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What is a Christian?

Recently a blog post from New Zealand’s Bible Society CEO got me thinking. Rev. Mark Brown says that “research shows a majority of Christians don’t regularly attend church and stated that the usual solution of attempting to make church attractive is only part of the answer.” His sources include the National Church Life Survey and the Gallup Poll. What interests me is what definition of Christian is being used in such research?

Let me say at the outset – clearly one can be a Christian and not attend church. Some are not able to attend.
Let me also say, so there’s no confusion, that it’s clear that, as part of being a Christian, there is a personal response to the good news appropriate to the stage one is in one’s life.
Let’s also be clear that “church” is not primarily the building. “Church” is the Christian community, the body of Christ – the church building is there to stop the church (the Christian community) from getting wet and cold when it gathers 🙂

But I wonder if behind the definition being used in this research is a presupposition that one becomes a Christian individually and then “goes to a church” seeking support for the individual’s Christian journey. The Christian community, in this view, is little more than a support group for the individual. The individual may not find a group supportive enough and may find more individual support on TV, the internet, or reading alone,… From this approach one would not be surprised to hear “a majority of Christians don’t regularly attend church.”

There appears to be no challenge to individualism – already so strong in our culture. The three top reasons given in the research appear to bear out my critique. These Christians don’t go to church because

  • it is boring
  • they don’t agree with or don’t like what is being taught
  • they don’t see it as a priority

All three appear to be primarily about “me” and “my needs

The other side of this Christian coin is a view that sees God uniting with God’s creation in the incarnation of Christ, and then drawing us, who have been created by God, into this divine life through being incorporated into Christ through becoming part of Christ, Christ’s body, the church, the Christian community. We become part of Christ through baptism – not through something that we do to ourselves, but through something that God, through the Christian community, does to us.

A helpful image might be that of a team sport, football, cricket,… I am a football player if I am a member of a football team and play football! I am a Christian through being a member of the Christian community and participating in the Christian community. I am a member of the Christian community when gathered – and also, of course, when the Christian community is dispersed. Sometimes I am unable to be present at the Christian community gathered – but the gathering continues – the football game can continue. I continue to be a football player as I will be playing with them again soon.

This communitarian understanding of the gospel critiques individualism, challenges self-centredness.

It is the language we use when we worship, which is normatively in the plural: “United in Christ with all who stand before you in earth and heaven, we worship you, O God…” In this approach it is not merely my individual prayer, but I pray in Christ’s prayer, the Holy Spirit prays in and through me – through us together. Even when I am praying alone, I do so as a member of the Christian community dispersed, “Our Father…”

Certainly the individual still gets “something out of it” (even though this is not the first focus as the self-centred Christian definition has it). The football player “gets something out of” being a member of the team. One joins the community/group/team/church as an individual and finds the participation in the group’s activity transforming and fulfilling the individual.

This is no excuse for allowing church to be boring or irrelevant.

[Update: this post is presenting such useful responses, I have, as promised in a previous update here, produced a follow-up post entitled Choosing a church]

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15 thoughts on “What is a Christian?”

  1. I’m in the process of trying to find a congregation that will be right for me. Two of the questions I find myself asking are, “What is this community bringing to the wider world?” and “What can I bring to this community?”.

    I do seem to need a fairly structured spiritual practice in order to thrive. At this point, for a number of practical reasons, that is almost entirely something that I do on my own (at least in a physical sense). Company would be wonderful! And another thing I am looking for in a community is the ability to carry me through in some kind of structured way when I get to a point where my current enthusiasm or discipline for private prayer fails. That may seem self-centred, but I’m not much good to the rest of the world when I’m not engaging in regular prayer.

    I think it is important for churches to meet the individual needs of members of the congregation, but to remember that the point of this is not to glorify human individuals, but to equip each one to serve God as best they can, both “inside” and “outside” the Christian community.

