What do you call that other kind of believer?

by Kristin on April 1, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by lyng883

Every couple of months I can count on something to stress me out in the social media realm. For the past couple of weeks, it’s been the WeFollow Twitter directory.

To be included in the directory, all you have to do is sum up yourself in three words. Then you’ll be listed under those three categories, which will help people with similar interests find you on Twitter. It’s pretty straightforward. Plus, everyone’s doing it. (Cue: pubescent-style identity crisis.)

The first time I heard about WeFollow and clicked the link, I should have just added myself to the directory without a second thought, going with the first three terms that came to me: “writer,” “freelance,” and “mom.”

But I didn’t. I typed, deleted, typed again, deleted again, and generally over-thought it. Should I replace “writer” with “blogger?” Did one sound too pompous, and the other too common? Also, lot’s of people are moms, and I’m not a mommy blogger. Was I being mundane or maybe misleading?

The issue I struggled with most, though, was that I wanted to include a term that expresses my faith. Yes, I could have kept it straightforward, and just put “writer,” “freelance,” and “Christian.” Done.

I couldn’t do it, though. “Christian” doesn’t seem like the right term to use, even though, technically, it is. It’s a trigger that could cause a whole lot of almost everyone to instantly write me off.

It’s a problem from the other direction, too. Probably 90 percent of the people out there who are actually looking for Christians to follow on Twitter are bound to be sorely disappointed by me. I might even start getting hate-tweets. (It almost got to that point with one Obama-hating Christian who used to follow me. She flew off the handle when I referred to Dick Cheney as an asshole in a tweet. Clearly I wasn’t the kind of Christian she wanted me to be.)

In search of a new terminology

I started  brainstorming other options. “Spiritual” could work, but it has the potential of sounding like I own lots of crystals and possibly have some marijuana to help me get to That Special Place.

I like the term “emergent,” because many of the ideas being developed by the “emerging church” resonate with me. But it feels a bit like a party I stumbled upon—everyone’s nice and welcoming, but I feel kind of awkward because I know I don’t really belong. I don’t go to the conferences, and I only read some of the right books. I worry that I’ll be called out as a poser if I use “emergent.”

So what are the other possibilities? Faith? Believer? Missional? And then of course there are all of the individual denominations, none of which I associate myself with any more. I must have gone to WeFollow to register myself half a dozen times, each time getting caught up on that one, elusive term.

Labels are both dangerous and necessary, and the English language can be very limiting—particularly when you have to boil an idea all down to 140 characters, like on Twitter, or into a word, like on WeFollow.

With a bit more space and leeway, I’ve been slowly figuring out how to refer to my faith on my blog. My bio gets at the cheek dichotomy of who I am. I use phrases like “Christians Against Christians,” and “Not All Christians Are Like That.” I really want to bust the stereotypes, but when it comes to terminology I feel limited.

Post-evangelicals, recovering Pharisees, and unlikely disciples

Naturally, through this minor crisis, I’ve been really curious to see how other Christians try to sum up what kind of Christian they are. Here are some examples I’ve found on Twitter and on people’s blogs. Add your thoughts, ideas and findings to the list. And if you think I’m over-thinking this whole thing, and should just use the label “Christian,” by all means, please tell me!

- Michael Spencer, of InternetMonk.com, uses this for his bio when he writes for publications: “a postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality.”

- Kary Oberbrunner, author of the book “The Fine Line” uses the handle “Recovering Pharisee” on Twitter and his blog. Noel Heikkinen, a guy a went to high school with, who’s a pastor now, calls himself a “recovering hypocrit” on his website.

- Gavin Richardson, in a guest post at Life Without Pants, describes himself this way: “I serve a creative God & live life with my great wife Erin, two farting dogs Coe & Crimson, and anticipating ‘pellet’, our first child in the fall.” The tagline for his blog, Hit the Back Button to Move Forward, is “My life being a little monastic and a lot of geek.”

- Kevin Roose authored a book with the great title “The Unlikely Disciple.”

- Matthew Turner‘s blog name and Twitter handle, JesusNeedsNewPR, is genius, in my opinion. He’s also the author of the book “Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite A Holy Mess.”

And some bios people wrote for Twitter:

- @erinwarde: “delightfully irreverent feminist episcopalian aspirant from the south, with a passion for social justice & loving others.”

- @jbonewald: “presby pastor, blogger, dabbler at photography, infrequent biker, simply trying not to be one of ‘those’ christians.”

- @jimpalmer: “Nobody, Neighbor, Author, Triathlete, Friend of All People” (his blog is called Divine Nobodies: Shedding religion to find God)

- @angelaharms: Writer, editor, designer, family mama. Excited by the light of unconditional love and infinite grace.

