In many ways the current age is tending toward a post-Christian era. One indicator of this turn of affairs is the large number of those who have joined the Church Alumni Association (CAA). People who are part of the CAA have either quit the church or their participation in formal religious activities has taken a far backseat in their lives. This is not something new. Even at the dawn of the Christian era there were those who, for one reason or another, abandoned what we know historically as the traditional Christian community.1 Church leaders labeled such people apostates (Heb 6:4-6), but we do not know how these folk thought of themselves or what they thought of the traditional Christian communities they left behind, because they left no records. A few are even named; for example, Demas is mentioned positively as a companion of Paul (Col 4:14; Philemon 24), but he is also remembered negatively as having “forsaken” Paul and the Pauline church (2 Tim 4:16).2
The situation of the CAA raises the question: how does one maintain a connection to the Christian tradition when one no longer considers oneself a traditional Christian in terms of the fourth century confessions and creeds of the church, which are still universally used to define mainstream Christianity? Naturally, there is a prior question: why would one even want to stay connected to the traditional Christian community, when one acknowledges that one is no longer traditionally Christian in terms of the church’s confessions and creeds?
Pondering an answer to the “why” question leads me to three personal observations in defense of staying connected to the church. In my case the church is my heritage. I grew up in the church; it has played a major part in my adult life and forms the basis of who I am today. No one can completely escape their own history. I can no more shake the church out of my system than I can shake off my southern accent and Mississippi upbringing. Church, southern accent, and the Mississippi Delta in part define who I have become. For good or ill I will always be a Baptist “Delta boy,” although I have been exposed to strange and novel ideas, traveled a bit in the Western world, and lived for a spell in some exotic places.3 Even “progressive Christians” who, in their more extreme forms have abandoned traditional Christology and Theology, have remained traditional in terms of their ecclesiology—that is, they still hold on to the idea of the church as a positive social institution for housing their activities; however, they reorient the significance and meaning of the ordinances (baptism and Eucharist). In a sense progressive Christians are still a part of the ecclesiastical scene in society as churches that compete with traditional Christian forms of the church.
As a responsible citizen of these United States, I have an interest in seeing the traditional church succeed. For all its ills and imperfections, warts and blemishes it aims to be a positive force in human society. The Gospel of Matthew (5:13-14) cites Jesus as telling his followers “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Gospel of the Savior 1:4; compare Matt 5:13-14). Salt is a well-known preservative that enhances the flavors of the ingredients of food—it helps food taste more like itself. And light is essentially necessary for life in a world that becomes dark every 12 hours. This directive of Jesus is frequently translated into humanitarian service that is quite apart from their primary religious function. Who would not want to be associated in some way with an institution that aims for the betterment of human life, society, and culture, even if it often misses the mark? A major focus of many progressive churches is “justice in the social order”—something progressive Christians learned from the traditional Christianity from which they have emerged.
As an educator, what I find best about the church, however, is that as an institution it sets aside one day a week to ponder human values, ethics, and life’s eternal verities (if such there be).4 It encourages church members to reflect on societal issues and on what one might consider life’s “enduring mysteries” (that is to say: things beyond the material aspects of life). There is no other institution in society that makes such a focus a weekly event. To be sure, one can also find a similar focus in university classes in philosophy and religious studies but such classes end every quarter or semester—and not everyone is able to go to the university. The church, however, is open every week. Because of the iconic role of the Bible in Western culture, weekly Bible study provides the focus for reflecting on such issues.
What in your view is good about the church that you can express in non-confessional “secular” language?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1By this I mean to say the communities of those authors whose writings have found their way into the New Testament. There were nontraditional communities in the earliest period who claimed the term “Christian” for themselves, although they were very different in thought from the traditional communities—like the author of the Gospel of Philip for example.
2Three others are Hymenaus, Alexander, and Philetus (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 4:16).
3The term “Delta boy” was coined (so far as I know) by the Rev. Dr. Buddy Shurden, another Delta boy.