Kendall Harmon: A Plea for Parishes with Porches

Posted by Kendall Harmon

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

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryEvangelism and Church Growth

Posted September 4, 2008 at 4:49 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. The_Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

I can do relate to this. I grew up in the South and we sat around on porches all the time. I moved to the Mid-West where people look at you like you are a serial killer or something if you just sit out on your porch and read.

September 4, 4:55 pm | [comment link]
2. Don R wrote:

A hearty amen to this.  A congregation has to minister to the “Gentiles and tax collectors” that surround us.  For unbelievers, worship is an odd, even disturbingly alien, introduction to the Christian faith.  (And from my conversations, that is true even of many people who grew up in some sort of Christian environment.)  “Church” is incomprehensible to too many people without some understanding of what it means to have faith in Christ and why it is important.  Without at least a metaphorical porch (stoikos?), we end up missing a lot of chances to share this Good News.

September 4, 5:09 pm | [comment link]
3. Frances Scott wrote:

I read this article in The Anglican Digest yesterday.  Thank you very much, Kendall, for your suggestions.  Richard and I are hoping to start some kind of mission in Cripple Creek where we could have Bible study and worship sometime other than Sunday mornings. The casino workers don’t get off work Saturday until 3:00 - 4:00 A.M. Sunday morning; no way could they manage to stay awake through a Sunday morning service!  I really like you suggestions for a “porch” approach that would make it easier for unchruched people to show up with their questions!  Thanks again. Frances Scott, porch sitter.

September 4, 5:12 pm | [comment link]
4. vulcanhammer wrote:

This makes me think of the “third place” analogy which Leonard Sweet describes in The Gospel According to Starbucks.  His idea is that we have a home, we have a work place, and then we have a third place where we connect with others.  Front porches used to serve that purpose; his hope is that churches can do that as well.

September 4, 5:15 pm | [comment link]
5. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

I too love the concept of adding a “front porch” to our churches.  What a great and appealing image!  Although (as with #1) it may indeed play better in the Southeast, where there is more of a tradition of spending time out on the porch, sitting on a swing, sipping ice tea (or perhaps chugging a beer).  It should be noted that Kendall’s idea presumes that people feel safe walking about in the neighborhood of the church, which is not always the case (even metaphorically).

Let me suggest another possibility besides the Alpha Course and the Forum using “Questions from the Heart.”  A growing number of evangelistically-minded churches (i.e., mostly non-Anglican) schedule several “fishing events” a year.  These are attractive community events that aren’t directly or threateningly religious to the unchurched multitudes in our society, but instead are based on offering help that responds to widely-felt needs among inhabitants in that particular area.  It could be a one-time workshop on parenting tips for new parents, or parents of teens, or parents in a blended family.  Or on the other hand, it might be a seminar on dealing with aging parents and their needs.  Or it could be a special concert or play that might feature a brief Christian testimony.  The possibilities are almost endless. 

And it’s often best if the fishing event is held off campus, i.e., not on church property.  On a front porch, you might say.

Thanks for posting this practical, stimulating suggestion, Kendall.

David Handy+

September 4, 5:17 pm | [comment link]
6. Carol R wrote:

I grew up in the South.  My grandparents attended a tiny little Baptist church in the country.  The sign out front read,
Patton Hill Baptist Church
    9:00 Sunday School
    10:00 Preaching

It had a front porch and sometimes they would have all-day “singings”.  The front door of the church would be open to the outside and you could hear the sounds of gospel singing from far away.  That front porch, the open door and the beckoning sounds of passionate gospel music was a powerful draw!

September 4, 5:32 pm | [comment link]
7. AT Gerns wrote:

I think what you have written is spot on and very important. As a teenager, back in the 70s, I was invited to a Baptist youth group & Bible study. Everyone was invited to write on an index card any question we wanted about anything—meaning, faith, purpose, relationships, big issues like war and peace—and put the cards in hat. Questions were drawn and grouped and each week we studied the Bible together to learn what God teaches us. This “porch” solidified my faith and introduced me to Christ in a personal and meaningful way. I believe that creating “porches” is basic to our proclamation of the Gospel. Thank you.

September 4, 5:45 pm | [comment link]
8. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

Alpha has a range of materials in Nicky Gumbel’s Questions of Life   mentioned by NRA at #5 above; an alternative approach to Alpha is All Souls, Langham Place’s Christianity Explored course based on the Gospel of Mark.  Both had their forerunner in John Stott’s ‘Basic Christianity’.

