Dr. Larry Crabb is an established licensed psychologist, a well-known Christian author on marriage and biblical counseling topics, and current Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Colorado Christian University (Morrison, CO).
Dr. Crabb earned his Ph.D in Clinical Psychology from the University of Illinois, and has been a professor of psychology since 1970. Dr. Crabb also provides workshops and weekend seminars across the United States as part of his non-profit New Way Ministries and its web presence which features interviews, video lectures, and other multimedia outlets to share resources from his School of Spiritual Direction.
Dr. Crabb has been involved in counseling and marriage, in self-help ministry, and in developing a context of “spiritual community” for over 40 years, and so has earned a place among the various “Christian voices” seeking to make the church a better place.
In 1999, Dr. Crabb released a significant but brief volume on the church as a safe spiritual community. The volume is entitled, The Safest Place on Earth: Where People Connect and Are Forever Changed (238 pages). Dr. Crabb has registered his own frustration with two elements which bear upon the community of the church and its spiritual health, which he further addresses in Real Church: Does it Exist? Can I Find It? (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2009).
In The Safest Place on Earth, however, Dr. Crabb establishes a vision for the church as a group of believers on a journey towards God, and it is within the journey that spiritual community must begin and end for spiritual healing and direction. Despite Dr. Crabb’s own training in psychology, he believes when it comes to the soul care that ought to go on within the church, such assistance must yield “to special revelation and biblically dependent thinking.” Dr. Crabb is adamant,
We don’t need more churches, as we usually define the word. We need more spiritual communities where good friends and wise people turn their chairs toward each other and talk well.
Structurally, The Safest Place on Earth is organized in seventeen chapters, divided into three parts, and finishes with a section of questions for each chapter. The layout follows a very clear program of development, and the content is written in a popular style. Dr. Crabb is able to articulate and shape a conceptual paradigm of what is a spiritual community and what is not a spiritual community without complex vocabulary. His illustrations, personal anecdotes, and insights from personal interactions are delivered to support his vision for a spiritual community is very clear and helpful ways.
Dr. Crabb also interacts with and depends upon the works of Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), who focused on spiritual solitude, spiritual community, and spiritual compassion, along with Swiss Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier (b. 1928) and his work connected to L’Arche communities which have overlapping concerns.
A Book Summary
In part one, Dr. Crabb develops and sharpens the idea of spiritual community and how the church needs to develop sensitivity to being the spiritual community it was intended to be. Spiritual community is, according to Crabb, at the core of what the church is.
It is people facing each other in intimate, honest, and safe ways as they journey together on their way to God. Spiritual community, however, will not occur if there is no opportunity for vulnerability and a full sense of validation from these that witness the vulnerable parts of who we are.
One of the difficulties in church community life is to wrestle with the crux,
if they knew who I really was, the church would probably not like me.
To be a spiritual community, then, we must be able to love free from ego and embrace those so broken by those things which burden our souls and even cripple us.
The health metric of a spiritual community is its ability to love the unlovable, the broken, those that can only let you love them in their brokenness.
In part two, Dr. Crabb reframes the New Testament discussion of flesh and spirit elements of our soul in terms of the analogies of the Lower Room (carnal/wretchedness) and the Upper Room (spiritual/greatness).
It is in this phase of the book that Dr. Crabb focuses on the part of the church community that needs to be addressed first — our internal struggles to be spiritual. Enter Dr. Crabb’s “two rooms” analogy which he builds from the words of Jesus:
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:23)
And he amplifies these words with Paul’s regarding “Christ in you” (Colossians 1:27).
In essence, the two rooms represent fully furnished environments that exist within us.
Now there are two rooms inside us, the one we built where our natural self thrives, and the one the Spirit built where our natural self suffocates and our new self flourishes.
Dr. Crabb does not explicitly use all the terms, but these “rooms” parallel the Freudian id, ego, and superego dynamics, the difference being they are spiritualized. The lower room is self-furnished by our wretchedness and “dark forces” with its corruption and stench (id). The upper room is furnished by the Spirit of God only enjoyed once we open the doors of the lower room, acknowledge its stench, and celebrate the confidence to be a new us (an obedient us) empowered by God’s grace and teaching (superego?).
