Christianity’s new sense of “believe” and “behave”

Hansen Wendlandt Nederland Community Presbyterian Church

A fantastic recent Onion article was titled, “Local Church of Brainwashed Idiots Feeds Town’s Poor Every Week.” I don’t know how many brainwashed idiots we have in Nederland, but I do know that a lot of people up here love to support the Food Pantry. (Whether you are churchy or not, thanks especially to everyone who helped at the Stone Soup Fundraiser!)

I also see folks volunteering with programs for teens and children in need, and others working for improvements to housing opportunities, or for various peace projects near and far. Maybe some of them are less intelligent than they look, but I haven’t bothered to ask. I know still more people who get their hands dirty with flood recovery or fire mitigation. They have shovels and chainsaws, so let’s just agree that they are of sound heart and mind.

From about the 1910s to the 1990s, what you believed was a primary distinction for Christianity. Churches would align themselves based on fundamental propositions about God or Jesus or the Bible. People would measure each other as to whether they belonged in Heaven or Hell, by what sentences they could agree upon. That led to a lot of brainwashing and idiocy.

That attitude, thankfully, has been shrinking. In place of a “believe that” faith, Christians around the country are now leaning more and more toward “believe in” faith—that is, a faith that trusts, even in mystery, rather than a faith that needs to be right and expects you to agree. Where churches have often felt like judgmental and anti-intellectual places, more and more these days they are becoming places where folks can belong, before they decide what they believe.

At the same time, despite plenty of politicized headlines to the contrary, faith in Jesus (whatever that means) is becoming less about rules and moral purity, and more about living peacefully, treating neighbors with justice, and engaging in spiritual practices. Of course, churches have always cared about how to treat “the least of these,” but now outreach sensibility seems to matter more to Christian identity than whether or not someone believes that a snake talked to ancient people in a garden, or how they might believe in the power of an Easter resurrection.

Basically, hardcore sociologists will point out that the deepest trend within Christianity today, is that a new sense of behavior is taking shape, alongside a new sense of belief.

For some of you, that’s not your experience at all, and it sounds like a terrible trend. For others, you’ll believe it when you see it. Probably a few of you have been trying to tell Christians this stuff all along. And many of you wonder why this should matter at all to people outside the church. Here are four reasons why I think these shifts in behavior and belief are important to discerning rationalists and brainwashed idiots alike.

• This new sense of believe and behave jibes with a much less judgmental attitude. Only the Onion can manage to critique someone for serving well. And when Christians aren’t so stuck on lists of propositional beliefs, maybe non-Christians won’t have to hear those lists over and over.

• This new sense of believe is way more interesting. At Ned’s Community Presbyterian Church, we have people with backgrounds in Hinduism, Mormonism, Taoism, every flavor of Christianity imaginable, Buddhism, -isms I’ve never even heard of…. When I sit at a table with those sorts of folks, I’m fascinated in ways that I rarely am with a bunch of people who grew up doing faith like I did.

• This new sense of behave is way more fun. Even with good music and the liveliest sermons, who wants to trade a powder day for sitting inside? Instead, how about laughter with friends while helping someone? Door two, please.

• This new sense of behave fits with the ancient calling the church has to serve. One of the first things the early church did, right after Jesus died, was to arrange to pass out food to widows and orphans. Very soon, that role of server or “Deacon” became a formal position of more general service. Early deacons started the first hospitals. Early deacons helped migrants find their way in new cities. And eventually Deacons cared for anyone who was in need.

NCPC has a group of Deacons today. Part of their role is to help folks in this community, in all the sorts of ways that slip through the cracks of other organizations. Need help with diapers or a propane bill? In a bind for healthcare or with transportation? We can’t help everybody, but we believe—scratch that—we trust that our role is to serve where we can.