Summer and Winter Christians

This month a journal article of mine came out in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity. The title of the article is The Winter Experience of Faith. I'd like to walk you through the three figures in the article that illustrate my ideas. (Update: This work can now also be found in Chapter 6 of my book The Authenticity of Faith.)

Can Faith and Complaint Coexist?
Polar versus Circumplex Models of Faith (Figure 1)

Many Christian communities and believers work with a polar model when it comes to relating complaint to faith. Complaint toward God involves experiences of lament, protest, disappointment, frustration, anger, and doubt toward/about God. Unfortunately, many believers think that high levels of complaint are symptomatic of faith problems. Thus, according to this model, strong faith should involve less complaint.

In short, the polar model suggests that faith and complaint are antithetical impulses. Walter Brueggemann (1984, pp. 51-52, emphases in original) nicely describes this model and its problems in his book The Message of the Psalms:

It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control”…The point to be urged here is this: The use of these “psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith
The polar model of the faith/complaint relationship is displayed below on the left side of Figure 1:

In contrast to the polar model, a great deal of theological and psychological literature suggests the faith / complaint relationship may be circumplex. In this model, communion / engagement with God is orthogonal to complaint toward God. This circumplex communion / complaint model is presented to the right of the polar model in Figure 1. In this circumplex model complaint is not antithetical to active engagement with God (i.e., high communion). Rather, complaint can coexist with communion with God.

Although the commingling of communion and complaint might sound odd to some believers, strong students of the bible know that this experience has ample biblical support.

For example, most lament psalms mix complaint with communion. Brueggemann calls this the plea-to-praise movement. That is, the experience of lament mixes plea/complaint with praise/communion. Perhaps the best single bible verse that captures the communion/complaint interface is Job 13:15 (brackets are mine): Though he slay me [complaint], yet will I hope in him [communion].

The point here is that complaint is a legitimate experience of faith. Complaint can be a regular feature of faith. In fact, as Brueggemann suggests, complaint can be an act of bold faith.

Churches should attend, therefore, to their implicit theological models of the faith experience. Specifically, if the polar model is operative, complaint is diseased and must be attenuated or marginalized. Thus, complaint must not be admitted into the faith community. I fear many Christians are tacitly working with this model. By contrast, the richer circumplex model sees complaint as a regular feature of faith, an act of bold faith. Thus, in this model complaint is healthy and mature and should be allowed entrance to the communal space.

Summer and Winter Christians (Figure 2)

To aid in communication and description, it is helpful to label the quadrants of the circumplex model. These labels are provided in Figure 2:

The seasonal labels are borrowed from Martin Marty. Specifically, the Summer Christians are those who occupy the high communion/low complaint sector. That is, engagement with God is high and the experience is generally free of negativity. By contrast, the Winter Christian is equally engaged with God, yet complaint is a feature of the experience.

An important contrast exists between the Winter Christian and the Spiritual Critic. The difference involves degree of engagement. The Winter Christian is engaged with God, the Critic is not. This distinction is important for diagnostic purposes. That is, when we hear a person offer up a complaint about God or church we can ask, Is this person engaged with church and/or God? If so, then you have a Winter Christian. If not, you are hearing criticism by someone on the "outside," so to speak.

To finish the quadrants, the Disengaged Believer is someone who is nominally Christian but who is neither engaged nor complaining.

I've found these labels to be pastorally useful. First, the labels help people communicate in the church setting. In the church I attend, many people now use these labels to quickly communicate how they respond to or think about facets of church life. Just last night, when speaking to a friend about a recent church service that featured a lot of Winter themes, he said to me, "You know I'm a Winter Christian so I liked the service. My wife, the Summer Christian, didn't like it as much."

Second, these labels help smooth over potential conflicts and misperceptions. That is, the labels clearly signal that the church is heterogeneous, an issue often forgotten. That is, a one-size-fits-all worship style, preaching style, pastoral intervention, spiritual counsel, or bible class isn't going to work across the board. Winter Christians don't generally thrive in Summer-dominated churches and likewise for Summer Christians in Winter churches. I've seen Winter Christian comments completely derail a bible class lead by a Summer Christian teacher. And Summer Christian prayers can chill the hearts of Winter Christian participants. And all this is, to my mind, simply unfortunate.