Finally, we consciously (ego?) take these “two rooms” within us and the internal struggles that go with them —because we prefer to be in the lower room— to receive outside help from “another room” which is the spiritual community, the church. This room is furnished by the Spirit with safety, vision, wisdom, and power.
In part three, Dr. Crabb continues his visioning for spiritual community with another analogy of “turning our chairs toward each other” but now by “turning our souls toward each other.”
In this process, the members of the church community must practice three needed things. First, spiritual community can only be done by the Holy Spirit. Second, personal holiness grounded in the Spirit influences the pursuit of personal holiness of others. Third, there must then be a safe place to “own and trace our desires to their source.”
Spiritual community, however, will only occur when spiritual passions are “supernaturally” aroused when we are together in spiritual community experiencing acceptance, mutual faith in God’s presence in our lives, affirm the “upper room” elements in our lives, and allow God to change us without applying human pressures of forced change.
It is certainly a place of risk, but risk will always be a factor when embracing the need for vulnerability. Therefore, the real question is: will we, the church, be the safe place for those being vulnerable?
Response and Review
I chose this book principally because of the title. In fact, I had seen this title on the cover of the September/October 2001 New Wineskin magazine as part of the issue theme of “Authentic Christian Community.” The concept peaked my interest because I do feel the church has not been the safest place on Earth in managing people’s sin. One example will suffice. I once heard a preacher react to the exposed sins of others with the derogatory question, “where are the normal people?” That’s not a safe place for healing. Nor is the following response to a fellow congregant’s addiction any safer, “there’s a word they need to learn – repent.”
Rebuking sin is the easy work of preaching, but creating a compassionate environment to help brothers and sisters work through repentance is the harder – and in my judgment – more fruitful work of ministry.
Crabb’s book further calls the church to be the community through which Christians experience spiritual healing for spiritual problems often mistreated —according to Dr. Crabb—as psychological disorders or problems. The gospel and the New Testament teaching that the church is the dwelling place of God, and Christians are the temple of the Holy Spirit, seem to support the overall agenda that the culture of the local congregation should be more attuned to openly working through sin, temptations, and openly celebrating grace, and spiritual empowerment by God. Even Paul declares that the church is being recreated (2 Corinthians 5:17) and repurposed for ministry (Ephesians 2:10).
Dr. Crabb’s book both intrigued me and made me uncomfortable in that he elevates the spiritual components of the church where the Holy Spirit dwells. Again, it is not that I’m troubled by the Holy Spirit, it is that in many pockets of the Churches of Christ the Holy Spirit and the use of “community” have been so tinged with so-called “liberal agendas” in the latter, and doctrinal controversial hotbeds regarding the former. His emphasis that the church is specifically designed to be a spiritual community and therefore it must be that spiritual community on a journey to God is what stands out the most to me. If we are not a spiritual community, then there will not be the Spirit.
I do not agree with all of his points on the “wretchedness” of man, but Dr. Crabb has challenged me to speak more about the Spirit and the church as the community in which God does His best work to heal us from the effects of sin.
What I liked overall about the book is the Dr. Crabb’s challenging call to the church to be a safe place for the sort of healing love that needs to exists between God’s people, so that the Spirit of God may work through the church to heal its members as they bear each other’s burdens with the gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26). The church must be so, because, as Dr. Crabb reminds us, we are traveling together on a journey to God.
I recommend the challenge of this book to every Christian and church leader. The reminder that Scripture centers the body of Christ as the place where the Spirit dwells, and therefore must be the safe place where the members of the body can serve each other empowered by the same Spirit. To overcome sin, the church must be, and in some cases become, the place where no one struggles with sin void of love, compassion, support, and patience as we journey to God breaking free from the bondage of sin.
- “About Larry Crabb,” http://www.newwayministries.org/larrycrabb.php.
Full details: Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth: Where People Connect and Are Forever Changed (Nashville, TN: W Publishing, 1999).
Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 7.
Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 10.
“Henri Nouwen Society,” http://henrinouwen.org.
“History of L’Arche,” https://www.larcheusa.org/who-we-are/history.
Unless otherwise stated all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of The Holy Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).
Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 62–63.
Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 78–79.
Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, 121–30.
Larry Crabb, “Is the Church the Safest Place on Earth?,” New Wineskins 5.4 (Sept/Oct 2001): 12–15.