What makes a church safe?

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to guest lecture in a counseling class at Covenant Theological Seminary on the topic of homosexuality. In class we had a lively discussion about what would make a church “safe” for gay or lesbian people. Following Wes’s discussion of a similar theme, I thought it might be of some value to share the list we came up with and see what other thoughts the SF community might have about what makes a church “safe.”

What do I mean by safe? Mostly I mean a place where people can be honest without fear of their honesty being used as a weapon against them, either in passing judgment or in marginalizing them. I understand some folks in the LGBT community understand the word “safe” to include assumptions about the morality of homosexual sexual behavior, but I don’t think that this must be the case. We can feel safe with someone with whom we share deep disagreements if we feel both known and loved, and believe that they desire what is best for us.

One note: the things that make a church safe for folks who are attracted to the same sex are the same things that make it safe for people with all sorts of issues. So these characteristics are not specific to homosexuality, but rather offer a model for building safe, grace-saturated communities for all types of sinners.

1. Level the playing field.

A safe church does not see homosexuality a “worse” sin. Rather they see it in continuity with all sin, which makes someone who is attracted to the same sex like anybody else. After all, the church is supposed to be a hospital for the sick (Lk. 5:31). Weakness is not anathema, it is discipleship (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

2. Recognize that it’s about people, not issues.

Our temptation is often to think of homosexuality as an issue (theological, political, psychological, etc.) rather than as people. Homosexuality doesn’t exist in the abstract, it exists as it is embodied by people who each have their own stories. Broad brush explanations and simple generalizations do a disservice to the diversity of those stories and miss the primary job of the church: the pastoral care of people. And those people are not just “out there” or part of the “gay community.” They are inside your church, sharing your pew.

3. Talk about it—don’t make it taboo.

I think the majority of conservative churches do not speak about homosexuality because they are afraid to say the wrong thing. They don’t want to be hateful, but neither do they want to compromise what they feel is the biblical position on sexual ethics. Unfortunately this silence is received as condemnation by many people in these churches who themselves are gay. The silence reinforces the taboo that already exists in conservative churches which says, “We don’t talk about those kind of things here.” Or, “That’s not an issue that we deal with.” We need to talk about it. We need to preach about it. And we need to do so with biblical and pastoral sensitivity, recognizing that while it is the hot-button issue of the age, it is also an issue in your church.

4. Confess sin.

“But my church confesses sin every week!” One might protest. Here’s what I mean: a safe church is a church where it is okay to come un-put-together. It is a place where people regularly and (sometimes) publicly admit their failures not just generally (“I’m a sinner,” “I struggle with pride”), but specifically and concretely. A safe church has confession as part of the life of the church, whether in discipleship, small group, or other avenues. As a final note, building a culture of confession starts at the top with the preacher. It starts with leadership that is willing to risk his congregation’s expectations of near-perfection and confess specific (and appropriate) sin from the pulpit such as parenting failures, selfish thoughts, etc.

5. Stop idolizing marriage.

Most church programs are family-driven as though the telos of the Christian life is marriage. Communities are structured around the assumption that folks are married, or at least trying to get married. Thus, it is not surprising to find that often times when Christians think about how discipleship should play out in a gay person’s life, they move quickly toward a focus on orientation change so that they can get married and more properly be part of the life of the church. Of course the goal of discipleship should be Christlikeness, not a particular sexual orientation. Marriage is a good thing, but it is not The Thing.

6. Make space for singleness.

In order for the church to be perceived as a viable alternative community to the ones in which gays and lesbians are already in, she must make space for singles—and not just temporary singles, but people who feel called to a life of celibacy. Indeed, creating space for singles and thinking about the role of singleness in the church is a prerequisite to offering a viable and desirable apologetic to gay and lesbian people. If we are going to call them to give up relationships of deep intimacy, then we must be prepared to offer them a community of deep intimacy. Is our singles community simply a place where we try and solve the problem of singleness? Are we prepared to provide community for a 45 year old single man or woman? A safe church thinks through these questions and considers how they might encourage deep friendships among congregants across all sorts of family lines. Everyone is longing for the deep connection of friendship (even married folks!) and friendship must play a key role in making a space for singles in the church.

7. Be present. Be patient.

A safe church is present with LGBT folks and their families. It is a community that doesn’t withdraw when things get difficult. But it is also a place where it is safe to grieve losses, and is patient with its people. Wes Hill (borrowing from Eugene Peterson) once described this as a long repentance in the same direction, and that sounds about right. Safe churches walk alongside their people who are impacted by homosexuality in whatever context and seek to point them further along the pilgrim path toward Christ.

I recognize this list is not comprehensive. I’m sure there are many more that could be added. So what do you think? What makes a church safe? How does your church do at each of these?

Kyle KeatingKyle Keating is a M.Div. candidate at Covenant Theological Seminary and teacher of Bible and Theology at a small Christian school in St. Louis, Missouri where he lives with his wonderful wife Christy. He can be followed on Twitter: @KyleAKeating.

6 thoughts on “What makes a church safe?

  1. You pretty much nailed it – these are all essential.

    Another thing I think is helpful, but may not be attainable by most churches, is to have LGBT Christians within the church talking more openly about their experiences. This can be a powerful way to help achieve what you’ve listed in points 2 and 3. That’s a major thing that has motivated me to speak up within my own church community.

    I was really encouraged to see what my own pastor did at my church. He gave a helpful sermon discussing the topics of homosexuality and same-sex attraction, and during part of it I came up and briefly discussed my own story. I was grateful that he gave me the opportunity to do that, and I think that helped to create a safer culture within our church.

    I think that if churches work on the things you already mentioned, it will create a safer culture where what I’m talking about can happen more naturally.

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  3. This article is wonderful. As someone who walked away from the church and has recently found their way back (to one that, so far, I find to be very safe), I think these points are something a lot of churches should consider. I basically suffered a decade during which I never felt safe, comfortable, or sometimes even welcome in various churches, so the value of finding one that is safe to me is immense.

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