Is Your Church a Safe Place? Mine’s Not

Is your church a safe place? Mine’s not. 

Our doors are open wide. On any given Sunday, you might find yourself sitting next to an adulterer, a drug addict or a murderer.

At my church, people gossip, they get angry and hurt each other, and sometimes they harbor unforgiveness.

At my church, we have people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety disorder.

There are people who self-harm, cheat on taxes, swear, smoke and watch ‘R’ rated movies.

During a sermon, our pastor might talk about circumcision, lust or pornography. He might address human trafficking or show a video depicting the horrors of religious persecution in Syria.

We’ve had church members and guests stand before the congregation and share their stories about abortion, life threatening paralysis, homosexuality, conversion from Islam, prostitution, alcoholism and domestic violence.

So if a “safe” church is a place where one can escape the harsh realities of life, avoid the sharp edges or the shades of gray and lie his tired mind down in the deep grass, then my church probably doesn’t qualify.

Sometimes, though, that’s what we want from church: our very own wood between the worlds.

You see, God is not only real, He is reality. If we try to escape reality then, in actuality, we’re running from God, even if the church is our escape.

The wood between the worlds, a lovely little place in C.S. Lewis’s book The Magician’s Nephew, is exactly what it sounds like: a wood between worlds. There, trees loom tall and lush, filtering warm light through their green leaves. Between the trees, rest dozens of small, glassy pools through which the main characters, Digory and Polly, travel to and from worlds, albeit without getting wet.

The wood between worlds is unusually quiet – no animals, no insects, no wind – just stillness. Digory describes it as a “rich place: as rich as plum cake.” And just as kids and adults alike find themselves dozing off after a rich, filling meal, so Digory and Polly find themselves growing sleepy in the wood between worlds. Their memories become fuzzy. They have trouble remembering how they got there, why they came or that there’s even a world (or worlds) outside. The wood intoxicates them.

Part of me longs for that warm, fuzzy relaxation that softens rough edges, eases pain and fear and stress and sin. I find myself thinking, Would it be so bad to forget about the world outside? I’ll even bring my family. And we can be safe. Right?

Being rather wise young people, Polly and Digory realize that, as lovely as the wood is, they can’t stay lest they fall asleep and never wake up. Besides, as Digory points out, nothing really happens in the wood between the worlds.

Yet we grown-ups continually try to fashion church into our own little wood between worlds: a drowsy hideaway somewhere in between earth and heaven. Only nothing of lasting value happens in the in-between places.

…I don’t want to fall asleep. I don’t want to forget the need that brought me or the One who keeps me…And I don’t want to forget that there’s a lost, hurting world outside.

For while such a church may look more pious than Disney World or a Sandals resort, the goal is the same: to escape reality. Stay there too long and you’ll forget how you got there, why you came or that there’s even a world outside. And before you know it, you’ll be spiritually sleepwalking through life.

You see, God is not only real, He is reality. If we try to escape reality then, in actuality, we’re running from God, even if the church is our escape.

“But shouldn’t church be a refuge from the storm?” you may ask.

Let me put this gently: no.

God alone is our refuge.

Church may be a place where we experience God who is our refuge, as He works through the community of believers, but church and its people alone cannot be our refuge. God alone is our refuge.

In The Magician’s Nephew, evil eventually finds it’s way into the wood between the worlds. Evil will slink into our churches, too. Actually, it’s already there. Because, just as the townspeople of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village discovered: evil lurks within us. That’s reality. And if we want to be spiritually awake, we have to face reality.

So while my church may not be wood-between-the-worlds kind of safe, I wonder if it could be a different kind of safe. One that faces reality, thus freeing us to be real, while at the same time recognizing and accepting human frailty; one where we rely not on one another’s good behavior but on the One who is goodness Himself. The kind of safe that exists in the balance of truth and grace found only in Christ.

As C.S. Lewis indicates through his portrayal of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, God is not so much safe as He is good. Once we are convinced of God’s goodness, we need not fret about being safe. Because He is good, we are safe.

With that in mind, let’s stop worrying for a moment about being safe. Ugh…we Americans, and especially those of us who are parents, are a bit obsessed with safety, aren’t we? Instead, let’s consider how we can better walk in the balance of grace and truth.

Because we can do better. If we want people to know, love and grow in Christ, we must do better.

I believe that most of us want to see our churches as places, to the extent that it is up to us, where everyone feels welcome, where transparency and vulnerability are valued, and no one feels condemned, alienated or rejected. We mean well. But we fail. Human frailty is the plight of us all.

Even small, well-intentioned steps in the direction of morality-based spirituality will take us off the path of grace and truth. In our desire to follow Christ, we can slip into performance righteousness, trying to be good instead of relying solely on the righteousness and goodness of Christ. We attempt to shield ourselves or our children from the heartache wrought by sin, but what was meant to provide protection becomes a wall of isolation. And isolation almost always leads to misunderstanding and a lack of compassion.

Then, no matter what we say, our tainted message bleeds through the white-washed words:

Come as you are! (But please make sure you dress modestly.)
Everyone is welcome! (Unless you make us uncomfortable.)
We’re all sinners. You have nothing to be ashamed of here. (Except that. We don’t talk about that here.)

This kind of insincerity happens – it is happening right now – even in churches like mine.

We can do better. We must do better.

