Here are two unpopular opinions: 1) Christianity is a culture, and 2) it’s not healthy to be in an all-Christian environment.
Sounds funny coming from a Christian, even funnier from someone who believes that the energies of faith, hope, and love, mediated through intentional community, can heal the ills of the world.
But I stand by those statements, because I care about the future of the church. And right now, the North American church is diseased. Not by the ~homosexual~ agenda, not by cultural Marxism, but by an unholy relationship with empire. As Warren Cole Smith makes clear in his writings, the modern American church is entangled in the Christian-industrial complex, and actively involved in perpetuating imperialism, willing to sacrifice the lives and wellbeing of disenfranchised people for the sake of power, wealth, and status.
It’s a grim diagnosis, but if true, why does it matter whom individual Christians spend their time with? It matters because the point behind saying “you shouldn’t surround yourself with just Christians” is that many people don’t think of Christianity as a culture. But it is. And that’s absolutely essential to understand: it means when we talk of living counter-culturally, as a “set apart” people, we need to apply that line of thinking to church life as well. The gospel call to a distinct and subversive way of living will always end in disrupting the status quo, especially that of religious conservatives like the Pharisees.
A pastor recently said that those of us who successfully live out this “set apart” life will be misunderstood, our motives questioned, our methods obstructed. I’ve been challenged and misunderstood and questioned by Christians ever since I came out and insisted on keeping my faith. But as Mother Teresa encourages, we should do and be good anyway, regardless of the pushback and criticism we receive from the culture we’re living “separate” from.
And so I will: by being my fully gay self without stepping outside the church, I’m living out the challenge to “go against the grain” and be “counter-cultural”. It’s just that the culture I’m countering is Christian, not whatever caricature of “mainstream” culture evangelicals use to bolster their positions.
But what church am I talking about? I don’t mean the spiritual Body of Christ, which I believe to be diffused across the globe, irrespective of culture, race, class, gender, sexuality. As Gerard Manley Hopkins once exalted in his poem Kingfishers Catch Fire:
“Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
But if we actually hold this sentiment to be true, if we assert that our faith is transcendent of culture (as any timeless truth must be), then we should expect Christ to appear in unexpected places, and we should be wary of any system that seeks to constrict the manifestation of Christ to a certain type of person (in this case, ones called “Christians”).
And we should most of all shun any rhetoric that enforces “us vs. them” dichotomies, vilifying the “other” as degenerate, lost, dangerous, less capable of good than we are.
But that’s exactly the rhetoric Christian communities perpetuate. Groups that define themselves as Christian in opposition to the “unsaved” or “nonbelievers” intrinsically, whether intentionally or not, paint those outside the group as inferior in some way. Sometimes those outside the group are just to be pitied, and nothing worse. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Take for instance the assertion that our true home as Christians is on the other side of eternity. One pastor I recently heard emphasized that we don’t fit into the culture as Christians; we’re aliens and foreigners and our home is not here. The good thing is I know his praxis includes refugees and immigrants; that’s often the biggest hurdle of hypocrisy that the majority of evangelicalism fails to get over. And it’s the height of vanity when white Americans complain of feeling displaced on land we stole from the First Nations through genocide.
But I want to push back on the assertion itself: do straight white male Christian pastors really feel that they don’t belong in this world?
I get the universal appeal of “homeless hearts,” a term Jay Johnson uses in Peculiar Faith to describe the restlessness every person feels as a result of our fallen condition, because I make it myself. Chesterton refers to this when he says Christianity answered “why I could feel homeless at home.” This idea is a cornerstone of my theology and praxis.
But given all that, shouldn’t we defer to the people who are literally actually homeless, as well as to those who are forced to the margins of society? Sorry but Christians in this nation are not that. Lgbt people are, people of color are, women are, disabled people are. To keep harping on how Christians are the outcasts does not reflect reality in this nation. It’s great to make the universal appeal of “homeless hearts,” but that’s not what usually happens. More often, I hear people specifically name Christians as the inherently dispossessed group, which is just simply not true in this country.
And that’s why I insist on identifying Christianity as a culture (as well as all the other things it is): because if you’re going to argue that people of faith are dispossessed, people who are followers of the one true God, people indwelled and transformed by the Holy Spirit, people dedicated to living a life of discipleship to Jesus, in ways that confront and confound the “spirit of this world,” then you have to distinguish between those people and “the church,” or “Christians.” You just have to distinguish. Because the two are not the same. Sure there’s overlap, it’s a dynamic Venn diagram, but they are not the same. Especially in this country. In case anyone forgot, 81% of the evangelical vote went to Trump.
Now’s a good time for a caveat, one I hope will shift focus from what I resist to what I stand for:
Christian communities that define themselves as part of a larger group tend to be much healthier, and produce better fruit. For example, my parents spent the better part of two decades doing inner-city ministry in Los Angeles with an organization called World Impact. One of the central values they lived by was that ministry must be incarnational, which in context meant living just like the neighbors in order to be a neighbor, a member of the community. For lots of new missionaries, that means giving up a level of luxury they were used to, and committing to doing life with those around them, instead of insulating themselves from those around them.
This is in line with what Warren Smith posits as a solution to the malaise of evangelicalism: a return to missional models of church planting, tried-and-true methods that have continued to show great success decade after decade.
Books have been written about this, but the thing I want to draw out of that solution is this: the Great Commission has always been about going to people instead of withdrawing from them (and then asking them to come to us).
So let’s make sure not to surround ourselves with Christians. Let’s do our best to pop all the Christian bubbles when we see them: venture out into unfamiliar ground, meet unfamiliar people, whenever our daily parlance threatens to become insular and repetitive.
Popping the Christian bubble will not only give Christians a breath of fresh air: it will also allow nonChristians to catch a less distorted glimpse of the God we serve, full of grace and truth.