us into his people. Moreover, as we walk together we need to daily keep in our minds the provocative and radical thought of the resurrection which led the early church to abandon themselves to the provision and protection of God knowing they had nothing to lose. The church can become this courageous community again today.
What do you think? Has safe church become an idol which stops us from discipleship?
Have you ever experienced feeling unsafe and wanted to run away like I did?
How did you manage to be generous with others who you felt ‘unsafe’ with? Karina is a Lecturer of Missional Studies & a part of the Tinsley Institute team at Morling College in Sydney. She has had over 15 years of experience in ministry including as a Senior Pastor for 8 years. Read more of her articles on her blog here