This may seem like an unusual title. On the one hand, we would hope that churches are safe, loving and accepting places. This is where the Gospel is preached and where people whose lives are being changed come. On the other hand, can we really expect church to be safe? Isn’t there something intensely dangerous about an encounter with the living God. Isn’t church where our inner most vulnerabilities are laid bare?
Why planting safer churches matters
However, I want to suggest that this matters. It matters for church plants and that’s the area where my focus is but it also matters when we are looking at renewal and revitalisation in established churches as well. It matters because whilst we talk about the dangerous side to Gospel encounters, we are using the language of danger in a very specific way. Yes, there is an exciting danger to meeting the living God but it’s not meant to put us at risk from others.
It matters because whilst Christians and their leaders are usually well intentioned, there are dangers that arise. There are dangers that arise because predators look at churches and see opportunities. They recognise that churches are welcoming and loving places, they recognise that churches are places where vulnerable people congregate and they perceive that our desire for grace and compassion can result in naivety if we are not careful.
Paul in Acts 20:29-31 says:
29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
It matters because although we gather as saved people, we also gather as saved sinners. We are still works in progress living in the now and the not yet. This means that we still err, we still sin. We still can do things that are hurtful and harmful to others.
This includes not just those areas of life where we are intentional or malicious. In fact, there has at times been a tendency among Christians to see things in those black and white terms. We think of sin and failure purely in terms of intent. However, we can end up doing and saying things, even when there is no intent to hurt or harm that end up being harmful. This is why Scripture talks in terms of both high handed (deliberate) sin and sins of wandering and ignorance.
Notice how the Anglican confession prior to communion reflects this:
we have sinned against you and against our neighbour, in what we have thought,
in what we have said and done, through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.
There is a recognition there that sin includes thoughts, words and actions. There is a recognition too that sin includes deliberate intent, ignorance and weakness.
The third reason we need to be aware and alert is because our churches are full of people who are still carrying wounds and still works in progress. They are learning how to relate to others, to trust and to be trustworthy. Sometimes it is when we are wounded that we can risk responding in a way that wounds others.
So, planting safer churches matters because we want these churches to be healthy places where people will come to faith in Christ, find healing, restoration and shelter and learn to grow in godliness together.
Questions for discussion/reflection
- Why is it important to consider whether or not your church is healthy and safe?
- In what ways would a new person find your church to be safe?
- In what ways might a new person consider your church potentially dangerous?
- How often does your leadership team stop to discuss whether or not your church is healthy and safe? Is this enough?