I think about this question a lot.
Because I hear a lot of people, celebrities and politicians, neighbors and acquaintances and friends, claiming that they are Christian but admitting that they’re not in a faith community and not really interested in being a part of one.
And I’m interested as to what the benefit is for them to claim a faith without practicing one in community. I want to ask them if it really matters to have that label.
Now, I know people who really long to have a community of faith but can’t find one that resonates with them. I have friends all across the globe with that reality…and that’s rough.
I don’t think that’s typical, though. And this question isn’t pointed toward them. I’m more asking this question with those who claim to be Christian but who don’t make attempts to act on their faith communally in mind.
And this comes with a clear conviction on my part that being Christian means being in a faith community of some sort. Because you can’t be a Christian alone, I think.
I mean, in some ways I can see the confusion over this issue. We’ve turned the term “Christian” into a moral identifier in many ways. It’s a way we privately identify personal beliefs and morals. And we’ve made it into a cultural identifier as well (and what a travesty that reality is).
The Christian community has given the impression that we can be Christian alone.
It’s like a tattoo we get to wear without needing any real connection. It may have a back story…but does it mean something now?
But does that mark have a future impact on our lives? Or is it just a remnant of what was that we still sort of like but don’t know why?
Or it’s kind of like, well, could I consider myself a Republican or Democrat or Green or Libertarian if I never voted?
I don’t want to make too much of a comparison here because it only goes so far, but it’s an interesting one. Would it matter if I claimed a political party if I never voted? Could I call myself by a party name if I never practiced?
Well, I guess I could.
But would it mean anything? Would it do any good?
I want to lean on this a bit…because I think it’s a conversation to have.
In fact, I think churches have it all the time in implicit ways.
And we have it poorly.
We have it every time we baptize a child in a church and then never see that child again (and don’t expect to). We have it when we mark people with ashes at the bus stop on Ash Wednesday, but don’t expect anything else.
And the result is…what? A bus full of people who think that faith connection is a bus stop encounter once a year.
I think the result is that we end up reinforcing a cultural Christianity without any real meaning.
So, I want to ask: does it matter?
And I fully get that there are some who are in faith communities and call themselves Christian who don’t trust any of it. I get that being active in a community of faith does not indicate a Christian faith (however you might define “faith”). Many people in faith communities are really despicable and don’t act or behave like I think the Christ invites us to.
This is true. I think this also a symptom of cultural Christianity.
And there are many people are in faith communities, churches, but wouldn’t call themselves Christian.
This is also true. We have people in my community who struggle with faith, and we encourage that struggle and those questions. I respect and honor that they’ve decided to struggle in community, that we’ve decided to struggle together, and I think that’s better than struggling alone or not struggling at all.
And in many ways I’d consider them more authentic than those who call themselves Christian but don’t engage in a community of faith or show interest trying to practice their faith.
Because I don’t think being a Christian is cultural. And I don’t think it’s an indicator of personal morality. In fact, I’ve more often than not found the moniker “Christian” to be absolutely unhelpful when it comes to determining morality.
I’m a reluctant Christian because I want to call myself Christian, but often times find that it’s hard to do because we’ve reduced that term down to the lowest denominator as either a cultural indicator or personal morality moniker…and it doesn’t seem to mean much anymore.
And so it’s no wonder that people don’t involve themselves in a faith community. Because…does it matter?
I think that it does. The first thing Jesus did was call people around him. You can’t be a Christian alone. Even our desert mothers and fathers were part of a larger community in their solitude.
We can’t be Christian alone. But with the way we use the term “Christian” and the way we have the conversation in churches, I have to ask the question. Because I’m seriously curious.
What is the benefit? Does it matter?
This was very profound for me, because I call myself agnostic for many of these very reasons. I haven’t found a community I feel comfortable participating in, yet I don’t feel comfortable completely abandoning the faith of my childhood. I feel awkward calling myself a Christian, yet that’s the dogma I’m most familiar with. It’s a constant struggle. I believe in something, but I don’t quite know what. But rather than claim it as Christianity, I tend to lean toward the “I don’t know” category instead.
Thanks for the thought provoking post. I’ll need to ruminate on this more.
Really thought provoking response as well, Nag! And I have to say, leading an authentic life comes with the kind of honesty that you’re displaying here. Thank you for that, and thanks for reading.
Faith communities have let some of us down time and time again – in various different ways of demonstrating behavior in opposition to the Word they supposedly preach… I long for a Christian Community… but seem to end up disappointed…
Very true. This is certainly a problem. Every community will disappoint, and we have to decide whether we can continue in a particular community after a disappointment (usually I think we can).
But I think it remains, though, that we can’t be Christian alone. So where next? Part of the trouble with Jesus is that he doesn’t let us alone (at least, that’s been my situation).
An authentic life in a authentic community reaching for significance and meaning. A goal deeply desired and desperately needed.
