Home is where you're supposed to feel safe. It is a place where you’re supposed to be able to let your guard down, where you can be open about your desires, hopes, failures, and questions. Home is something we long for because it is where we can be ourselves without fear of being unloved. It is a refuge of life-giving loyalty and love.
To be homeless or to live in a home where you aren't safe physically, emotionally, or spiritually, is a profoundly disorienting and damaging experience. The scars can last a lifetime. There is hope, however, in our ability to share and receive healing. Home can be experienced outside of families of origin and outside of current circumstances. We find home in new family and friends. Some of us even find home in church.
As Christians, that is the dream, right? That the church would be the source of unconditional love in the world, a home for the wanderer, the welcoming arms of the family of God. But let's be honest: is your church a safe place?
But let's be honest: is your church a safe place?
Did you know Jesus was very familiar with these questions of belonging? In addition to spending the majority of his ministry in homelessness, the early years of His life were also spent with His family as refugees on the run.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we find that “after the magi were gone, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you’” (Matthew 2:13). Jesus' family had to leave not only their hometown, but also the religious community of the chosen people of God. Why? Because home wasn't safe anymore - particularly because of those in power.
Where did Jesus and his family escape to? Egypt, of all places! Egypt, where their people were enslaved for 400 years. Egypt, a nation that had historically been a source of bondage and oppression. This is the place that they now run to for refuge. This is the place that is now safer than home. What a plot twist!
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus find a temporary, safer home among foreigners. As beautifully expressed in The Desire of Ages, God "provided in a heathen land a refuge for Mary and the child Jesus. And through the gifts of the magi from a heathen country, the Lord supplied the means for the journey into Egypt and the sojourn in a land of strangers" (DA 65).
Jesus knows what it is like to find home away from home. He also knows what it is like when your religious community isn't a safe place. Even when the family of Jesus returned to their homeland, they didn't return to the religious center of their nation, but instead retreated to Nazareth, which had "a much larger mixture of foreign inhabitants than Judea" (DA 66).
This is the environment Jesus spent the first 30 years of his life - amidst foreigners and people who thought, believed, and lived differently than He did. I can’t help but believe this shaped His ministry. We see Jesus journeying further into the religious center of his world, breaking down barriers and drawing all people together. The further in He went, the more dangerous it became. Among the many reasons why Jesus was murdered, it was also because He threatened the social and religious safety of those in power.
It is scary to think that the chosen people of God can become so hostile as to kill their own Creator and Savior. But again, are we really any better off now? Is our church any safer than the religious community who condemned Jesus?
I love the insight Ellen White had when she wrote, “The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members” who are not living the reality of a life united with Jesus (T6, 370). What a crazy thought! God is actually preventing people from connecting with and joining our churches because of church members! She later notes that “If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one.” (T9, 189)
It is because of current church members - because of you and me - not living out the unconditional love of God, not embodying the spirit of home, not being humble and kind that our churches are so empty. Otherwise we’d have one-hundred times as many people flooding into our spaces.
So you may be wondering: is my church safe? Is it a place where God can bring people into and they can thrive? Here are three questions that can help you identify if your church is a safe place:
Are there certain types of people who are unwelcome?I remember watching the Enough Room at the Tablefilm and there was this profoundly simple moment when someone said, “If everybody isn’t safe, then no one is safe.” If our churches are such that we create categories of who is or isn’t welcome, then ultimately we are all at risk. Discrimination is a fickle master, and if even one group of people is excluded it sends the signal that no one is free to truly share their struggles because it could end up leading to your exclusion from the church.
What is the public prayer section of your service like?What people are willing to share publicly with the people they go to church with every week says a lot about if they feel they can be truly vulnerable there. If prayer requests are generic or vague or only positive, it might be an indicator that people don’t feel safe to share the deeper challenges in their life. Also, take note of how people respond when someone does share something more personal. Is it distant or direct support that is offered? Does the support extend beyond prayer time and into the actual lives of the people in need?
How does your church respond when there are disagreements?When opinions differ, when personalities clash, and even when people hurt each other, what is the result? Is there division, isolation, and alienation? Or do we seek unity amidst diversity? Do we seek to listen and understand? Do we seek conflict resolution and reconciliation?
If you or your church have missed the mark on any of these, don’t panic! There is hope. How do we make our unsafe churches into safe spaces? The first step is simple but difficult: ask yourself how you can be part of the solution. Thankfully, although it isn’t easy, you don’t have to do it alone. Unite yourself with Jesus daily. Take His yoke upon you and learn from Him how to be gentle and humble of heart. Be kind, courteous, and tenderhearted. Live out the reality of our salvation in Jesus by extending that unconditional love in an embrace that welcomes all into the transforming presence of God.
Written By: Jason Vanderlaan