By Lauren Voyles, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
In How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, Kelly Bean lays out several different ways in which she believes that Christians can find fulfilling Christian community without attending a traditional four-walls-and-a-preacher church. Throughout the book, Bean recounts her own family of origin’s church-hopping that exposed her to a myriad of worship styles and theologies. In addition, she also tells a story of how she and her husband have been exploring new communities, including two that she founded, The Urban Abbey and Third Saturday. The focus of the book is to show how Christians can create a worship and fellowship setting for themselves through a variety of activities: gardening, art projects, global mission involvement, and many others. These communities can have a pastor, but need not for success, in her view.
While there are parts of Bean’s work that I find helpful, I am not convinced by her argument. Let me say that I support the idea that the Holy Spirit is already working in the hearts and lives of people who are not expressly affiliated with a specific church, and that their deeds of good will and generosity are as born of God as those of weekly worshipers. I am a very progressive person, and I think our parish lives are stuck in the church-for-ourselves and not the church-for-others. However, I struggle with Bean’s assertions that no pastors are necessary and that everyone within the community can administer the sacraments (see page 166). As a lifelong Presbyterian, I understand the sacraments to be mysterious and symbolic, and not just anyone can administer them. Those charged with that calling must be theologically educated and ordained, and must shepherd all worshipers through the understanding of communion and baptism. My visceral reaction harkens back to our class’s discussion last week concerning theological education, and my insistence that church leaders are thoroughly trained echoes in my concern for the sacraments here. Earlier in that chapter (157-158), Bean mentions People’s Seminaries that make theological education more casual and open to all who wish to learn, and I like this idea. However, I wonder how they are accredited, by whom, and what they teach. I would need to know more about them before I can fully support them.
I appreciate all the various examples throughout the book, but I do not see how they are church per se on their own. I can totally see a jam session, multi-city tour or other hobby as part of a ministry, but how is it ministry in itself? Our creative juices absolutely need to be part of our worship experience, but I do not understand how Bean is making these creative projects a part of a consistent worshiping group. Her own intentional communities are good examples of what I think she is explaining: meeting together and being creative as a consistent group.
There are, however, two ways in which I will definitely use Bean’s work. While she and I differ on the role of theological education and clergy, her statements on intentional communities and theological conservatism are extremely important. Many people know that I lived in an intentional community for ten months from August 2013-July 2014 as a Young Adult Volunteer for the PC(USA). While I enjoyed my work site, my living space was difficult to contend with. Our house suffered a break-in, and I had to go home for about five weeks. A housemate of mine was not supportive, and she and two of my leaders continued to guilt-trip me for “abandoning the community” while I was dealing with symptoms of what I now know as post-traumatic stress. When the house contains a person or people who are not supportive of your own healing journey and make any issue about the community, and not your own physical safety, then Christ is not represented in that community. I applaud those who can live this way, but I cannot. Bean’s vision of supportive Christian community is not always the way it ends up, and I caution people to think and pray before entering an intentional community. Bean’s discussion of community is one I will use in the future.
Discussion of theological conservatism is another place I will use Bean. I found her insertion of a letter from a young woman named Dannika regarding same-sex marriage to be particularly poignant (see page 51). Bean cites others who leave church for lack of community, sexism and judgment, but this letter hits the nail on the head: Dannika feels alienated because of conservative politics and theology, as do many other young people (52). It is brilliant that Bean brought this to light. My question is this: is conservatism destroying the church? How do we navigate these waters, simultaneously speaking our truth and affirming the imago dei in our conservative brothers and sisters? Stay tuned for how I wrestle with that one.