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  • Steve Fridsma

    I find that the term “Christian” means too many different things to too many different people. I find that if I introduce myself that way, people pull away because it conjures up something bad. If I say I follow Jesus, or say I’m a “Jesus-follower”, people from either camp often want to learn more. And isn’t that really what “Christian” means originally, underneath all of the social and political and cultural assumptions that have now been heaped upon that term?

  • http://www.tjhirst.com/ TJ Hirst

    I chose spiritual, rather than LDS or even Christian for myself because I learn from conversations with people who are not just in my own faith. Now, I wonder what I’ve invited. Help? Can we change our three?

    I recommended Christian for you, and I think it still fits. I may be taking a risk here, but despite the desire you may have to distance yourself from the things you perceive about other Christians, some of it really may just be your perceptions and not wholly accurate. Just like many Christians don’t believe LDS members belive in Jesus Christ, which we do, those “stereotypical” Christians you’re avoiding may be just that–stereotypes.

    Face-to-face or computer to computer, I think most of us genuinely act Christ-like, and the example you relate is probabaly the exception. (Note. I’m not an Obama fan, but I’ve never flown off the handle. I just let those differences be differences and move on and enjoy your writing and take what I like from it.)

  • http://www.mckinneyoatescereal.wordpress.com Marie

    Is it wrong that I thought this was, um, hilarious? So much angst over something as tiny as a description word. I felt like I was going through it all with you. Not cool enough for the word ‘emergent’? Totally been there. I love this post.

    If only there was a word big enough to include all of us…

    And I love @angelaharms description “Excited by the light of unconditional love and infinite grace.”

  • Thea

    While words are important and powerful, it’s certainly possible to give them too much power. For a long time I wrestled with whether or not to call myself Christian, but when it came down to it, I realized that my reasons for doing so were mainly negative: I didn’t want to be one of “those” Christians, either.

    It’s unfortunate, though, when we describe ourselves primarily by what we’re not. I follow Christ, I love him, I’m grateful to bear his name, however beaten and misused it’s been, and I would much rather be known for being for him rather than against the rotten things that have been done in his name (and they are rotten, I agree, but he’s bigger than all of them).

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Steve, you’ve touched on my primary concern. I want to be able to just interact and talk with people, about all things—directly related to my faith or not. Curiosity and openness are great things to encourage in our interactions with others. (I’m also curious, now, if “Jesus-follower” is an option for the WeFollow directory. I don’t think two-word phrases are accepted, but maybe I could create the JesusFollower tag, and see if it sticks.)

    TJ, now look what I’ve gone and done—I’ve made YOU question one of the three WeFollow terms you chose so carefully. It’s an epidemic! I’m sorry! I think the reason you decided to go with “spiritual” makes a lot of sense. Also, I think you’re probably right about my perception being a bit off. I tend to project what I *imagine* people are thinking, into my interactions, which is never helpful. The more open I am, the more open they can be, even if they’re feeling slightly skeptical of me.

    Marie, it’s not wrong at all! It was hilarious to me as I was painfully laboring over these three little words to use for the WeFollow directory, and it was even more hilarious as I thought about it and wrote this post. Unfortunately, I don’t feel cool enough to claim “emergent.” You nailed it with this: “If only there was a word big enough to include all of us.” Love it.

    Thea, it’s like you know me or something! I *do* tend to give words too much power, and I long to define myself in the positive—by what I am rather than what I’m not. Finally, you really touched something basic in me by bringing the term “Christian” back to its root in Christ’s name like this: “I would much rather be known for being for him rather than against the rotten things that have been done in his name…” Amen!

  • http://www.blackwasp19.wordpress.com Blackwasp19

    Christian is an important word. It is not necessarily biblical that we call ourselves Christians (the first followers of Christ weren’t called so until the people of Antioch decided to do so ), but I don’t think it is worth trying to rename our faith. It seems utterly confusing. Just thinking about all of the possible titles out there is mind-boggling. That said, I do think having a sort of prefix is helpful to delineate between denominations and branches. An Evangelical-Christian is not a Mainline-Christian; however depending on who they are they may share a lot of similarities. The prefix can somewhat define the culture within the religion.

    I do think there is something generation with how we are trying to define ourselves. And I am afraid it is too rapped up in our individualistic culture.We have to find a name that best fits us. It all just seems very “me” focused.

