By Sara Sommers, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Kelly Bean is a self-proclaimed non-goer. “Church runs in [her] veins,” (17) but in the prime years of her adulthood, “discontentment partnered with prayer and exploration” ushered her departure. How to Be a Christian without Going to Church is her personal as well as practical account of “alternative forms of Christian community.” It is possible to “be a Christian and not go to church but by being the church remain true to the call of Christ” (38, emphasis hers). Exploring ways to cultivate church through creativity, service, and intentional community, Bean paints a way of living Christendom that is self-initiated, authentic and connected, despite being outside church walls. Her choice may not be for everyone, but for the soul who has a heart for Christ, but no longer the stomach for organized religion, Bean suggests spirit-feeding options that warrant attention, even as they challenge church norms.
Bean’s Table of Contents serves as road map to her process. Parceled into three parts with honest afterthoughts tucked into her epilogue, she catalogs content into The Big Shift –From Going to Being, Expressions of Faith, and finally, New Structures, weaving personal and otherwise applicable examples of how to remain connected in Christian community and service while institutionally unassociated. The parts are divided into manageable chapters offering a Questions and Action section to evoke self-reflection and stimulate a genuine soul-searching in the heart and mind of one wrestling with leaving the church. While the book may appeal in theory to someone who has never attended church, it is primarily written for the self-identified Christian who, for whatever reason (Bean names several in her chapter Why People are Leaving) needs to do church in a new way. Missional living and actionable community caring provide avenues for Christian expression where one need not be bound to the time constraints and locale of standard church services or “a culture of pretense and too-niceness” or wooden ideas about what “church could or should be” (58). Rather, the non-goer, with creativity and initiative, may devise an integrated lifestyle of post-church communion found in small group settings, volunteer posts, and the daily commitment to practice radical hospitality and a genuine “beholding of others” (74). But rest assured, it is not an easy road. “Being church takes a lot of work and a lot of time” (36). Without the programs and infrastructure of organized religion, the non-goer must self-generate aspects of the traditional church experience – from pastoral care (her mentoring constellation  is worth the cost of the book), to sermon, to multi-generational fellowship, to worship, to outreach. Bean’s book validates that such an organic Christian path is possible, fulfilling and often more vibrant and authentic than the mindless practices many “goers” follow.
Understandably, to some, this type of self-directed Christianity may seem slightly indulgent. Anything goes. It’s hard to take Bean seriously when she writes, “Is anyone up for a pickle-making party or a living-room song-writing session? Jesus will be there” (103). Yet, one cannot deny the magnanimous pull of her conviction to find God in whatever channel life affords her – natural settings, miraculous ordinary moments, human community, or actions that work for justice. She sings out to us all, “Let your imagination go!” (113).
For mainline Protestants who see church as organized around Scripture, sacraments and discipline, the loosely defined and individualized construction of Bean’s church making may be an affront to the hard won, persecuted legacy of the early church. Yet, Bean reminds us that Jesus himself didn’t “leave instructions that paint a picture of a particular structure” (30). Quoting pastor and author Brian McLaren, she suggests that we are called to “disciple-formation and disciple-deployment” (30). In a “post-church” world, the execution of that calling is changing.
Bean’s point in writing her book isn’t about disqualifying the traditional, corporate church. Rather, she throws a line to all of those who have fallen away, granting them safe refuge and mutual forbearance while advising how to reengage in unique and prophetic ways. As the bride of Christ, the church is Jesus’ partnering agent in the world. Non-going believers are certainly no less viable or important to that kingdom work. In fact, the union of goers and non-goers liberates the church (the multifaceted Body of Christ) into a multidimensional framework of nuanced and networked possibilities. It celebrates the expansive evocation of the Holy Spirit to move with novelty and grace as we live and respond to Christ’s message with humility, compassion, conviction, integrity and dare we say it – flare!
Equipping non-goers to find their unique form of Christian Community does not aid and abet the church’s demise. It just might be the kind of new thinking we need to save it.