Are we still Christian if we don’t know who we are? There’s a basic premise inherent within our self-identification as Christians: we know things. Knowledge and the intellectual assent to this knowledge define our Christianity identity. We “know” Jesus as a Savior. We understand the precepts and teachings of the Gospel. In theory, they become part and parcel of how we live our lives. We know Jesus was born of a virgin, suffered and died on a cross under a man named Pontius Pilate, and three days later miraculously rose from the dead. Christians say, claim, pretend, and act like we know these things. Those who cannot or do not publically affirm such basic tenets of Christianity are not typically considered (or do not call themselves) Christian.
For young people, we send them through confirmation classes to gain the information needed to become educated believers. For adults, we create new member classes designed to familiarize people with both aspects of theology and denominational practice. When people present themselves for church membership, I ask if they will support the church through their “prayers, presence, gifts, support, and witness?” Those aren’t flippant ideas. They should have been well explained and given due time with ample discussion in classes and gatherings. As a pastor, I want people to take those words seriously.
What if you forget? I’m not talking about sin, backsliding, occasionally coming to church or generally not giving a damn. You get dementia, a traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, and your mind is no longer your own. It is as if you never existed. Are you still a Christian if you don’t know who you are? Are you still a Christian if you have no memory of attending church, Jesus, sin, salvation, or the Bible? After years of engaging with church in its many forms, you now believe your involvement with faith never happened. The memories are gone because the reality they once recalled no longer exists.
Some bright soul is going to tell me that Jesus is in Heaven keeping score. Aside from ignoring the obvious questions of human suffering as to why people get Alzheimer’s or dementia; Jesus knows who all the Christians are that might and do eventually succumb to this evil disease. Therefore, because they got in, at some point, whether as a child or adult, under the Alzheimer’s wire, they are saved. It doesn’t matter what they know now. They knew “it” at one time. Their name is on the list. The same bright soul will then tell me to shut up, stop asking these questions, and worry about my own soul. This is regardless of the reality that a person may now be unable to identify family members or have any recollection of any memory related to participating in organized religion.
How can someone with Alzheimer’s disease and no memory of Christian facts or making public proclamations of faith still be a considered a Christian? As counter-intuitive as this may seem, an individual’s actions (or words) do not make one a Christian. A Christian community (the church) confers Christian identity. This is clearly the model of earliest church. The church became the church when people came together. A family defines who a person is long after a person may have forgotten who they are. They remember when their loved ones are unable. Their challenge is to remember rightly. The community defines who I am; the body of Christ told me who I was long before I ever developed a sense of self. Theologically, this is called Baptism. Normal people call it living in community.
What could this mean for evangelism? What, if any distinction exists between church members who have forgotten all memory of ever attending church and those who do not attend church? I believe little or no. Might how we care for one group determine ways to open our doors to the other? We live in a world where most of our neighbors have no memory of what it means to be Christian in the best possible sense of the word. Our challenge is to tell the right stories and recall the memories which matter most. Do our communities speak words that are worth listening to? Are we preaching endless circles of individualistic, personal salvation? Have we made the church a collection of individuals with well-defined seating choices? Or are our churches places which have stopped evoking the “good old days” and started bringing out the best in people? Do our communities tell the stories of God’s people looking forward or backward? Are we prepared tell stories for people who aren’t even sure they’re listening? I hope so.