A “front porch” revival?
The welcoming church must take care not to become the apostate church
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They say church attendance is down. So what do we do? A few ideas: more guitars, less organ; more organ, less guitar; tweak hymn-to-praise song ratio; capital campaign for a facility makeover; church growth strategy seminar; improve website; flea markets; go to two services; go to one service; Starbucks coffee bar in lobby.
Or as the charismatic lawyer Billy Flynn sings in the musical Chicago: “Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle / Razzle dazzle ’em / Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it / And the reaction will be passionate.”
One July afternoon a Christian I know pitched another idea to me on his front porch: “front porches.” This is the brainchild of the late Tim Keller, who suggested halfway places for believers to meet unbelievers, so that our neighbors be “exposed to Christianity in an informal and positive way.” The Manhattan pastor elaborates: “In this space, non-believers feel themselves to be not intruders or tolerated onlookers or ‘probationers’ but loved and fully accepted ‘ratified participants’” (Life in the Gospel quarterly, Spring 2023).
Keller cites Francis Schaeffer’s 1960s and ’70s Swiss L’Abri as an illustration of the “front porch.” It resonates with me because I myself got saved through Swiss L’Abri in its heyday, and the commune was indeed a grace-drenched zone in the breathtaking Alps where hippie vagabonds mingled freely with believers.
After leaving L’Abri, I ended up straightaway in another “front porch,” this variant in Cape Cod, Mass. An engineer and his wife hung a handmade sign over their front door on Main Street, Hyannis—“The Living Room”—and seekers of coffee or the meaning of life would stumble in and be engaged in conversation about God on throw pillows in the Magnusons’ living room.
The local believer who enthusiastically shared Keller’s “front porch” vision with me on his veranda related how his own church has developed “porch groups,” where the rule is that 50 percent of the attendants be nonbelieving friends and neighbors.
Is the “front porch” model our answer? Is this the way empty church pews will be filled again? Maybe, but a few cautions: First, the success of the “front porch” ministry presupposes Christian hosts who are rock solid in their faith and in Scripture knowledge. Do we have that? God warned, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, then you will not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9). Let us make sure that while engaging with unbelievers, we ourselves are not the ones “converted.”
Pearl Buck, famous 20th-century missionary to the Chinese, in the end came to side with the Chinese over the evangelical Christians. Ten years ago, in my own hearing, a prominent woman on a church panel discussion gushed over her inspirational lesbian neighbors’ sense of morality. I found it worrisome at the time. She has since left the church.
What about Keller’s notion that “in this space, non-believers feel themselves to be … fully accepted ‘ratified participants’”? What could go wrong with that? Depends what you mean by “ratified participants.” (Beware of extra-Biblical terms.) Does it mean the unbelieving neighbors you invite to your “porch” are to be considered as having spiritual and social views on an equal footing with Christian views?
Or what if the term “ratified participant” morphs over time to mean not only the unbelievers you invite to your “front porch,” but also the unbelievers you invite to your Sunday morning worship service? Are they “ratified participants” there too? “Ratified” enough, say, to take the Lord’s Supper, to head committees, to teach Sunday school? If their views are accorded equal validity with believers’ views, do not be surprised if before long a rainbow flag flies from your church.
I would remind us all that at 1960s and ’70s L’Abri, though much respect was shown to unbelievers, there was no confusion in Schaeffer’s mind as to which group—the believers or the unbelievers—were presenting the way and the truth and the life.
As God said, “They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them” (Jeremiah 15:19).