To help with this, the use of the labels can aid us in understanding that diversity exists among us and pastoral efforts need to take that diversity into account.

Finally, the labels help normalize and endorse the diversity. The most powerful impact I've seen when I've shared this model is from the married couples where one person is Summer and the other is Winter. Before they married they knew each other to be people of faith (i.e., high communion). But little did they know how different they would be on the complaint dimension (i.e., Summer vs. Winter). Each person tended to think there was something "wrong" with the other. She thought his complaint was a sign of unfaith. (Recall the polar model?). He thought her lack of complaint was a sign of naiveté. But after hearing the model the couple comes to the realization that he is Winter and she is Summer and each are legitimate ways with God. In fact, each needs the other. No one is wrong. Both are right. So they can transition from trying to change each other to trying to learn from each other.

Ministering to Complaint (Figure 3)

The circumplex model also offers insight as to how we should manage complaint in the communal setting. Specifically, if the polar model is operative, complaint is diseased. Thus, it must be "answered," silenced, or marginalized. But as we have noted, this model is overly simplistic. To illustrate, look at Figure 3:

At Point A in Figure 3 let's imagine the emergence of complaint. If the church adopts the polar model approach--silence complaint--what happens? Well, the Winter believer feels alienated and marginalized, that her questions and doubts "don't belong" in church. This produces disengagement. That is, the person moves lower on the communion dimension toward Point B. That is, churches drive these believers away, creating spiritual critics who eventually walk away from faith and church.

But if you can't address the complaint directly what can you do? Well, the circumplex model offers a clear recommendation: Ignore the complaint dimension and work the communion dimension. How can we do that? Simple, allow the complaint to be expressed within the communal setting. A great example of this comes from Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis:
We sponsored a Doubt Night at our church awhile back. People were encouraged to write down whatever questions or doubts they had about God and Jesus and the Bible and faith and church. We had to get a large box to hold all of the scraps of paper…I have page after page of questions on my desk. Heaven and hell and suicide and the devil and God and love and rape—some very personal, some angry, some desperate, some very deep and philosophical. Most of my responses were about how we allow others to carry our burdens and how our real needs in life are not for more information but for loving community with other people on the journey.
The genius of Bell's Doubt Night is that it doesn't try to reduce complaint. Rather, it encourages complaint. The genius is that the focus is all on the communal dimension, allowing the complaint to be normalized and incorporated into the faith community. Doubt Nights like Bell's, by working the communion dimension, move the believer from Point A to Point C in Figure 3. This movement, although different from the Summer experience, is, as we have seen, a healthy and normal way with God. Thus the church saves a soul rather than chasing them out the door.

Some Concluding Personal Comments
I hope you find this model helpful. As I said, I'm a Winter Christian. And I'm married to a Summer Christian. Which made life interesting early in our marriage. Actually, over time, we've changed each other. So, in truth, Jana has made me more like an Autumn Christian and I've made her more Spring-like. It's been a good journey.

As I noted above, I've found these ideas to be helpful in church. The church class I teach regularly uses the labels "Summer Christian" and "Winter Christian" to quickly signal our different approaches to faith, God, and Scripture. The labels allow us to recognize each approach as legitimate. So, please share these ideas with your church. You might find them as helpful as I have.

I've also found that college students find the model helpful. When students come to me with faith issues with many I offer the label of Winter Christian (as in "Your struggles are fine. You're just a Winter Christian. Like me. Welcome to the club!"). Many (well, all to date) find his helpful. It allows them to own their struggles as a part of their faith experience. Further, it gives them permission to be different, to walk the walk as a Winter believer. I think I've saved a few souls with the simple term "Winter Christian."

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21 thoughts on “Summer and Winter Christians”

  1. Richard,

    Sadly, I know of good publishers but don't know a good publisher.

    Four observations. 1) You might also consider Spring and Autumn as categories that are as helpful as Winter and Summer (i.e. Myers-Briggs sort of variations with permutations) or you might even want to look at zodiac categories in some sort of heuristic way.

    2) Job is a perfect example of summer folk marginalizing a winter person--just stop your bitching and moaning, admit you are wrong, and get on with your life.

    3) Thomas is a prime example of a committed Winter believer.

