Rethinking Church Part 4: Beyond Belief
"Christianity is a lifestyle - a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established "religion" (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one's "personal Lord and Savior" . . . The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great."
~ Richard Rohr
Is Christianity broken?
A number of years ago, I journeyed through a significant crisis of faith. I had simply reached the limit to how far my Western scholastic spirituality could take me. I was doing all the right things. I was preaching and leading others on the outside but wrestling with my own spiritual and emotional unhealth on the inside. In hindsight, I see this season of soul searching and questioning as a time of rich spiritual awakening.
Likewise, it now seems Christianity in America is undergoing a faith crisis of its own. We are being forced to reckon with our collective unhealth and dysfunction. To put it simply, it appears the Church is failing at its main job. Despite all our experts and resources, discipleship in most churches–how people become more like Jesus–is largely defunct. We’re seeing many Bible-believing Christians glorify war and violence, worship wealth and power, and ignore systemic injustice and racism. We're seeing celebrity pastors and church leaders–people we've put up on pedestals–being just as prone to scandals, corruption, and abuse as anyone else in power. We like to think that the judgmental hypocritical Christians we always hear about are just a few bad apples, but could it be that our current form of Christianity is simply not very good at producing Christ-like people?
Christianity often behaves as if it’s always the smartest person in the room. But thanks to globalization and the internet, we’re aware that there are many belief systems besides our own that have valuable perspectives and truths to offer. We are also learning our own history and realizing that Christianity has been wrong, many times, about a LOT of things! The Church has been wrong about slavery and segregation, about patriarchy and sexism, about colonization and conquest, about politics and power, about science and mental health, etc. We have to admit that for a religion based on having “the truth,” we don’t seem to be very good at discerning or even agreeing on what is actually true. It’s enough to make one wonder, does Christianity even work?
It seems we have reached the limit to how far our top-down head-centered spirituality can take us. And we need new pathways that can guide us into the future.
The way Jesus did it
In my second introductory journal entry (“Rethinking Church Part 2: Love First”), I make the case for the primacy of love. Love is supposed to be the defining characteristic of God’s Kingdom for the simple reason that God IS love. (1 John 4:8) Yet, for most of our history, the Church has defined itself by doctrine, tradition, religious tribalism, and conquest. Evangelicalism has mostly reduced what it means to be Christian to a prescribed set of beliefs or a personal religious experience. These things are not bad. They are just not at all what Jesus seemed to focus on in his life and teachings!
For too long, Western Christianity has over-emphasized knowing and believing the right things. But a spirituality based on superiority, certainty, and being right about everything is not only unsustainable, but untenable in a world of plurality, complexity, and contradiction. I contend that it was never God’s plan in the first place! Christianity was never meant to be just another ‘us vs them’ team in the world’s zero sum game of competitive truth claims. It was meant to be a fundamentally different way of operating altogether that is non-violent and non-competitive.
Jesus never seemed to care much about people’s doctrine or what religious group they belonged to. His primary work was love, healing, justice, and inviting others to “go and do likewise.” He never said, “teach them to believe all the right doctrines about me.” He said, “teach them to obey everything I’ve commanded.” (Matt 28:20) And what did he command? He commanded us to love, of course. (Matt 22:37-40, John 13:34-35) And if love is the key, then the Kingdom of God must primarily be about relationships. His chief methodology was a small group of disciples who spent a lot of time together.
The Western Church has largely lost sight of the simple observation that Christ modeled a spirituality based primarily on love and practice, rather than belief or head knowledge, and certainly not programs and production. Jesus was not a theology professor. He was a rabbinic sage. He asked more questions than he ever answered. He taught wisdom, not dogma. He demonstrated the way of embodied love, not propositional truth. In other words, he was more concerned with us being humble and loving than being right.
From heads to whole people
Fr. Richard Rohr has long taught that the Church must shift from a spirituality based on beliefs to one that is based on love and practice.
The central question in a belief based paradigm is, "Christians, what do you believe?" And we answer with the mostly cognitive exercise of creeds, doctrines, and systematic theologies (and boy do Christians like to argue about that stuff!). But a practice based paradigm asks, "Christians, what will you do?" or "What does Jesus command?" And we answer, much more holistically, love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. At the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he said to be wise and not just hear his words but to put them into practice (Matt 7:24-26). It seems that true wisdom and understanding comes not from hearing or knowing, but from doing.
Much of Christianity has operated under the assumption that if we believe the right thing, we will do the right thing, but we now know that it often works the other way around. According to Rohr, "We don't think ourselves into new ways of living– we live ourselves into new ways of thinking."
