At first glance, teen heartthrob Justin Bieber and tough-guy reality star Bear Grylls may not seem to have a lot in common, but two separate interviews last month reveal that the two publicly describe themselves as Christians sans "religion."
Neither Bieber nor Grylls attend church. Both seem more comfortable with the idea of personal faith and a personal Jesus than the biblical community-based vision of Christianity.
In a January interview with The Telegraph of London, Grylls said, "My faith isn't very churchy, it's a pretty personal, intimate thing and has been a huge source of strength in moments of life and death. At the heart of Christianity is the belief that we are loved and held and forgiven, and I try not to complicate my faith beyond that."
Similarly, Bieber told V Magazine, "I don't think I'm religious. I am spiritual. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I believe that He put me in this position. … But I don't consider myself religious. I haven't been to church in a long time, but I know I have a relationship with Him."
Bieber and Grylls seem to be taking a mainstream American way of approaching faith, one that fits the individualistic American ethos. It is all about forgiveness, inner faith, and a personal relationship rather than adhering to common religious rules and practices such as church attendance.
"Most Americans tend to see Christian faith as intensely personal," said Craig Hazen, a religion professor at Biola University. "Joining a community or congregation of believers is valuable only insofar as the group enhances the individual's inner, personal experience."
For these two public figures, distancing themselves from mainstream, church-attending believers may be, in their minds, a good PR move. Given the general negative perception of Bible-thumping Christians in politics and the media, many of their fans don't want to be associated with the church.
Other high-profile Christians celebrities seem to affirm their choice. In a 2010 interview with Relevant Magazine, actor Zachary Levi, a particularly outspoken Christian, said that he chose to worship at home with close friends rather than attend a local church in the Los Angeles area. He told Relevant that he feels this approach made worship services "very real, more about relationship and less about religion."
The approach has also garnered secular applause: V Magazine praises Bieber's thoughtfulness, and The Telegraph prefaces Grylls' answer with, "He is, as his involvement with the Scouts suggests, a Christian (even this he manages to make cool)." One could assume that it is his separation from the church and all its connotations that is the cool part.
The contemporary aversion to church membership is a common response to secular criticisms, but these high-profile Christians might be doing more harm than good. Now more than ever, America's youth need examples of people who live vibrant Christian lives in the public eye, and encourage them to do the same.
Stripping Christianity of its "religious" trappings in order to protect oneself from negative backlash is also likely to stunt the faith of those who do. There is a reason Christians have worshipped together publicly for as long as they've been able. We need each other in order to love Jesus well; we need teachers and leaders, and partners in the faith to stand alongside us as we walk the narrow road.
Bieber and Grylls are to be commended for their willingness to publicly identify themselves as Christians, but I'm afraid they'll find the way tough to tread alone, without the rest of Christ's body to stand beside them.