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Summer Christians, Winter Christians and the Narrative of Injury

2011 January 11
by Mike

Forget questions about worship style.

Lurking behind those questions is something much more fundamental: our congregations have a mixture of summer Christians and winter Christians.

Summer Christians believe — know! — that God is still doing great things. They have regular reports of what God is doing, what God has taught them, what God has “put on my heart.” They worry about the deistic tendencies they see of others who don’t share their perspective. Faith makes sense, the world works pretty much like they’d expect. They have stories of amazing ways God has healed, provided money, sent specific guidance, etc. They want an upbeat worship style that reflects the joyous news that God is already alive in the world.

Winter Christians believe that God is God. But they often walk in doubt and mystery. They feel like they’re not “in on” all the amazing stuff people say is happening to them. They don’t hear regularly from God. The problem of evil and suffering seems vexing. Their observation is that people with faith are healed at just about the exact same rate as those who have no faith. They read the dark journal of Mother Teresa, well up with tears, and nod. They prefer a worship style that affirms the gospel, the creed, the central beliefs, while recognizing the strong dose of “not yet” that we currently experience as we groan and wait.

Quite often these believers can hardly discuss the issue because they’re working from what James Davison Hunter calls a “narrative of injury.”

Summer Christians have been injured by their experience of being around people who are functionally “Word only.” While most have moved intellectually beyond that incredibly unbiblical concept (that God works only in and through scripture), some are still there functionally. Those who have been more open to God’s guidance have been injured — labelled as charismatics, told they must not care about scripture, shoved to the margins.

Winter Christians have been injured by their experience of feeling like you must believe in a miracle-a-minute to be a real — REAL! — believer. They recognize that there are people sniffing out the traces of deism everywhere, marking and warning that they don’t really believe in a living, active God. They get the feeling that people wish they just wouldn’t bother coming to the assembly if they aren’t joyful and confident that God is going to do something big. Big!

What would it mean for us to live together in peace? What if . . .

Winter Christians prayed for their summer brothers and sisters, willingly listened to their confidence in God, decided to assume the best about their spiritual journey, refused to label them, and entered into their expressions of worship (for the sake of the other)?

Summer Christians prayed for their winter brothers and sisters, willingly listened to their questions, decided to assume the best about their spiritual journey, refused to label them, and entered into their expressions of worship (for the sake of the other)?

48 Responses leave one →
  1. January 11, 2011

    [Full disclosure (as if you can’t tell): I’m a winter Christian. That was quite a challenge during 28 years of preaching where so many believers wanted more confidence, more testimony to God’s healings…. When I preached, I wasn’t looking for loud “amens” but for quiet recognitions of connection. I sought to point to hints, clues, and mysteries rather than to proofs. The deepest moments of worship for me tend to be the praying of the Lord’s Prayer and the reading of scripture. If we sing “Be Still My Soul,” I’m ecstatic. I was blessed to serve among incredibly generous and long-suffering people!]

  2. Debbie permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Mike, did you get this from Professor Beck at ACU? Or were these terms that were already in cyberspace. I am, too, a winter Christian. Summer Christians, quite frankly, drive me nuts and I know I drive them nuts. But we complement each other; we need each other. Also, each perspective seems to be tied to certain spiritual gifts. For example, most of my winter Christian friends and I have the gift of discernment and teaching/leading while most of our summer Christian friends have the gifts of mercy and encouragement. Obviously it’s not a one-to-one correlation, but there are certainly trends. I would be curious to know how many pastors are winter Christians. I would guess that many of them are. If you haven’t read Professor Beck’s take on Winter/Summer Christians, you’ll find it here:

  3. January 11, 2011

    I don’t necessarily think (as I have never heard the terms “summer Christian” and “winter Christian” before) that there’s such a sharp dividing line between summer and winter Christians. I would theorize that we’re all, to some degree, spring or autumn Christians. Sometimes we see the hand of God, and others we become frustrated at His silences.

    (By my own definition, I’m a very late autumn Christian. And I wrote most of this before I clicked Debbie’s link, if that helps explain where I’m coming from.)

  4. January 11, 2011

    40 below here. I feel closest to God surrounded by the candlelight and ancient words of an Episcopalian compline service, or when U2 is in my iPod. The “happy clappy” music at my own church just doesn’t speak to me. But it does speak to others, and I’m happy for them.

