Presbyterian pastor opens up a toolkit for researching the kind of welcome churches extend to visitors

The Rev. Colin Kerr was the guest on last week’s ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Colin Kerr

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Colin Kerr delivered a primer last week designed for people who are dipping their toe in attending church and, just as importantly, the congregations who want nothing more than to welcome them.

Kerr, the founding pastor of Parkside Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was the guest on “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” hosted by Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe. Listen to their conversation here. Kerr is introduced at the 18:06 mark.

“I am interested and curious about Christianity, faith and church community,” a listener wrote to Catoe and Doong. “But I don’t know where to start and it all seems so complicated, and at times controversial. Can anyone help me?”

That task fell to Kerr. “Every word they wrote, I felt it in my bones,” he told the hosts about the week’s question. The person “has discerned rightly that Christianity is complicated, and it can be controversial. … They’re picking up on the beautiful and sometimes diversity that is the Christian experience.”

Kerr highlighted two aspects of the Christian experience, beliefs and community. “I always like to say Christianity begins and ends with the person and work of Jesus Christ,” he said. “If you come to the conclusion about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done and what Jesus is doing, everything else is just a matter of your own personal exploration over potentially the rest of your life. Everything else can fall in place over time.”

On discovering a church’s community, Kerr suggested a careful examination of the faith community’s website and social media sites. “Try to find a church that expresses their supportive curiosity and questions. That’s always a green flag,” he said. “If you don’t see anything on their website that seems to celebrate questions or curiosity, that’s a red flag.”

Look for an “expression of women in ministry,” he said. “Any church that is not going to support the inclusion of women in ministry is very unlikely to be a church that is going to welcome and celebrate questions and is going to welcome and celebrate your spiritual journey.” He called the presence of women in ministry “one of the single-most indicators of a church that’s going to be a healthy place for you to explore the basics of Christianity.”

“It speaks to the values of a congregation in terms of who they’re willing to empower and put in places of leadership,” Doong said.

Then Catoe asked: What do you say to congregations who might be tightknit and not always open to someone new?

For churches, the test, Kerr replied, is “not whether you and your buddies think your church is welcoming. It’s whether you have clear and explicit testimony from people who have recently visited your church and maybe joined and said, ‘When I came, I didn’t know a soul, and people reached out to me.’”

“I don’t think there’s a way to know if a church will be truly welcoming,” Kerr said. “It’s got to be experienced. If you see multiple generations [during your online search], that’s a good sign. It’s an indication they are inclusive of different people.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“I like this,” Doong said. “Pro tips for church newbies. That’s great!” He followed that with a question about helping visitors feel welcome even if they lack much knowledge about the Bible or how things are done during a typical worship service.

“Don’t assume everyone around you knows more than you,” Kerr said. “Even if they do, there will be a lot said and done they don’t understand fully either. … [Newcomers have] this wonderful opportunity to ask questions, to have this posture of curiosity, which is relieving for other people. They might say, ‘Dude! I’ve always wondered that too. Thanks for asking.’”

“Most people are excited about your questions,” Kerr said. “It’s a great diagnosis of any community you want to explore.”

“If you want people to be curious about the church,” Catoe said, “you have to be ready for what that curiosity brings. It’s going to mess up some of the things you’re used to.”

Kerr is the author of the 2020 book, “Faith Hope Love: The Essentials of Christianity for the Curious, Confused and Skeptical.” Learn more here.

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