This year, with an exciting multi-million-dollar rejuvenation project currently underway in our little village, and hundreds of Appalachian Trail hikers on their usual annual migration through town, there has been a marked increase in the number of people coming by AIIA’s Study Center. It’s clear that we are increasingly strategically located here in the northwoods as the world literally walks past our doorstep.
Hardly two days go by when I don’t see someone taking a picture of the grand old former Swedish Lutheran Church building that houses our offices, library, and classroom (see photo). The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, attracts a lot of attention and is the basis for many gospel conversations.
In fact, just this week I had a brief exchange with a man standing in front of the Study Center with a camera. He said that he lived in another state. Then he asked what happens inside the Study Center. I often tell people who ask that question that we offer guidance to those trying to make sense of life and faith. But this time I told him that we specialize in Christian apologetics and then asked him whether he’d ever heard that term. He said “No.” So I said, “Well, apologetics is the branch of theology that defends Christian faith.” Then I asked, “Are you a Christian?” He gave me a tight nervous grin and said, “Not any more.” I asked why he had renounced his faith. He murmured something about all the wars and conflicts stirred up by religion. But his answer seemed evasive.
When I asked him what he thought about Jesus, he notably pulled back and said, “I don’t really want to have that conversation at this point.” So I said, “I can accept that.” We chatted for just a moment more, and then he walked away.
I had previously asked him if he’d like to come inside and look around. He said, “No” — but continued taking pictures of the building’s exterior the entire time that we were talking. It occurred to me that this was a sort of metaphor of his relationship to Christ — or lack thereof. He was interested in the outer form of this place of Christian worship and study, but clearly uncomfortable with getting too close to the Christ whom we worship.
Just three days before this encounter I had initiated another conversation with a hiker sitting by the side of Lake Hebron, a literal stone’s throw from the front door of Study Center. We talked about Monson, the weather, and his work. Then the conversation turned to matters of faith and, specifically, to the deity of Christ. I said, “If Jesus was not God as He claimed to be, what do you make of Him?” Instead of pulling back, this man actually turned toward me and showed great interest. Later in our conversation he agreed to come into the Study Center where I gave him a free copy of Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis) and More Than a Carpenter (Josh McDowell). He said, “Thanks for this discussion. Maybe these books will change my life. Maybe this is why I got off the trail and ended up here in Monson today.” I invited him to keep in touch. He indicated that he’d like to do just that.
Another day on the front lines here in northern New England — right where God has us stationed these days — and right where we want to be.
Daryl E. Witmer, Executive Director • AIIA Institute