There are lots of biases and assumptions about Christians out there, many of which are founded in real-life experience. And yes, we Christians have done our share of damage when it comes to tarnishing our so-called “brand.” But there also seems to be this tendency to understand Christianity and its adherents as one generally monolithic group that can be described in simple (often negative) terms that they would never be acceptable to apply to any other group.
Part of this is because of the historic dominance of the Christian culture in the modern Western world. It’s the same reason that stereotypes of men on network sitcoms are pervasively unflattering, while the same stereotypes would cause a firestorm of negative publicity if applied to the female counterparts. Some of this is entirely warranted and necessary in tearing down false or damaging constructs of power. But sometimes, if we’re being honest, they’re just wrong. And stupid.
These assumptions and biases against Christianity – along with the history that supports these assumptions – are in large part what I have endeavored to counteract in my own work. And although there are many of us out there, both in the public eye and those living relatively unremarkable lives of Christlike service, people never cease to be surprised when they realize that Christianity actually can be something other than what they think it must be.
I cannot possibly count the number of times I have heard some version of the following phrase: “if Christianity actually could be more like what you described it like, I would actually be OK with being a Christian.”
Well, good news! It is. And now, I am going to offer a few ideas on how to dip our toes into the Christian waters, even if we are not sure that we ever want to be identified as “Christians.” These are at least my top five points for now, though I may add more in the future.
1. You do not have to believe in the supernatural in order to follow a Christlike path.
I have written articles in the past about how I believe it is possible to be both an atheist and a Christian, at least in the sense of following the ways and teachings of Jesus. I know for many, this seems an inherent impossibility, particularly given the fact that Jesus attributed his power and ministry to – and also prayed frequently to – God. However, there are times throughout the Bible when nearly every spiritual leader or prophet senses a gaping distance between them and the Creator. Even Jesus, at the time of his death, quotes a psalm about being forsaken by God’s time of greatest suffering. This psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance suggests that we can “act as if” even in those times our hearts and minds don’t necessarily agree. And I’m here to tell you that if any Christian ever tells you that they are certain about the existence of God 100 percent of the time, they are not being honest. So rather than worrying about getting a certain set of beliefs in order before understanding more about Jesus, try starting by learning more about Jesus, trusting that you will find answers to a lot of questions – including many you may not have ever considered asking – along the way.
2. If you don’t feel comfortable praying to something or someone, then just pray on or about something.
As one who tends to reject the notion of God as some anthropomorphic sky wizard, I also struggle with the idea of a God that needs me to pray to him, her, them or what have you. And I find that when I force myself into such a practice, I get so hung up on, and distracted by, the imaginative constructs of God that I build up in my mind that I forget why I was praying in the first place. So for me, I find it much easier to contemplate a question or even an idea, such as “what does it mean to love?” or ”What are the real priorities in my life?” Even the Scriptures say that prayers are heard even in our groans and sighs. When words fall short, simply find space to sit, be still, reflect, and even listen without any expectation of some magical voice having to answer you in order for you to be doing it right.
3. Christianity is an ongoing practice, not a one-time event.
For some, one’s confession of faith or public baptism is the culmination, or even the endgame, of Christian evangelism. The point is to save the soul of the nonbeliever, so that we can ensure that their soul will not be destroyed or will not endure eternal conscious suffering because of eternal damnation. But let’s consider for a moment that Christianity is about so much more than what happens after you die. In fact, let’s consider the possibility that Jesus was much more concerned with how we live than what happens after death. I’m not saying one way or the other what we should conclude about salvation or the afterlife, but in my four decades of wrestling with Christian doctrine and the damage caused all too often at the fears of hell, I propose that we take it off the table and start fresh. Consider the Christian life as a daily practice, much like any other discipline we might place as a priority in our lives. Just like a diet is not something we do for quick results and then abandon, we cannot lean on some quick fix from Jesus to hedge our bets, just in case. Jesus was eminently concerned with the ways of the living; we would do well to do the same.
4. You don’t need church to be a Christian, but doing it alone is not easy.
I understand the resistance of some people to going to church. Amy and I have joked often that the reason we are church leaders is because we would struggle to find a congregation that would satisfy us otherwise. But sometimes, we use broad judgments about Christian communities excuses not to go deeper with our faith practices and not to be held accountable by others. Just like working out, sometimes we need someone to spot for us, or to encourage us when we just don’t think we can do anymore. Sometimes we also need a little kick in the ass when were too comfortable sitting on the couch readily getting up and doing something about our situation. Also, my understanding of Christianity requires us to seek the image of God in other people. As such, we get less than a complete picture of what Christian practices about it we rely too heavily on books, blogs, or a walk in the woods for solitary prayer. All of these are valuable in their own way, but we need each other, like it or not.
5. Just being a “good person” or “not hurting anyone else” isn’t enough.
Sometimes I hear people say that they don’t see the need to be a Christian because they already have it more or less figured out. Basically, don’t be a jerk, try not to hurt others, and be kind. These are all fine, but they are also the same values than my preschool-age daughter learned her first day at school. And just like we graduate from picture books to more sophisticated volumes, or from playground recess to more demanding physical exercise, we always were so to stretch further. Further, we have a tremendous capacity to justify that our behavior is virtuous – or at least not harmful – if and when we want to. But can we honestly say that the daily habits of our lives, our habits of consumption, our material priorities, is to the betterment of others in the world? Do we believe that, just because the harm of our lifestyles is not laid out graphically right before us, that it doesn’t exist? Can we really convince ourselves that any phase practice established more than 2000 years ago boils down to little more than “don’t be a dick?”
Not unlike my recent blog post about Exodus International director Alan Chambers, I expect there is plenty in this article to upset both Christians and non-Christians alike. If so, then I’ve done my job. Not only should Christians be discontent with the status quo of how we behave and are perceived in the world; those who do not identify as Christians likewise should not be content to lean on spiritual laziness and pithy excuses for not exploring our full potential for spiritual maturity.
Now, go and do it.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."
Image: "Belief," Leszek Glasner / Shutterstock.com