But much of the way Churches organize themselves it to claim ownership of the authentic and the significant without giving the means to the end. They then use the word “faith” as a fiat to gloss over they don’t have that means and thus creating a short circuited relationship. West Baptist Church, strong Christian community who I believe short circuits the Good News,
For I believe and hope that the connection to God is direct.evolving,ongoing and revealing not predicated on the keepers of “Faith”. My guess is that what many of the people who are Christian without a community feel this. They want that authentic / significant relationship but also know that the hijacked version actually causes more harm in the world than good.
If the church does change every half millennium or so as some has suggested perhaps that is where the change should begin. Laying down the mantle of authority and picking up the candles of guidance and compassion. These are the reasons I belong to a Church community at LMC.
Thanks for this, Tim. Really enjoy the perspective.
I think it does matter, and for the reasons you mentioned. Faith is an active word, and so if we’re not questioning, struggling, and wrestling, we can hardly call ourselves faithful. This speaks also to my aversion to the word “belief” or “believer,” but maybe that’s another conversation. To question and struggle with faith requires a community: to bounce ideas off of, to celebrate with, and to hold and care for us when the struggles overshadow the hopefulness.
I also wanted to engage the other group of Christians that aren’t involved in a faith community; the ones that haven’t found a community that they identify with. What’s the hope for them? Where do they turn with their times of questioning and causes for celebration?
Thanks Chris. Great questions.
These are great questions indeed. As one who has been involved with numerous faith communities in a variety of roles over the years, I have a different, if not a slightly negative take on this.
I concur that faith is deeply integrated with questioning and struggling. I run into problems with the idea that formal community is the answer as far as the bouncing ideas off of, celebrating, and holding and caring. While I have no doubt that those things occur within nearly every faith community, they are failure prone. Being that the old Adam is very much with us. such should not be unexpected… but for the wounded seeking safety, its no wonder that many once or multiple times burned choose to go it alone. In addition, its a rare faith community that doesn’t put up significant barriers to entry. Said barriers often lead to perpetual church shopping on the one hand, to folks totally giving up on formal community on the other. Perhaps the saddest deal of all, is the significant numbers of folks going it alone in the pews, in the Sunday school classroom, in the choir lofts, and even in the pulpits every Sunday.
Lest this most come across as massively cynical, formal community has built up a larger than life infrastructure that transcends time and space. A connection that unites multitudes… and when 2 or 3 are gathered, sparks often ignite. These transient events, and/or pseudo random gatherings for another purpose are often the place many, both in and out of formal community find places of struggle, questioning, and care.
This post reminded me of my favorite passage in Sara Miles’ book, Take This Bread:
“What happened once I started distributing communion was the truly disturbing, dreadful realization about Christianity: You can’t be a Christian by yourself….Sooner or later, if I kept participating in communion, I’d have to swallow the fact of my connection with all other people, without exception….I wasn’t getting [communion] because I was special. I certainly didn’t get to pick who else was good enough, holy enough, deserving enough, to receive it. It wasn’t a private meal. The bread on that Table had to be shared with everyone in order for me to really taste it….I was going to get communion, whether I wanted it or not, with people I didn’t necessarily like. People I didn’t choose. People such as my parents or the strangers who fed me: the people God chose for me” (96-97).
Beautiful! And beautiful book. One of my favorites.
The pastor at our church recently met with a prospective member whose first question was “are you going to tell me how to vote?”, and that may be a good starting question for anyone looking for a new faith community.
I’m very fortunate to be in a faith community (mainstream denomination) that is welcoming and diverse, one where the leaders don’t claim to have all the answers, where the main focus is how Jesus would want us to treat and get along with others in this world, where my pew often includes liberals and conservatives, literalists and questioners (me), and where “community” is not insular and conforming, but outreaching and generous.
This type of church is probably pretty rare (nonexistent if you accept the broad-brush political descriptions of Christians.
But these places do exist.
Great testimony, J. Thanks!
Hi Tim, I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but this topic is one that I really want to dig into. I just spent a semester in the Middle East, and I’m working through this dance of culture and religion. I like what you’re getting at that Christianity is more than only a communal or individual thing. It’s not just a label, and it’s not just personal. Do you have any suggestions for further reading in that direction or do you plan on writing more about this? Thanks so much. Matt.
Thanks Matt. Maybe Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” might be a good place to start. I do hope to write more about this as I think it’s probably the biggest question facing faith communities today. Thanks for commenting and, of course, I welcome any additional insights you might have.
Did Jesus call Zaccheus into the group following him? It’s not recorded if so. Or did Philip tell the Ethiopian eunuch to come to church with him? There is a very long tradition of faithful followers of Jesus who became hermits and solitaries (granted, some more solitary than others), especially in the British Isles and in Eastern Europe. So I really think your “We can’t be Christian alone.” is way overstated (unless you just mean we can’t be Christian without Jesus).
I do agree that it is desirable to follow Jesus in community, and much harder if one doesn’t; also that the individualism of much western culture is a poor fit with the communal focus of the Bible. Nevertheless I have heard too many speakers in church services claiming that you have to go to (their) church to be a Christian, as if the rituals that take place on a Sunday morning, hidden behind protective walls, are what following Jesus is all about.
