Is Your Church is Too Safe?

Just over a year ago, I was called by Parkdale Evangelical Free Church to join their family and serve as Pastor.  God had led me through a searching year of letting go of where I was and what I was doing – and now He had shown me the next step.  God provided us with a ministry calling, a home, and a loving community to join.  We moved on September 1, 2016.

Since then, people have often asked me, “How’s it going at Parkdale?”  I tell them that I am very grateful to be part of such a healthy, loving family of believers.  I appreciate that our gatherings can provide a time and place for people of various generations and backgrounds to unite in worship and warm fellowship.  It is a family that likes being together – whether it be cheering on their softball team, building homes in Mexico, or enjoying a barbecue lunch.  Parkdale is a community that I am glad to share about with others, and when they visit, they speak of it’s warm atmosphere.

Not long into my time as pastor here, a senior member of the church showed me a photo directory of Parkdale, from the early 1980’s – before the time that I was born.  What struck me most was not the odd hairdos, or the lack of ethnic diversity that are characteristic of that decade – it was simply this: that less than a handful of the people in this directory still attended the church!

This is not to say that there are no seniors at Parkdale.  Thankfully, we have a good cohort from that generation.  While some from the 1980’s directory have passed on to glory, there are many who have not.
So, where are they?

Some people leave.  It can be connected to a pastor’s departure – three have left since the early ’80’s.  It can also be for personal reasons – a crisis of faith, a personal conflict, or a new chapter in their life journey.  But, for every “leaver,” there is usually a “comer” – someone leaving elsewhere and coming our way for a similar reason.  So, what do we do when they come?

Some people move.  People don’t keep jobs and careers like they used to.  And when one member of the family moves, it can start a chain reaction, as others follow to support or be supported by living closer together.  And yet, Victoria is not de-populating.  On the contrary, Victoria’s population has grown from 64,000 in 1981 to 85,000 in 2016.  Over the same time, Saanich has grown from 78,000 to 109,000.  People leave and people come.  Are we reaching those newcomers?

This is where the conversation gets a little uncomfortable.  It is wonderful to enjoy and participate in a loving church family.  But times change, and people don’t always stay forever.  Therefore, unless new people are welcomed into the fold, it’s only a matter of time before every church will go extinct.  Fortunately, in Parkdale’s case, the departure of 90% of the people from the early 1980’s has not resulted in the extinction of the church.  It lives on!

What does this mean for us, today?

Well, for one, the church is not all about us – nor is it all about the people who are in it.  Just like a family, there is an understanding that we are living, gathering, and serving for others – for the lost who will be found, for the next generation, who will rise to take our place.

Second – safety, stability, and even unity are not our goal.  They are wonderful to have, but are fruits of something else, something deeper: a common mission of following Jesus Christ.  In church, there can develop a “Noah’s Ark” mentality, of creating a safe place to gather and visit – safe from the world and its evils.  But, pursuing safety leads to exclusivity, and stagnation.  We fear people who are different, who might hurt us or influence our kids badly.  We hesitate to try new things, or to be too generous.  We shrink back from doing anything together outside of the walls of our building – for fear of being seen, tested, and rejected.  And, as a result, the life is drained from the fellowship.

If, however, our goal is to follow Jesus, and to invite His transformation of our lives, then safety takes a back seat.  Jesus calls us to give up our lives and trust that He will give us a better, truer, eternal one.  Paul tells us that God’s will is our sanctification and wholeness.  He is working through all the challenges of our lives, to make us more like Christ.  As we give up our old lives, our new lives are being restored back into the likeness of our Creator.

This transformative journey can involve discomfort.  We may experience turbulence.  But, strangely, there is nowhere where we will find a deeper sense of safety than in our Heavenly Father’s arms; there is no more stability than in being part of God’s eternal plan; there is no truer unity than the fellowship of following Christ together, being one in Spirit and purpose.

Where have you experienced these things?  For me, it is when I know that I am in the centre of God’s will for me, exactly where he wants me, doing what He has created and called me to do.  Whether that be on an overseas mission trip, or feeding the downtown homeless, playing with my children, or praying with church members, there is safety, stability, and unity in following Jesus together.

What is He calling us to do?

Not long after I began serving at Parkdale, I invited the church to read a book together: Your Church is too Safe.  Perhaps the title turned some people off; but, evidently, the title attracted some – before long a group was gathering to discuss it.  The author, Mark Buchanan, had pastored on the Island for 17 years, and this was his 7th and final book – a last word, before he moved on to teach at a Seminary.  The book was full of stories – funny stories, inspiring stories, challenging stories.  Together, our group caught a vision for what church could be:

In the world:

  • Venturing into middle ground to meet people
  • Offering compassionate presence, not just money
  • Being hospitable guests, not just hosts
  • A fellowship of travellers, not tourists
  • Break down walls: free the captives

Not of the world:

  • Both attractive and relevant, by loving well
  • Utterly dependent on God, embodying faith
  • Full of grace and truth
  • Attractive and magnetic, unified community
  • Build walls: distinguish selves

Overcoming evil with good:

  • Transforming, not avoiding what is unclean
  • Reflecting God’s risky generosity
  • Turning the world upside down

Over the past year, it has been encouraging to see God at work among us at Parkdale, in some of these ways.

  • When an AA group asked to use our building, they were welcomed and accommodated.  We opened our doors, knowing that hospitality also means vulnerability.  What will come of this?  I hope and pray that our new friends will discover Jesus as the Higher Power.
  • When COBS Bread asked for charities to distribute their leftover bread, our people jumped at the opportunity.  Each week, bread is gathered, bagged, and given to those in need (even of just some cheer).  Gathering and bagging takes time and energy.  Distributing it takes courage.  What will come of this?  I hope and pray that it will create common ground with others and facilitate fruitful conversations
  • When I asked if there’d be an interest in beginning Freedom Session at our church, again, the response was positive.  This ministry will involve confession.  It will involve openness.  It will involve accountability.  But, I trust, it will open the door to healing and spiritual growth in our lives, and the lives of others who we reach.

Are we still too safe?  Perhaps.  Who knows what steps of faith Jesus will call us to take, as we follow Him?  How can our worship, our fellowship, our Daycare/Preschool, our homes, our jobs, and our social lives become instruments for His glory?

But I am grateful for the steps we’ve already taken together on this journey together.  Let’s be listening for His voice as we proceed.