Wow, we have had quite a week. We've had a lively and productive discussion on spiritual abuse in marriage on this blog. Last Sunday I heard a very interesting sermon on the third commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain which tied very closely to the whole topic of spiritual abuse. To watch it CLICK HERE.
We also had over 2300 people registered for the webinar “Five Red Flags that Tell You That You Are in a Destructive Marriage.” My staff has been busy answering e-mails and compiling all the questions we have received from the webinar and the recent Facebook Live talks I have given.
As I read through many of the questions, I thought this question would make a great question to answer on this blog and have a discussion about.
Question: How do you determine if a church is a safe place? I suffered at the hands of abusive Christians and find it difficult to enter a church building at all. Keeps me isolated.
Answer: You are not alone. So many people have been wounded by Christians and by church leadership. It breaks my heart. You are wise to be cautious because the last thing you need right now is to put yourself in a place where you will be victimized again.
That said, let’s examine some of the ingredients that one would look for to determine whether or not a church body and staff are healthy.
First, it goes without saying that when someone is looking for a new church, one of the first goals is to quickly determine whether or not the church is teaching a sound Biblical truth. We may not all agree on what that looks like in every nuance but the church is to instruct us in righteousness and help us grow in our knowledge of God.
Therefore, we want to make sure that the teaching of any church we might think of attending is line with what we know is sound Biblical doctrine. –Click To Tweet
That said, there are a whole lot of churches out there that are sound in their doctrine, but unhealthy and even toxic in their living, leadership included. That is not so easy to observe, especially when you are first attending a new church.
Here are some things I would do to begin to determine if a church I was interested is unhealthy or toxic. It’s not always as easy to tell if an environment is safe, but often you can rule out those that are obviously unsafe.
First, when starting any new relationship – start slowly. You want to take your time to get to know someone to see whether or not they are trustworthy and safe. Therefore, I wouldn’t start by attending a new church but by studying their website.
What kinds of things is the church doing to help others? For example, is there Divorce Care? Grief Share? Do they have a Celebrate Recovery? Are there groups for recovering alcoholics or drug addicts? How does the church reach out to the community, the poor, and the disenfranchised? By studying the church website, you can get a sense of whether the church is about helping people who are hurting, or are they more about promoting themselves?
Second, listen to a few sermons online. Don’t just listen to what the pastor teaches, but how he teaches. Is he vulnerable? Humble? Can he talk about his own failings and mistakes? Does he seem to have good self-awareness? Do you feel like you are getting to know who he is as a person as he shares God’s word from the pulpit? If you can’t answer yes to these questions, he’s probably not the kind of pastor who will help you feel safe.
Read through the church’s policy positions or doctrinal statements if they are online. How are they written? Pay close attention to areas that might be open to different interpretations of Scripture. For example, a church may believe that the gifts of the spirit, such as speaking in tongues, has ended. Do they express their conviction in ways that sound like, “We’re right and everybody else is wrong?” If so, then what that might tell you is that it is probably not safe to disagree or have a different opinion on things in this church.
Is there a women’s ministry? What is it doing? Some churches do not believe women should be head pastors, but is there a presence of women who have influence and leadership positions in the church? If not, then I would be cautious because it appears that this church does not place a high value on a woman’s voice.
Google the church’s name. Are there any scandals? Negative reviews? Is there something that has happened in the past that would be important for you to know about before you get involved?
If everything checks out and you have a green light, then go to a live service. What is your sense there? Are people friendly with one another? With newcomers? Do you feel God’s presence in the church service during the worship time and sermon?
Now, this is the harder part. Do you want to get involved and start to connect first, or do you want to make an appointment with someone from the church to ask more questions before you get involved? I’m sure you will get responses from women on this blog that have done it both ways.
The pros of getting involved are that it helps you establish some credibility as a participant in church life and not just as an observer. The church will have more invested in you as you involve yourself rather than just stand on the sidelines observing.
If you get more involved, you WILL see flaws and imperfections in both the people and the organization. There is no perfect church. However, you will also begin to see how people handle those flaws and imperfections. Are they critical? Judgmental? Rejecting? Or are they forbearing and forgiving and willing to speak to a person gently where necessary? Do they ostracize those they don’t agree with?
If you choose to talk to the leadership before getting involved, then go prepared with some thoughtful questions about some of your concerns. Don't listen as much to the answers, I’m sure many of them will be the same, but look for the vibes you get from the person answering them. Does church staff seem open to your questions? Concerned for the pain you have suffered? Or do they seem defensive, or protective or reactive even if they give the right answers?
One more thing, there are unsafe people in every family and organization including the church. However, just like in a family, we want to pay attention to how safety is created and/or modeled by the leaders in the family or church. Are there boundaries, support, and validation and appropriate speaking the truth in love to those who exhibit unsafe characteristics? In addition to spiritual maturity, is there emotional maturity and clear emotional awareness among the staff? If so, then there is a much better possibility that you have found a safe church.
Friend, if you have had to look for a new church, what things have you found to let you know the church was safe or unsafe?