Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church, by Kelly Bean

It's no secret that church attendance in the U.S. in on a downward trend.  Even the mighty Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, has seen several years of decline in attendance and baptisms.  Prominent megachurches have seen some growth and success, but overall numbers for the church at large are down.  Some view this as a problem.  Kelly Bean says, not so fast!  Many Christians are leaving traditional brick-and-mortar churches to find community, worship, and discipleship outside the walls of the church.

In How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church, Bean describes the ways "non-goers" live out and express their faith.  Bean herself co-founded Urban Abbey in Portland, Oregon, where, true to the culture of the region, alternative Christian communities thrive.  Many of her examples are found there in the Pacific northwest.

Here are some things that Bean says non-goers do:
  • Get to know their neighbors. 
  • Cultivate intentional relationships.
  • Spend time in "meditation, prayer, study of sacred texts, devotional activities, group discussions."
  • "Maintain healthy, well-balanced support systems and opportunities to share . . . gifts with others." 
  • "Go outside of their comfort zone to learn and be changed."
  • "Listen for a sense of call, join others with similar vision, . . . and make room for everyone to use their gifts."
  • "Incorporate hands-on participation, experiential touch/taste/feel comfort, and a sprit of welcome as you worship."
All of these are great suggestions.  I do not contest any of them.  But Bean's implication that these can be better accomplished outside a traditional church setting, or without regular weekly worship in a building, doesn't hold up, in my opinion.  Every time she says, "Non-goers can . . . ," I thought, "Well goers can, too!"  Bean is right in calling for a "shift from 'going to church' to new, life-giving practices of 'being church.'"  But I think she's wrong to say that this can be done more effectively outside of and apart from a traditional church.

My biggest problem with Bean's position is that one might be left with the feeling that declining church attendance is a good thing for the health of Christianity.  "Great!  All those people who are leaving the church are embracing these community-based, organic expressions of faith and living!"  I don't have any stats, but I think that would be wildly optimistic.  An informal survey of Facebook friends who no longer attend church cited reasons such as disagreements with church leadership, the kids have graduated from all the programs, a preference to worship at home, including services on TV or online, etc.  But I think a larger portion, culture-wide, of leavers leave for "Church on the Dock," or "Bedside Baptist," and many leave the faith altogether.  Very few are actually engaged in community, corporate worship, and service.

That is Bean's word of encouragement, and the core message of her book.  She doesn't completely reject the institutional church; in fact, many of her examples are from churches with buildings.  But she wants to recognize that church is not limited to life in a building with a regular weekly schedule of activities.  Even more than that, she wants to encourage Christians who have, for whatever reason, left the church, to pursue community and discipleship in their own ways.  The examples she gives will inspire the goer and non-goer alike.

I remain biased toward the strength of the institutional church for many reasons, including but not limited to: historical precedent, spiritual and theological accountability, inspiration derived from multigenerational interactions, formal and informal teaching and preaching, and a structure that can opportunities for participation in and provide funding and support for missions, community involvement, theological education, and charitable works.  Not every church provides all of these things, of course, and all of these can be pursued outside of church.  Whether in a church or out of it, Bean's book can give you ideas and be a catalyst for making some changes, so that you don't settle for going to church but think about being the church.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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