The Church: A Safe Place?

“I can’t talk about my problems at church.”

“Being myself at church? No way.”

How do we cultivate a safe atmosphere at church and avoid the false Christian formula that says we need to do everything right?

by Bob Carter

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need for safety in the church. I was referring to a place where people could talk about their struggles without being condemned, where we could open up about things without fear of it being broadcasted all over the church. I said that safety begins with the message of grace. This gospel of grace must be front and center. It is a message which says it’s ultimately not about what we do for Him, but what He has done for us.

If I just do all the “right” things, somehow I can escape the pain of this life. In the end, the bigger issue becomes about us wanting control. Of course, that is the greatest illusion.

Through the years, I’ve run into believers who have mistakenly believed Christians shouldn’t have problems. That is, if you’re advancing in your walk with Christ, then you shouldn’t have struggles, or at least as Christians, we should be able to avoid them. In essence, there is a “formula”, and if you can figure out how to apply the “formula,” you can avoid suffering. What do I mean by a “formula”? Well, it’s thinking that somehow if one applies spiritual disciplines, for instance, he or she will avoid pain. For example, if you read your Bible, pray, memorize Scripture, fellowship with other Christians, share your faith, take communion, then you’ll escape it. Now, that may be true to some degree, but sometimes pain may be the very thing God uses in our life. Besides, you don’t find this message of a problem-free life anywhere in the Bible. It sounds nice, but even Jesus himself said in this world we would have tribulation (John 16:33b).

The problem with a formulaic Christianity is the minute problems come (and they will), people can easily think to themselves, “I don’t understand,” “I was faithful to pray,” “I read my Bible,” and so on. The premise then is faulty. If I just do all the “right” things, somehow I can escape the pain of this life. In the end, the bigger issue becomes about us wanting control. Of course, that is the greatest illusion.

So, what does this have to do with “safety” in the church? Well, think about this. If you’re wedded to some formula, then you will probably be motivated to put your best foot forward. You may think that those who don’t appear to “struggle” (another illusion) are applying the formula. They’re doing the “right” things. As a result, we try and make sure people see the best of us. After all, as much as we’re motivated to avoid this pain, we’re just as motivated to have people think well of us. Our objective is then to cover up, to make sure people don’t know.

What’s the bottom line? All Christians have challenges. Pain we experience is the result of living in a broken world. Sometimes, it can be our own brokenness, and many times, it’s not.  Christian maturity then doesn’t mean you escape the pain; it just means you’re learning how to look at it more from God’s perspective. Even then, it can still be incredibly hard.

Our task as believers is not to stand in judgment over every challenge. We are to be humble, loving and compassionate. Life is not a formula, and for the church to be “safe,” we need to lead with grace and offer it when people struggle.

Bob Carter is a pastor at Perimeter Church in Johns Creek, Georgia. Article reprinted with permission from Perimeter Church bulletin, August 7, 2011.

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