Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon, Jr. misses church.
A self-proclaimed “none,” or person who doesn’t believe in or practice a specific faith, Bacon published a wildly popular essay in The Washington Post last week extolling the virtues of church as an institution for people to meet, socialize and learn about values like kindness and forgiveness. Rather than abolishing church, Bacon imagines “reinventing (the church) to align with our 2023 values.”
His piece inspired thousands of comments, some of which were included in a follow-up piece published by the Post Monday, echoing Bacon’s desire for church community detached from traditional religion. Some recommended humanist organizations and “progressive” churches for him to join.
Bacon’s experience, seemingly shared by thousands of commenters, illustrates a troubling misunderstanding of Christianity — even among church-goers.
Bacon, who grew up attending his family’s charismatic Christian church, identified himself as a Christian until 2017 and liked church for lots of reasons.
“I thought religion, not just Christianity but also other faiths such as Judaism and Islam, pushed people toward better values,” Bacon explains. Most of the people he admired, including his parents and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. were religious. The church’s teachings about “universal values such as kindness and generosity” helped encourage him “to be a nice person.” He liked meeting people from different backgrounds and generations. He liked singing with the congregation.
Importantly, Bacon admits, “I was never totally confident that there is one God who created the Earth or that Jesus Christ was resurrected after he was killed.”
Though Bacon liked church, his attendance dropped sharply between 2017 and 2020 for various reasons.
He “gained a more nuanced understanding of (his) own life story,” recognizing that his success was just as likely due to his “supportive, middle-class parents” and his high performance in school and at his jobs as “divine intervention.” He read the work of black, leftist intellectuals who didn’t believe church helped further the black community. He felt the word “Christian” was becoming synonymous with what he calls the “intolerance” of then-President Trump. He learned his church wouldn’t let a gay man lead a small group and wouldn’t perform same-sex weddings.
Now, Bacon envisions a “a church for the nones,” with all the social benefits of church and none of the uncomfortable edicts of religion, proposing:
“Start the service with songs with positive messages. Have children do a reading to the entire congregation and then go to a separate kids’ service. Reserve time when church members can tell the congregation about their highs and lows from the previous week. Listen as the pastor gives a sermon on tolerance or some other universal value, while briefly touching on whatever issues are in the news that week. A few more songs. The end. An occasional post-church brunch.”
Reactions to Bacon’s story featured in the Post’s follow-up article heartily affirm Bacon’s beliefs. Many reflect on ways people can practice “universal values” without being tied to the church. Others share they attended “progressive” churches that accepted people of all lifestyles.
One commenter explains he enjoys “a pleasant endorphin rush from church,” that he likes the music, and it “helps (him) focus on working to be a good person,” but he doesn’t believe “traditional Christian ideas” like “there is a God or that Jesus rose from the dead or fed a multitude of people with loaves and fishes.”
Yet another church-goer writes, “I no longer believe in a personal God, but I love the message of Jesus in the Gospels, as well as the music, the fellowship and the shared commitment to others that belonging to a church gives me.”
There’s no indication that Bacon, who identified as a Christian for most of his life, or the commenters — even the church-going ones — understand Christianity as anything more than a vague moral code. As believers, we understand Christianity is the fundamental conviction that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose again on the third day, reconciling us to God the Father.
Jesus is non-negotiable.
Churches should welcome non-believers and encourage them to attend services, but it is thoroughly alarming that anyone can attend church and identify as a Christian while denying Jesus rose from the dead. The centrality of Jesus should never be concealed or minimized in church to entice non-believers to attend.
Messages of tolerance are understandably attractive to churches looking to attract and minister to non-believers. Many of the commenters associated negative experiences with Christianity with “intolerance.” Those who recommended “progressive” churches specified they were inclusive and tolerant of all lifestyles.
Writer and editor Rod Dreher, who wrote a response to Bacon’s piece, calls this desire to indulge one’s own beliefs “Sheilaism,” a term invented by sociologist Robert Bellah in the 1980s to mean a set of beliefs pieced-together from different faith systems by an individual who doesn’t subscribe to one god or set of scriptures.
Sheilaism does not require surrender to a higher power or a willingness to change. Nor does it require a person to do or believe anything uncomfortable. Thus, Sheila-ists dipping their toe into Christianity can dismiss any unpleasant experience or challenge as “intolerance.”
It’s an unfortunate product of our culture that people feel they can pick and choose what they want to believe.
This does not, however, give churches or individual evangelists an excuse to conceal or soften Christianity’s most basic truth — there’s only one way to salvation, and it’s through belief in Jesus and his sacrifice.
This unequivocal statement might cause some people to eschew Christianity, or label it “intolerant.” It might cause people some discomfort. But if non-believers can consistently worship at a church and still believe Jesus is optional, something has gone horribly wrong.
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