I would guess that your “faith communities” are in some way broader than that, but to me your comments sound like a dig at those clinging on to the margins of faith. If you are going to criticise, then criticise those who fail to go out of their “faith communities” to build relationships with those who find religious language and practices unhelpful. Take church to people, in their context, rather than criticising them for not coming to your form of ‘church’
Sorry for the negative response; it’s just that, as someone who deliberately tries to straddle the insider/outsider divide, I would much rather have seem some positive reasons why (and how) someone who is interested in Jesus but not in religious culture should find ways to join up with others. What’s in it for them, for their walk, and/or for the wider community?
A good response and some good thoughts. Please don’t take my writing as being negative. I’m truly interested in the question.
And just as you believe I overstate the need for community, I think you’re overstating he “solitary” tradition. Whether or not scripture delineates people joining communities a after being called, I’m not sure that the faith is helpful without community. And we do know that Nicodemus and Joseph were “secret Christians”…and I think that implies they were part of a community. Otherwise, how would we know?
I appreciate the desire to reach and straddle the margins. I hope and think that I do this, too. And I think I rail pretty hard on the institutional church for the poor ways we talk about this issue. But I want to push the other way, too. Because the Spirit is said to gather us together.
And I’m not sure there is benefit without the gathering.
As always, thanks for reading Blackphi. And keep straddling the margins. It’s where God is.
I’m not convinced that assembly (as in foresaking the assembly of believers) is all inclusive. Ie, corporate worship and prayer is one thing, edification and discipleship in a community, formal or informal is another. Certainly splitting the two off opens the door for a lot of lone rangering. On the other hand the danger of forced integration, siloing, and potential millstone ringing up is another.
One last note: your point about church assumes a lot. Believe me, I’m not suggesting people join any particular form of church (especially what may or may not be my form). Rather, I’m suggesting that a Christian finds some type of faith community.
In many ways I agree with you – apart from the blanket “You can’t be a Christian alone” – we are better off together and people who use “Christian” as a label without any underlying reality are irritating.
Possible reasons for coming together as Christians could include: supporting and encouraging one another on the journey (particularly when life goes pear-shaped), bringing together complementary skills and abilities, being able to do more to change the world (at least our little corner of it) by working together, learning from one another, practising a deeper hospitality, welcoming newcomers to the journey together, …
Paul’s writings twice refer to Christians in terms of a “temple of the Spirit”: once in Ephesians 2 where he is referring to a gathered community, and once in 1 Corinthians 6 where he appears to be referring to individual Christians. I believe that God’s Spirit is with us, and we can take part in God’s purposes, wherever we are: whether walking alone or within community. But it is better for us if we walk together.
Sorry, that was meant to be a reply rather than a new comment.
No worries, of course. And we are largely on the same page. I don’t think that God abandons the traveler walking alone.
That being said, I wonder why a traveler would choose to walk alone when the benefits (and, of course, the struggles) of Christian community are what make it “Christian,” I think.
And, in a different vein, I wonder what the benefit of calling yourself “Christian” and yet not being interested in community at all brings someone.
As always, thanks for your insights and even critique. A good critique is a helpful mirror (and, as Peter Rollins says, a bad critique is like circus mirrors…they’re so distorted you can’t see yourself in them).
Yours is a good, helpful, critique.
It may be different in Chicago, but around here (UK village/suburb) if you want to find Christian community you’re pretty much restricted to the institutional churches. Given that, a few examples of people I know who consider themselves Christian but don’t want to be part of that sort of community:-
One lady started going to a local church when she was a young mum and struggling with life. She found most of what went on burdensome: so many ‘oughts’ when she was already struggling with the pressures she had. When a midweek mums-and-toddlers support group folded she went back, with relief, to spending her Sunday mornings with her family. She does now host a small discussion group which she finds helpful, so that is positive, if a little short of full community.
Another lady got really involved in her local church, which soaked up more and more of her time and energy. She was also a mum, although of older children, with a non-believing husband. Eventually she burnt out and stopped going to church altogether. She still believes, and still has close individual relationships with other Christians, but has no desire to get back into any larger community.
Yet another lady did an Alpha course (do you have those over there?) and found it really made sense. At the end she started going to church and found everything was completely different: no discussion, no questions, no food, no acceptance of other lifestyles, and, most importantly for her, no purpose. She wanted to make a real difference in her local community and found the local churches weren’t terribly interested – beyond a few traditional ‘good works’.
A young (ish) man who is uncertain about his own sexuality. At some point in his upbringing he has been hit by the full evangelical fervour thing, so now he finds churches either intolerant or inconsistent with what he supposes their beliefs should be.
Another young man who doesn’t really believe ‘all that God-in-the-sky stuff’, but does believe in Jesus and his teaching, especially the ‘golden rule’. Although I also know an older woman with very similar views who does go to church – where she often feels the odd-one-out.
And so on. Even those who just use ‘Christian’ as a cultural label (none of the above, by the way) are expressing an interest and opening a door to conversation about what they mean. The ‘golden rule’ thing in particular is a good introduction to thinking/talking about grace, and what is distinctive about Christian faith. I would add that ‘cultural’ implies community; a rather wider one than just a faith community of course.