By Owen Gray, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
In her book How to be a Christian without Going to Church, Kelly Bean offers a large number of practical and theoretical ideas about how people who no longer attend church might express their faith outside church walls. And of course, there is reason enough for Bean to explore that idea. Especially in her hometown of Portland, OR, but also nation-wide, increasing numbers of people find churches to be unappealing, intimidating, irrelevant, boring, or even dangerous. But, for me, the length to which Bean goes to disassociate from congregational structure breaches an important line; a line that moves her ministry away from distinctive Christianity and into the realm of a secular ethics of niceness.
On the one hand, How to Be Christian offers a glimpse of some truly important, meaningful, and faithful contemporary ministry settings. I think any Christian and any Christian faith community ought to pay attention to these authentic expressions of faith. For instance, home fellowships, Beer and Hymns (pp. 169), immersive faith formation for children and families (177), sacred art (99), spirituality-centered nature retreats (67), and others demonstrate that people will often go well out of their way to experience the holy in their own time and place, especially amongst friends. Any Christian can take part in them, and even for a congregation, they offer a healthy means for people to deepen their faith. In terms of helping people of faith think outside the box about how to deepen faith, serve, and worship God, Bean’s book can be a helpful tool.
With all of that said, I was often times startled while reading the book about how little God, Christ, or the Spirit were invoked in these activities. For instance, Bean tells the story about sharing table fellowship in meals at a local park, shared amongst friends and homeless neighbors (Potluck in the Park, on pg. 107). This is a wonderful thing! But in terms of this being a sustainable spiritual practice, I find it hard to relate to. As narrated by Bean, Potluck in the Park does not include prayer, Eucharist, or any other sort of mention of God at all. Now let me be clear: I am 100% of the opinion that just because God’s name isn’t invoked doesn’t mean ministry isn’t happening! If God is love, then any place where love exists God is also. Fellowship for the sake of fellowship is pleasing to God and good for the soul. So if the goal of Potluck in the Park is simply fellowship and kindness to strangers, then I fully support it.
But the problem arises when Potluck in the Park is coupled with so many other ministry ideas of Bean. She says of her ceramics group that “we sometimes pray a bit,” and that seems to be the extent of the faith element. Trips into nature, book-reading curled up in a chair with coffee, practices of hospitality, and more of Bean’s ideas bear no ostensible signs of Christianity. At what point does her method cease being Christian faith and instead morph into a mere ethic of niceness? Can these combine to serve as a meaningful expression of Christian faith? Can people worship, serve, and relate to God made flesh just by participating in vaguely morally sound or personally peaceful activities? Perhaps for some. And while it must be said that some other examples she cites do indeed bear distinctive Christian elements, her overall implication is that any mention of the God, Jesus, the Spirit, or scripture is largely optional.
I might be more willing to assume the best in Bean’s work if it weren’t for her seeming hostility towards congregational ministry. She asserts that “listening to a sermon does not constitute being church together” (163); that “thirty minutes of expository teaching on a Sunday morning was probably not on the list of what Jesus had in mind when he sent the Spirit to empower us all as ministers” (164). Besides ignoring 3000 years of Jewish midrashic tradition and the overwhelming evidence of millions who do find legitimate spiritual meaning in homiletics, Bean’s tone leads me to believe she has a personal disaffection for congregational ministry. She has that right. But for me, her willingness to dismiss traditional church spiritual practices as irrelevant is shortsighted.
There is nothing inherently holy about church walls. Ministry that takes place inside them is not guaranteed to be better than any outside it. And indeed, to Bean’s point, there are more than enough examples of Christian congregations that adamantly hold on to ministry that is nothing short of stale. By going to the other extreme, though, Bean’s ecclesiology becomes increasingly individualistic. It opens the door for a faith that is only surface-deep in its self-service. A community built to collectively discern the will of God; to guide and help each other in faith is absolutely necessary. What’s more, I believe there is something essential that is lost when Christian scripture and distinctively Christian beliefs are not consistently at the heart of ministry.