Seems everyone these days is talking about the new kind of Christianity. And I don’t mean just the Brian McLaren book. There’s a renewed excitement about being Christian, and particularly being Christian here and now.
What’s the big change? I hear more and more Christians asking one another what it means for them to be Christian. I asked a similar question as a teenager, when I was encouraged to question anyone and everyone about what they thought would happen when they died – would they spend eternity with Jesus or not? I was fishing for an answer that used similar language to my own adolescent theological perspective. Just claiming Christianity didn’t cut it; there was one right answer and many wrong ones, all of which had dire eternal ramifications.
In the new kind of Christianity there’s a genuine curiosity about what it means to be Christian. This kind of openness to differing perspectives has been a long time coming. Christians moved past sectarian denominational divides years ago. Nowadays, it’s fairly common to switch from a Baptist church to a Methodist or Mennonite congregation and perhaps back again. With the rise of Bible churches and non-denominational megachurches, denominational lines continued to blur.
As Christian identity trumped denominational affiliation, people no longer judge the state of one another’s eternal status simply by their congregational choice. Instead, people adopted new labels to define their ideas of true religion. There are Bible-believing Christians, born again Christians, social justice Christians, universalist Christians, and the list could go on. Some people, especially Facebook users, got creative and took up back-to-basics religious descriptions like “Jesus follower.”
With even seemingly benign labels come typecasts and ideas of who’s in and who’s out. The limitations of labels like “Bible-believing” and “social justice” insinuate that other Christians don’t believe in the Bible or behave in purposefully social unjust ways. Because Christianity is diverse both in the United States and even moreso worldwide, it’s easy to get into us v. them definitions about those who get what Christianity is really about, and those who don’t.
Part of the excitement about the new kind of Christianity is that we’re asked to move beyond definitions identifying certain kinds of Christianity to something that is both unifying and terrifyingly diverse. If Christ followers are no longer defined as Bible-believers or mainline or fringe, but just as Christian, then each of us has to listen to one another’s stories. It is no longer acceptable to merely draw conclusions based on preconceived notions that have become attached to Christian labels and categorizations.
There’s still an important place for systematic theology, no doubt. Christian biblical scholarship is a vital way of maintaining Christian tradition, even as theological specifics develop and evolve. But there’s more to being Christian than seminary theology. It may seem like a chicken-and-egg conundrum: what comes first, the Christian or the theology?
From what I can tell, the Christian comes first. If someone is changed and inspired by the life of Jesus, what could be more important? The theological details will come with time.
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