How comfortable would you be sitting down at a table with strangers to talk about whether or not you believe in guardian angels?
How about whether or not you believe in God?
Many people are reluctant to share their beliefs outside the sanctuary of a church or synagogue.
The goal of a new Christian outreach program called Lifetree Café, which began Thursday night in Bethlehem, is to generate conversations about life and faith -- conversations organizers hope participants will continue with others long after each weekly program has ended.
The program was held, not in a church, but in the breakfast room of a motel. No hymns were sung, no Bibles were obvious, no sermons delivered, no offering collected – and only one short prayer was offered at the end.
Rather than old-fashioned hellfire and brimstone, the tone was laid back, casual and surprisingly objective.
A sign in the front of the room summarized the non-denominational program: “You’re welcome just as you are. Your thoughts are welcome. Your doubts are welcome. We’re all in this together. God is here, ready to connect with you in a fresh way.”
Less than 30 adults of all ages attended the first program, held in Fairfield Inn and Suites in Bethlehem. Everyone wore name tags and took a moment to introduce themselves to others at their tables. Snacks and beverages were offered.
The moderator was Rick Sergi, pastor of a small Bethlehem congregation called Sonrise Christian Fellowship.
If anyone in the room went looking for clear answers to some of life’s big questions, they may have left unsatisfied.
“We’re not necessarily trying to drive to a conclusion here,” explained Sergi. “What we’re trying to do is start a conversation, create discussion. We’re not here to give the answers, to debate or to declare this or that. We want to get you thinking, get you talking.”
Topic of the first program: guardian angels.
Throughout the hour, Sergi repeatedly encouraged people to discuss various points he raised about angels and God with others sitting at their own tables.
Only two Bible verses were offered as conversation starters, both referring to angels: Psalm 91:9-12 and Matthew 18:10.
Sergi said a national survey showed 55 percent of all adults believe they have had some kind of an encounter with a spiritual being, adding that figure includes people who don’t claim to be religious at all. “Many people would call that spiritual being an angel, others don’t.”
He showed a short video of a woman who, at age eight, was falling backwards off a limestone cliff near her home in Texas when she was grabbed from behind and pushed back against the rock wall. A voice told her: “Climb, I’ve got you.” When she got to the top, the voice behind her said: “You’re fine now, run on home.” Figuring she had been saved by one of her older male playmates, she turned to thank him “and there’s nobody there. I heard the voice again saying ‘you’re all right, go on home’. At that moment, I realized I had a guardian angel.”
After the video, Sergi asked folks at each table to share whether there had been a time in their lives when they felt they had supernatural protection.
Said Sergi: “There probably were times when you said ‘Wow! I really need an angel right now. If there’s a God, if there’s an angel, send one now’ – and it doesn’t happen. You were waiting for the spiritual cavalry to come over the hill and they didn’t show up. And you wondered ‘where are you, God? Are you real? Are you really there?’ Sometime you get the feeling that, if there is a God, His agenda isn’t the same as yours.”
He suggested God may not always define our best interests the way we do, but still is looking out for us.
Appropriately, slices of angel food cake were handed out at the end of the hour “to give you food for thought.” Participants also received slips of paper titled “Angel Encounters in the Bible” that contained other Biblical references.
Free Lifetree Café programs are offered all across the country.
The Bethlehem program will be at 7 p.m. Thursdays in Fairfield Inn, 2140 Motel Drive, just off Catasauqua Road near Airport Road.
The title of next week’s program is “Schindler’s Youngest Survivor.” Other upcoming programs include “Is Marriage Obsolete?”, “Inside the Gun Debate”, “What People Really Think of Christians and Why” and – simply—“Hell”.
“A couple of people told me they came tonight because the topic was of interest,” said Sergi. “We may have people who come for a topic and they may come again a month later. Week by week, we may have different people come in, based on their interest.”
If enough people are interested, the Lifetree Café program will be offered more than once a week.
In addition to Sonrise Christian Fellowship, the program was organized by people from Central Assembly of God Church in Bethlehem and New Bethany Evangelical Congregational Church in Allentown
“You won’t see anything in here at all that advertises a church,” said Sergi. “It’s not about trying to hook them and pull them into our church. We’re trying to do something here that’s bigger than any one church. We just want them to think about is there a God and what does He have to say about the things that affect our lives.”
“It’s an interesting concept,” said a woman named Anne at the end of the program. “A lot of people shy away from church.”
“This is more of a self discovery, you go on your own journey to get the answers you are looking for,” said Mike Graf of Bethlehem. “If you’re fed the answers all the time, do you actually learn anything?”
Cole McClenithan, pastor of Central Assembly of God, said the program primarily is aimed at those “who are searching” and “those who do not know the Lord.”
Lifetree Cafe takes root in Bethlehem