By Pastor Rob Bloss
Churches have been places of sanctuary and refuge for centuries. Since the early church, when Christians were known for taking in widows and children, the church has made their worship space available as a safe place.
The historical precedence of the church as sanctuary and refuge is beyond question. It is our heritage as the bride of Christ who offers protection and refuge for sinners.
This begs the question: Is our church safe?
Can people come to our worship services or programs without worry? Do they know that they can come and enter the presence of a God who is our “refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
Of course, church should be a safe place – safe from exposure to infectious disease, abuse, false teaching, and so on. We should be constantly on our guard against threats to the body. That’s why we have things like security cameras, leaders who pledge to watch over the peace and purity of the church, mandatory background checks for those who work with children and students, qualifications and training for group leaders, and in this season, guidelines for gathering safely in-person (e.g. social distancing, wearing masks, and staying home when sick). We want Covenant to be a safe place!
But no matter what we do, we can’t eliminate some degree of risk if we are to venture outside of our bubbles and experience the life we were built for. We’re human – frail, flawed, and vulnerable by the very nature of our imperfect hearts, bodies, minds, and spirits.
12 years ago, I remember feeling like church was the last place I wanted to go, but the one place I knew I really needed to be. I felt unloved, ashamed, alone, and lost. I needed to feel God’s presence, I needed community, but I didn’t know if I was ready to risk walking through the doors of a church. I wondered if I would be received, if I would be truly welcomed. Was it going to be a safe place for me, a sinner in need of grace? To be honest, it was, and it wasn’t.
Church ought to be a place where we can celebrate our diversity and differences, where we can wrestle with our questions and struggle with our doubts, and where we can experience a sense of belonging even if, or maybe especially when, we don’t think the same way about issues that are important to us.
But at times, church can be a toxic place where cliques close doors to people new or different, tribalism prevents trust and destroys unity, conflict is avoided and confidences are broken, and individuals or groups are shamed in public rather than being corrected and loved in private. It’s sad, but too often true.
I believe that this kind of safe place is tied to a healthy culture more so than to effective systems, structures, and programs. Developing a healthy culture, a culture of love, grace, accountability, trust, authenticity, and humility, takes time and considerable effort. I’m not saying that we don’t exhibit this kind of culture at Covenant, but I’m confident we have room to grow. I'm also confident that God wants to help us grow. He wants His people and His church to grow up in Him and together in Him as a show of His glory and a testimony to all who are feeling lost and alone, and all who are wondering whether it’s worth the risk to walk through the doors of a church, our church.
My earnest prayer for Covenant is that we would be a safe place for people, all kinds of people: People of color, people wrestling with their sexual identity, people who have suffered abuse or trauma or battle addiction, people who support different politicians or pollical ideologies, people who have their own unique list of passions and preferences, people with different religious backgrounds and experiences, and people who are both far and near to Christ.
May this season, where so much is conspiring to keep us apart, may it draw us into His presence and bind us together in His safe and loving arms.