I work with 20-30 somethings who are not connected to a faith community. Many books published by denominational publishing houses are, well, nice for me to read but not particularly applicable to my work as a mission developer. Martin Thielen’s new book, however, is spot-on for those interested in the Christian faith but skeptical of its tenants.
In "What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian: A Guide to What Matters Most,” Thielen uses a conversational style to walk a seeker through what matters -- and what doesn’t. More a Christian appetizer than a main course, Thielen employs the sensitivity and seasoned story-telling of an experienced pastor.
The book is in two parts. Part one is “Ten Things Christians Don’t Need to Believe.” Topics Thielen includes tend to be extremes held by conservative Christians such as beliefs in a literal six-day creation story, that women cannot be preachers, and a “rapture” view of the end of the world. Part two is the flip-side, “Ten Things Christians Do Need to Believe.” Thielen uses the person of Jesus to organize this section as each chapter begins with Jesus -- Jesus’ Identity, Jesus’ Grace, Jesus’ Example, Jesus’ Death, etc.
As a pastor in the PC(USA), I found the book both approachable and perfectly congruent with my theology. Thielen dabbled in more conservative circles early in his career but is now Senior Pastor of Lebanon First United Methodist Church in Tennessee. The book would be appropriate for all mainline protestant denominations.
In the opening pages, Thielen tells the story of how over many months he mentored an atheist, who later turned agnostic, and after many meetings with Thielen, eventually professed faith in Christ. I took the book to be sort of a companion piece to such conversations with folks who are both skeptical of and curious about Christianity. As that, I think the book works quite well.
It left me lacking in some senses, however. First, I grew tired of Thielen’s use of stories to illustrate his points. After a few chapters I felt overcome with cute almost kitschy illustrations and wanting more meat, more willingness to take-on the historical and theological aspects of each chapter. Second, I know it’s difficult to address (especially considering Thielen’s intended audience may be completely unchurched) but I felt like the reliance of movie references and other people’s illustrative stories overshadowed some core theological claims of Christianity like, the Bible is the word of God, what is a creed, and that we are called to respond to God’s love. It’s hard to explain, but when reading, several times I felt more gooey than educated or convicted. I’m not the intended audience, however, so read on.
WJK Books has a handy study guide and suggested 7-week course to help congregations to enjoy the book together. It’s difficult to find a book that would work for an entire congregation to read and study together, so Thielen does well to fit the bill. As studies have shown, mainline Christians these days are increasingly Biblically illiterate and what once were flash points of the faith are becoming mere footnotes to feel good religion. What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian might serve for some as a helpful starting point for theological conversation. For more details and to buy a copy, check out it’s WJK page by clicking here.