Like most people from suburban Oklahoma, I grew up going to church.
As a child, I was almost what you would call a “church boy.” I knew all the answers at Sunday school, behaved myself at children’s church, and read Bible stories at bedtime with my parents.
As I grew older, I began to feel myself being drawn to things that weren’t necessarily viewed positively by Christian culture. Things like rap music — and girls.
By the time I started high school, I had transformed into what some people call a “Sunday-and-Wednesday” Christian. At times I felt I was two different people: one person within the walls of the church and another outside the walls of the church.
But through the mentorship of my youth pastor, I began to understand that authentic Christian faith is lived out consistently and not only when it is convenient. This was the first big step in the development of my faith, grasping what it meant to live out my Christian belief all day every day.
It was a revolution for me that I could talk about Jesus Christ at lunchtime with my classmates or be a Christian example on the football field. And so my later high school years were filled with youth group social events, mission trips, FCA meetings and service projects.
I adjusted well to the college atmosphere, not caving in to the pressures and influences that cause some freshmen to lose their religious conviction.
But something still wasn’t right. Was that all there was to it?
I began questioning the suburban model of Christian faith. Go to church on Sunday, listen to a sermon, go to Bible study on Wednesday, maybe experience a little bit of “fellowship?”
There’s no way Christianity could be that easy. Surely Jesus had more in mind when he talked about taking up a cross and losing your life to find it.
My college semesters went by and I began questioning the motives and methods of all the churches and ministries I had been involved with. These were the very same groups that I had treasured only a few months or years previously.
My “revolution” of becoming more than just a Sunday-and-Wednesday Christian didn’t seem so revolutionary after all.
I was enjoying my classes more and more every semester, but I worried that I was losing my faith. I didn’t want to go to CRU anymore, or go to LifeChurch on Sunday nights, or be a part of a Bible study.
Was my college experience eroding my Christian belief?
For sure, my college experience was opening my eyes to new ways of expressing Christian faith. In studying history and sociology, I found two subjects to be the most disturbing: the early Christian Church and the African-American Civil Rights Movement. They disturbed me because these were people who were clearly Christians, and yet their lives looked nothing like mine.
Was I missing something that they had? They seemed radical, even revolutionary, when I compared them to myself and modern-day American Christians.
In a class called “Paul and the Early Church” taught by Mike Thompson, I was exposed to the history of the early Christian church. I was surprised to find it was very different from modern churches, in both form and function.
In the pre-Christian Roman world, Christian communities offered unparalleled status and security for women. In addition to presenting leadership opportunities to them, these communities were opposed to practices like the killing of unwanted female infants and divorce practices that favored men.
They also placed great emphasis on caring for poor people. Tertullian wrote that Christians spent most of their money caring for orphans, widows and the elderly. They lived, ate, prayed and suffered together with people forgotten and despised by Roman society.
These were social outcasts, people with which I had very little contact in my church experience growing up. It seems these Christian churches were intertwined with their world, not separated from it.
How did we get to a point where everyone we sit by at church looks and acts just like us? Where is the concern for the poor among modern American churches? Why do women not have the influence and leadership they had in the first century? These questions still haunt me.
Let’s fast-forward almost 2,000 years: the American South is “sweltering with the heat of injustice” in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many blacks have fled the southern states in hopes of carving out a living in the industrial cities of the North. These people, many of them churchgoers, begin protesting and agitating for equal rights, setting off a chain reaction of social upheavals that is collectively known as the Civil Rights Movement.
The essence of this movement appeals to American ideals, but also to Christian ideals. It is undeniable that this movement had its roots in the black Christian church, which was the only major social institution that blacks could fully control.
King himself was a deeply committed Christian and an ordained minister. The participants in this movement were caring for marginal people, were involved with their communities and ultimately shaped America into the land of freedom and opportunity that it is today. And all of this was drawn from their Christian faith.
So where is that spirit in today’s churches? Are we no longer concerned with standing up for justice and being on the side of the orphan and the widow?
To this day I am deeply bothered by the shallowness and lack of community involvement that seems to be present in suburban churches.
What I would soon realize was that the things I was studying in college were not eroding my Christian belief; they were refining it.
Learning about the world beyond suburban Oklahoma made the way I lived out my faith seem insignificant. I was at a point where I felt the way I had always done church was no longer good enough. But at the same time, I felt like there was no other way to be a Christian.
That would soon change.
In recent decades there has been a barely noticeable undercurrent in the steam of Christian thought: the so-called “New Monastic Community.” Also known as an “intentional-living community,” this approach to Christian faith is radically different from the mainstream in many ways.
Its adherents often live with or extremely close to people of low socioeconomic status. Oftentimes, these people are on the margins of society or racial minorities, and reconciliation between the races is often a goal of these groups.
They live very simply, sharing things in a communal way. They are concerned with turning desolate and dangerous ghettoes into harmonious communities. They may look and sound like a bunch of hippies, but they are deeply committed to Christian living.
Prayer, studying of the Bible and worship are a daily part of life. In some ways, they live in imitation of the earliest Christians.
The most well-known figure in today’s New Monastic movement is Shane Claiborne, author of “The Irresistible Revolution.”
My experience with one of these communities has been firsthand. A few years ago, my wife (who was my girlfriend at the time) was going to the Univerisity of Central Oklahoma and told me about a place in Oklahoma City called The Refuge.
She described it as a group of Christians who live in a downtown apartment complex that used to be an abandoned warehouse. These people are Christians who have gone out of their way to literally live in community with other Christians.
They go out into the neighborhoods and clean up street corners, beautify the landscape and seek out people who are homeless or struggling in the streets.
Through the process of simply cleaning up streets and lots, they have significantly reduced the crime and drug infestation that used to plague the area.
We decided that more of our Christian friends needed to see the way that these radical Christ-followers were living in community with each other and their neighbors. So I used my position as a Bible study leader at Campus Crusade for Christ to bring fellow students to The Refuge on weekends, helping them clean up neighborhoods.
After having spent all morning there, several of us went into deep discussion with the founder of The Refuge. We expressed our frustration with the shallowness of suburban churches and wondered if we had been “doing church” wrong our whole lives.
We were told that after spending time at The Refuge, a previous visitor had said, “I think I’ve seen The Church for the very first time.”
We were realizing that real Christianity isn’t the norm, the mainstream or what we think of when we hear the word “church.”
Christianity as Jesus taught it was revolutionary to the core, and these were truly revolutionary Christians. Eventually I came to the conclusion that while The Refuge isn’t flawless, this type of Christian living was much more in line with the teachings of the New Testament than anything I had experienced in my life.
Maybe our churches should be less like LifeChurch and more like The Refuge. And maybe our suburban churches need to be a little more revolutionary.
Evan Woodson is a history and sociology senior. He is also a football coach at Stillwater High School.