    I also, don’t think it is proper to try to “not” be like “those other” Christians. I understand why, but for me I still struggle with justifying it. A couple reasons. (1) It makes one seem like they think they are doing it the right way. (2) It shows a great deal of disunity. (3) It assuming that “those other” Christians are a certain way. (4) I think we are to be defining who we are not who we are not.

    I also don’t think spiritual cuts it. Not just for Christians, but for any faith. Spiritual just seems to generic and broad. What does that mean? Satanic? Muslim? Buddhist? Rastafarian? Atheist (there are some spiritual atheists)?

    It will be interesting if we see Jerry Falwell, American Slave Owners, Martin Luther King Jr. Thomas A’ Kempis, Barack Obama, Niebuhr, and Ted Haggard in heaven. I believe some in that group had it more right than others, but ya know they are Christians in the end.

  • Steve Fridsma

    Just to clarify, I’m not ashamed of the word “Christian” and I proudly claim it along with millions of heroes of the faith over the centuries. I simply never lead with it to describe myself – and that has opened doors into spiritual conversations that I don’t think I’d have had if I had described myself as a Christian right off the bat.

    An interesting read on this is the book “Unchristian” by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Outside the 4 walls of the church (and perhaps even within), Christianity has a major image problem in North America. Only 15% of unchurched aged 16-25 has a positive view of the word “Christian”. Only 3% has a positive view of the word “Evangelical” and most commonly mistake the term to mean an intolerant, politically active conservative. It’s lost any meaning connection to Jesus. These words have been soured by politics, extremism, judgementalism, homophobia, legalism, and intolerance. But I find that people are still attracted to Jesus.

    Kristin: I’ll join you with tagging that line, which appears to be gaining adherence.

  • http://hollyhouse.blogspot.com Jennifer

    I tell you, this was painful in that “7th grade I left my homework on my bus and didn’t have time to brush my hair and my mom made me wear floods to school” kind of way. The funny thing about the issue you’ve clearly struck a nerve with is that it affects everyone…whether we admit it or not. Labels bind and ascribe, but there are times when a little label is necessary. If you say you are a Christian then it has to be a certain kind, or you risk alienating people. On the other hand if you don’t say Christian, are you denying the largest part of your self. I like that Blackwasp centers this problem with our individualistic society. i

    I would love to get to that place where I can be who Jesus called me to be and not care if it doesn’t look the way others think it should look. That is a true renewing of the mind. I think of Anne Lamott who writes about her journey with Jesus in a most unconventional way, in a way that many Bible Belt Believers would find shocking. I find it refreshing because her take is real and unfiltered; she has come to the place where she doesn’t apologize for being a human.

  • http://www.lifewithoutpants.com Matt Cheuvront

    How do you label yourself? That is such a difficult question to answer. I struggled with the same thing – and it’s funny because I started writing a blog based on the same “wefollow” dilemma. I think I labeled myself #blogger #entrepreneur #marketing – but looking back, that doesn’t describe me at all. Yes, I am a blogger, and yes I am in the field of marketing and (at least) have an entrepreneurial mind and business theory (not an actual entrepreneur myself) – but I’m so much more than that – at least, I hope I am, because a blogging entrepreneurial marketer sounds pretty empty. Labels on religion and faith are the same way – and we love to put labels on others, as believer, non believers, blasphemers, etc.

    What many people don’t realize is how narrowing labels really can be – we’re all so much more, even more than we give ourselves credit for – to sum it up in 140 characters, or three words, just doesn’t do us justice. Labels are great when you’re putting yourself in a category to get more twitter followers, but in real life, move away from putting a stamp of judgment on yourself and others.

    By the way – thanks for the shout to myself (and Gavin). I would love to hear your thoughts (and your reader’s thoughts) on the concept of Spirituality and Social Media.

  • Trina

    My first reaction: yes, overthinking this. Since you must pick three words to be part of that particular community, choose the three you are most proud of. Others will read into it what they will, such is life. You see, I winced at the use of mommy and mundane in the same paragraph. However I understand a plethora of perceptions exists surrounding mommy blogger. I enjoyed your presentation on the plethora of ways to be a Christian.

  • http://epinoiacafe.com Angela Harms

    Ok, that was just weird, getting to the bottom of the post and finding me there. I’m, like, famous! Well, a little bit.

    Anyway, yeah! It’s crazy. I meet people and I have to *not* talk about Jesus and stuff because they’ll think I’m nuts (gee, wonder why?).

    So I guess I’ll go over to wefollow and see how the jesusfollower tag is coming along. :)

  • http://www.howtomatter.com Jeb Dickerson

    The problem with this discussion is that it’s predicated on the idea that we ought to be concerned with how others perceive us. I understand the practicality of that concern, living in a society that rewards conformity, at least superficially. But true freedom (which, in my view, is the precursor to genuine happiness) won’t prevail until we find a way to render labels useless and defy the pressure we feel to please others at our own expense.

