Qualities of a Safe Church
These are the notes from a sermon I preached on the first Sunday of Summer – on June 26, 2022…
Summer has officially arrived! Feels good, doesn’t it?
It seems like the most difficult and life-altering days of pandemic life are behind us now, I hope, and we can once again enjoy meals together and taking actual vacations and stuff. Hallelujah.
Next week, our Songs of Summer series begins as we look to the poetry of the Psalms and draw some connections to popular music that we know. For that first Sunday in July, we’ll be outdoors, on the lawn, for church.
Yes, it finally feels like summertime!
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. God is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety.
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! Selah
Selah… A break in the music—a pause for dramatic effect. A chance to sit and let it soak in.
Safe beneath the shelter of your wings.
I like it. I need it. Amen.
My name is Brian and I’ve been in the church nearly every Sunday since I was one week old. And I’m now 50… so, yeah, a lot of Sundays.
My mom loved to tell this story from my toddler years when our family attended Skyway United Methodist Church. Apparently I was laying down on the pew between family members and during a particularly quiet moment of prayer, I screamed… in my mom’s words, “bloody murder.” Of course, they were all terribly embarrassed by my out-of-context blood curdling scream. Eventually, my mom tried to figure out what was wrong and discovered that a spider had dropped from the ceiling and landed near my head on the church pew.
They were embarrassed and I was traumatized. I guess I’ve always been a sensitive boy.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I’m still here. Still believing. Still living my faith. Still in a community of people who believe that God is love and grace is for everyone and we’re not better than anyone else and we’re so blessed to know Jesus as our Savior, our example, the very center of our faith.
The reason I consider myself one of the lucky ones is because I know that not everyone makes it. Not in the church. Not in the faith.
And I’m not really talking about people who are wishy washy or somehow weak in faith. No, I’m talking about people just like me—who have spent most of their life in the church but have experienced such trauma and abuse that the church is no longer a safe place for them.
I’m guessing you know someone who had that experience and can’t come back.
Perhaps even within your own family.
I certainly experienced my share of trauma in church – and not because of spiders. There was the legalism. There was scare tactics and manipulation and control. There was the inner circles and hierarchies and popularity clubs. There was the alignment with politics and telling us how to vote and the villainizing of those who were different. There was fearmongering and outrage and sermons filled with rants over culture war issues.
By the time I became the lead pastor at this church, I already had my own fair share of church PTSD.
And I don’t think anything could really prepare me for being a lead pastor – in that way, it’s kinda like becoming a parent… a baptism by fire. You learn on the job.
These past 14 years have been wonderful and terrible, a blessing and a pain, producing some of my happiest memories and also some of my most hurtful ones.
This is not me complaining. I am only stating the facts.
And while I have my church PTSD and hurtful memories and pain, I also have the joy and reward and blessing of church experience. So, yeah, I consider myself one of the lucky ones.
Still believing. Still showing up. Not completely wrecked. Just kinda damaged. And I still got some life in me.
And not only that, through all the challenges and the deconstructing and rebuilding of my own faith, I am now more deeply in love with Jesus than I ever have been before.
I’m with Cole Arthur Riley, who said:
I don’t have many certainties about God. I do have many hopes. Chief among them is that it’s true what they say: that God is love, is made of love, and looks at the faces of you and me and my gramma and, without hesitation or demand, delights.
There’s a whole lot of church dogma out there… and theological hot takes and practices and beliefs and claims of owning the only one and true interpretation of all Scripture that I’m just not married to—and, while I know they exist, I also know they ain’t for me.
And, I gotta tell you, being able to hold that perspective is delightfully liberating.
You do know that the Christian faith is all about liberating people and not holding them hostage, right?
James Baldwin said:
I conceive of God as a means of liberation and not a means to control others.
Amen and amen!
Pastor and author Jonathan Martin said:
If your Christianity makes emperors feel comfortable and oppressed people feel unsafe, it’s time for a grand reversal.
Yessir. Deconstruct and rebuild. Flip the tables and set the oppressed free.
Liberation is God’s jam, from Exodus to Revelation!
