By Seth Lovell, a recent graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Just the title of Kelly Bean’s book, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, caused me anxiety. I grew up in a church that while far from perfect, shaped me in profound ways. I have been blessed to serve a church for the past six years that doesn’t evenly closely resemble the negative experiences of churches that Bean describes in her book. Bean values community and relationships, and recognizes that the institutional church is losing relevance, and needs to change radically. While I found her work to be thought-provoking, and certainly found ideas in it that were helpful, overall I found it lacking. I found Bean’s perspective to be too Pacific Northwest centric (definitely a unique culture there), and I thought Bean’s message of finding community and spirituality outside of church overly simplistic and not entirely realistic.
When I began reading Bean’s book I initially thought Bean was lacking a thoroughly developed and scripturally grounded ecclesiology. However, by chapter two she assured me she knew what she was talking about. She clearly articulated the rich meaning of the Greek term ekklesia, and the idea of being “called out ones” (Bean 28). She writes that “we are not called to go to church, think the church belongs to the pastor, or serve a building. We are called to be the church” (Bean 28). After reading about her view of ecclesiology, and her assurances that she doesn’t want to get rid of “church,” just reimagine “church,” I was excited about the potential of this book to challenge and inform leaders in the church. However, I found myself bristling at her negative broad stroke descriptions of churches, as well as her cheerfully optimistic portrayals of “non-goers.” I felt like those who stayed in the institutional church were part of the problem, and those with the courage and boldness to leave were the solution. I have no doubt that Bean’s claim that “God is moving, “ is true; however, I think God is moving inside the institutional church just as much as God is moving outside the institutional church.
While I found Bean’s perspective to be too narrow, and her assumptions to be too broad, one of my biggest challenges with her work is the idea that finding intentional Christian communities outside of the traditional church is an easy feat. I have not found this to be the case for my peers who are “non-goers,” and have found that they often end up lacking much of what the church can offer in their lives. In the beginning of chapter eight Bean lists off the multitude of services a local church can provide:
“inspiring sermons, meaty Bible studies, Sunday School for young children, youth groups for teens, encouragement for spiritual growth at all stages of life, a source for Christian friendships and accountability, inspiring worship through music, a spiritual setting for weddings, the blessing of baby dedications, someone to make hospital visitations and offer end-of-life pastoral care, the sacraments of Eucharist (communion) and baptism, the rituals of memorial services and funerals, trustworthy pastoral counseling, and more.” (Bean 129-130).
She poses the helpful question of whether or not these meaningful practices can be found outside the institutional church. Her answer: “a resounding yes” (Bean 130). I think the more appropriate and valuable answer to this questions would be: “maybe, but not without a tremendous amount of creativity, intentionality, and discipline.” I also think it’s worth noting that Bean’s “Urban Abbey community” that she discusses through the book may not be a traditional institutional church, but based on her ecclesiological definition in chapter two, her community is indeed a “church.”
While I struggled with the overall message of the book, I certainly found helpful pieces throughout. I think her chapter on alternative Sunday School and Youth Group models demonstrates her knowledge of children and youth born out of experiences with her own children. Her emphasis on parental involvement, experiential learning, and developing a mentoring constellation are all incredibly helpful pieces of advice for parents and youth leaders.
I also found her open letter to churches to be incredibly helpful. I would have almost preferred to see this letter at the beginning of her book, as it would have challenged me to read differently. Her thought, “what would happen if churches became home bases for many micro-communities of practice scattered around in neighborhoods and public places” (Bean 226) is a question that I have often considered myself. I think leaders in institutional churches need to be attentive to the changes that are taking place, and ask the question, “how can we faithfully live out our call to be church in the world?”