    I’m sorry KT, I don’t have any particular boxes to put you in. To me, you’re simply a thoughtful and engaging person who deserves my attention not because you’re a Christian or a Writer or a Mom. But because you’re searching for something, as am I, and in that effort, you shine a light by which I can see a little better.

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Love this.

    My first thought is that “labels” are FOR lumping us into groups we identify with, for lots of reasons. So a “label,” by nature is going to be limiting, impersonal and to some large or small degree, misleading and inappropriate. Sometimes labels are useful…I find the label “mixed media artist” helpful because it describes a whole gamut of things I create in all sorts of different mediums. Even “fabric artist” is a label I find useful; it implies that I sew but also clarifies that we’re not talking about patchwork potholders. The label “stay-at-home-mom” is another story. Technically, yes, I don’t physically work outside the home. But when I’m sitting here at my computer, selling things I’ve made, am I really “at home” in the sense that most people who see that term would assume? Nope. I don’t even have to go into the ways that labels like “Christian,” “Presbyterian” or “Conservative” describe a corner of who I am but actually are more misleading than descriptive when it comes to understanding who I AM.

    And I’d say, no, you’re not overthinking this! It’s a real dilemna. Do I want to be lumped in with a group about whom there are certain assumptions and associations? Sometimes…but I want to decide what that purpose is. Sometimes I want to be seen as outside of any artificial groupings since I almost always resist being part of these sorts of groupings and by nature am more about blowing the stereotypes about these groupings than I am about incorporating myself into them. On the other hand, maybe the labels “Christian,” “mom” and “blogger” put you in contact with people who, like you, love Jesus, have kids and write stuff in a public venue! :) And then, while in contact with those people, you can THEN be YOU, which is really, in the end, what you and I are both concerned about: real connections with real people.

    So….label yourself, I’d say! Sure people will misunderstand you. But what about those who get to know you through your label and are changed by coming into contact with an authentic “Christian,” “mom” and “blogger/writer?” Maybe we can blow the stereotypes by courageously, purposefully using them for a purpose.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Blackwasp19, you bring up some really interesting, important points. I agree—there’s a lot of focus on “me” and individuality, distinguishing ourselves rather than finding commonalities. This goes against everything that Jesus was for. There’s also the danger of saying (directly or indirectly) that those people I’m *not* like are wrong. I want to be careful not to suggest that, but at the same time, I think most people (believers and non-believers) have a far too narrow stereotype of Christianity. It’s not that I want to keep it narrow but slant it in a different direction. I want to knock out some walls and make the room bigger.

    Steve, thanks for jumping in, again. The way you describe it sounds very much like how I feel about the term “Christian,” and how/when to use it. Sounds like I need to pick up a copy of “Unchristian.”

    Jennifer, it’s true—the issue of labels and how we use them affects everyone. We are all being labeled at times, and we are all relying on labels at other times, whether we like it or not. You’ve summed up how I feel perfectly here: “I would love to get to that place where I can be who Jesus called me to be and not care if it doesn’t look the way others think it should look.”

    Matt, what you’re getting at is so funny and true. We can label ourselves, and the labels can be technically very accurate. But when we put them together as a way to define who we are, they fall so short and seem so shallow. (Btw, I really enjoyed Gavin’s post, and will be heading back over there to comment!)

    Trina, I can see why you winced at my use of the words “mommy” and “mundane” together. Sure, I’m just one of millions of moms in the world. It’s not very special, if we lump them together into one massive group. But each mom brings something unique to her family, and approaches mothering in a different way—for better or worse. It’s actually a great analogy to extend. I don’t try to label what kind of mom I am. I just focus on *being* the mom I am, and hope others can see it clearly through my actions.

  • http://www.jenx67.com jenx67

    Kristin, the word than continually works for me is

    Jesus.

    But, you won’t get many followers.

    And, honestly, neither does He.

  • http://epinoiacafe.com Angela Harms

    Kristin,

    I’ve been thinking more about all this angst around labels. I want them to just be a way to find people who are interested in the same things we are. I know they’re also a handle for people to grab on to if they want to judge, but then judgers will find a handle, regardless, won’t they?

    I went back and poked around at wefollow–turns out I had picked #buddhist, #design, & #emergent, though I’m not at all cool. Anyway, I noticed that there were a very few #jesusfollower but a whole bunch of #jesus. I like the idea of #jesus, though I know some of my wonderful #heathen friends might take offense.

