I think we have all had those moments. Moments where we hear something shocking about someone we know, someone from our own church. We find out that he has had a gambling addiction for years. He ends up stealing money in order to fund his need to gamble, and now he is facing jail time. We hear that she has up and embraced that lifestyle. We shake our heads. Some of us saw that coming for a while. How heartbreaking for her parents…and her parents are in ministry no less. We hear that they have lost their teenager to suicide. He always was a loner, and so dark… We see that family leave the mission field. What a scandal. How could a missionary go that far?
Have you had those moments? Moments where you see people you know crash and burn? Moments where a person raised in the church just gives up and walks away, never to look back. I have. Again and again. As I think about these stories, I can’t help but notice that these people needed help for a long time, possibly decades before everything just hit the fan and shattered their lives. They needed help, but they did not get it. Why is that? Why, in a culture that is supposed to walk in the light, do people feel that they need to hide things in the dark? Why don’t they reach out for help when their issue is small? Why do they wait until they can’t fight it anymore and just give up? Why can’t people be honest and get help before their lives are ruined?
I believe the reason for their silence is that they don’t feel like it is safe to tell the truth. We all sin. We all fail and make poor choices and mistakes. We teach this. We believe this. But we also teach other things, subtly. We teach that there are some sins that you can’t talk about. We have made categories of sin that are acceptable to talk about and others that are not. We can freely share about our lack of patience during the pre-Sunday morning rush. Our confession of losing our cool with our kids is always met with sympathetic smiles. We can talk about selfishness, pride, any number of things and receive a “you and me both, friend…” response. But what about the other struggles? The ones that never see the light of day until it is too late? What about the teenage girl who is addicted to looking at porn on her iPhone at night? Who does she talk to? That’s a man’s battle, or so we are told. What about the middle aged woman who is feeling unloved by her husband and finds an escape in graphic romance novels and feels so ashamed? What about the guy who has always batted an unwanted same sex attraction and would rather die than confess that to anyone? Where does he go for help? For counsel? What about the husband and father who is abusing narcotic pain meds and doing everything he can to keep getting those prescriptions filled, because he cannot function without them? At what point is it safe for him to share that? Those things are not on our list of respectable sins. And they destroy us. They destroy families and ministries and churches. My heart longs to see the church be a place that is safe for the most broken, the most vulnerable and those with the most shame. My heart longs for them to feel safe to tell the truth and receive love, prayer, and support on their journey through repentance and change that their hearts so desperately need in order to heal.
With that in mind, I will share a few things that I believe make a church a safe place for the broken to find healing.
- A safe church is a praying church. Prayer is the epicenter of the Christian life. It is our connection and communion with God. It is our connection to the power source for anything that we want to see happen in and through us. If we don’t pray, we are like an appliance that is not plugged in. It may look nice, but it is useless and ineffective. Praying people are people whose pride is constantly being held in check. Praying people are people who are constantly repenting of their own sin as God reveals it to them. Praying people are not the people who will judge a hurting person who confides in them. Praying people receive wisdom and the right words to say to encourage and lift up other believers. Simply put, prayer is everything.
- A safe church submits to God’s Word. We cannot love the broken people in our churches and our world if we do not love the Truth even more. “Sanctify us by Your truth. Your word is truth.” This means that where the Word of God stands against the way we want to live, then we are the ones that yield. His Words get to edit our lives. We do not get to edit His Words. A church that will not call sin what it is, is not a safe church. I heard a popular Bible teacher speaking about her newfound acceptance of the sin of homosexuality. She said to the gay community “Come to me, my arms are open wide.” While that sounds like a very loving thing to say, the problem is that her arms can’t save them. The outstretched arms of Christ are the only ones that save, and He does clearly call out sin and require repentance. We are calling the broken to Jesus, not to ourselves.
- A safe church talks candidly about sin. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul lists out sins that exclude people from inheriting the kingdom of heaven. He is specific. Many of the things on that list would rarely be addressed from our pulpits as things that people in this very church have done. But Paul does. He lays out this very specific list of sins and follows it up by saying, “Which some of you were! But you are cleansed, you were made holy…” When the sin that you struggle with is never addressed as if it is something that could affect people in the church, but it is referred to like it is something way out there in the leper colony of big sins, you feel like you can never speak of it. You will not reach out for help. People need to know they are not unique. They are not alone. 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us that we are not tempted with anything that is not common to man. Many people have battled that very thing that you struggle with, including people inside the church. And God is faithful. There is a way of escape for you too.