    But I’m just a heretic, and may have it all wrong…

  2. Hi Bosco
    You make an important point!
    But the relationship between church and individual Christian is complex – bound up, certainly, with factors such as individualism, boring services and the like – but also tied with ‘stages of faith’ combined with ‘stages of life’.
    I mention this because, funnily enough, the night before your post I had a conversation with a friend not seen for a while who ‘confessed’ she and her family were not going to church at the moment. Part of what seemed to have been going on was a ‘growing apart’ thing (with the curious twist that they and their local church might be currently ‘growing back towards each other’). But either way, I sensed that a narrative of ‘our church was not meeting our needs’ was one half of the story (the ‘individualism’ part, if you like) and the other half is harder to describe, partly a ‘our faith journey is moving in a different direction to our church’ with a twist, ‘maybe no church is where we are at’ (which, incidentally, means that merely making the church ‘more attractive’ would make little difference).
    It can be a bit confusing, this church in a post-Christian age and post-church Christianity!

  3. Amen! In times of difficulty, when I’ve not felt as close to God as I should, my church family was (and is) always there to support me and remind me why I’m a Christian and part of Our Father’s family.

  4. Wow. This is a VERY illustrative piece. It’s precisely why I find the non-denominational “mega-church” movement very uncomfortable. Mega-churches tend to be very narrow in their definition of “Christian” yet lure people in with “church entertainment” to relieve that “boring” part. They tend to hinge their successes on the charisma of the person in the pulpit. It’s precisely what makes me realize why I love liturgical worship. Liturgical worship is not about “me”, it’s not about the guy/gal with the collar, it’s not about the person in the next pew who is driving me bonkers, it’s about all of us and more than all of us!

  5. You hit the nail on the head, with this post. But the individual reasons for not attending may not be all about themselves.

    Many have suffered some form in rejection when attending Church and therefore do not feel safe in the community that is Church, gathered in the name of Jesus Christ.

    Church as an entity is not perfect, many problems are due to individual ego and power bases and cliches being established and being allowed to flourish in some churches.

    My question would be ‘How is God Working in this context’ does the good of the majority of those who accept this and still gather outweigh the need and rejection of those individuals who feel rejected by the majority?

  6. Wrote that this morning before Church. Then the reading was Ephesians 3 – here’s verse 10:

    His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.

    Makes the point I think…

  7. yes, I mean people who have been in leadership at places that turned out to be dysfunctional. They are now what you call de-churched.

    So, I agree with everything you say about the church as a community and how we do not critique the individualism of our culture enough.

    but I feel for those (and even more so lay and volunteer leaders) who have thrown themselves into a church, and been abused by people who were critical of their leadership.

    Some of them still believe in Jesus, but they are not sure they believe the church any more, since they experienced the church behaving in such an abusive way.

  8. Hi All – what a fascinating thread.
    Please allow me to add another perspective that is somewhat underrepresented in this post:

    The Church, or community dimension of being a Christian, really comes into its own when we do *not* look at it as weekly support group or spiritual petrol station. What about the perspective where the Sunday gathering is all about giving thanks, a communal expression of gratefulness for all the bountiful gifts we receive every day, in every breath?

    Suddenly, even in a post christian society, we come into a dynamic that is not about me as individual — an my wants — but Us as community, trying to humbly respond to the great gifts we all received — undeservedly.


  9. Mary-Jane Konings

    I am in conversation with a number of ‘post-church’ people, some in the faith and some not, all with significant faith experience. I am struggling with the selfish approach of these people in their twenties and thirties. The church, all churches, are demonized as ‘toxic.’ That in itself is nothing new, Barth said something similar. But I can’t help thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with opting out of the visible gathering of the people of God when there is a choice. For those who are elderly or ill, fair enough. But more goes on in worship than we are aware of, and whatever happened to coming as an offering, to give. To judge worship by what we ‘get’ is flawed. It puts us at the centre. What matters in worship is what God is doing, and I hope to join in and participate in the life of God as I do that. For me, it is a matter of faith. Many times worship is a joyous blessing and I praise God for those times of refreshment. Sometimes it is hard work, and I praise God (through gritted teeth) for the tough times.
    Just a couple of thoughts.

