“Don’t be a Lone Ranger Christian,” they said. I can’t remember who exactly, but more than one of the various pastors and preachers I’ve heard teaching that you can’t be a Christian on your own. ‘Get connected into a church,’ they said, or ‘get stuck into a church’, depending on denomination—each group having its own particular lexicon of phrasal verbs, so that some Christians stand on the word while others sit under it, and so that different ones at different times pray about, into, over or through things. They all seem to agree, though, about not being a Lone Ranger Christian—1 Corinthians 12:12-27 being the obviously relevant Bible passage.
Yet somehow I’ve been in a new city for months, decidedly not connected or stuck into a local church, feeling a little foolish, with the phrase ‘Don’t be a Lone Ranger Christian’ occasionally echoing round my head.
This accidental experiment in not going to church has yielded some interesting results. It turns out that the sun does not explode, nor do floods and earthquake strike, if you don’t go to church of a Sunday morning. Faith does not immediately crumble away. Adaptation is possible, to some extent: instead of churching on Sunday and fretting on Monday about Sunday’s accidental faux pas, you make the most of random conversations, exchanges on Facebook, and suchlike, wasting a lot less energy on social embarrassment.
The problem with churchless Christianity, in my experience, isn’t that you wake up one morning and find that you’re not a believer any more. The problem is just that it’s more boring. Even if I suddenly became amazingly disciplined in Bible reading, prayed much more often and figured out how to strum a guitar upwards as well as downwards, private worship would still only go so far. Working out a vision and purpose for your own life individually can feel less worthwhile than sharing a vision and purpose with others. You feel you could pray more confidently for cities and nations if you were doing it with other people. Christian life, it seems, would just be more fun and interesting done corporately, with people different to you.
The problem with that, of course, is that most people are really quite astoundingly different to you, so when you go to a new church you don’t find yourself suddenly Connected—you feel more like an alien, not knowing the language, not agreeing with one thing, not understanding another, not quite relating to another, not having a clue whether or how to try to chat to people when the meeting ends. You try to focus on God, but you also query the theology behind the elaborate offering routine, spot genitive plurals here and there, and wonder how long it took to sound-check such a large band. You remember that big established churches tend to be busy pursuing a vision in well-established ways, that no church will be exactly the way you’d like it to be, that joining any church will probably make your life more complicated rather than less, that none of all that is necessarily a reason not to try it, that this isn’t the first time you’ve wished God would shout down out of the clouds telling you what to do, and that shouting down out of the clouds doesn’t seem to be His customary practice.
Anyway, at some point during all this I realised I didn’t actually know what the Lone Ranger reference was all about, and looked it up on Wikipedia. This, as everyone else probably knows very well, is the Lone Ranger.
From the Wikipedia page I discovered that even the Lone Ranger wasn’t in fact entirely lone. He had his horse, for one thing. He also had a sidekick, Tonto. Apparently Tonto was originally created because a radio hero in particular needs someone to talk to, and “the portrayal of Tonto has been seen by some Native Americans and others as degrading”. Still, the church as an extensive network of mutual sidekickery in the fight against injustice is quite an attractive idea. I’m quite happy to be a Lone Ranger or a Tonto if we’re all kicking along together.
But Wikipedia has more to say about the Lone Ranger. Here’s the first of several “guidelines that embody who and what the Lone Ranger is”:
The Lone Ranger is never seen without his mask or a disguise.
The second is like it:
With emphasis on logic, The Lone Ranger is never captured or held for any length of time by lawmen, avoiding his being unmasked.
Was that what the pastors and preachers meant all the time? Was the point about the Lone Ranger not about church attendance, but about honesty, integrity, diversity and real relationships? How many people regularly attend church, but go masked? Even as I write, this strikes me as being standard preachers’ fare: the importance and challenge of being our real selves in church, not our church selves.
The reassuring point is that if there are lots of us, in and out of churches, in some danger of being lone rangers, then maybe we have quite a good chance, in and out of churches, of helping each other not to be.