- A safe church models transparency. In Romans, Paul referred to himself as “the chief of sinners.” If the people in leadership present themselves as flawless, the congregation will feel the pressure to do the same. We need to know that the people in leadership are in the battle too. We are all in the trenches in our war with sin, and we do not fight alone. When a pastor shows his church what repentance and redemption looks like, it is a powerful thing for those under his humble leadership. It gives them so much hope that God will bring them through too. I appreciate this so much about our church. I have never seen a pastor who is so humbly honest about his failures and his need for his Savior. It is so incredibly encouraging to all of us.
- A safe church believes what they teach. If we have no hope for broken people to be truly changed, they will not have hope for themselves either. I have a friend who was saved out of the gay lifestyle. As a baby Christian, she met with her pastor and shared her story. He told her that not once in his years of ministry has he ever seen a person truly walk away from that lifestyle and stay out of it. Then he told her that as a new believer, she would need community, and that if she shared her story with anyone, she would not have community. He encouraged her not to share her story with anyone. Church, we have to do better than that. Either the gospel is true, or it is not. 1 Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” Do we really believe that? If we believe this book we hold and declare to be true, we need to start acting like it. Don’t ever tell someone that God cannot change their life.
A safe church listens to your story. Some stories are hard to hear. Some people have been broken or have sinned in ways that can be uncomfortable to listen to, and it can be hard to know how to respond. Listen anyways. You don’t have to fix it. Be there. Let them say all of the hard things. Sometimes, for a person struggling with the “unacceptable” sins, the church feels like the last place where they can be heard. Please don’t let the world and their partners in sin be the only place where they can tell the truth. We are the ones holding the Truth. Where else should they go?
- A safe church does life in community. Community does not mean that there are multiple other people sitting in the same row on a Sunday. That is not community. That’s a congregation. Community means that the church offers real relationships. It means that we walk together. We know each others’ stories, both good and bad. It is intentional. This does not just happen. We have to see the need for it before we will ever go after it. Often we have to go first. “A man that has friends must show himself friendly…” If you desire community, you need to be community for others first. And in the context of that safe friendship, all of the broken can come tumbling out into the light and healing can occur. Rosaria Butterfield, in her book, “Openness Unhindered” says, “God promises that with every temptation He will provide a way of escape, and sometimes the way of escape is your house.” Are we willing to be that for someone else? Are we willing to ask for that from others? Are we willing to say, “I am in a bad place right now. Can I come over? I should not be alone right now?” How much victory over sin and healing would we experience in our lives if we fought for each other like that?
A safe church is both harmless and wise. Galatians 6:1 gives us such wise advice for how to pursue someone who is living in sin. It says we are to “restore them gently, but also to watch ourselves, so that we are not also tempted.” Sin is so deceitful. We have to navigate this pursuit of broken people with eyes wide open. Most churches have policies and strategies for their staff to be careful with things like this. But for the average church member, when someone does open up and share their struggle with you, here are a couple of thoughts to consider. First, bring other people in. If it is a very heavy situation, it can be emotionally and physically exhausting each time you engage with this person. Don’t be the only person bearing that weight. Tag team it. Another thought is to guard your reaction. The very act of sharing their shameful and often painful story with you requires a mountain of courage. Don’t overreact to whatever they tell you. Thank them for their brave honesty. Even if you are close to them and feel like you’ve been betrayed by their secret, this is not the time to process how you feel about their confession. Take your offense off the table and go after them. When someone is falling off a cliff, it is not the time to lecture them about walking too close to the edge. You just go grab them and hold on. Finally, wrap them in the gospel. It is easy for those of us who are naturally empathetic to want to make it all better, but we need to make sure we are calling them to Christ and not to ourselves. I can love someone dearly, but my love cannot change them. My love cannot heal them. But His can. So, the position of our relationship would look less like me face to face with them, and more like me with my arm around their shoulders pointing up toward Christ saying, “He is so beautiful. He is life. Do you see Him? Do you see Him? Do you see Him?” Until they do.
These are just my thoughts on this. I hope they are helpful to you. I pray that God works in all of our hearts and makes us safe people for the broken in this world. I pray that He makes us compassionate and wise. I pray that He makes us gentle with our fellow wounded image bearers. Above all, I pray that He makes us like Jesus, because that is what our world and the church need. More of Him, less of me.
*My blogs are written with the assumption that they are being read primarily by Christians. If you want to know more about what it means to be a Christian or about the gospel of Jesus Christ, click the link here:The Gospel