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The Layperson's-eye View

As we left an adult confirmation class at a Brooklyn church, I asked one participant what he liked most about it. Jim enthusiastically replied that he wanted to learn more about his faith, and that the pastor was a good teacher. He added, "The pastor sees the world from the perspective of the church looking out, and it helps a lot. But some of us are coming from another direction. We see the church from where we live, from the outside looking in."

Since we had to rush into morning worship, I can only speculate on what he meant. Based primarily on how he participated in class, I can imagine four interpretations. First, Jim had discovered in the class how to "think theologically." As a new member-in-the-making, he was reflecting on his good and bad experiences and considering how basic teachings such as sin and redemption could inform those experiences. He was a natural theologian with an untutored knack for using church language to make sense of his own life.

Second, I suspect that in contrasting "outside" with "inside," Jim meant something more than interpreting his experience through theological language. Using what the pastor called "apt liturgy" (see Ann Morisy's Beyond the Good Samaritan: Community Ministry and Mission, 1997), others in the class had eagerly applied the church experience to their daily lives. One person compared his office colleagues with liturgical leaders, identifying the "priest" who hears everyone's confessions (sometimes prescribing penance or even granting absolution), the "preacher" who takes to the soapbox for every corporate crisis, and the "choirmaster" whose stories always gather an appreciative crowd.up

There is a third way to understand Jim's comment. I suspect that Jim does not entirely trust that the language of theology or the rhythm of liturgy can capture the fullness of his experiences in the world. In concert with his boomer generation, he is aware of but unconvinced by the antiquated distinction between sacred and secular. As he said in class, he does not need to be in a church sanctuary to recognize divine presence; he considers himself to be spiritual but not particularly religious; and he is more concerned about saving the earth than saving his soul. His distinction between inside and outside may reflect his desire to more completely acknowledge God in the larger world where he lives.

I have seen numerous congregations effectively bridge this gap by importing symbols of the outside world into the liturgy. In worship, pastors have prayed over everything from hard hats to diapers, from weapons of war to tools for healing. At a level of engagement that transforms communities and their citizens, churches have created liturgy out of community events. Some congregations have turned a personal spiritual encounter into a vision for the community, like Moses' burning bush. I have seen political deliverances akin to the parting of the Red Sea (campaigns for schools, jobs, housing and the like) celebrated in shared liturgical celebrations that embraced entire neighborhoods. This theology-in-action transcends cultural diversity better than words can. In this "event-centered liturgy" (see Charles R. Foster and Theodore Brelsford's We Are the Church Together, 1996), the worlds outside and inside the church can be united in the presence of God by language of experience.

My fourth interpretation of Jim's comments is that being at the threshold of church membership, he may have wanted to remember the millions of people who have not, will not and perhaps cannot join the church. Some, like Jesus' "other sheep that are not of this fold" (John 10:16), may belong to the Shepherd, but remain believers who are beyond our particular doors. Some are the forgotten, marginalized and even oppressed peoples of our communities. Once inside the church, Jim fears that he will be tempted to forget the rest. Like his New Testament namesake, Jim (James) may be giving voice to those who are otherwise silenced by the way of the world.

The voices of laypeople developing theology include, among others, those who use classic theology to better understand their lives, those who take the liturgy into the experiences of living, those who convert experience into event-centered liturgy, and those who can never forget the silent voices of others who remain in the world. Lay theologians move both ways: from the inside out and from the outside in.

January-February 1999up




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