Church is not an institution, it's a family...
Like many American Christians, I grew up going to church, and my idea of what church is and how it works has changed over time. I used to think of church as a big building where everybody went to talk to God. Then, I realized that the real church was every believer in the world put together, not a building at all. Over the past several years, my understanding of church has changed even more, and I think it all goes straight to the core of what we do at Child Refuge - protecting children from sexual abuse, even within the church.
Today, the Christian church is a well known institution all over the world, but was it ever meant to be an institution, or something more? Let me explain what I mean. I'm currently reading a book called "Return of the First Church" by John Fenn (which I highly recommend, by the way). It touches on some of the common problems found in the traditionally styled church and the origins of church structure. Here's a brief rundown... in 313 A.D. Emperor Constatine legalized Christianity and made it the offical religion of the Roman Empire. Thus, believers left their house churches and entered the once pagan temples, which were now Christian church buildings. Then, around 495 A.D. the decision was made that only the clergy were to receive revelation from God and would in turn tell it to the general congregation. In order to hear from God, you had to hear it from your priest, more or less.
Of course, many things have changed here and there over the years, but basically this is how church is done. Each week people gather together to hear a word from the Lord, which is spoken through the preist or pastor. Then they go home and may or may not apply it to real life. Some Christians read the Bible and study on their own, but many don't.
Ok, so here's the real question: How does this affect child safety within the church? We all know there are many cases of children being sexually abused within the church, but to what extent does the institutionalization of church influence this? Here are my thoughts; in many churches, the pastors, elders and ministry leaders are respected (which is good, of course) but that respect sometimes leads to elevating them beyond a point of accountability.
For example, you might hear something like this if there ever was a question of abuse - "Oh, pastor so and so would never do that. God has put him in authority over the whole church" or "elder so and so would never do such a thing. Think about all the work he does for the church" This can especially happen in mega churches where the pastors and leaders have a celebrity-like status.
My conclusion is this, church is not meant to function as an institution, it's a family, and in families you keep one another accountable. You call each other out on your lies and foibles, but you do it in love and because you love each other. Following Christ and being a part of His church is all about existing in relationship to other believers around you. Like scripture says "iron sharpens iron" - that's where discipleship and growth happen.
John Fenn makes a point to say that God still moves in the traditional church format, and I do agree with him. However, no matter what kind of structure a particular church has, whether it's a mega church or out of someone's living room, it must be founded on believers serving the Lord in relationship to one another and with the world around them. The same Holy Spirit that fills the pastor to preach fills each believer in the pews, and that means that each believer has a responsibility to watch over the safety of the children in their church.
The safety and faith of children cannot be seen as 'an issue for church leadership'. It is something that all followers of Jesus have to take responsibility for. Prayerfully keep your eyes open and be educated about the signs of abuse. Speak up when you see something, and keep speaking until someone listens.