  5. January 11, 2011

    I don’t think the labels are widely used (yet!).

    The labels didn’t originate with me. They are used by Martin Marty in his book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart. Marty’s use of these terms was pointed out to me by Darryl Tippens.

    Terminology aside, Mike’s application of Hunter’s work to the Summer/Winter divide in the church is both astute and important.

  6. Jamey W. permalink
    January 11, 2011


    I really like the summer/winter metaphor. Words like apophatic and kataphatic sound so stuffy and removed from our experiences. This metaphor provides a poignant way of expressing a very real division among Christians in the way we understand how God works. And you are absolutely right to see this issue as the deeper problem under the surface of “worship wars.” Thanks for sharing. I plan to use this metaphor in the future.

  7. January 11, 2011

    Don’t know what kind of Christian I am. I believe God is active in the world, but mostly through His people. I rarely if ever see or hear of healings or signs or miracles or wonders. Not sure I would recognize one if I did, or zccept it as such.

    But I see my church family gather to nurture the new marriages, bless the babies, rejoice with the triumphant, and weep with the mourning. (Fourteen members and member families lost loved ones over the holiday, including a 92-year-old charter member and a 35-year-old husband and dad of three.) I see them give to the poor, feeding and clothing and sheltering them in this blustery sub-freezing weather. I see them going and coming back to encourage missionaries and lend medical skill to short-term missions. I see them teaching and encouraging each other, worshiping God together, dining at tables where Christ is welcome – whether His Supper is being served or not – and I have to believe that some sort of miracles are continuing to happen to bind this family together in peace. It’s my home.

    And it is enough for me.

  8. Ben G permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Hey Mike, a former student here.  I appreciate this post as it reassures me that I am not alone in my “winterness”. Thank you very much.

  9. January 11, 2011

    Debbie – I got the terms from my dear friend, Darryl Tippens. It has been common lingo in our somewhat wintery covenant group since the mid-90’s. I love your description of how you and your friends complement one another. Bingo!

  10. Coping permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Winter. (Oh, we’re not voting?)

  11. Jim permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Hmmmm… I’m guessing at Spring here. I’m ready to move out of the winter I was raised in, but not fully ready for summer. But I sense that I’m racing towards summer with all that I am.

    And I see lots of work to be done, whether in the form of planting and watering or pruning and weeding. But I want to plant and water in new gardens, while pruning and weeding from the old existing ones.

    That’s where I would place my faith, in my own little world, as an individual. As a worshiper, I’m completely Summer! I tolerate a certain amount of winter, but I tire of it quickly, too. I want to melt it away quickly and get on to summer again.

    But when a worship leader, more than willing to go back to winter for the sake of the congregation and its needs. The last two weeks have been the most starkly summer and then winter that I have ever done probably. It takes all kinds, and sometimes, we really are best when we become all things to all people. Do Winters allow for that? 😉

  12. January 11, 2011

    It’s hard for this Winter Christian to follow through on his deeply seated wish to become a Summer Christian and experience the joy and abandon that seems to characterize that walk with Jesus. The biggest impediment, at the moment, seems to be the Summertime church leaders who, as worship leaders, drive the congregation with a whip toward the expressive, and as preachers with CEO responsibility, appear to perceive every single corporate assembly as THE day when breakthrough and healing occur…without any objective evidence to show for such a claim.


  13. Trent permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Thank you, thank you, qb. You said it.

    Most assemblies I visit don’t model this kind of generosity of spirit Mike calls for.

    THIS is a great day! THIS is a great church! God is doing amazing things in THIS church! THIS is going to be an amazing day! If you didn’t hear last week’s sermon, you need to because it’ll change your life! There is fire here! We’re going to lift the lid today! We’re going to experience healing today! God really showed up today! Ain’t God good? Isn’t this video funny? Isn’t this band hot? Isn’t our offering impressive? (Of course, we want to humbly mention as a PS that this isn’t about us but about God. I can’t point that out with laughing.)

  14. January 11, 2011

    *hanging head in recognition and agreement*

    I wonder how much of this is traceable to (a) evangelism-oriented worship “experiences” as a “culturally relevant” draw for the community – Summer – vs. (b) fellowship-oriented assemblies with more of a “go and be among them in all of their humanness” missionality – Winter. Not sure, just tossing it out there for a nibble.


