Safe spaces and mission? Same thing?
There’s a lot of talk in church circles about ‘evangelism’ and ‘mission’. But we seem to be more focused on meeting the ‘outsider’ and taking the initiative on our terms. I’m not sure we are always out to look for the stranger who might be coming into our church and might…just might.. be seeking us. A major reason why our churches are not seen as safe places for outsiders may be that we don’t see that sort of welcoming ‘mission’ as ‘the real deal’.
Before my daughter got married, she decided to do something almost any mother would have qualms about. She told me that she and her fiancé were going trekking in Nepal. As someone said to me this week, ‘We try to teach our children to make their own decisions but when they do, we’re not so sure!’ I certainly wasn’t sure about this decision but Emma has always been an enthusiastic walker and I didn’t know enough about the safety of Nepal trekking to argue! Besides, Emma was plenty old enough to make her own decisions – so off she went! (I was quite encouraged that the third person in the party was a qualified GP!). When we met them at the airport on their return, Emma hugged me and said, ‘It’s alright, mummy. I’m safe with him.’ And so it has proved!
When people think about safety, they don’t define what it is in an Oxford Dictionary sort of way. That’s largely because when people are looking for a safe place to explore their spirituality, they don't do it by ‘defining terms’ or examining safeguarding policies. Something much more subtle is going on.
Some years ago, I was involved in doing the PR for a charity auction in a London suburb with a celebrity playing the auctioneer. To be sure that the famous man would not be left looking like a failure because he hadn’t sold anything, the charity had ‘plants’ to keep the bidding going. We advertised in the local paper and some supporters of the charity and members of the public did turn up – probably mostly to see the celebrity! Bidding by the ‘insiders’ kept things going. As I stood there with my clipboard and charity badge – obviously an ‘insider’, a local taxi driver who had just dropped his ride and wandered into the auction, sidled up to me and muttered, ‘This is a put-up job, isn’t it? These guys know each other.’
And that’s how it is with churches. People know when a church's 'Everyone is welcome' sign is a put-up job. They know when a church is not particularly a place for ‘outsiders’. They sense when the people there are not expecting outsiders or seekers or anyone different from them. I have found this in churches both within and outside my own tradition.
A useful test for this was proposed recently by my friend, Wayne Erasmus. “If someone should have a spiritual experience, a sense that they wanted to explore faith or seek God – maybe because of some life-crisis, a death, becoming a parent, is it likely that they would see our church as a place that would receive and understand them?”
Of course, there’s the other side of the coin. I speak as someone who has belonged to the same church for 40+ years.One of the attractions for me and, I suspect, for many others, going to church is to meet the friends I already have – not necessarily to make new ones. This is particularly true, when my life is being lived in a non-church environment all week. All of us just need to be with some like-minded people. And that is how it should be. Fellowship is one of the greatest gifts of church life and I can’t count the number of times it has encouraged and sustained me.
But to walk into a large church where a lot of people obviously know each other and there are hugs being exchanged and conversations going on has been a very lonely and ‘unsafe’ experience for many people. What we need to learn how to do is to invite people in to share in our supportive community. We need to have welcome as a church value in all our communications. We need to be curious about new people. We need to appoint people with the gift of welcome to be on watch. We need to be so secure in our church friendships that we can say to each other, ‘I don’t want to interrupt our chat but, shall we go and talk to/welcome that person sitting over there?’ I suspect that thinking about ‘how’ to welcome is a serious challenge. Coping with one’s own shyness and offering friendship without being too pushy is hard for many of us.
As Chris Oberg, senior pastor of the La Sierra University Church said of her members on my FaceBook page this week: ‘What we are learning is that saying, "All are welcome here" means very little in 2018. People have to experience our safety, not read about it on signs...We are beginning to explore how serious we are about next steps of welcome.”
I have no doubt that 'exploring how serious we are' will raise some serious questions - but, if we are serious about inviting people into the church, what's the alternative?