When I picked up Kelly Bean’s new book, I hoped (and half-expected) that its content would be less provocative than its title: How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. After all, bold titles boost sales. Perhaps, I wondered, Bean will just end up advocating doing church differently from traditional models—like house churches or something. Unfortunately, the more I read, the more I came to the opposite conclusion: the book’s title is mild compared to its content.
Despite its lack of restraint, Bean’s proposal has a powerful appeal amid a particular reader demographic. In fact, it represents increasingly common ways of thinking about church, especially among the younger generation. It is therefore vitally important to engage Bean’s book calmly and without compromise—seeking to understand where it’s coming from, but also to clarify what may be confused and critique what may be unhelpful. While this review will focus on my criticism, it does so, I hope, out of a sincere concern regarding Bean’s ideas and how they will influence people.
When a book embraces cultural trends that should be plainly opposed—when it openly celebrates what is injurious to the cause of Christ—a clear response is necessary.
Being the Church (Organic) Versus Going to Church (Institutional)
Bean—a writer, activist, and community organizer in the Portland area—opens the book by narrating, “Here I am on a bright Sunday morning curled up in my cushy orange chair, sipping tea and loving Jesus. It’s been quite some time since Sunday morning meant getting the whole family spruced up for a church service” (10). She recalls earlier in her life being concerned about those who only attend church on Christmas and Easter, or even less, and then admits, “Funny thing is, now I am one of them, the non-goers” (10). Her thesis throughout the rest of the book is that it is perfectly acceptable for Christians to not attend church: “The great news is that it is possible to be a Christian and not go to church but by being the church remain true to the call of Christ” (36, italics hers).
Bean insists she isn’t advocating withdrawal from all Christian community into an isolationist, “lone ranger” Christianity (35). She wants to re-envision what it means to be the church in light of the cultural trend of decreasing church attendance (29). She thinks it’s possible to “be the church” without “going to church”—to leave the “institutional church” in favor of more organic forms of spiritual community. While she acknowledges that churches still have a role to play in the world, that role seems to primarily consist in facilitating this transition (225).
Making Disciples Versus Making Pickles
Insofar as “being the church” simply entails missional living and caring for our communities (the emphasis, for example, of chapter 12), this calling is certainly to be appreciated. The pervasive problem undergirding Bean’s book, however, is that she unnecessarily divorces mission (being) from membership (belonging). Early on she quotes Bob Hyatt, a pastor in her area: “To say, ‘I don’t need to be part of a local church because I AM the church’ is like a football player standing alone on the field saying I AM the team. It’s silly” (33, capitals his). Unfortunately, Bean doesn’t substantively engage Hyatt’s important point: just as playing football requires being on a team, so “being the church” presupposes association with a particular group of believers. Mission is an outgrowth of, not an alternative to, our churchly identity.
Bean affirms various kinds of spiritual gatherings and communities. But she presents them as entirely optional, and many of the stories she celebrates (for example, throughout chapter 3) seem to be about people giving up on any kind of corporate Christianity, not just the institutional church. So it’s not actually clear that she avoids the charge of individualism. Moreover, when Bean describes how alternative spiritual communities might look, they aren’t easily distinguishable from secular social clubs. In chapter 6, for instance, she advocates that believers may experience the presence of Christ, not by worshiping at church, but by making napkin rings, doing art, and baking together. As she concludes, “Is anyone up for a pickle-making party or a living-room song-writing session? Jesus will be there” (103). The next chapter on missional living among non-goers is basically about hanging out, having parties, building relationships, and travelling. She approvingly quotes Andrew Jones: “If you want to start a church, just have a party in your house and see who shows up” (112).
Of course there’s nothing wrong with Christians having hobbies, and we may indeed experience Christ in our everyday life. But it is an alarmingly willy-nilly doctrine of the church that considers such hobbies as replacements for corporate worship gatherings. Jesus did not say, “Go out into the all the world, growing vegetables, doing ceramics, building napkin rings, and basically just hanging out.” He commanded us specifically to disciple, baptize, and follow him to the very end, even unto death (Matt. 28:19–20; 16:24).
