Safety is a high priority for Americans. And you might well be asking me right now, “What’s wrong with that?” Well, I would say, “Nothing . . . . And everything.” It depends on what sort of safety we’re insisting on.
The right view of safety aims to avoid needless harm. The wrong view of safety keeps us from taking necessary risks. For Christians to be able to handle the matter of safety correctly it is absolutely necessary that we keep this truth front and center: Faithful Christian discipleship is not safe.
Even as I write that, I realize that truly this is a foreign notion for most American Christians. Most modern American Christians, like me, tend to tailor our version of Christianity so that it is comfortable, convenient, and safe. It never really occurs to most of us American Christians that God might call us to do anything that might involve inconvenience or discomfort, to say nothing of something that might be unsafe.
A little over thirty years ago, I spent about two weeks visiting Christian churches in southern Pakistan. In the city of Sukkur, the pastor of the church, himself a convert from Islam, shared with me about some of the ministries of their church. They considered their youth ministry to be of especially great importance. But he apologized for the fact that he could not introduce me to their youth pastor at the moment. It seems the youth pastor was currently in jail. “Why was that?” I asked. It seems at the most recent youth group meeting, the youth pastor and the kids had spread out through the town and distributed Christian literature. Pakistan, as you should know, is an almost entirely Muslim country. Distributing Christian literature is not permitted there. And yet, the youth pastor with the blessing of the church’s leaders had taken the young people of the church out into the streets to do what was against the law.
Now it’s easy enough to think to ourselves, “If I were a Pakistani Christian, I would share my faith in Jesus Christ, even if it were dangerous for me to do that.” But would I encourage my children to share their faith in Jesus if it meant they might get arrested?
But would I encourage my children to share their faith in Jesus if it meant they might get arrested?
In chapter 10 of his gospel, Matthew describes a time when Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to preach, to heal, and to drive out demons. He gave them very detailed instructions as to what they were to take along with them and as to how they are to conduct themselves during their mission travels. Then he says this: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.” (Matt. 10:16-17)
Ooo! “Sheep among wolves!” Sounds like fun. “Arrest and floggings!” Absolutely, sign me up for that. But really, this is all just figurative language, right? Jesus doesn’t actually mean that stuff literally, does he? Well, the “sheep” and “wolves” might be figurative, but the danger is very real. Jesus was deadly serious about that. Consider this, eleven of the twelve men Jesus said this to died violent deaths because of their Christian faith. The twelfth one died in a prison cell simply because he was a follower of Jesus. So, no, Jesus isn’t just speaking figuratively here. Following Jesus is dangerous. He expected his disciples – including you and me – to live risky lives for him.
Of course, some risk has nothing to do with the gospel. Having stairs in the church building that are poorly lighted and lacking a handrail is a needless risk that has nothing to do with following Jesus. The stairways in a church building should be as safe as possible. Having proper fire safety equipment in the church building is a good kind of safety, because it helps to limit needless risk. Good first aid kits, CPR training, a functioning AED, well-trained volunteers, background checks for childcare volunteers – all of these things are ways of limiting needless harm and needless risk, risks that have nothing to do with following Jesus. That kind of safety is simply a way of loving our neighbors.
But it’s important always to remember that following Jesus will never be safe. Following Jesus requires us to take risks. Following Jesus will cost us something. If we only do what’s safe, if we only do what’s comfortable, if we only do what’s convenient, we won’t follow Jesus very far. Let me confess that even as I write this, I feel quite convicted, because the truth is that I love my safety, I love my comfort, I love my convenience. I am forced to admit that all too often I allow my love of safety, my love of my own comforts, my love of my own convenience to get in the way of my fully following Jesus.
A few year ago, I read a very challenging and beautiful essay written by a man named Bohdan Hroban, a pastor who had grown up in Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. He was the son of a Christian pastor, and in the early 2000s he came to the U.S. to study at a Lutheran seminary. He writes about growing up as a Christian behind the “Iron Curtain”:
The communist world in which I grew up was anything but a safe place for Christians. My father was one of those “rebellious” pastors who obeyed God rather than men. Not only was he involved in various activities that the atheistic regime considered illegal, but he even encouraged and supported us, his six children, to participate in them. I remember a lady with tears in her eyes pleading with my father to stop ruining the future of his children by being such a vigorous Christian.
Hroban say that the result of that kind of childhood taught him something very important for his life. “We learned that being saved is far more important than being safe.”
“We learned that being saved is far more important than being safe.”
Getting the right perspective on safety and risk is crucial for the American church today, if we want to faithfully and courageously follow Jesus. We should eliminate as much needless risk from our church ministry as we can because of our commitment to love our neighbors, our guests, and our members. But we need to embrace any and all risk that may be necessary for us to faithfully and joyfully live out the gospel in our time.
Bohdan Hroban concludes his powerful essay this way:
Yes, mission is not safe. It is, in fact, a high-risk endeavor, one that takes not just money, time, or energy, but also lives. However, what would have happened to our Christianity if Jesus Christ or his apostles had been worried about safety while proclaiming the gospel? . . . Remember, there is no safer thing to do than what God wants you to do; there is no safer place to be than where God wants you to be.
© 2020 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.