You may have heard the phrase “thin places,” those moments or places where we feel the space between God and us becomes very close or thin and we experience God in a profound way. Usually, when I’m in a thin place, I cry. Sometimes, we intentionally create thin places and other times, these places occur spontaneously. I’d like to talk about tender places today.
These are the places that enable us to see God in each other, where Jesus shines through another person. Creating these places is becoming a passion of mine because I see how helpful it is to those who experience them, especially for newcomers to our churches.
Many Christians know that they can be Christians by walking in the forest on a Sunday morning and praying to God and living out their beliefs in the world in various ways. But I find in my own ministry, that many Christians don’t want to be solo practitioners; they want to be in community with other Christians. The disconnect happens when they can’t find a community that feels like home. As I listen to seekers, I hear these three things: they want to encounter the sacred, be safe from harm, and be able to serve. Sacred, safe, serve.
That’s where the tender places come in. These places come from a place of both bravery and vulnerability – to be able to bravely commit to sharing our experiences and to being vulnerable by telling those experiences truthfully. This last part about truth is most important. If we carefully curate our stories, our Christian witness does not produce fruit. While curating “our best life” on Facebook is commonplace, within our Christian communities, we need relief from the pressure of feeling like we can’t go to church until we get it all together (never) or that we can’t share our struggles there.
If we aren’t being our real and authentic selves in our churches, then we can’t see Jesus in one another because Jesus isn’t revealed in perfection; Jesus is revealed in imperfection. Jesus leaned into all the imperfection around him until the end. He was real in every way.
So how do we avoid just keeping up appearances in our churches? Intentionally create tender places. These are times and places where all, especially newcomers, can share their stories. Before we rush to assimilate, integrate, and incorporate (all words I reject, btw), I encourage you to commit to forums where we can be our authentic selves through meals with guided conversation, storysharing events, small groups that aren’t about membership or Bible study, and starting meetings with a shared story. Clergy can model tender places by sharing their experiences with all the bumps and detours, not a perfected, unattainable example. (Photo of our sharing space created from a classroom.)
If your way to create home for your newcomers is to welcome them on Sunday and then plug them into ministry, please reconsider actually getting to know them first. And make that experience an authentic one where you can show them that your church is home to real people living real lives. And, expect to hear some stories of miracles! Miracles still happen and need to be received with joy. This may seem obvious but nothing kills a person’s feeling of belonging like minimizing their experience of God.
With all the recent upheaval in various denominations, we may have seekers in our Episcopal churches with heavy hearts over the coming years. They will need tender places to heal. In order to encounter God and reveal Jesus, we need to be able to take down our walls. How do you take down your walls if you do not see vulnerability and authenticity modeled in others? Can you show others who you truly are so they can encounter the sacred, be safe from harm, and serve?