Post Alpha one can follow up with:
Nicky Gumbel’s ‘A life worth living’ or All Soul’s Discipleship Explored both based on St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

Newly published for the post-Alpha market is Graham Kings’ Signs and Seasons also designed for evangelism in the post Alpha area.

Michael Green also has After Alpha which is well rated.

We don’t have a porch here [weather not always so good] but we do have a cafe and plenty of community events going on which brings people into contact with the church.  This can provide a low key opportunity for people to meet and an opening for evangelism through Alpha or other events.

Good article Canon Harmon.

September 4, 5:56 pm | [comment link]
9. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

#8 Sorry the Alpha and All Souls post Alpha materials are based on St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, not Ephesians.

September 4, 6:02 pm | [comment link]
10. justice1 wrote:

I prefer living rooms, pubs, and coffee shops. 

[I tried to convince some of my folk to bust holes in the south wall of our church building (its 110+ year old ark), and install garage doors.  Then we could take some of the empty pews (we have many) and turn them into benches and tables.  During the summer we could have a gratis coffee / tea shop in the church, and open those garage doors up to let the air and sun in.  I think it was a bit postmodern for them.]

September 4, 6:36 pm | [comment link]
11. Rosalind wrote:

I enjoyed this posting very much. I believe Willow Creek had Randy Frazee join them a few years ago to head up their Front Porch Evangelism initiative. He has since come to Oak Hills Church here in San Antonio to join Max Lucado with the mission of neighborhood evangelism. His book, The Connecting Church, is super. I found it very inspiring and practical. I was a small group coordinator in my church and I likened small groups to additional “doors” into the church, emphasizing that the church is the community of the faithful, not the building. Small groups are a place where we can extend friendship to people as they struggle with the questions of faith. They need to see and experience the love of Christ in those of us who follow Him. We do Alpha as well and it’s a beautiful thing!

September 4, 6:52 pm | [comment link]
12. archangelica wrote:

“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.”
What are the differences between the Alpha Course and the Star Course?

September 4, 7:51 pm | [comment link]
13. silverfox wrote:

The necessity for front porches is unquestionable.  I’m not sure which part of the house would be identified (perhaps the family table) whose purpose it is to keep the converted convinced.  This has been the main challenge I have seen in our parish.  Many come to faith, and then become agnostic as the culture acid bath erodes the faith.  It is a never ending challenge, trying to equip the faithful to continue the battle while under assault, both frontal and guerilla.

September 4, 9:03 pm | [comment link]
14. Dee in Iowa wrote:

On a hot summer night (before air conditioning) we kids slept on the front, screen enclosed porch.  Fond memories to be sure.  I now have a house with a porch, which I had enclosed.  The screens go within 2 feet of the floor, so to sleep on it would entertain the neighbors.  But boy am I tempted.  Think I might just leave a note for the paperboy, some morning, that the next morning not to be alarmed, for it is just an elderly lady having dreams of her childhood (and she’s really not dead.  I hope.)...sigh

September 4, 10:59 pm | [comment link]
15. Robert F. Montgomery wrote:

The Kairos community at The Falls Church has a ministry called “The Front Porch Team”.  Most of my clearest recollections in over six decades of memory are the conversations that I have had on summertime front porches.

September 5, 9:39 am | [comment link]
16. Jimmy DuPre wrote:

What would a church look like if we witnessed Romans 7 as it written, in the present tense, rather than as if it were written in the past tense. St. Paul says ” For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” , and too often we witness, ” I used to do the things I do not want to do”.

Or try 2 Corinthians 12 ;

9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Or Romans 8 ;
26In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express

September 5, 3:42 pm | [comment link]
17. writingmom15143 wrote:

i do a bit of freelance writing…magazine articles, devotionals, children’s and youth curriculum…and my “company” is called
“front porch pages”...there are 2 reasons for this…first, i’ve always wanted a front porch but have never had one so the money from my writing goes into my “front porch fund”...but the other reason has to do with my “front porch list”...a mental list of all the questions i want to ask god when i get to heaven…i have a vision of us (god and me) sitting on a big front porch…rocking chairs…ceiling fans…and 2 glasses of unsweetened iced tea (sorry southerners) would be there where i would sit with god and ask about all that i didn’t understand on earth…the “ok, god…what was the deal with…..?”...i could ask god anything…without fear of judgement or condemnation….and i would receive loving, honest answers…thanks, kendall…for the hope that these “talks and tea” can happen on our earthly front porches as well.

September 5, 6:53 pm | [comment link]
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