A Front Porch Take on Church and Culture

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bridgeAs the Director of the Front Porch, who also happens to be an Episcopal priest, I’m often asked about the role of The Front Porch in relation to the Church. In fact, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Doyle, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, recently asked me that question! So, here are some of my recent thoughts in response to such questions:

While many of us in the church feel we have much to offer our secular world, including original and enriching ways of naming and dealing with the human condition, many people in Austin nonetheless find themselves in a post-religious, secular world that offers genuine significance, community and fulfillment apart from the church. For many, the role and purpose of faith and religion has gotten confused and become divisive more often than not.

In this new cultural situation, those of us in the church need to carry on with proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, but we need to do so in ways that foster conversation with others outside the church in singularly non-ideological ways through art, music, and a host of other means. Such engagement only deepens the meaning of our own traditions and draw out its resources, but it also builds mutual friendships with different people from other traditions. We have much to learn from each other!

Engaging in honest, open discourse that leads to mutual understanding in the public sphere is increasingly difficult. Our pluralistic, fast-paced, and ever-changing world demands that we be able to categorize each other instantly. Are you liberal or conservative? Are you religious, spiritual, or secular? Are you pro-this or pro-that? In such a climate, opposing sides risk losing their capacity to entertain the perspectives of different others to see how the other usually offers something important and worthwhile to consider. Our increasingly compartmentalized culture makes it difficult to form trusting relationships with other people who believe or live differently. What can we do? We can cultivate a culture of dialogue that promotes ways of interacting that lead to deeper understanding and even collaboration.

The Front Porch came into being, in part, as a response to this new situation. A front porch is the interface between the private world and the community, where friends and strangers alike make time over a cup of coffee or glass of beer to visit and get to know each other. According to Claude Stephens, founder of the Professional Porch Sitters Union, front porches dropped in popularity in the mid-1900s when radio, TV, and automobiles wooed people away. But they’re making a comeback! —63 percent of single-family homes built in the U.S. in 2013 had porches, up from 42 percent in 1993. The front porch is “a way of thinking about the world,” Stephens says. “We use it as a verb: ‘Would you like to come over and do a little porching?’”

As our metaphor, The Front Porch promotes a dialogical way of thinking about the church’s mission that invites people to sit and talk on “the porches” that exist outside the church in the secularized public square. We do this in a number of ways. By skillfully curating programs in festive space in which dialogue, art, and hospitable community happens, the Front Porch offers a practical solution for a widespread malaise wrought by too much isolation and fear and suspicion of the other. We’ve built bridges with those in the creative culture of Austin—those passionately involved in making art, music, gardens, governmental policies, etc. We’ve gathered in multiple venues—restaurants, pubs, churches, non-profit spaces, avant-garde theatres, and front lawns. Since becoming an official mission of the Episcopal Church in 2009, we have been developing this particular practice of hospitality through events we’ve hosted with hundreds of friends and partners ever since.

As a lifelong Episcopalian, I love the Episcopal Church for its well-known via media. This is the theological framework for interpreting God’s presence in the world that provides a deep grounding in the biblical tradition, while also welcoming a wide range of perspectives and practices. The idea and practice of the Front Porch fits perfectly with this approach. In fact, this ministry emerged out of my life and ministry as a priest within the Church, a vocation that has enabled me to engage and connect with all kinds of people in all walks of life. The Latin root of priest as pontifex—one who makes or builds bridges—is meaningful to me as a calling to be open and welcoming to all others.

I now want to go a little deeper and say a few more things about some of the inspiration behind our approach. First of all, our strategy for transformation should be seen as a model for building community and facilitating dialogue in ways that address what we see as the urgent human need for both transcendence and communion. As the late artist and politician Vaclav Havel once put it, “Without an experience of transcendence in the broadest sense of the word, we tend to slide into a frenzied consumerism, a profound crisis of authority, and a demoralizing and destructive spirit.” Without transcendence, there can be no communion.

In the language of our tradition, Christ connects with people across their cultural and religious boundaries through dialogical interaction, not ideological agreement. The idea and practice of dialogue is key; in fact, we believe that the Word, or Logos, became flesh and dwelt among us. We also believe that in and through dialogue (cf., dialogos), the Word continues to be enfleshed between us.

The apostle Paul built bridges between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish residents of the Greco-Roman culture to connect people to Christ in a way that transcended their religious boundaries. Many of those who lived outside the Jewish religious framework were called “god-wonderers” because, like Jews, they sensed a transcendent dimension of life that called for reverence and ethical living. However, they never sought to become religiously Jewish through circumcision—and Paul and those early followers of the way of Christ never insisted they do so.

As a result, many god-wonderers found they were welcomed into a diverse communion of spiritually alive people that included Jews and Greeks, men and women, free citizens and slaves, rich and poor. The gospel of Christ became a bridge that brought a divided humanity together not by assimilating others to a dominant ideology but by setting unique and different individuals free to be who they were through the revelation of love as expressed in the life and death of Christ and brought into being by the Spirit.

The Front Porch provides innovative means for connecting to and partnering with Christ and, through the Spirit of Christ, the many different, caring, and creative god-wonderers of our time who don’t necessarily seek to become Christian. The way of Jesus himself—and how he emptied himself to create space for others—revealed an enjoyment of the other that brought people together in non-defensive ways. This is our model, and we’ve found that when we approach others in this way, the risen Christ continues to emerge through unexpected people in unexpected places and ways.

The dialogical approach to building community involves listening to the voices of different others–differences that enrich rather than divide. We practice an attitude to generating communion that is constituted not by sameness but by otherness and difference. Just as the apostle Paul welcomed different others (i.e., Gentiles) into the community of persons in Christ without insisting they be circumcised into traditional Jewish religion, nor does The Front Porch insist non-Christians become Christian or join the church.

This is difficult, challenging work that is easily misunderstood as too religious on one hand or too liberal on the other. Those outside the church, at least those who have become allergic to God-talk of any kind, are tempted to imagine that the Front Porch is a “bait and switch” operation that uses winsome, hip ways to lure and assimilate.

Yet some within the church, especially folks with a more ideological, less dialogical bent suspect that the Front Porch has compromised or soft-pedaled the gospel truth in order to promote “anything goes” relativism. In fact, the Front Porch eschews the binary oppositions that sort others into easy categories and, instead, participates in the often-messy interactions and relationships that accept others on their own terms and lets others be who they uniquely are.

This is tricky. A focus on communion without otherness devolves into a collective of the likeminded. Yet otherness without communion yields fragmented individualism. We believe, however, that at the heart of our mission is nothing less than the deeply Christian idea of the Trinity. As the distinguished theologian John Zizioulas argues, “There is no model for the proper relation between communion and otherness either for the Church or for the human being other than the Trinitarian God.” This is not the place to develop in detail how Trinitarian theology informs our practice, but we do think that theological thinking about the Trinity over the past few decades offers the church some very exciting ways to build bridges to the post-Christian culture. In a nutshell, by mirroring the communion and otherness that exists in the triune God, we have a fresh way of seeing how otherness is constitutive of unity, how otherness is absolute, how otherness is ontological, and how, therefore, communion does not threaten otherness—it generates and affirms it!

While the Front Porch has made great strides over the past few years, it remains a vulnerable little mustard seed that needs lots of encouragement and support to become a sustainable missional community that can make the world a more loving, compassionate place. In the meantime, we will continue to use the discipline of the Episcopal tradition to engage people of a variety of religious and secular beliefs in conversations that foster intelligent caring and outreach to neighbors in need!