Just before Christmas, the New York Times ran a column by Nick Kristof in which Mr. Kristof asked the question, “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?” The column offered a conversation between Mr. Kristof and the Rev. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a large “new start” church founded in 1989.
In the conversation between the two men, Kristof asked questions regarding how one defines “Christian,” wondering particularly about how doubt fits into the Christian faith. One question was spelled out as, “So where does that leave people like me? Am I a Christian? A Jesus follower? A secular Christian? Can I be a Christian while doubting the Resurrection?”
Rev. Keller’s response was, “I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length. But, in general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”
While this attempt at defining boundaries around who is, and who is not, a Christian is probably as old as Christianity itself, I found this recent attempt at definitions interesting. Rev. Keller is the pastor of a large, thriving church, so perhaps his point of view bears more weight. As the pastor of a small, struggling church, I have come to view definitions and boundaries differently.
In the more than a decade of serving Old South, I’ve learned that definitions are not only unhelpful, they can be damaging to the congregation and the individuals that are part of the congregation. We require a more expansive view, and a more inclusive attitude, or we would likely be not only smaller in number, but smaller in spirit as well.
While I don’t stray from preaching about the divinity of Jesus, or the Resurrection, I have become much less concerned with outlining definitions. Definitions create, in my humble opinion, problematic views regarding who’s “in” and who’s “out,” instead of inviting people into a community where we all—each of us and all of us together—engage in what it means to follow Christ.
At Old South, we are not so much a community that can provide neat definitions, even for those who feel quite comfortable in accepting “foundational” beliefs as Rev. Keller suggests. Instead, we are a community that views itself as part of the continually unfolding story of God and God’s people. And we offer invitation to others who wish to join us on the journey.
In the community that is Old South, we have those with doubts and questions. We have a couple of people who, when pressed, would label themselves “Unitarian.” We have still others with a clear sense of traditional Christian faith and belief. What holds us together as a church, as a “Christian” church, is the notion that we find the story of Jesus, and the concept of Jesus as Christ, compelling. We wish to walk this path, to engage in this journey, because there’s something about this story that is meaningful to us, and captures our imaginations. It is not so much about what we believe, but what draws us into something that is as much about certainty as it is about mystery.
We don’t define. Instead, we invite.
We may be small. We may be struggling. But, we are connected to each other, and to God, and to the unfolding story, a story in which we participate.
So, Mr. Kristof, and others like him who question and doubt, you are welcome at Old South. You are welcome if you find something compelling and/or meaningful in the story, if you feel drawn into the story not simply about Jesus, but about Christ. It is not about how we define the boundaries, but how we are willing to be defined by that compelling story and the One who joins along the way and beckons us ever forward.