It’s time to turn things around:

Bass recaps the historical development of modern Christian religion where belief preceded behavior, which then led to belonging. This pattern of joining exists only in religion; imagine joining a knitting group because you agreed with their philosophy of knitting. In the postmodern era as in the New Testament, we join a community first, then start to practice as our companions do, and then come to a deep experiential and emotional trust. For models of this pattern, Bass turns to Amish communities and the growing Christian communities in Africa and Latin America. These forms of Christianity can confuse our ways of describing religious communities, because their faith is more experiential and less confined by Western intellectual categories. It’s this experiential faith that Bass identifies as the core of the new Christianity.

When I worry about the future of Christianity, and particularly about the future of churches like ours, my negative self-talk has to with being a poor evangelist. In college, a couple friends and I started an alternative Christian group because we found the InterVarsity-sponsored Christian fellowship to be too rigidly conservative. We put up posters, gathered ourselves, and waited for others to join us. Once or twice someone else would drop by, but for the most part we were four or five people sitting in a room talking. And although that was church, needless to say it didn’t outlive the few of us.

We had two troubles, I think. One issue was that it’s simply hard to feel truly welcomed into a small, tight-knit group. (Close friends might have joined, but most of my close friends were part of the vibrant campus Jewish community.) The other trouble was that we didn’t have a particularly solid core identity of the group, other than that we were not the other Christian group. Perhaps that gave someone a working sense of what we believed (or didn’t), but it didn’t exactly open the door to anyone who wasn’t disaffected in quite the same way we were.

Bass quotes Mother Teresa on the core need for community: “There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience that in our lives–the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it.” This is a challenge of community, because of course we in Grinnell Christian Alliance loved each other, but love in a closed group can obscure the need to reach out to others in love. We did try to make clear that we meant to be open to everyone – that’s part of how we differentiated ourselves from the more conservative group – but apart from a little advocacy and snippets of dialogue, we didn’t seek out much in the way of relationship. I wonder what would have happened if we had identified a particular facet of our community that especially needed to feel love and formed relationships with them. “They” might not have come and joined “us” on Monday evenings at 7, but you never know.

I imagine I could be a better evangelist if I were to truly give myself to the good news of love. If I were to theorize and theologize less – or at least balance my theories and theologies with practices that help to keep my center deep in the experience of love. I’m probably better at all of this when I spend more time in silence, when I intentionally go visit those who can’t otherwise be part of our church life, when I get dirt under my fingernails serving and sharing. Especially because I’m so thoroughly steeped in belief and abstraction, I need concrete practices to remain “rooted and grounded in love.” I need to keep reversing.

If the future is reaching out in love, then who is our neighbor today? For whom can the experience of simply being loved by us be transformative?