When Jesus saw the temple being used for business rather than worship, he overturned tables and drove people away with a whip (Matt. 21:13; John 2:15). We may (and ought to) feel something of a comparable indignation at any attempt to steer the church from disciple-making to pickle-making.
What About the New Testament Institutions?
Throughout How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church Bean does not clearly define the word institution. But to be clear, the difference between a local church and an “organic community” is not that one is an institution and the other is not. After all, Bean’s “egalitarian intergenerational intentional community” has its own particular gatherings, practices, beliefs, and goals. The real difference is not institutional versus organic, but rather biblical versus vague, “anything goes” spirituality. In other words, what’s different about Bean’s organic communities isn’t the absence of institutional practices per se, but simply of those prescribed in the New Testament—institutional practices like baptism (Matt. 28:19–20), the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:14–23; 1 Cor. 11:17–34), church discipline (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5:12–13), worship (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19), practicing spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:4–11; 14:26), preaching the Word (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Thess. 2:13), membership (1 Cor. 5:4–5, 12; 2 Cor. 2:6–7), elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9; Acts 20:28), deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–13), and so forth.
Historically, Protestants have defined a church as a gathering of believers organized around the Word, the sacraments, and church discipline. In contrast, Bean says the sacraments are optional (131) and urges nongoers not to fret about missing the weekly sermon since it can be replaced by various forms of “alt-worship” (everything from “beer and hymns” to Taize meditation ). Although she admits being a bit nervous as to how leaving the institutional church will influence our children (176), Bean nevertheless insists, “[Kids] don’t really need to be taught propositional truths. They need a way of life and a community of belonging” (180). But it’s not clear what community of belonging that would be, or how to impart a way of life without teaching propositional truths.
Perhaps most shocking, Bean doesn't apparently see her re-envisioning of corporate Christianity as shocking. She doesn’t even really argue for it. She mainly just tells stories about people she knows who are doing it.
Culture > Scripture
Throughout the book, culture appears more forceful in driving Bean’s thinking than Scripture. This is implicit in her method throughout in which “church” is defined in light of the world’s perceived needs (e.g., 35), and here or there becomes explicit: “God is active and present everywhere—in culture, in secular society, in the creative process, and in creation . . . life is not divided between the sacred and secular” (171). Unfortunately, Bean never seems to consider whether the trend toward church abandonment might need to be critiqued by theology/Scripture rather than itself informing theology/Scripture.
The fact that cultural trends function with theological authority for Bean may explain why some of the reasons she provides for abstaining from church feel self-indulgent (not to mention rather Western and suburban). At one point she observes, “The effort it takes for overcommitted, overextended people to get to a 90-minute service or give time to programs and church events can be too much. Sometimes staying home on a Sunday morning seems like the best way to remain sane” (57). In earlier times in Christian history, and in other places of the world today, believers risk their very blood in order to worship together. This is the mandate of Hebrews 10:25, where in a time of persecution “not neglecting to meet together” is part and parcel with holding fast to the faith.
I feel grieved and embarrassed wondering how Christians outside the contemporary West—Christians who walk a dozen miles to meet with their church, or who meet underground for a 10-hour service—would feel about the idea that sitting in an air-conditioned sanctuary for 90 minutes is just too difficult.
Loving Jesus Means Loving the Church
The church is the precious bride of Christ, whom he nourishes and sustains, for whom he shed his blood (Acts 20:28). The church is Christ’s body in this world (1 Cor. 12:27) through whom he is advancing his mission despite Satanic opposition (Matt. 16:18). The church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and the arena in which God displays his wisdom to the angels (Eph. 3:10).
Indeed, so close is Christ’s identification with his church that to persecute her is to persecute him (Acts 9:4–5). Anyone, therefore, who loves Christ must also love the church. And make no mistake: if we abandon the church, we are abandoning Jesus.
Kelly Bean. How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014. 240 pp. $14.99.