We all wear masks to help us fit in and keep ourselves safe. But we cannot experience meaningful relationships—even God’s unconditional love—hiding our authentic selves. How can you create a safe space where people can be vulnerable?
Doubt, Authenticity, and Vulnerability
Last week, I started a short, three-week series on authenticity and community with a post on the Authenticity of Doubt. My basic thesis there is that doubt is an inevitable part of our Christian existence, the question is how we deal with it in our churches. This second week, I look more closely at the power of vulnerability.
A Lonely Masquerade
We wear masks every day. Sometimes a lot of masks. With these masks, we decide how to present ourselves in different situations. On the most surface level, we can see these masks in how we dress and how we speak (linguistic registers). But it also goes deeper than that. Are we projecting toughness, strength, confidence, friendliness, even if we don’t feel those things? Are there certain topics we talk about in a particular setting and topics we avoid?
Often, we can see masks most starkly when we compare work and home (or with close friends). However, we can also wear different masks when we are near or interacting with children (ours or someone else’s). It’s important to note that these masks are not bad. They exist and for good reasons.
One of the purposes of masks is to provide protective walls around us, a shell or armor. A shell (for some animals) and armor (for humans) have basically the same purpose: to protect the important squishy parts. They protect us from harm. These are useful, necessary even, in unsafe spaces. Animals need to protect themselves from being eaten. Humans wear (and have worn) armor of different sorts in battle or violent situations. A mask can also provide us protection and separation.
But masks are often a fiction we create, a character that we play that is not precisely who we are—or sometimes someone very different than who we are. This separation might protect us, but it also gets in the way of relationships. We even use this language of walls, shells, etc. relationally as well: coming out of her shell, letting down his guard, breaking down their walls, coming out of the closet (closets having walls and a door).***
The opposite of a mask is vulnerability. When we remove our mask, we expose our important squishy parts to someone. Getting emotionally closer to someone in a relationship (any relationship, not just romantic) means becoming more vulnerable. This is why the people we are closest to (most vulnerable around) are the ones who can hurt us the most. But, without this vulnerability and closeness, we cannot be truly ourselves. We are separated from others (keeping people at arm’s length).
The more we deem a space to be unsafe, the thicker we make our walls (armor, shell, mask). [Space here is not necessarily physical space, but an emotional/relational context.] But this means that we are less able to form or engage in close—authentic—relationships. Conversely, the safer we believe a space to be, the easier it is to form and engage in close—authentic—relationships.
Love, Vulnerability, and Authenticity
Love requires vulnerability. They go hand in hand. The more you love someone (any type of love in any type of relationship), the more vulnerable you become with them, the more you want to share your authentic self with them. This also means that the opposite is true. The more armor you put up, the bigger and thicker the mask you wear, the less ability you have to experience love. Even if people are trying authentically to love you, they can only love the mask you are wearing.
This is very true in the realm of our faith. Christianity is all about relationships: our relationship with the God we cannot see, and the relationships with the people in our faith community who we can see. Here we go back to one of the definitions of faith (Greek pistis) in the New Testament: trust. Trust is a relational word. We trust God and we should be able to trust the people we gather with to worship and learn about God. Trust is a prerequisite to love because it establishes a safe space, a place where we can be vulnerable. The more we trust God, the easier it is to be vulnerable with God. We are better able to experience the unconditional love God has always been giving us.
The Church as Safe Spaces
Our churches—communities intended to embody God’s unconditional love—should be among the safest spaces in our lives. They should be places where we can let down our guards and show our authentic selves, where we can trust that we will be accepted and loved unconditionally. However, this is sometimes the opposite of reality. Sometimes, churches are the places we can feel the least safe, where we must wear our most “perfect” mask. A mask of faith without doubt, success without failure, righteousness without sin (even if our teachings state the opposite).
If we are to build strong, expansive communities where people can feel like they belong, it is imperative that we build safe spaces in our ministries. This is easiest in smaller groups: youth groups, children’s classes, adult small groups. But we even need to establish worship services and fellowship times as safe(r) spaces. Because when people feel they will be loved and accepted as their authentic selves, they will be able to experience—to trust—God’s unconditional, unending, undeserved love. And how can we share God’s love with others if we cannot experience it ourselves?
Faith Formation Leaders
This is where you come in, faith formation leaders. By virtue of your position as a leader, you have the opportunity—and the obligation—to create safe spaces wherever you can. Because when people trust that they are in a safe space, they can “come out of their shell” and be their most authentic selves. When that authentic self is accepted and loved unconditionally, we can start to really believe the message of God’s unconditional love. We can feel like there is somewhere where we truly belong.
In the unconditional love of Christ,
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
2021-2022 Faith Formation Resources
Our Narrative Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary products for the upcoming 2021-2022 program year are now available for download. Find out more!
- Home Faith Formation for the Narrative Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary
- Resources for the Narrative Lectionary (products for all ages)
- Resources for the Revised Common Lectionary (home-based and intergenerational classroom)
- Cross+Generational Confirmation with an optional online community
- Worship and Liturgy Education
- Information page: Our Products and COVID-19.
*** It’s important to realize that there is a huge difference between the masks that we wear to be appropriate at work or in front of children and the masks we wear because our safety depends on it from a real or perceived danger. There can be many situations where this is true, but a critical one is being “in the closet” for a queer kid (or adult). Being “in the closet” is about more than keeping a secret. It is about believing that an important part of your identity (your authentic self) is bad, disgusting, or unloveable. It is not hard to see how psychologically damaging this is, especially as kids and youth are in the process of developing their self-identity. We, as representatives of God’s unconditional love, must create safe spaces where queer people can experience God’s love of their whole, authentic selves.