We know most of us do not learn best from sitting and listening to someone talk at us. Brain science tells us that we form new neural pathways primarily through our habits, behaviors, and experiences, or in other words: our practices. Deep transformation and healing rarely happen by merely consuming information. Yet, most of what we do in Evangelical churches still centers heavily around teaching, content, and what is essentially religious entertainment.
As humans, we’re hardwired from birth to be shaped and formed through relationships and face to face mirroring. Yet, many churches continue to be preoccupied with attracting crowds who mostly sit together in rows, facing forward, or now, watching on screens. As a whole, we spend tens of billions of dollars every year on buildings, production, and paid staff. I am not saying we shouldn't do church this way at all, but perhaps we don't need to do so much! Perhaps we can imagine alternatives that are more personal, relational, and organic.
Any future form of Christianity that actually works must shift its emphasis from producing content to fostering connection and participation. This does not mean we toss beliefs and content aside. It simply means pursuing a more holistic spirituality that incorporates and integrates all of who we are: heart, mind, body, and soul. For the past few hundred years, we have mostly kept these things separate–a byproduct of the Enlightenment.
Many of us in Evangelicalism were taught to distrust our feelings and be ashamed of our bodies, or that faith is believing in something no matter the cognitive dissonance. All this toxic nonsense has resulted in people who are disconnected from themselves, cut off from their emotions, instincts, or even their own brains. And sadly, people who are divided within themselves are easier to manipulate and make dependent on external authority.
There is a way to put ourselves back together again, to restore wholeness. Only the practice of giving and receiving love can open us to a more expansive and experiential knowing that can heal and transform the whole person. The good news is that love does not require any special qualifications. It's already intrinsic to who we are. Anyone can love. It merely requires intention and practice.
Love and practice based spirituality
My vision for an alternative model of discipleship is simple: Mutual relationships are the classroom and the practice of love is our core curriculum.
We must practice and get good at empathy, compassion, and vulnerability. We must practice healthy boundaries. We must practice listening and good communication. We must practice proximity with people who are different from us. We must practice forgiveness, compromise, and conflict resolution. We must practice awareness of our emotions, bodies, and intuition. We must practice silence and contemplation in a world full of noise and distraction. We must practice seeing God everywhere and in everyone. We must teach each other what we know and yes, we should also learn the Scriptures, theology, and history as well, to the extent that we find them to be helpful.
If our spirituality is primarily about knowing and believing the right things, then it might make sense to sit in rows and let the expert teach while we all quietly listen. (Although I’m not sure that even works anymore!) But if our spirituality is primarily about practicing love, then we should be sitting in circles, gathered around dinner tables and campfires, which seemed to be Jesus’ favorite modes of gathering! We should break bread, share stories, and practice being present to one another, without someone always needing to dominate the conversation. And then, we should move our feet and be out on the streets and in our neighborhoods, doing the things Jesus did, bringing love, healing, and justice for the poor and disenfranchised.
If it’s not loving, it’s not Christian
We need a better way to define what it means to be Christian than "someone who believes X, Y, and Z." In fact, we need a whole new operating system. I propose that love and connection were always meant to be THE WAY–not knowledge or reason, not emotionalism or moralism, and certainly not hierarchy, power, and control. Every time we make it about something else, we make a mess of things. The core of discipleship has always been the practice of love. And, "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:8) In other words, if it’s not loving, it’s not Christian. How did we lose sight of this? It’s our main job! And certainly, more love is exactly what the world so desperately needs right now.
People are suffering from loneliness, depression, anxiety, and addiction–all symptoms of our lack of connection and love. Injustice and inequity have been baked into our social systems. Our country is polarized and bitterly divided. When I follow all these problems upstream, I see the Church’s failure to do its main job. We should have known that focusing on winning and being “right” would only result in binary, either/or thinking, and more barriers, exclusion, and tribalism. We should have known that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (I Corinthians 8:1) American Evangelicalism has long been an enabler of racism, patriarchy, and authoritarian leadership. And now we are merely reaping the fruit of what's been sown.
New Wine Collective is an attempt to shed some of the excess baggage Christianity has accumulated and get back to our essential DNA. We’re seeking to design a better way to be the Church, centered around the practice of love. Our journey is just beginning, but I am hopeful that love will guide us to a better way forward for all.
Have you experienced a shift from beliefs to loving practice in your own spirituality? How has that changed you or the way you relate to God and others? I would love to hear your comments or any questions you might have!