Is your church a safe place for people to ask questions and hold opposing opinions? Before you say yes, give it a little thought. Many Christians have stories about the repercussions or alienation they’ve experienced from sharing things like:
- Alternative biblical interpretations
- Different political opinions
- Support for social issues
When people feel an unspoken need to keep their contrary opinions to themselves, it takes a toll on community. Not only does it make our churches feel like an unsafe places to be, but it also hampers growth in three ways:
- If they’re mistaken, they miss out on an opportunity for a heart-changing dialogue
- If they’re right and the community’s mistaken, we miss out on an opportunity for heart-changing dialogue
- We all miss out on an opportunity to build community around our oneness in Christ instead of our homogeneous opinions
The dangers of Christian groupthink
By their very nature, groups naturally bend toward conformity. We’ve all experienced the challenge of spending concentrated time with people whose opinions and values are different than ours—this is why some people find family gatherings such a challenge.
Religion easily creates a culture that’s like conformity on steroids. Belief in a God who has made himself known through Scripture presupposes that there’s only one right answer to every question, and it’s clergy’s job to reveal it.
You’d think that the fact that Christendom is so fractured would humble and enable us to focus on the living savior we all share more than the theological or political boxes we’ve check off. After all, if it was so easy to have the correct opinions, we wouldn’t have over 21,000 denominations in the world.
Meanwhile, people are just looking for a place to wrestle with the claims of Christ and the way it informs their worldview.
Creating a safe place for questions
The church, by and large, has a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes, that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them because our main concern is not to make music but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch.”—Robert Capon
In a precursor to this piece which ran on my blog, I shared some warning signs that your church might be an unsafe place to share your true thoughts and opinions. The response I got was overwhelming.
People messaged me story after story of feeling unwelcome for questioning the status quo. Most of these stories weren’t about holding aberrant theology; they revolved around having contrary political opinions, reading unpopular religious authors, or simply expressing their doubts.
The most heartbreaking messages came from people who said, “This is the exact reason that I walked away from the church. I felt more lonely when I was with these people than when I was alone.”
If our Christian communities are truly a place of healing, we need to give people permission to be themselves and trust that it’s the Spirit—and not peer pressure—that’s conforming them to the image of God.
But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.—John 16:13
3 Ways to create a safe church environment
When you get right down to it, we need to decide what kind of communities we intend to create. If we want congregations that are easy to lead and people who look up to us, then a model based on conformity is our best bet.
But if we want churches that major in liberty and true spiritual growth, we’ll need to become more comfortable with a messy spirituality and imperfect-looking communities of faith.
Here are three ways to make your church a safe place:
1. Put Jesus at the center
We’d all admit that our faith is Jesus-centric. We follow a living, responsive, and intentional savior who’s intimately involved in the world in general, and in our lives in particular.
But because the idea of God’s involvement is so ethereal and hard to quantify, we rally around the scriptures. The Bible is right there with God’s words in black and white (and sometimes red). This places so much strain on communities to base their communion around a common interpretation of biblical passages as opposed to the Christ who died for them.
This doesn’t mean that the Bible or theology doesn’t matter. On the contrary, the Bible should take us to the cross where we all identify with our need for a savior, and allow that savior to be the head of his church.
2.Don’t sanctify your opinion
Imagine someone asking you, “What percentage of your opinions are completely accurate and represent reality?” Most of us would admit that our percentage of right opinions is probably pretty small.
But we don’t communicate that well.
Pastors and ministers are like anyone else in the church. Sure, they have a calling to a particular vocation, but at the same time, they’re still in the process of being conformed to the image of God—just like everyone else. When we allow people to put us and our understanding on a pedestal, everyone (including ourselves) suffers.
Our goal isn’t to tell people what to think; it’s to help them learn how to think. We help them discern God’s movement in life. We’re not to play the role of Holy Spirit for them. We’re there to help them seek—but we don’t necessarily tell them how to find.
Don’t just allow people to see you as a faulty messenger who doesn’t know it all; encourage it. People are better served by the example of an imperfect servant than they are by a someone who has all the answers. The latter only sets them up for failure.
3. Realize that spiritual growth looks different for everyone
If I charted out the spiritual growth of anyone I know, it wouldn’t be a straight upward trajectory. It would look like a scribble full of switchbacks, circular movements, and long strolls in the wrong direction.
It’s important that we abandon the idea that people meet Jesus and instantly start getting their lives in order. It’s simply untrue. Some people grow faster than others, but even they’re struggling to work it all out. We need grace and patience.
More importantly, we need to resist the idea that Jesus prioritizes stuff in the same way that we that we do. Maybe someone in your church got saved by reading Joel Osteen books, and you’re positive that he’s a heretic. Guess what, fixing their reliance on Osteen might not be Jesus’ number one priority in their life—and you might be doing more harm than good by trying to fix it yourself.
Embracing the chaos of spiritual growth
My friend does housecleaning for a living, and she often jokes with me about showing up to find people pre-cleaning their house because they’re too embarrassed for her to see their mess.
Too many people have a similar view of Christian community. They can’t let people know what they really think, who they really are, or what they’re really struggling with because they fear they’ll never be accepted.
If we’re inadvertently encouraging people to hide their garbage, we’re actually making spiritually maturity more difficult. It’s only when people are encouraged to walk in the light can they experience true community (1 Jn. 1:7).
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.—Galatians 5:1