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A free floating commentary on culture, politics, economics, and religion based on a passionate commitment to the truth and a desire graciously to refute that which is contrary to it….
"He must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it."
--Titus 1:9, Revised Standard Version
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Try a mental exercise with me. Imagine you were not a person of faith and you came to the parish where you worship — would there be a way for you to find a safe place there where you felt free to explore your questions, struggles and doubts?
I bet you answered no; I know I have in most parishes in which I have served.
Yet it was William Temple who said that the church is the only organization in the world which exists primarily for those who are not yet her members. If that is the case, then why do people who do not have faith but who wish for faith or have questions about the gospel find most churches so unwelcoming in their quest?
To do better, churches need to provide porches. Although disappearing in many American homes recently, porches play a vital function. They are an intermediate ground in which people who live in the house come out of the house and can be seen, and indeed talked to, by passers by on the sidewalk.
It is a big risk to go into someone’s house, but not to talk to them on their porch. Indeed, most people when invited will go onto a porch and speak with people who ask them to come.
Such a safe intermediate ground is exactly what parishes need to provide. What will it look like? One example is the Alpha course, used in many Anglican parishes worldwide. It involves a meal, it has small group discussion after a presentation, and it seeks in its format to bend over backwards to allow people who do not consider themselves as Christians to partake.
In one parish in the diocese in which I serve, Saint Paul’s in Summerville, South Carolina, a self-professed Satanist became a believer through an Alpha class (Really).
Think about that for a moment. Do you think when he began he would have felt comfortable in Sunday morning worship? Indeed not. But the Alpha course gave him a safe porch on which to strike up a conversation and ask hard questions.
Another example would be what I call “Agnostics Anonymous” where you take a small group Bible study meeting at someone’s home and you plan an evening where group members invite friends for exactly the purpose of asking questions about the faith. You then bring in an ordained leader or lay leader who gives a provocative five minute presentation and then takes questions. With planning and prayer, these can be great opportunities.
Another idea of which I am fond is called “Questions from the Heart.” You have an Adult Sunday school class explicitly devoted to questions people are wrestling with in their faith. When the class begins you ask people to come prepared with written questions – which they in their hearts really need answered – which the leader then reads aloud. After that first introductory class, the questions are then printed and numbered. The subsequent classes consist of taking numbered questions, several at a time, and preparing for them over the next week together. This is the kind of an environment which someone wrestling with faith sometimes finds inviting.
Jesus told us to be fishers of men and women. In order to be effective at fishing, you need to have the right time and the right bait. That means providing porches where fish and bait can some together. May God grant us energy and creativity to provide such environments in our parishes in the weeks and years ahead.
--The Rev. Dr. Kendall S. Harmon is Canon Theologian for the Diocese of South Carolina and convenor of this blog
Previous entry (below): A Pastoral Request from the Bishop of Fort Worth
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