Can people get naked at your church? Can they bare everything and still be accepted without hesitation?
Fear not—I’m not suggesting we should make room for streakers at church. I’m talking about emotional nakedness. Each person has a basic need to be emotionally naked with others. Emotional nakedness exists in relationships when we can be completely vulnerable with another person but still feel completely safe. These relationships give us a place to lower our defenses and the opportunity to receive and offer encouragement and guidance.
Without these kinds of relationships, people suffer. We feel lonely, ashamed, and afraid to share our fears and struggles. This isolation puts us at a higher risk for medical problems, depression, substance abuse, self-destructive behavior, and suicide. It also puts us at a higher risk for stumbling in our Christian walk—or, worse, forsaking it altogether—because God designed us for life together. God designed us with a need for emotional nakedness.
God designed us with a need for emotional nakedness.
Unfortunately, most churches don’t effectively cultivate such a culture. Consider the average evangelical church. It is likely to have many small groups, but most of those groups are marriage-centric: groups that teach spouses how to grow close to each other and be better husbands and wives. Even groups for teenagers teach the teens about dating, sexuality, and how to become a good future spouse. Most singles’ groups would be more properly renamed “find-a-spouse” groups.
All these groups are good things, but they are not enough. When emotional nakedness is discussed, it is always in the context of a spousal relationship. But what about people who don’t have a spouse with whom they can be emotionally naked? What about the widows and widowers? What about people with emotionally unavailable spouses? What about those who remain single, whether by choice or by circumstance? How will the church help these people satisfy their need for emotional nakedness?
Ignoring the need for intimacy is destructive, both to individuals and to the church. Consider celibate gay Christians. Many churches teach that the Bible requires gay Christians to remain celibate, but then fail to provide any method for these Christians to develop relationships where they can be emotionally naked. Why are these churches then surprised that some gay Christians reject the church’s teaching as unlivable and then either change their beliefs on sexuality or walk away from the church altogether? If the church teaches that gay Christians must remain single and celibate, then it must also work to meet their need for emotional nakedness.
If the church teaches that gay Christians must remain single and celibate, then it must also work to meet their need for emotional nakedness.
So how do we cultivate such a culture? First, we must be intentional about cultivating authentic vulnerability. Emotional nakedness won’t develop on its own—we have to create spaces in which people can feel safe and then teach people how to be vulnerable. We need to teach Christians how to grow close and trust each other.
Creating a culture where people can be emotionally naked requires a few or more mature Christians who will advocate for and model vulnerability. By being vulnerable, champions of emotional nakedness don’t just pronounce that the church is a safe place—they demonstrate what it looks like both to risk vulnerability themselves and to embrace it in others. For this to truly work, however, the main champion must be the senior pastor. For a truly safe environment, nakedness must be championed from the highest levels clearly and regularly so that every member of the church knows that anything less than the kind of safety Jesus created for the vulnerable is simply unacceptable. Jesus is the one who “will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smoldering wick.” Jesus is the one who came “not to judge the world but to save it.” The leader of the church must champion this until it becomes the culture.
Finally, we need to be consistently vocal and visible. A culture where people can be emotionally naked isn’t helpful if no one knows about it. By being consistently vocal and visible about how we want to encourage people and make it safe for them to be emotionally naked, we will encourage people to do exactly that. Consistency is important—people do not easily set aside their fear to bare themselves in their relationships. If we give up quickly, they never will.
I have experienced first-hand both the despair of living without emotional nakedness and the joy of being in a church where people can be emotionally naked. For years, I lived in fear of what people would think if they learned my most closely guarded secret—that I am gay. However, I was blessed to have a church family that is loving and safe, so that when I chose to reveal my sexual orientation, I was welcomed with loving and encouraging arms.
My study of the Bible has led me to the conclusion that God prohibits same-sex sexual activity, so I am planning on remaining celibate. But I can’t do that on my own. My church is committed to helping me live well, and they support my calling to help others who are single (for whatever reason) to find love, community, and support in the body of Christ.
That is what the church should be—a place where people can have their burdens lifted and experience the love of Christ. By making our churches places where people can be emotionally naked, we help the church fulfill that mission.
An IT administrator by profession, Derek Kaser is a volunteer technical director and sound engineer at Life Church in Greensburg, PA. He has recently launched a small group at his church called “Solo Life,” which seeks to provide support for long-term singles.