    4) As to church music, a generalization: Summer (contemporary) and Winter (traditional) types don't like music that has a good beat and you can dance to it. Spring (ecstatic boogying) and Fall (tango and jazz)types do.


    George Cooper

  2. Doubt Night. What a wonderful idea.

    It is amazing how much of a complainer Jeremiah was. In fact he has been considered as the possible origin of some of those Psalms. For example, he told God he was sorry he had been born. He also said in ch 15

    18 Why is my pain unending
    and my wound grievous and incurable?
    Will you (GOD) be to me like a deceptive brook,
    like a spring that fails?

    Old J was honest with his feelings and he his reputation has not suffered.

  3. Does your model allow for people who live through the various seasons rather than staying in one continually? That would seem to be consistent with the very idea of seasons, and seems to fit my life, although it's true that I've had longer winters than many others I know.

  4. Personally, I don't really want to change seasons. Being from Colorado, I wish it were winter all year round. The same is true of my life at church.

  5. George,
    I like the idea of a fuller typology. Like a Myers-Briggs, it would be interesting to see how a quick measure of "type" could be used in a church setting.

    Regarding worship, I don't know why churches don't experiment with different styles more often. I mean even if pizza is my favorite food if I eat it everyday I habituate to it. Why don't worship planner think about habituation????

    Boy, I'd love to see more Doubt Nights. Paradoxically, I think we'd save lots of people with such nights.

    The model does need a dynamic component. Right now it is static. Personally, I think both situational and dispositional issues are in play. Many Summer Christians have "dark nights of the soul." But I also think there are some people who are tempermentally Winter in orientation.

    I'm with you. I'm biased toward the gifts of the Winter Christian. But I try, very hard, to love and respect my fellow Summer church members. And this can be hard at times. For example, a fellow Winter Christian friend and I had a moment recently after a Summer-oriented ACU professor prayed the following prayer after hurricane Katrina: "Lord, we are thankful for your powerful display in hurricane Katrina." We both, as if on cue, looked up from the prayer and locked eyes...

  6. I wonder how general the pattern is, and also how variable from time to time. Am I a "Summer Hindu", or a bit of a "Disengaged Believer [Hindu]" at the moment? But when I come across some forms of evangelism at times do I become a "Spiritual Critic [Christian]".

    The bottom right seems not as ideal a place to be as the top left or even the bottom left. Top left seems stronger when faced with situations that would put you bottom right. When faced with a challenge be strong as who you are, thinking of the positives.

    Then what of people who are quite solidly bottom right? Would a Christian see all atheists as such, or are there "Summer Atheists"? Or rather "Summer Humanists" if you count humanism's ideals as "High Communion" for these people? Does the pattern apply there too? In another post on this blog you talk of atheists who "do good for goodness sake, to make the world a better place". Maybe that is high communion for them.

    Maybe if I'm being "Disengaged Hindu" it's because I'm moving to "Summer Humanist" and focusing on goodness in collective humanity without reference to anything 'religious'. Both of these are on the left half, so retain the "summeryness". 'Religiousness' becomes harder to define though. Is it in the ritual, or the way of being? Perhaps for me the way of looking at that world that talks of a collective whole is still "Summer Hindu" even if I don't go to the temple for a month or so.

    So what is "level of communion"? It seems that "summer" and "winter" are in our outlook, but communion seems something else inside.

  7. In retrospect I'm not sure that the horizontal scale maps onto what I'd call "summery" and "wintery". If you describe it in terms of how you view Satan then it means you have to think in terms of Satan. Someone who doesn't have a Satan or equivalent can't blame that for the evils of the world. If "summery" is externalising all that is wrong, blaming some active external agent, rather than just tending towards a positive outlook then if you see world as a whole can you be summery?

    Thinking back to my previous comment, the Bhagavad Gita describes a worldview in which the god contains everything, good, bad. It is Arjuna's Vision in the middle, connected with the attitude of "Knowing" and described as a harder path than, say, Devotion or Selfless Service. Does this map instead onto what you call "Wintery"? Would the possibly more Summery devotional always have an external negative agent whatever the religion? Maybe. I can think of some for Hindus.

    Acceptance of the world as having good and bad doesn't seem to lead to what would be called a "wintery disposition" though, so maybe there is some initial confusion in the terms - for me anyway. "Not Externalising and Low Communion" could still be called "Spiritual Critic" and if you do externalise then "disengaged believer" sounds right. Maybe I misunderstood the graph first time.

