By Rachel Bauer, an incoming student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Be the church. That’s what keeps popping into my head after reading Kelly Bean’s How to be a Christian Without Going to Church. It’s a response to a world of less church and more spirituality, and how to live into that spirituality in concrete ways that build relationships and expand our ways of thinking beyond the walls of the church.
She tells a lot of stories. It’s the heart of her exploration, in fact, the stories she has encountered, starting with her own, of people feeling drawn to no longer go to church, but still feeling drawn to live in the way of Christ. It had a way of almost immediately pulling out of me my own story. A story of someone who would have considered herself spiritual but not religious, who was drawn through this spirituality to return to the church. As if her telling of an exodus left a vacancy for me, and my own story wanted to be told in that space. She drops the term sankofa or the idea that “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot” (133), and this stuck with me because I do feel a sense of return, a sense of going back to move forward. I think Bean’s book is a moving forward into the unknown by way of looking back through personal story. She gives voice to a taboo sense of leaving church, by exploring the humanity of those who chose to leave the church but not the way of Christ.
I felt that much of her discussion of leaving church was actually just an exploration of ways to rebuild the church. That sense again of: be the church. She explores how, as individuals, we can join in the very real and communal presence of Christ without the would-be barriers of the church. It is the idea put into action that we are the living Christ in the world, each and every one of us, and as such, we carry on building the Good News into the lives of every person we meet. At some point, acknowledging Christ in the world is the acknowledgment that every human being is a divine creature. She is not just building a house to God through good deeds and love, but she is building an entire neighborhood.
I feel the church is a place that holds the Mystery. It is a place that explores and holds the presence of God in a way that isn’t always found in society. I can know things through experience, but so much of church to me is Unknowing. It is the process of unlearning everything I think I know, and being rebuilt from a community that lives, participates, and responds in faith. To me this visualization is like a sunflower—a center with petals reaching out in all directions, and seeds needing new ground in which to be planted, seeds that feed in love and in faith. Yet, it is a community with all the trials and tribulations of any human endeavor. Kelly Bean gives voice to these grievances, and invites in something more. At the end she reminds her readers to grieve any hurt given by the church, so that we may move forward in trust that there is goodness still in the world (223). We must be brought into conversation with our tension, with our grief and suffering, so we might open ourselves up to transformation through it and be healed. This is part of the good news, that when something old dies, there will be renewal, rebirth, resurrection.
I feel so much that Bean’s book craves to be brought into conversation with those “called out ones” (29), who do feel called to not only be the church but be in the church. This reveals in me my own sense of ministry, to be in that space where story occurs, to be in that space of transformation and reconciliation. Out of her stories, I hear a plea for transparency in the church. I hear a desire and a deep yearning for intimate relationships with others, with God. I hear a call for the church to go into society and see other people as people, to show them dignity and be willing to learn from them. I hear a call for humble posturing of the heart(138-9), and a willingness to be open, to forgive ourselves and others, and to try again when we misstep. I hear a call, not just a response, but a call “to urge one another on to love and good deeds and to be church” (226).