How did you become a Christian? I posed this question to my adult Sunday class and asked if any class members, when non-Christian, independently decided to visit a church and later joined as a believer? No hands were raised. People spoke about being raised a Christian, being asked by a friend or family member to come with them to church or marrying a Christian that introduced them to Christianity. It seems that community is the primary missional means of nurturing non-Christians into a life of faith.
I started my faith journey through my parent’s membership in Presbyterian churches. My father’s Presbyterian roots went back to the Scottish reformation with many generations of Presbyterian ancestors preceding him. My mother was raised in the church by her Methodist parents and I witnessed her faith through community service. My ancestors were Protestants, the founding religion of the American colonies. During the industrial revolution, Catholic and Jewish immigration expanded my country’s religious diversity. After the world wars of the 20th-century, people of other religions immigrated into the US which further diversified our country.
In 1985, five sociologists (Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton) published a national bestselling book on individualism titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2008). Religion individualism is a part of our American culture and the authors describe three conceptions of religious community: church, sect, and mysticism.
The church “enters into the world culturally and socially in order to influence it. … The church is seen as the living presence of Christ on earth … itself the fundamental sacrament from which all the sacraments are derived. The church has a temporal and even ontological priority over the individual.” (page 243) This is how I was raised, founded upon mainline Protestant and Catholic theology. The church’s role is to send the faithful into the secular world to transform it. Church members are part of a historic movement and shaped by the church through worship (hearing the Word), prayer, discipleship, and service. The church’s rituals and doctrines serve to remind individuals of their Judeo-Christian heritage. “Our ontological individualism finds it hard to comprehend the social realism of the church – the idea that the church is prior to individuals and not just the product of them.” (page 244) Church organizations are primarily hierarchical (bishops, executives, etc.) and connected (conferences, presbyteries, dioceses, etc.).
The second type, sect, “stands apart from the secular world, which it sees as too sinful to influence except from without.” (page 243) “The sect views a church as primarily a voluntary association of believers. … The sectarian church sees itself as the gathered elect and focusses on the purity of those within as opposed to the sinfulness of those without.” Many evangelical and conservative Protestant churches align with sect religious communities. “The strong sectarian emphasis on voluntarism and the equality of believers – the sect is anti-elitist and insists on the priesthood of all believers – is congenial to democratic forms of organization and congregational autonomy.” (page 244) Sect organizations are more egalitarian than the first type of religious community.
The third type is mysticism, or religious individualism, which focuses “on the spiritual discipline of the individual, however he or she relates to the world.” (page 243) “Mysticism is found most often among prosperous, well-educated people, perhaps one reason why it flourishes in our affluent society. Mysticism lacks any effective social discipline – which, as we noted, is present in the sect. … Many who sit in the pews of the churches and the sects are really religious individualists, though many more never go to church at all.” (page 246) Doctrine and community are less important than personal spiritual beliefs developed by the individual.
It is difficult for individuals to be placed fully into only one type of religious community. While I am a Methodist theologically and by membership, I don’t agree with all Methodist policies, which may partially type me as a mystic. I choose to belong to a community of faith that longs for the redemption of the world which aligns me primarily with the church type. “The church idea reminds us that in our independence we count on others and helps us see that a healthy, grown-up independence is one that admits to healthy grown-up dependence on others. Absolute independence is a false ideal. It delivers not the autonomy it promises but loneliness and vulnerability instead. Concomitantly, the church idea reminds us that authority need not be external and oppressive. It is something we can participate in.” (Page 247)