  8. I love the distinctions Mr. Beck,

    although I do wonder how "accepting" God is of our complaints. On the one hand, the psalmist says very emphatically," I will pour out my complaint before him, before him I will tell my trouble (see 142:1-2)", yet the scriptural record also speaks of terrifying judgments that the God of Abraham pours out on the complaining Israelite community in the wilderness.

    For instance," Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp (Num.11:1)."

    Paul reflects on these judgments and warns the church at Corinth,"...Do not grumble, as some of them did-and were killed by the destroying angel. (1 Cor.10:10)"

    These words from Paul are a powerful sword against the doctrine that the church is somehow exempt from God's judgment. It is enough to bring one to a crisis of faith.

    Emerson Fast

  9. I'm an ACU student, and I find so much relief in what you've written.

    I've struggled with depression and an eating disorder, but beyond those "big issues," I'm a melancholy sort of person. I'm deeply engaged in my faith, I spent a lot of time in prayer, meditation, and community. However, I'm not a cheery Christian. The closer I get to God, the more questions and doubts I have. I've often felt that something was wrong with my faith because of those things.

    I enjoy reading all of your posts, but thank you especially for this one.

  10. "I think I've saved a few souls with the simple term 'Winter Christian'."

    I believe you may have gone some way towards saving mine. Thank you for this excellent post.

  11. Your analysis is missing a category. That is, one who has sincerely and diligently sought communion with God through prayer, spiritual discipline, and participation in the Church, and has never achieved any sense of communion whatsoever.

    After 35 years of that, one can only conclude that if God exists, He must not be faithful.

  12. A friend of mine forwarded your message -- we are both "winter Christians." Although I can "appreciate" summer Christians -- I think that the only way to growing close to God is by asking Him tough questions. It is in my darkest hours that I have wrestled it out with Him and grown the most -- because I have learned from Him through asking ...

  13. I just started following your blog about a year ago so I missed this post. Very useful and encouraging. As someone who fits in the Winter Christian slot married to a Summer... thank you. I'd be interested to hear if you have made any connection to the Introverted/Extroverted nature of people in these categories?

  14. I too just found this post since I am a new follower and perusing the archives. Martin Marty wrote a little book "A Cry of Absence" that helped me deal with my "winter personality". Apostatulo's comment particularly hit me and describes also my entire Christian life.

  15. Ok, because you had linked to this on your Psalm 88 post recently, I found this. Thanks very much for confirming something I knew to be true, but most people denied me of the joy I had in giving every bit of anguish to God.
    I struggle with depression quite often, but it's my prayer life that keeps me going. It's comforting to have someone to talk to that won't come back to you with shaming for not expressing joy (happiness, misnamed).

  16. When I first saw the title of this post, I was anticipating the post to go in the much-appreciated direction it did. But I didn't expect the assumption of "Summer Christian" and "Winter Christian" as lifelong categories, like personality types. I expected "Summer" and "Winter" to be explained as transient, well, seasons.

    While I tend more toward Winter and find comfort in acknowledging and contextualizing the tragedies of life, as "an act of bold faith" that they're not an unknown factor and that God can handle them, I certainly go through seasons of Summer as well. In my Anglican tradition, as well as in Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the liturgical calendar neatly accommodates the depth and breadth of Summer and Winter on a regular and repeating basis. It's good for us. It speaks to the fullness of Christian experience, and helps us grow.

  17. -60℃ here. Not sure I agree hold with the 'complaint' dimension. It's something more nuanced than that. I've always just accepted God and had no hard questions for him. My faith is unshakeable. Whatever God throws at me. Or the world. I never ask God why?

    It's the human dimension, Church, that I've had a problem with. Us tragic cruel fallen creatures make practicing my faith extremely difficult and painful. Even now I'm all but unchurched, although I can't leave it alone and keep trying. Perhaps I am simply meant to be a floating participant of all the Churches in the town where I live?

    I have no issues with God but anyone who knows me will know I'm no Summer Christian. Perhaps I really am unclassifiable?

  18. In an earlier article on this topic, the author did indeed state you might have a different faith experience at different times in your life.  I, too, love the liturgical calendar, helping us to experience our faith differently every year.

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