The Difficult Journey to Faith: How the Church can Provide Stepping Stones

Posted by on Jul 3, 2006 in good idea! | No Comments

Moving toward Christian faith is seldom easy. There are intellectual, ethical and relational issues to be worked through, to name but three. Churches which seek to practice evangelism will try to offer help at every step for those who wish it. There are many such “stepping stones” churches can offer: classical music is one of them.

Coming to Christian faith is often a long and complex process involving many steps.

Take Dave, for instance. Though his parents never went to church, his grandmother had a reputation for being “religious” and told him stories of Jesus. At university, he had been intrigued to discover in a history of science course how many of the great scientists were also thoughtful and articulate Christians-Kepler, Newton, Boyle, and Maxwell, for example. When he got a job with an innovative high tech firm, he found that one of his colleagues was a person of quiet but firm Christian faith. They talked sometimes about the historic connection between science and faith, and Sam invited Dave to a lecture by a leading physicist on “Why I am a Christian.” Dave found it thought-provoking.

Dave and Sam hung out together sometimes on the weekends. Dave was impressed by Sam’s integrity and enjoyed his sense of humour. So after six months or so, when Sam invited him to a Sunday afternoon discussion group about the Bible for young singles who were figuring out their spirituality, Dave was interested to go. Then he checked out Sam’s church, to which some of the group also went, on a Sunday when they were doing a jazz mass, and, to his surprise, he liked it. A year later, he decided to be baptized.

Dave, as you may have guessed, is a composite of many people, but I have heard enough stories of this kind to know it is a pattern: a long-term friendship with someone who is genuine in their faith, plus a special event or two, plus plenty of time for reflection and asking questions, some experimentation with church, and then a thoughtful commitment.

This edition of good idea! looks at one place where churches often fail to help people who are taking that kind of step towards Christian faith: the special event. We often assume that if we make our churches friendly enough, and the liturgy contemporary enough, new people will flock in. Well, that may be true for some.

But there are many for whom a regular Sunday service is unlikely to be an accessible door through which they can move towards faith. For Dave, the lecture by the physicist was on a Thursday evening on a local university campus. The Bible study was on a Sunday afternoon, over a glass of wine in a young couple’s apartment. And his first Sunday service was a little out of the ordinary. Each event was a stepping stone on the way, and each was more user-friendly than a “regular” Sunday for a non-churchgoer like Dave.

There are many forms this kind of bridging event can take.

  • I know one family who every summer invite their neighbours to watch a thought-provoking current movie on a wide-screen TV in their back yard. Significant conversation about big issues of life and death always follows over hot chocolate.
  • Many churches in the past thirty years have invited hockey legend Paul Henderson to be an after-dinner speaker, to talk about his hockey, his life and his faith.
  • I recently heard of two clergy in England who have begun running regular discussions about spiritual issues in their local pub: the program is called “Pints of View.”
  • And Jenny Andison, in a recent Wycliffe Booklet on Evangelism, Doors into Faith: Inviting Friends to Join the Big Game, gives more examples to stimulate our creativity.

Future editions of good idea! may feature some of these events. This edition, however, examines two churches, one in Eastern Canada and one in the West, who have made classical music just such a stepping stone towards faith. As it happens, both have run their programs in the church and on a Sunday. But in neither case is it in the form of a regular Sunday service. St. John’s Shaughnessy, Vancouver, has experimented with performances of Bach Cantatas, which were originally composed to be performed in the context of a church service, with a sermon on the relevant texts. And Stone Church in Fredericton NB has offered evening concerts of sacred music entitled The Great Composers Tell a Great Story, highlighting the Christian narrative that underlies much classical music.

If evangelism is helping people take steps towards faith in Jesus, and if those steps can take several years, we need to be sensitised to how we can help. A lively and welcoming church is often a piece of the puzzle. A friendship with a Christian is usually a key part of the process. But between the friendship and the normal life of the church there is often a great gulf fixed. Probably the journey to faith will never be an easy one, but the church can at least remove some of the unnecessary difficulties. One way to do that is by creating the sort of stepping stones which special events provide along the way.

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John Bowen taught evangelism at Wycliffe College from 1997 till 2013. He now directs two departments of the college: Wycliffe Serves! which co-ordinates the external ministries of the college; and the Institute of Evangelism, which helps churches across the country with resources for congregational vitality and evangelism. He is married to Deborah, an English professor. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.

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