Columns, Community Voice

What’s in a name?

Chapter 5

Once upon a time, perhaps just a generation or two ago, you could ask the question, “What church do you go to?” with an expectation that there would be an answer. And the answer would most likely be drawn from a bank of familiar affiliations — Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian. …

Today, at a time when only 12 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 years identify with mainline Protestant denominations, and only four percent maintain meaningful relationship with a mainline congregation through regular worship, we have moved from asking, “What church do you go to?” to a practice of “Don’t ask – wait to be told,” or perhaps a postmodern question like “What has been your experience with religion?” And we have moved from multiple choice answers — A) Anglican, B) Baptist, C) Catholic— to essay-length responses narrating the twists and turns and nuanced views comprising people’s spiritual journeys.

Karis Thompson

Recently, I asked a diverse network of people of all ages how they label their religious views and why. Of the individuals who responded, no one gave a single-word response. Most of the individuals who held up a particular religious affiliation additionally wanted to identify as being open, inclusive, and engaged in the world. “I always tell people I’m an ELCA Lutheran — the kind that loves everyone.” Or, “I believe in engaging the surrounding world, and in having inclusive community, and being able to engage with a variety of ideas. This stems from my understanding of God’s grace.”

How can we begin to restore the label Christian so it once again witnesses to a God who indeed loves the whole world, so that it reflects how God loved us despite our undeserving?

One person, instead of identifying his religious views, offered, “I’m very reluctant to tell folks about my religious practice. Many are quick to judge. Also I feel that religion should not be worn on your sleeve, but should be part of your every breath and fiber.”

Some individuals, alternative to naming a specific religious affiliation, introduced stories and legacies to frame their religious identities: “We are the sum of those who have gone before us. The ancient roots of the baby in the bulrushes to Francis and Clare in Assisi to Bonhoeffer in Berlin. …” Others spoke of their religious experience as a relationship with a God who is love, or as a spiritual connection and interdependence with each other and with the world around us.

What does all this mean?

The paradox of the kingdoms

What does it mean for people to respond, “I’m Christian, but believe God loves everyone”? Or, “I’m Lutheran, but want to engage with the world”? Or, “I’m Catholic, but inclusive”? When did the Christian — or Lutheran or Catholic or Baptist — label start representing something other than a God who loves everyone, or a call to be in relationship with the world, or the provocative unconditional inclusiveness that is grace?

What have we done to the label of Christian — and to the name of Christ — that we have to now assume that Christian — or any of its denominational derivatives — would imply the converse of love or present a dichotomy of us/them or constitute a membership conditioned by having a right or righteous enough identity?

When did we stop understanding the church as the body of Christ, the people who recklessly pursued whoever we might least welcome into our midst? How can we begin to restore the label Christian so it once again witnesses to a God who indeed loves the whole world, so that it reflects how God loved us despite our undeserving?

Perhaps we can begin to revive the Christian identity by practicing what we preach — the love God first showed us. Jesus, with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion, told them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:24-35).

Karis Thompson began working as a community organizer with The Project F-M, a vision + venture to cultivate a 21st century faith community in the Fargo-Moorhead context, in September 2009. Her column will appear every other month in the Metro Lutheran and share the stories and questions of the evolving faith community connected through The Project F-M. Prior to this role, Karis worked with Redeemer Center for Life, a holistic community-based nonprofit founded by Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis.

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