Many in our society live in anxiety and fear—even fear of God. They are looking for a safe environment whose policy is “Do No Harm.” Would our church be considered a safe space? Here are some things to think about.
By Elizabeth Mullins, GC Hickory Love Avenue Champion
Outside of our consciousness, each of our bodies is constantly making an assessment: am I safe here? For those who have previously had physical, emotional, or spiritual safety ripped from them, their nervous system interprets threat differently. They will have a heightened response to perceived danger. Why does this matter in the context of our worship services? Understanding this framework helps us realize why creating visceral safety is important. Individuals need to experience felt safety to regulate their nervous system. A calmed, regulated nervous system is needed for the capacity to heal and learn new narratives about God.
We cannot talk about felt safety without mentioning power. If you are a leader, then you have a position of power and authority and therefore, the potential for abuse exists. Power becomes abusive when it’s wielded in arrogance to control, coerce, or dominate. Pastoral leaders should be cognizant of power dynamics and have a responsibility to make every attempt to do no harm. Have an accountability partner, or team who keeps you grounded and helps you avoid exploiting power dynamics.
Authoritarianism can creep in through the sermon message. With some Christian leaders, there exists the mindset: I am God’s emissary and I can say whatever I want to this captive audience. One thing is true about that statement: the audience may truly feel like captives! Longtime church members who are encultured with the same mindset will put up with it, but guests will not feel safe.
Healthy leaders set boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. Consider the following ways you can help create a safe space and avoid the appearance of running roughshod over the boundaries of your listeners:
- Save working out your own trauma for the therapist.
It can be healthy for a leader to model vulnerability, even tears, but do not use the pulpit as your personal catharsis or intimate confessional. To witness the speaker becoming seemingly unhinged or oversharing is frightening.
- Save the explicit, or even suggestive, jokes for your small circle of friends and family.
Your guests don’t want to hear anything in the worship service that will create an embarrassing mental picture.
- Save specific topics of sexuality for discipleship.
How can we speak about sexuality in a setting that should be hope infused, new believer focused, and Christ centered? In very general terms! Acknowledge that in God’s good, original intent, we are created sexual beings. Joyfully proclaim that in Christ’s finishing work, our sexuality is redeemed. Give comfort that when we wrestle with our already/not yet healed sexuality, we are reminded of our dependence on God and our call to esteem our sisters and brothers above ourselves. Discussions on the specific ways sexual expression can go awry, should be saved for a discipleship setting where there is trust, mutuality, and consent.
- Save intimate, distinct challenges for one on one.
Calling out a person or a group during the worship service is abusive. Period. Even if you don’t use any names. It takes zero courage to stand at a distance (literally, since the speaker is usually at a distance and often elevated) and lob accusations. Instead, it takes far more courage to sit close to someone, make eye contact within a relationship of trust, and say, “I love you and I’m concerned about you.”
- Save your personal opinions for another setting.
We each have a lens shaped by our experiences. Expository speaking, following the RCL, helps you guard against merely dispensing your own point of view, which will inevitably be biased. The Bible speaks for itself, on its own terms. Exegete the passage and trust that the Spirit is mediating, and the Word is challenging your listeners.
Every time we welcome a new person into our church, we hope it will result in enduring proximity for the long haul. There are no shortcuts to life-on-life discipleship. Misappropriating authority during the Sunday sermon will not speed up the discipleship process and it can cause you to lose the opportunity altogether. Strength and gentleness coexist in Jesus. Let us boldly proclaim Hope in Christ, gently centering and holding space for hurting people, all the while calling them to more!