    Ack! Now I’m thinking we should boycott #wefollow cuz it’s just too damn limiting.

    Angela (#emergent #heathen #unschooling #radical #mama with a penchant for #followingjesus toward an #anarchist sort of #love)
    (& Wow… where’s #editor #writer #designer? Am I in the wrong business?)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Angela, you’re famous in my world! In your second comment, you mentioned the research you did over at WeFollow. It’s funny, I thought of just using “Jesus,” but then I over-thought it (again) and didn’t want it to seem like I think I *am* Jesus. Sheesh! I had a good laugh over your overly-long WeFollow list. That’s just how complicated people are, isn’t it?

    Jeb, you’re absolutely right—we should all care less about what others think. I’m not saying we *ought* to be concerned with how others view us. I’m just saying that’s a reality for me. I can try to fight it, with varying degrees of success, but I still want people to truly see me and know me for who I am. When I suspect they don’t, it’s really hard for me to just let it go. I’m really glad, though, that you don’t put me into any particular boxes. Some people just get it, you know? :)

    Cheryl, you’ve outlined what’s useful and dangerous about labels, AND you’ve taken some of the pressure off of the situation. Thanks! The whole idea of blowing the stereotypes by first “using” them is wonderful: “what about those who get to know you through your label and are changed by coming into contact with an authentic “Christian,” “mom” and “blogger/writer?” That’s what I always hope for when people somehow end up at my blog. I just hope they don’t get turned off by some trigger term and leave before they take in some of the stories.

    jenx67, yeah, I’m thinking Jesus is the one to stick with. And you bring up an interesting point, perhaps inadvertently: It’s not about the numbers. I can honestly say that, with the whole WeFollow thing, I haven’t been trying to figure out which tags will attract the most followers. I simply want to be true to who I am—I want “truth in advertising,” so to speak. I do a lot of branding work for clients, and I always tell them that our task isn’t to determine who they *wish* they were, and then come up with a plan to make people believe it’s true. We’re trying to uncover who they *really* are, and how to make the most of that true character, in a cohesive, meaningful way. It sure isn’t usually easy, though.

  • http://TrackBack Joi T.

    Reading this post and the comments today (finally) was a wonderful challenging exercise in the entire concept of Christian identity vocabulary and just so fascinating for me because this entire issue of today’s Christians replacing old verbage with new, revised, updated phrases has been one of the deepest desires of my life as a Christian for all my adult years. I believe it is an essential practice for evangelizing 21st century seekers. I have continually presented this idea to pastors at our church over the past 20 years as possible great sermon material, without even one of them accepting the challenge of digging into these subjects the way you did on your blog with just the one word, “Christian.” I hope you have started a movement here, Kristin!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Joi, it’s so exciting to find out that this topic is deeply important to you! It must have rubbed off on me in some way. :) I’d love to hear about some of the other words/terms you think are problematic for seekers. Maybe I can write a series of posts, with your help.

  • http://oldpete66.blogspot.com Old Pete

    Just come here from Divine Nobodies.

    Let me encourage you to look at this from a different perspective.

    Consider “Christendom” and then ask yourself whether you are a Christian!

    For one description of Christendom see http://uk.geocities.com/oldpete66/christendom.html

    In a similar way consider how you might answer someone who says that they don’t believe in God. How about, “Tell me something about that God you don’t believe in; I might not believe in him either”

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Old Pete, I’m glad you came by. Your perspective is a really helpful, refreshing one. The thing I’m caught between, I guess, is finding a term that feels true to me, and who I am, while also communicating something clearly to others. In other words, I want to be accurate and also clear. That’s the tricky thing about new terms and less familiar ones, like “Christendom.” I really love this response, though: “Tell me something about that God you don’t believe in; I might not believe in him either.” That’s great.

  • Steve Fridsma

    Ron Martoia recently wrote a book, “Static”, that questions the degree of “Christianese” the church employs to the detriment of our mission in the world. It calls for a new lexicon that speaks to emerging generations, a lexicon that is closer to the original meanings of spiritual terms. I found it helpful to read about how Christian missionaries are often deservedly celebrated as innovative when they discover how to break though to a remote tribe by idiomatically translating scripture to place the human soul in the palm or throat, for example; and observes that certain attempts to do this for our own North American youth culture get accused of “selling out” or “watering down” the gospel.

    “Gospel” – now there’s a word that could use some examination and re-lexiconing!

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  • http://sugarjones.tv Sugar Jones

    I call myself “Jesus Freak” on Twitter, and on Facebook, I put “Love God’s People” under Religion.

    That whole 3-words thing killed it for me, too.

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