  10. A Christian is a person whom sees their sin and knows on their own they will earn hell but is trusting Christ alone for their salvation. A Christian has been called by God and evidence of their salvation (as described in 1 John) becomes apparent in their life.

    Most people that call themselves Christian have never really understood the Gospel and many have never even heard the Gospel. Others are mislead by their cult and think their beliefs are Christian when they are far from it.

    I hope we can agree on what I have said so far, but your post also illustrates some fundamental differences in our theology. Church can be boring for someone that was baptized as a baby but never had saving faith. Not because the church is irrelevant or boring, but because the unregenerate do not understand the Gospel.

    “This is no excuse for allowing church to be boring or irrelevant.”
    What makes church irrelevant? I would say a lack of the Gospel makes a church irrelevant. Sure, we can apply God’s word to modern life, but we do not need to compromise. The measure of success of a church is not how many people are in it, but how well the church obeys God. Although it is possible to worship poorly, I would say most of the time people are bored or reject church because they were never of us.

    “We become part of Christ through baptism – not through something that we do to ourselves, but through something that God, through the Christian community, does to us.”
    I agree with you when you say that we become part of Christ through something of God. However, that something is God’s grace, not baptism. We are blessed with faith in Christ and shown His grace in our lives though the hearing of the Gospel (possibly from the Christian community as you put it).


  11. A Christian is someone who is aware of God’s Spirit in them. It’s someone who shares their life with their Father. As we become more and more aware of his nudgings and way of communication, we become more intimate with Him. That’s what it’s all about: our intimacy with God. “Church” is simply being with any person of any faith/no faith, and seeing God in them. Like Mother Teresa said, when she looked into the eyes of a diseased, destitute child, she could never turn them away because she saw God.

  12. When Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to all believers on Pentecost, the first thing that the believers did was to gather together in the temple. The church, worship, and as the Apostle’s Creed states – the communion of the saints (congregation of believers) is very important. As you said, there are a few people who can’t go to church, but there are more who are breaking the 3rd commandment by despising the Word of God by not wanting to go and hear it. That is a sin, and it is a sin that eventually can destroy their faith.

    What seems to be missing here is “what is worship.” I am a confessional conservative Lutheran (LCMS). Worship is not something that we do for God, but that He does for us. He comes to us, and through His Holy Spirit, feeds us and strengthens us through the preached Word and His divine Sacraments (baptism and Holy Communion). I have just started reading your blog and following you on Twitter, but the Liturgy itself is a gift from God because even our own responses to God in worship are HIS words, not ours. He feeds us through it, protects us through it. And while aspects of it have changed, it is a traditional form of gathering together to be fed by God’s Word that has existed in the tabernacle since before Christ.

    The teaching that worship is not our serving God but God serving us is called “The Divine Service.” It is a beautiful thing. It emphasizes that we come into our King’s presence to receive His mercy and His gifts. His Word is that gift in the mouth of the pastor, in the hymnody, in the proclamation of forgiveness, and the receiving of His body and blood.

    Luther taught that it is questionable whether or not someone was a Christian if he did not hunger for the gathering of the believers, the hearing of forgiveness, and being fed by Word and Sacrament. In the end, the final judgment is God’s, but the sheep should want to follow the Shepherd’s voice….and since the beginning of the Christian Church, Christ has created faith in the believer’s heart and drawn him into the congregation. It’s what the Holy Spirit does as described in the 3rd Article of the Apostle’s Creed:

    I believe in the Holy Spirit (who creates)
    The Holy Christian Church (which IS)
    The communion of the saints (where we receive)
    The forgiveness of sins (and because we are forgiven we also receive)
    The resurrection of the body
    and the Life Everlasting.


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