Good Idea! interviews Sean Davidson, on staff at St Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto, about a new version of Christianity 101 he is teaching
GI: What exactly is Christianity 101, and why do we need it?
SD: That’s a good question. As we know, many people in modern life have lost touch with Christian faith. We’re just trying to give people an opportunity to start from the beginning with an interactive study that focuses on Jesus.
GI: I agree that many in our society have lost touch with even the most basic of Christian ideas or practices. However, I am curious about what makes you think they are interested in finding out more about Christianity. Many people seem quite uninterested in it, and even apathetic. Why would they want to do a course like this?
SD: Yes, I see that trend in the wider culture but, here at St. Paul’s, we have many people showing up who are searching and wanting to explore. It’s quite surprising how people will walk in off Bloor Street with urgent questions about matters of faith. And interestingly, some of these folks have church in their background, but they’ve been away for a long time and now they’re wanting to engage again. So it seems that this kind of course appeals not only to the “unchurched” but also the “dechurched.”
GI: So how exactly do you engage with the questions they are asking?
SD: Well, one-on-one, there are lots of opportunities to engage people’s questions directly. But we try to avoid launching into a straightforward question and answer format. This could all too easily lead to the impression that the church is a vendor of information that simply dispenses satisfying answers to our pressing questions.
The fact is, people of faith have questions too, and we are trying to engage with newcomers in a way that encourages their participation from the outset, and treats ongoing exploration as normative for faith. Now of course, the church does have a responsibility to give answers. The gospel is a kind of answer, isn’t it? And Jesus himself is the answer. The question then is this: how do we offer answers in such a way as to encourage ongoing exploration and help people find their answers in Christ?
GI: Let me turn that question back to you! How do we offer answers in such a way as to encourage ongoing exploration and help people to find their answers in Christ? Or perhaps I should ask, How do you do it?
SD: Well, right off the bat, I’d want to say “not without difficulty.” There is a huge challenge here. Generally, we are not used to thinking about how to learn interactively with one another in life together. I’m guessing that most of us would value this in theory, but we just don’t have it as a concrete practice. Instead, there’s a tendency for professional clergy to “fill in the blanks” and to engage issues of discipleship and even aspects of the life of the church on behalf of others. This isn’t because leader-types are necessarily controlling. Not at all. It’s just been an expectation that has defined our culture for centuries.
But what happens when that loosens a bit, as it has over recent decades, and we recognise ourselves afresh as integrated members of a body, mutually responsible to one another in the adventure of following Jesus? How do we have leaders in play who help to read the signs—while resisting the urge to pre-empt the learning process by making everything simple, clear, and formulaic from the outset? This is not easy!
One thing we’ve been experimenting with in Christianity 101 at St. Paul’s is the practice of mutual attentiveness and thoughtfulness as we read various episodes in the Gospels together.
GI: So the heart of your C101 course is studying passages from the Gospels? Which ones? And how do you do it?
SD: We share food around tables over five sessions, and look at a series of episodes from the Gospels in which people from different walks of life are encountered by Jesus. Our journey begins with the Samaritan woman and the rich young ruler, moves on to Zacchaeus (who has a marvelous transformative experience over a meal with Jesus), and finishes up with active followers like Peter, James, John and Thomas.
What’s fascinating throughout is that the different characters are represented as fumbling beginners—even the disciples. I think this may be a key to how the Gospels should be read. They seem to encourage rather than overcome the natural puzzlement, gladness, surprise, thoughtfulness, and wonderment of a beginner.
And this is precisely how participants at C101 tend to engage with the stories. In the last session, I posed the question that the Gospels themselves seem to beg: “So what do you think the good news is?” Groups went to work on this question, trying to get it down to a sentence that Jesus himself would affirm.
The discussions that ensued were absolutely remarkable. They were the sort of discussions that surely would have happened around Jesus everywhere he went in his ministry. And the end result was amazing too—five statements that each in its own way testified to the good news about Jesus. And all this arose from being attentive and thoughtful together and sharing our learning.
GI: Can you give us an example of how this is affecting the people who attend?
SD: Here’s one of the highlights from our most recent round of C101. A young guy in his twenties came forward before the third session to say that he wanted to become a Christian . . . now! Wow. I was startled, and didn’t know what to say at first except “Why?” He said that he wanted to be just like the others, referring to the Samaritan woman and Zacchaeus. “And how is that?” I asked him. “Well, I can tell that Jesus is the real deal, and I want to follow him with my life.” He went on to say how he appreciates the freedom that Jesus gives to ask questions and to explore, without having all the answers. After we prayed together, he joined in with his group for the session and told everyone what had happened for him. This led to a lively discussion, with other newcomers peppering him with questions. It was quite something.
GI: That’s a lovely story. What has your own learning been like as you’ve experimented with this new approach?
SD: I’ve been learning so much. With a course like this, there’s a need to keep on track, and it’s the responsibility of a leader like me to help that along. But at the same time I’m seeing how valuable it can be to keep encouraging attentive and thoughtful engagement, rather than closing things off with a “final” explanation.
This came home for me recently in my wrap-up teaching time in the final session. After each group had presented their one sentence summary of the “good news,” I brought us around to an early Christian variation—“Jesus is Lord”—and unpacked some of the implications of that for faith and practice. The group really appreciated this and there were some important light-bulb moments—but this was not because I was finally getting around to “the right answer.” In fact, I was simply returning to what we had already been working on together, drawing out overlooked elements and building on them. What made it particularly energizing is that we’d been making our way together and helping each other along. My sense from the lively conversation afterward—especially among newcomers—is that shared learning like this is worth persisting in.