By Jim Tune
A word has been on my mind lately. I’ve been thinking about what it means for me personally, and as a preacher. The word: safety.
I encountered the word in an excellent book, Crucial Conversations.
“In order to speak honestly when honesty could easily offend others, we have to find a way to maintain safety,” the book says. “When it’s safe, you can say anything.”
We often focus on the content of our conversations, but content isn’t usually what makes or breaks relationships. Safety is. Feeling safe allows us to talk about difficult things and to speak freely and openly.
I also encountered the word safety in Ray Ortlund’s book The Gospel. Ortlund offers a simple equation for how church should operate: gospel + safety + time. We need the good news of the gospel: that we are accepted by God through the work of Jesus. But we also need safety (“non-accusing sympathy so that they can admit their problems honestly”) and time (“enough time to rethink their lives at a deep level, because people are complex and changing is not easy”). Church then becomes a place of safety and honesty, rather than a place of shame and anxiety.
“In a gentle church like this, no one is put under pressure or singled out for embarrassment,” Ortlund writes. “Everyone is free to open up, and we all grow together as we look to Jesus.”
I can feel myself relax as I write these words. Who doesn’t want safety? Who wouldn’t like to be in a place of honesty and patience, rather than a place of shame and hurry?
Safety, though, takes courage. There are at least two reasons we don’t always feel safe. One is that we aren’t always in safe environments. When we enter a group, church, or even a conversation, we’re often probing: Is it safe to be real here? Can these people handle my honesty? Or do I have to keep my thoughts to myself and pretend that everything is OK? As a Christian leader, I want to do everything I can to build an atmosphere of safety so that church is, as one author called it, the safest place on earth.
But there’s another reason we don’t always feel safe: we’re still hiding behind our walls. Sometimes all it takes to create safety is for someone to go first. When one person opens up, or takes the pressure off another, others sense they can get real too.
“A central task of community is to create a place that is safe enough for the walls to be torn down, safe enough for each of us to own and reveal our brokenness,” writes Larry Crabb. “Only then can the power of connecting do its job. Only then can community be used of God to restore our souls.” That’s what I want—for me, for my church, and for you.