By Lauren Voyles, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Keith Anderson’s description of new, alternative worshiping communities is inspiring, encouraging and hopeful. He uses concrete examples to illustrate how the church is changing, and how we can, and should, relate to our surrounding communities. Throughout the book, Anderson returns to the concept of “cathedral,” literally meaning “chair” in Latin (3). By “cathedral,” Anderson repeatedly indicates an intersection between the church and the surrounding community. He describes pastors who engage people while biking around Boston, theology and current events discussed over coffee or beer, and recounts the openness and non-committal nature of a compline service that nurtures Christians, agnostics and atheists.
Regardless of the setting, Anderson returns to a critical theme in the Christian life: relationship. In these diverse communities, Anderson attests, relationship must occur before conversion, and is perhaps more important than conversion all together. Relationship is possible and evident in local, interpersonal activities and in online settings. Too much or too little digital interaction, and vice versa, can be counterintuitive. Communication on social media can be wonderful and useful for the Gospel and for a general feeling of connectedness, but it can alienate us from our communities if we are not careful. All that to say: being in community and in relationship with those around us is crucial to living Christ’s teachings out in the world.
I was particularly struck by Anderson’s discussion of the Nones and the need to name all interactions and aspects of life as holy. I think recognizing what we commonly believe to be profane or ordinary as holy is crucial to understanding the church as a community space for all, for being in cathedral, as Anderson claims. If we are to believe that we are all parts of the diverse body of Christ, then why would we not affirm this? Finding and claiming God in daily life—or, perhaps more poignantly, allowing God to find us where God already is active in the world—brings us into a theological space that affirms the sacredness of all things. Thus, the church as a building or the clergy as a category of people, are important aspects of our ecclesial life, but are not somehow holier than other parts of God’s creation. I think this realization is instrumental for our next steps as a denomination and as a church universal.
Regarding the Nones: this section hit me because I am the daughter of two Nones. They don’t use that label for themselves, but they have not been to church regularly in many years. Anderson points to the need to reconcile, rather than convert. In order to accomplish this, we must “listen, understand, reconcile, and, at times, repent” (113). It is within an open, loving, flexible context that Christ can be known in accepting people exactly as they come to us, without bearing a hidden agenda to make yet another disciple! Acceptance of, and love for, these people we call Nones, Anderson relates, will enable us to better be in community with our members (117).
This book is extremely well-written and applicable to the church today. Not only would I recommend it to other seminarians and pastors, but I believe I will use it as I move forward in my call journey. As I stated above, I am from a family of Nones, and I have personally witnessed the extreme pain and rejection that people feel when the Christian community does not respond well to a decision to no longer attend church. My parents received phone calls from members asking them to come back to church (mind you, there were no inquiries about how anyone was doing!). In my Mom’s case, a church member popped into her retail workplace and, in response to my Mom’s polite “come back and see us,” replied “No! YOU come see ME.” I left that church as a result of such behavior and moved my membership after I was asked about my parents’ leaving. Anderson’s book provides a blueprint for how to welcome and nurture those who have differing theological identities, who have questions: LET THEM BE. Loving them for who they are and what they bring to the table is the key to imaging Christ to them. This book will be in my back pocket for just such occasions in whatever ministry context I am in. I will let them BE, because they ARE children of God already.