And I wanna be part of it. Don’t you?
I dream of a church that is safe, a church determined to liberate and love.
Q. Who is church unsafe for?
Maybe I can answer that question with some more questions…
By the way, In the gospels, Jesus is asked 187 questions.
He answers (maybe) 8 of them.
He himself asks 307 questions. His favorite way to respond to a question seemed to be with a question of his own.
So, I ask some more questions about who is church unsafe for…
Is it safe for searchers, doubters, skeptics, wanderers and prodigals? Is it safe for the marginalized, the poor, the least, the last, and the lost? Is it safe for those who have experienced abuse? Is it safe for those who have been hated, insulted, labeled, discarded, and ignored? Is it safe for those with disabilities? Is it safe for those who have experienced oppressive and controlling leadership? Is it safe for women with strong leadership gifts? Is it safe for children? Is it safe for single people, divorced people, or people who are together but not yet married? Is it safe for gay people? Is it safe for elderly people? Is it safe for people who are struggling with addiction? Is it safe for young people? Is it safe for people coming out of cultish religion? Is it safe for people who have been hurt by previous church experiences?
Who is the church unsafe for?
In what ways has the church been, or still is, unsafe?
I don’t think I’ve seen it all, but here’s a bit of what I have seen…
Church that is angry, always at war, beholden to a political party, patriarchal, homogeneous, fearful, defensive, obsessed with naming and shaming those who have particular sins that we don’t struggle with, us four and no more clique-ish, nothing like the community it is located in, exclusive, abusive, controlling, domineering, demanding, placing heavy religious burdens on people, showing off how spiritual we are, views people of other faiths as threats, using fear to modify behavior, claiming we alone have the correct doctrine and understanding of Scripture, wrapped up in nationalism, unloving, greedy, lacking in compassion, messaging superiority, embracing racist ideology, unwilling to adapt or change, prideful and arrogant, peddling prosperity, living in a protective bubble…
Saying all those things kinda feels like throwing up. The experience is awful and disgusting and painful and brings tears to the eyes, but after its done, I feel better.
Barbara Brown Taylor said:
Jesus was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.
Oofta! Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.
Let’s take a look at what Colossians chapter 3 has to say about what we – God’s people, the church – should aspire to be…
12 As God’s chosen and holy people whom he loves, clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.
13 Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.
14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.
15 And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.
16 Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.
17 And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.
This text gives us the qualities or characteristics of a safe church…
- Tenderhearted mercy
- Allow faults in others
- Love, above all else
- Let peace rule in your hearts
- Live in peace with others
- Always be thankful
- Let the message of Christ fill your life
- Sing with gratitude
- Represent Jesus in your words and actions
If we lived this way, I tend to believe religious trauma would be nearly non-existent.
If we lived this way, it would usher in the beloved community, God’s Dream for humanity.
If we lived this way, our church would be so incredibly obviously SAFE.
I don’t know—maybe we should give it a shot. What do we have to lose?
Emily Sander said,
Safety in a community gets defined by how the most marginal person in the community is treated. We all believe that if people could see into our hearts and know who we really are, we too might be rejected, so we notice how those at the margins are welcomed.
I want NWLife Church to be a safe place for the people of our community.
I want NWLife Church to be a safe place for our children and our children’s children.
The word Sanctuary inherently means a place of refuge or safety.
It is quite literally what the church is called to be.
A safe place that is determined to liberate and love.
We can be that place.
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! Selah
Your words are masterable, no could have expressed them more clearly, my daughter and I were having that exact conversation today and she has been so disappointed and I frankly have been disappointed and hurt but God, I had to start focusing on God’s word and look at my self in the mirror and start treating others as I’d wanted to be treated. It seems so far from what I am witnessing today because I know who are apart of the body are the same
Jonathan Martin nailed it with that quote! So good PB!!!
This was spot on! It made me weep! I was a PK. My dad, Don Duncan who I love, raised me in a church that was not safe. I am 70 years old now and still looking for that safe church. Bless you for wanting and striving for your church to be that safe church. Your mom and dad, I dearly love/d.