Monday, November 28, 2005

Open Church appeals to the dissatisfied

Original Article on Chimes Here

Open Church appeals to the dissatisfied
Group provides an informal atmosphere for sharing opinions



For some people on campus, sitting in church every Sunday morning serves as more of a frustration than an opportunity for spiritual growth. Questions linger in their minds that they are afraid to voice. For others, the need is felt to participate in a free exchange of opinions on matters of faith, instead of sitting in a pew listening to only one. And still others, simply seek another way to grow and learn.

“Open Church” tries to meet the needs of such people, promoting open dialogue and an atmosphere free of structure and leadership. The group was started at the end of last year by senior Joel Swagman.

“I’m so sick of going to a church where all you do is sit and listen,” said Swagman. “You’re told what to read and what to say, but mostly you just sit there and listen. I don’t think that’s what a church should be like at all.”

In contrast to the perceived impersonal and rigid features of institutional churches, Open Church emphasizes participation and relationships, putting equal value on all opinions and life experiences presented by those who come.

“There’s no leader. No one to say what’s right or what’s wrong,” said Swagman. “Basically, everyone reads from the Bible together and decides for himself, and then everyone discusses it with each other and learns from each other.”

The gathering is composed of two sessions every Sunday, both held at Delta 1 (Knollcrest East apartments). The noon session is “unstructured time” to do what people want to do. At 6:30 p.m., a Bible study time is set up. The times are set up this semester to accommodate people who may also want to attend regular church services and/or LOFT.

Discussions in the past have covered issues from prayer, hell and the end times, to social issues like the treatment of women and economic equality. Generally, Biblical passages serve as the basis for discussion. However, on some occasions Biblical passages simply serve as a loose base for more philosophical discussions that arise from conversation, said Swagman.

“What appeals to me about Open Church is the opportunity to discuss Bible passages and the issues that are raised. I like to share my thoughts and hear what others have to say,” said sophomore Rachel Brown, who has been to Open Church several times. “Open Church is different from most other churches in that it involves much more active participation from all who attend.”

So far, participation has been low. Often, Swagman and one other person are the only ones who show up for the noon session. For the most part, one or more people show up for the later Bible study session.

Some are dubious about the concept of Open Church, especially with the fact that a theological leader is absent. Some students are concerned that with the lack of leadership Open Church boasts, certain beliefs may be affirmed that have no strong Biblical basis.

Swagman said that having a voice that is knowledgeable in theological areas would certainly enrich things. But to a large extent I think you can learn just as much from a ‘normal’ person just from their life experiences or their own insight. I think God works through all people.

“There is a rich tradition of theology, and I think you should be careful of discounting that,” he added.

Before Open Church first met, religion and theology Professor Paul Kemeny noted in an interview that “Open Church might be ‘open’ to all sorts of heretical innovations since there would be no spiritual accountability.”

College Chaplain Dale Cooper said there may not be a danger in Open Church, as long as participants are truly committed to learning what God wants for their lives.

“What I think is necessary to grow as Christians is to have more than one person gathered who have to be ferociously honest with each other,” said Cooper.

In addition to having a community that is committed to honesty and other “character qualities” of authenticity, understanding, love, trust and forgiveness, Cooper noted that an emphasis on God’s word is necessary to spiritual growth.

“God’s word ought to shape me, rather than my circumstances shaping my attitude towards him,” said Copper. “Let’s try humbly to listen to him. Do I think that has to be done from a pulpit three feet above? No, I’m not saying anything about that. Put God’s Word there in the presence of people ... and then ask them to help each other.”

Kemeny said last May that one advantage of Open Church is that “perhaps those who will get involved in it will find a church home that meets their felt needs.”

“Since there is no established church in the United States because of the First Amendment, we live in a religious free marketplace where anyone can establish his or her own church,” he said.

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