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What's the Least You Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

Posted: 01/22/11 08:20 PM ET

When I first met Danny, he said, "Preacher, you need to know that I'm an atheist. I don't believe the Bible. I don't like organized religion. And I can't stand self-righteous, judgmental Christians."

I liked him right away!

In spite of Danny's avowed atheism and my devout Christian beliefs, we became close friends. Over the next year Danny and I engaged in numerous conversations about faith. During that time Danny softened his stance on atheism. One day he announced with a laugh, "I've decided to upgrade from an atheist to an agnostic." Several months later Danny said, "I've had an epiphany. I realize that I don't reject Christianity. Instead, I reject the way that intolerant Christians package Christianity." A few weeks after that conversation, Danny said, "Martin, you've just about convinced me on this religion stuff. So I want to know--what's the least I can believe and still be a Christian?"

"What's the least I can believe and still be a Christian?" What a great question! Danny's provocative question prompted me to write a new book, using his question as the title. Part one of the book presents 10 things Christians don't need to believe. In short, Christians don't need to believe in closed-minded faith. For example, Christians don't need to believe that:

• God causes cancer, car wrecks and other catastrophes
• Good Christians don't doubt
• True Christians can't believe in evolution
• Woman can't be preachers and must submit to men
• God cares about saving souls but not saving trees
• Bad people will be "left behind" and then fry in hell
• Jews won't make it to heaven
• Everything in the Bible should be taken literally
• God loves straight people but not gay people
• It's OK for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious

On the other hand, there are things Christians do need to believe, which is the focus of part two of my book. They need to believe in Jesus -- his life, teachings, example, death and resurrection. A great benefit of these beliefs is that they provide promising answers to life's most profound questions including:

• Who is Jesus?
• What matters most?
• Am I accepted?
• Where is God?
• What brings fulfillment?
• What about suffering?
• Is there hope?
• Is the church still relevant?
• Who is the Holy Spirit?
• What is God's dream for the world?

Like Danny, many people in the 21st century hunger for an open-minded expression of Christian faith. That's especially true for young people. For example, in a recent episode of the popular television show Glee, several high school students explain why they are turned off by religion. From their perspective, the church is down on gays, women and science. When you add to that the arrogant and judgmental attitudes found in many religious-right churches, it's easy to see why people are repelled by religion. If the only faith options are fundamentalism or no religion, many people will opt for no religion. Thankfully, a better alternative exists -- vibrant, open-minded, grace-filled, gender-equal, life-giving, centrist, moderate/mainline faith. Promoting that kind of faith is my greatest passion in ministry. For example, I received the following e-mail a few weeks ago from a woman named Shelly:

...I was raised in a religious-right fundamentalist church. Suffice it to say that my experiences were such that by the time I finished college, I was totally estranged from religion. Twenty years later, I realized that I was neglecting an important part of my life, and I began searching for a church home. I attended a few churches and was so discouraged. I wondered whether it was possible to find a church where my children would not hear hate and intolerance preached. Then one day my family and I visited your congregation, and were filled with joy to find a church that embraces grace instead of judgment. So here we are, a year later, and I actually look forward to Sunday services each week. I feel God's presence in my life for the first time in many years, and I want to thank you for your part in this process...

In a nutshell, that e-mail explains why I wrote What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? I want people like Shelly to know that a viable alternative exists to arrogant, judgmental, closed-minded religion. I also wrote the book for moderate and mainline churches. We in the moderate/mainline tradition have a compelling faith story to tell. However, we need practical resources to better share that story. So I devised a seven-week congregational initiative based on the book that moderate and mainline churches can use to better tell their story.

Complete information about the book and congregational initiative can be found here.