In 2007 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons came out with a book that I still think is applicable today called Unchristian.
Using research from the Barna Group, this book showed the statistics of how people view Christians in America. Here’s a list of the ways many viewed (and I think accurately continue to view) Christians:
To pushy – proselytize in ways that turn people off
Sheltered – I think specifically anti-science and narrow minded would qualify here.
Right wing politics – overly political, tied to partisan politics.
I resonated with this in two ways. First, this was becoming the way I also viewed many Christians. Second, because when I got really honest, I have been all of these things and something was shifting within me.
So, for a while, and from time to time since, I have thought about throwing out the word Christian and calling myself – a follower of Jesus – or something else (maybe just spiritual).
But, at the end of the day, I was raised and still very much am a Christian.
I think the struggle is how to be a Christian without the above labels.
While I am certain I am still hypocritical and judgmental at times, I have become open and inclusive of my LGBTQ friends, I am very open to the ways science guides us as we learn how the world came to be,I don’t view the Bible as inerrant, and right wing politics is…well…a little scary at times (this is true of either side to an extent).
In fact my change in these areas has led me to numerous encounters where people think I am falling off the wagon, heading down the road to relativism, forsaking the truth, replacing the authority of the Bible, and worse some suggest I am no longer Christian.
So, my question then is;
What does it mean to be a Christian?
I have done a fair amount of reading church websites online, and often I will find a part titled beliefs. Usually there is a long list of things that people who attend that church believe in which supposedly make them a Christian.
The problem is, what if you cannot check all of those things off?
What if you think some of (or many?) of the places where they believe to be really clear, you see as muddy and unclear? What if you disagree and see things differently? How many points can one disagree with and still be welcome there? And if I am still welcomed there and yet I don’t believe all of the stuff, can I still help serve and lead?
So, back to the question…what does it mean to be a Christian?
Well, in the first century, people who followed the ways and teachings of Jesus were called followers of “the Way”. Eventually they were called “Christians”, which was a derogatory term given by others to suggest these people who were followers of the Way were trying to be little “Christ’s” – imitators of Jesus.
I believe that to be a Christian means to be one who follows the teachings and life of Jesus.
In other words, I try to imitate Jesus.
When the temptation arises to throw out the label of Christian because it means different things to others than it means to me, I am reminded that I am actually trying my best to imitate Jesus – of course I am failing miserably most of the time.
While I am often tempted to distance myself from many of the people who label themselves Christians, when I read the life and teachings of Jesus I am inspired!
Who could be a better role model than him?
What did Jesus teach and do?
Jesus taught his followers to love others, forgive others, to show compassion and mercy when others don’t deserve it, to challenge those in leadership positions who live hypocritical lives and who look out for their own selfish agenda’s. Jesus taught us to trust in God, even when we are not sure how things will pan out. Jesus taught us that sickness is not the way God wants things and evil should be combated. Jesus taught us to welcome the oppressed and marginalized and to speak out on their behalf. Jesus taught us to work for peace in self sacrificial and non violent ways while we subvert the institutions that keep the elite in power and others in poverty.
Who struggled the most with these teachings?
The religious leaders of the time.
Because he was suggesting a very different way of being and living in the world. A way that serves others, embraces the outsiders, and while it can work within religious institutions, the way of Jesus can just as easily work outside of these institutions. In fact, he even taught that oftentimes these very institutions can work against this (e.g. Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath).
In essence, those who struggled most with Jesus were those who had clear definitions of who was “in” and who was “out”. These leaders were the sole interpreters of truth and the gatekeepers of this truth, and Jesus was breaking down all the walls -suggesting that those who they claimed were “out” were actually “in” and those who claimed were “in” may not actually be. One can quickly see why this would be an affront to some.
The crux of the teachings of Jesus was that you will know his true followers by the fruit that they bear – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self control. You will not know them by what they mentally assent to, or what they confess or say they believe – it’s the outside that matters because one can pretend or hide the inside, but our external actions actually reveal what’s inside…ouch!
Instead of a long list of beliefs one must check off, I think it is more accurate to ask ourselves if others see us as people who are self righteous, bigoted, homophobic, hypocritical, unforgiving, gatekeepers who tell everyone whether they are “in” or “out”,
Do people see Jesus in us?
” By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”