By Matthew White, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
In How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, Kelly Bean explores the experiences of “non-goers” making the decision to pursue Christian spirituality outside traditional church structures. While I am sympathetic to many of the stories she tells, having myself made a difficult journey out of the Catholic Church into mainline Protestantism, her book is flawed in a number of ways, from definitional issues to what I feel are some unfounded assumptions.
Bean appears to have first made the shift away from traditional church structures through the Third Saturday home-based community she formed, first as part of a church, then as an independent ministry. In terms of definitions, though, it is difficult to see what made Third Saturday an “organic community” rather than a “church.” Bean disagreed with the leadership structure of her church and found a more amenable system (with herself in charge), but it’s hard to see how this wasn’t just a new type of micro-church, or how this was so very different in essential respects from Presbyterian congregations making intentional decisions to leave the PC(USA), often over issues such as marriage equality.
As this analogy suggests, there seems little reason to assume that “non-goers” are somehow automatically more progressive than those attending church. My argument is just as anecdotal as Bean’s, but my own personal observations suggest quite the opposite of her conclusions. While Facebook posts by church attendees often focus on their own communities or faith traditions, what I see from other essentially disconnected Christians are often (though not always) oversimplified and questionable theologies, asking for prayers that God will zap people with miraculous cures (as if God doesn’t care about those who don’t find healing) or praising God for financial and family success (as if poor and lonely people are victims of their own lack of faith). Rather than finding “organic” small groups, many seem to gravitate to preachers like Joel Osteen or T.D. Jakes as a substitute for church attendance.
This is more, though, than just a question of conservative versus liberal leanings or even of simplistic versus developed theologies. Bean feels “hundreds and hundreds are asking good questions and then choosing to leave” (45), and undoubtedly that is the case. But it seems to me that millions and millions are just sort of drifting away, spending most of their lives not searching for meaning but simply dealing with the incredible pressures of living in the market culture of advanced capitalism. Most “non-goers” I know have not gravitated toward new forms of organic community, but simply have little organized spiritual life left at all, only vague notions that they are probably going to heaven and that there is a God who might pop up to zap them with healing powers when needed.
In her book, Bean only briefly examines the reality that maintaining intentional forms of spirituality outside of church – even more than within church – is heavily dependent on socioeconomic status. If we want to “get real,” Bean’s own experiences in the past decade are a testimony to this. In a remarkably honest online article, Bean opens up and is less sanguine about some of the realities of personal and financial pressures than in her book. Most of her financial support came from her husband’s realty business, and following the housing crash, “within a very short time, our income dropped by 80%.” If church communities tend to reflect socioeconomic divisions, micro-communities may be all the more dependent on the noblesse oblige of one or two wealthy members providing hospitality. The end result of this was that they were unable to move to the Urban Abbey intentional community they had partnered to found in Portland, and even came to rely on donations from community members as well as public assistance. Financial struggles were not the only ones, however. Bean rapidly learned that visioning community outside of alternative cultural institutions like churches is often easier than accomplishing it. One of the founding members proved to be a sports-loving introvert more attracted to watching games on TV than meeting neighbors. Bean’s husband himself pulled back from leadership and several members left the community left because of the demands of bivocational pursuits.
As of 2016, there appear to be no online references to the Urban Abbey community except in blurbs for Bean’s book. Meanwhile, a very different kind of Urban Abbey in Omaha appears to be successfully combining a community coffeehouse with – you guessed it – a traditional (if casual) church affiliated with the UMC.
Can you be a Christian without going to church? Theologically, I would say that anyone who experiences God in Jesus Christ is a Christian. But the chance of maintaining that relationship at the center of your life without the support of a loving church family is less than optimal in contemporary culture.