The Blog: Pastor Parsley's Personal Blog Pastor Rod Parsley

Should Churches Be ‘Safe Spaces?’

3/27/2015 10:00:00 AM — Few articles I’ve read recently have been as revealing of the current state of our higher education culture than this one in The New York Times March 21.

The author, Judith Shulevitz, deserves credit for exploring a dynamic that even the nation’s unofficial journal of political correctness finds disturbing. Normally I read the Times strictly for comic relief or opposition research, but I’m glad they published this illuminating piece.

Shulevitz describes in great detail how many of today’s college students become easily traumatized by points of view that contradict their own. Increasingly, though, many students are making unusual demands on their institutions. They are calling upon their colleges to go to indulgent extremes to protect them from those points of view. That got me thinking about whether the Church does something similar – and, if it does, whether it should.

Shulevitz describes a student’s actions to shut down a scheduled debate between an outspoken feminist and a libertarian on campus sexual assault at Brown University in Providence, R.I. The student believed that the libertarian might criticize the word “rape culture,” which feminists apparently believe is a real thing that exists on college campuses (color me skeptical). The student went to the college’s administration, which quickly scheduled a competing talk on “the role of culture in sexual assault,” held at the same time on the same campus. It was a clear attempt to stifle any possible influence the libertarian might have made on the campus’s attitude toward “rape culture.” I give the college credit, at least, for permitting someone with challenging views to speak to students, however.

What especially interested me is that student volunteers took the additional step of creating and promoting a “safe space” for anyone attending the events who found it too upsetting. If someone in one of the public forums said something you didn’t like, this “safe space” would a place to recuperate from the traumatic experience of hearing someone else express an opinion you disagreed with.

The space actually sounds like a great place my kids would have enjoyed when they were younger – much younger. It included, Shulevitz wrote, “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” A student who helped to organize the safe space told Shulevitz that about two dozen students used it. I feel the need to tell you at this point that the story really says this; I’m not making it up!

Shulevitz notes, “I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable. Now students worry whether acts of speech or pieces of writing may put them in emotional peril.” And that’s what got me wondering about whether we in the Church do something similar.

Ideally, the local congregation is where men, women and children learn the great truths of the Christian faith in an age-appropriate environment. I love the local church. It’s always been a place where I feel safe and comfortable. But the thing I’m starting to see is that it’s like the mountain where the Transfiguration took place. Peter would have stayed on the mountain for a long time if he could have! But at some point, it’s time to come down from the mountain (or out of the sanctuary). God needs us to go into a world that needs Jesus more desperately today than at any time I can remember.

Certainly the idea that we need “safe spaces” on college campuses can have a chilling impact on the concept of free speech, which would seem to me to be one of the best things about college. At Valor Christian College our faculty consistently challenges the thinking of our students, for a very important reason. Each student we are preparing for ministry needs to solidify in his or her own mind what he or she believes, and why he or she believes it. Without that process of adopting a faith in Jesus Christ, a student is left with an inherited faith. And a faith that’s inherited won’t withstand a challenge nearly as well as one that the student commits to.

In the college environment, my concern with the nascent trend toward “safe spaces” is that while it may keep some oh-so-sensitive students safe from hearing things they don’t want to hear, it also keeps them safe from learning and emotional growth. As Shulevitz writes, “Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as others see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?”

Similarly, we need to make the Church a way station of sorts – not a place to stay, but somewhere we gather to prepare to impact the world.

A church in our town has posted signs above the doors to the parking lots that read, “You are now entering the mission field.” I love that, because it reminds us that the church building isn’t created as a place for us to stay, but as a place to prepare for the real work of Christian ministry.

A local congregation should be a safe space, while we’re there. But its purpose should always be to prepare people to go where it’s not safe, to make Jesus known and loved.
- March 27, 2015