So let’s pause. And breathe. And ask God to build His kingdom through us. Let’s throw ourselves daily at the foot of the cross, allowing him to infuse us with his grace and truth. Let’s commit to creating church communities together, where we can be real, where we can tell our stories and share the hard things, and no one needs to build a fortress because we’re surrounded by grace instead.

God alone is our refuge.

I’m willing to walk the sharp edges and fumble through the gray areas with you. Sometimes I’ll wound you. Sometimes you’ll wound me. But we won’t run. OK? We’ll stand and face reality, together. We’ll lean into the harsh winds and driving rains and cry out to Jesus. Together, we will let Him be our refuge in the storm.

Will you join me? Because I don’t want to fall asleep. I don’t want to forget the need that brought me or the One who keeps me. I don’t want to forget that I need you…and you need me.

And I don’t want to forget that there’s a lost, hurting world outside. I want to open wide the doors and help them find the narrow Way that leads to life everlasting.  Then I want to watch as He opens wide the gates of their hearts and fills them with grace and truth and light and life. And I want to walk that Way with them.

And when they’re asked, as they likely will be, “Is your church a safe place?” they can answer truthfully, “No. But it’s real. And it’s full of the grace of a God who is good.”

Friends and Readers: I realize this message may stir up some emotions in you – good, bad or in-between. I would love to talk with you about it and learn from you. Feel free to chat with me in the comments, send me an email or give me a call so we can talk about it together.

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28 thoughts on “Is Your Church a Safe Place? Mine’s Not

  1. Yes! The only thing that makes the Church any different from any other organisation is Jesus! We too often run the church as if it is a business and we run it the way we think it should be run, often leaving Jesus sitting outside. Thanks for this! 🙂

    • You are so welcome! I agree with you wholeheartedly and am amazed at just how quickly we (including myself) fall into doing our own thing, running our own show. We really need Him moment by moment. Thanks so much for reading.

  2. I have a strong sense that God is speaking to the church at large in your article, Nicole. It’s a Word from Him. Can we get this out there more widely somehow? I am willing to help! There has been an unspoken expectation of what we “should/shouldn’t” encounter in church, and even in our friendships with other believers. Why is this? Maybe a fear that we will compromise the standard of holiness spoken of in God’s Word? A fear that we will end up in tolerating sin? It’s hard to proclaim GRACE and TRUTH in balance. Many Christian churches and institutions have fallen on one side or the other. May God give our church the GRACE to stand in the TRUTH as we LOVE one another the way He loves. So glad to be in fellowship & friendship with you, precious sister !

    • Thanks so much, Jennifer. You can share this in any way you see fit. It is so hard to balance Grace and Truth – impossible without God, really. So thankful for you, too. God bless you!

    • Thanks Kate! I am glad you liked it. Yes, he is. He always amazes me. Of course, I don’t know what he really meant for the wood to symbolize but it certainly reminds of the the dangers of falling asleep spiritually.

  3. Thanks Nichole, I couldn’t have said it better. I am, and our church is, blessed because God made you who you are and I so appreciate the thought and care you put into your words and your boldness to share them. Thanks!

    • Chris, thank you for your encouragement. It was challenging to write…some things are hard to say. I love our church and the people in it. And I am thankful that we have a faithful, gracious God to walk with us through it all.

  4. Nichole, I am so glad that I read this today. It is a great reminder that I need to keep my eyes on God. He is my refuge. Thank you for sharing this with me. We should talk sometime.

  5. So good and rich with truth, probing us to press in instead of check-out. Thank you for taking the time to write this important word for us as believers.

  6. Your blogs are always thought provoking and worth the wait. I believe that the only safe place in this world is in the center of God’s will – that may mean pain, suffering, and persecution….

  7. So good Nichole. I agree that we need to balance Grace and Truth…that is Jesus’ example. It is difficult and it requires discernment and prayer. It also requires humility and a willingness to be vulnerable…and that scares a lot of people away who aren’t secure enough in Christ to be so. That is sad…but it should not stop us from being a place where people can be real and honest about where they are. I pray that we can become that more and more.

  8. Oh Nichole…as always you go right straight to the truth! I love it and appreciate that reminder as we look for a church home as well. Thanks my friend for not being afraid to be open and honest.

  9. Greetings! I have enjoyed reading this post, and I admire your sincerity. It seems that we have the same out look to life on the level of the Spirit. God and God alone is our refuge and strength. There is truly a hiding place In Him through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. It is in Him we live, and move and have our being. [Acts 17:28] ” He that dwelleth in the secret places of the Most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” [Psalm 91:1] By experience we know this, and our personal experience is really a reality.

    Most focus on the outer form of worship today. But Jesus the Christ, pointed the woman at the well to the inner for of worship, and He said to her,
    “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in Spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth.”

    It is interesting to know, that outside of God requirements when it comes to “whom to worship”, and “How to worship Him”: we worship we no not what.

    I conclude, that the called out ones (the Church) who practice the presence of God, and spontaneous worship (inner worship) are in a safe place and this is a reality, and it is “full of grace and truth.”
    Let us rest in the assurance that Christ gave to us concerning His church as a safe place. The Word of God says, “I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” [Matthew 16: 18]

    “God bless you my Sister in Christ.

  10. Pingback: How to Rock the Boat Without Drowning Anyone, Including Yourself | Lightning Bug

  11. So many times I feel our church is so very far from the reality you describe. Thank you for inspiration to keep moving away from sleep and toward reality with our refuge being a very dangerous lion!

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