I was raised in the Christian church. It is one of the great gifts of my life. The church is still my home.
As a boy I was persuaded a magical membrane encompassed a Christian church. As you passed through the membrane, it marked you with an essential truth. You were one of the God-people. Those who chose to reside outside the membrane could not claim this eternal privilege. I was taught to take great pride, seasoned with gratitude, that I existed among those inside the church.
I continue to serve in the church. My eyes continue to take in the sounds, the faces, the symbols. The chairs are arranged so that everyone is facing the altar of Christ. Every body is pointed at the One from whom we all receive life. The very shape of the sanctuary reinforces the membrane belief. Those outside shuffle to and fro, oriented every which way, toward the things of this world. But for those inside, our bodies are our compass, pointed at the cross.
There is only one problem.
While my body is oriented toward the altar, my soul so often is not. Many Sundays, when my eyes shift from the external—the stage, sermon, and sacraments—to the internal, I must admit that my heart is not on Christ.
I wonder what would happen if we re-arranged the chairs of the church to reflect the congregants' true heart longings. How many chairs would still face the cross? How many would face some other place, a place far away? How interesting it would be to see the seating arranged according to the actual state of our hearts.
Then I wonder, what if we applied the same experiment to those beyond the membrane, giving a chair to every person in my neighborhood? How many would have chairs pointed at least partly toward the cross? Their conscious selves may not know that the gospel is the answer, but their longings would betray their desire for it. These people are the ones the Bible might call "the stranger."
"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused. … Then he said to his servants, 'The banquet is ready. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the [strangers] they could find" (Matt. 22:2-3, 8-10).
How might that begin to look in today's church?
I live in a delightful neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Portland has gained quite a reputation. It has often been called the least-churched city in North America. Whatever the reputation, my little faith community and I knew that we wanted to understand our neighbors better. We wanted to understand their lives of faith.
So, we decided to ask them. It was only a beginning, but we compiled a survey and interviewed 200 of our neighbors. We interviewed folks in coffee houses and schoolyards, at bus stops and in parks, on front porches and at street corners.
We asked about their perceptions of religion and their perceptions of themselves as religious/spiritual beings. It was fascinating. To our surprise everyone was more than willing to help us out. (It's amazing how responsive people can be when we religious folk humbly ask for help.)
We asked, "What, if any, spiritual tradition do you currently claim or practice?"
We could not have predicted the responses.
One quarter of the respondents claimed one version of Christianity or another: Catholic, Presbyterian, etc. Another smattering represented a potpourri of other traditions: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Unitarian, atheist, etc.