By Matthew Messenger, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
In How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, Kelly Bean puts together a hand book for what she terms “Non-goers”, those people that have stopped going to the institutional church for whatever reason. At the end of each chapter she includes a few questions for the reader to reflect on, and determine their own answers. While I might think that the data and questions posed by the book are interesting and useful, I admit to being turned off by what appeared to me to be an overly optimistic attitude about the “Non-goers”. Reading the book, it felt like an overblown opposite of all the overblown “THE CHURCH IS DYING RIGHT NOW WE ARE ALL SCREWED” posts and books I keep encountering. To be fair, Bean did counter some of that impression with the stories about failed attempts at intentional community and other issues that have been encountered in the process of pursuing this particular form of Christian community.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t like the book. I think her argument about it being possible to both be and raise Christians outside the institutional church has a good deal of merit. I appreciate the focus on community and the ideas that were presented for exploring faith in a personal, family, and local community context. The way she talks about leaving the church and pursuing an alternative path and her journey bring up questions that I have for my future ministry context and how I might approach that. I might recommend that any church governing body read this book and see if her critiques ring true for them. I think there is merit in the critiques she raises of the institutional church. There are ideas that are explored in the book that could be explored in the context of a church; in her letter to churches, I feel like that was acknowledged. The book is subtitled “The Unofficial Guide to Alternative forms of Christian Community” and reads like a handbook with a series of good questions that will guide toward where ever we might be being called to.
Bean never directly talks about networks, or networked individuality, but reading this in light of the Godin and Zirschky books, it’s hard not to identify the threads of networks that run through out the stories that Bean tells. I think there is merit in the conversations that Bean recounts with others in her network. She talks to other people involved in creating intentional community, and describes what that can look like. It appears to me that there are linkages between groups, even at just a leadership level to share ideas, and stories of success and failure. She describes a local community that starts in the family unit, and links with other family units and other members of the community that come together to support each other.
Community is hard in general is hard work, being the church is harder. It takes work to remember to acknowledge the stranger in your midst, or living next to you. Hospitality becomes the pillar at the center of communities she explores in the book. I think that Bean makes a good case for getting into the local community and learning to love your neighbors. I am intrigued by some of the alternative liturgy events she describes, and thought that the focus on welcoming all age groups and making it clear that they were desired, was deeply important not only in the context that the book is about, but for the institutional church as well.
I would not say that the book is with out flaws, but it does do what is articulated in the subtitle and more fully in the introduction: it provides a guide for alternative forms of Christian community. I have said before that I believe that the church is evolving. I don’t think it is dying, and certainly I don’t know if what Bean writes about is the wave of the future. I think that Bean and I agree that the way forward is together, in community.