One of the great popular myths about religion seems to be that there is much more uniformity in thought and practice than actually is the case. In his book, “A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists,” Christian psychologist David Myers points to this as an example of the tendency to commit an “outgroup homogeneity bias.” As Myers points out, tongue in cheek, “Catholic liberation theology and jihadist beheadings are, um, a little different!”
More specifically, someone might believe that their experience within a particular Christian church or denomination somehow generalizes to their potential experiences across all Christian churches or denominations, that their encounter with one Christian somehow represents their potential encounters with all Christians, and that the information they gather from prominent cases of Christians in the media somehow extends to all of Christianity. These tendencies demonstrate what Myers noted above, basically an inaccurate stereotyping process, and typically would not reflect the considerable diversity within any religion, including Christianity.
In fact, sociologists of religion long have theorized that there are at least three major branches of Christianity that reflect substantially different beliefs and psychosocial climates: The Catholic Church, the Evangelical Protestant church, and the Mainline Protestant church. More than likely, committed members of these different traditions likely all would agree that they desire to “follow Jesus,” but likely would disagree in what that specifically meant in daily life and experience.
Much of this is demonstrated in Gabe Lyons’ outstanding book “The Next Christians.” As discussed by Lyons, one common way in which Christianity long has been practiced is through what he calls “cultural Christianity.” According to Lyons, “cultural Christians” often seek to blend with the mainstream culture and/or are committed to “good works” in ways that are admirable but that offers little in the way of distinction. This way of being Christian finds historical roots in the Catholic Church and Mainline Protestant denominations (for example, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian). A second common way in which Christianity often is practiced is through what Lyons calls “separatist Christianity.” In his framework, “separatist Christians” often isolate themselves from the broader culture as they pursue purity, integrity, and personal holiness; when they engage culture, they do so primarily through politics and attempts to evangelize. This way of being Christian tends to be much more common in Evangelical or certain non-denominational churches.
Another way in which religious stereotyping often may “miss the mark” is by failing to consider possible changes within a religion. Indeed, the history of religion is characterized by transformations in how individuals interpret and practice their faith. The history of Christianity, for instance, demonstrates the evolution of different movements and denominations that may have been difficult to predict before they occurred.
In “The Next Christians,” Lyons eloquently describes forces within Christianity that may contribute to a revitalized faith today. As Lyons points out, Christianity in the Western world is becoming increasingly unpopular. Referring to the survey research documented in his other book, “UnChristian,” Lyons notes that young people in the United States mostly associate Christians and Christianity with negative concepts, including “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “too political,” and “antihomosexual.”
In response, many Christians, especially many young Christians, are asking deep questions about what it means to follow Jesus in ways that reflect Jesus’ actual teachings and that make sense in a culture that has largely become disenfranchised from cultural and separatist Christianity. Lyons writes about how these “next Christians” seek to (1) restore what is broken (rather than being offended), (2) create culture that is whole and holy (rather than criticize it for not being so), (3) follow a calling to contribute meaningfully in their work (rather than simply being employed), (4) be grounded in practices that renew (rather than being distracted by cultural fads such as technology), (5) live in intentional community (rather than being isolated), and (6) practice civility as they work with others from different backgrounds to promote the “common good” (rather than being divisive).
Surely, many of these aspirations seem idealistic. This is another way in which religions may be distinguished. Clearly, some people associate religion more with the past. In doing so, however, they may fail to recognize that others may associate religion with change that could occur in the future, if only they tap into the best – not the worst – that their traditions may offer. As Shane Claiborne once said:
“We had all kinds of baggage from the church. . . recovering evangelicals and disenchanted Catholics. . . And we just said, ‘We’re going to stop complaining about the church that we’ve experienced and try to become the church that we dream of.'”