  15. January 11, 2011

    Why do we feel the need to label each other? Why do we need to focus on what we don’t have in common? Is this what God asked us to do? Is this how we treat each other in our families? The gospel is a simple message, the bible is our only “measuring tool” we should be using. Our responses to God are as varied as the number of people represented in our assemblies. Our expressions of our love and devotion to God and others should be Spirit guided. Now there’s a topic our “modern” Christians should be focusing on. We may have to stand before our Father one day and try to explain why we felt the need to try to come up with new buzz words constantly. Gods words are certainly enough. Bottom line “love one another just as Christ has loved you”.

  16. Joni Thomas permalink
    January 11, 2011

    I like the terminology and labeling isn’t all bad! Labeling to accuse or attack is never good nor do I think that’s the point in Mike’s musings. Labeling with vocabulary words enables us to try and talk about a slippery topic using a common language. But I’m a Winter, so word choice is a big deal to me:)

  17. Jim permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Wow, qb and Trent. When you put it that way, I’m as winter as it gets.

    Everything is relative. Until you get really extreme. Then someone will push things even further and make…

    Ah, you know what I mean.

    And to Edy Winter… er… Wenner –

    😉 (Sorry, I just had to.)

  18. January 11, 2011


    You hit a grand-slam with this post.

    I loved your first comment too because it resonates with me. I used to be a summer Christian then grief smacked me in the face and I became a winter Christian. “Be Still, My Soul” is a hymn I listen to weekly on my I-Pod, Psalms like 42, 43, 77, 142 still speak the words my heart is muttering. Yet there are more and more days where I feel like a summer Christian until… Until I hear someone speak of God’s healing. I believe God does and praise him for it but I am also struck with that unanswerable question, “why then did he not heal our children?” And then the winter Christian appears.

    Grace and Peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  19. January 11, 2011

    On another note, I do see God at work and am trying to see God at work even more in everyday life…to celebrate that. So as a Preacher, I do try and lead a congregation to see God at work and celebrate that. At the same time, I do remind the congregation every once in a while that some times God’s only activity seems to be silence.

    Grace and Peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  20. January 11, 2011

    This is fascinating. The dialog among the comments as well as the original thoughts and ideas in the post. What is most fascinating is that, once again, I fall somewhere between. A spring or autumn as was suggested. Which is typical of me: Anytime I do a brain dominance test, I am neither right-brained nor left-brained. I am no-brained. Some call me balanced, but they obviously don’t know me…

  21. January 12, 2011

    Josh Graves recently blogged about a miracle written about in, I believe, a book he had just read. Whenever I read stuff like that I have a mixture of emotions. I always wonder why something like that has never once happened to me. I also find myself wishing for just a single experience that I could, with confidence, call a true blue miracle. In the end I know that has never been a part of my life I find myself wondering what about Christianity is real. For me I always end up experiencing the reality of God through the actions of his people on this earth. That has become enough for me. Just to know that Christianity when lived out daily in a person’s life works is a powerful testimony for my faith.

  22. January 12, 2011

    Reflecting on the sermons laid out in the OT, qb wonders how one would classify Peter, Stephen, and Paul…and Jesus. The evidence suggests…

  23. Eric Brown permalink
    January 12, 2011

    Came across this quote from N.T. Wright this morning:
    Some people are allowed remarkable experiences, perhaps (we can’t always tell) because they are going to have to go into difficult situations and need to know very directly just how dramatically powerful and life transforming God can be. Other people have to work in quiet and patient ways and not rely on a sudden burst of extra power to fix all the problems which in fact need a much more steady, and perhaps much deeper, work. There is no room for pride or jealousy in a well-ordered fellowship, where everybody is as delighted with the gifts given to others as with those given to themselves. (Wright, Acts for Everyone, pg. 24)

  24. Laura Oldenburg permalink
    January 12, 2011

    I think you are more summer than you realize. When we started at Highland it was right after you lost Megan. I saw the “miracle’ in you and Diane over the next 12 years. A miracle of deepened faith, sharing of your truth in expressing your feelings of grief, loss and questions. The trust you had then that no matter how horrible was your loss God was big enough to hear all your doubts and questions. Through this honesty and willingness to share it with us, your congregation, you built my trust and faith. God is the God of miracles, just not what I used to recognize as such. Thanks for this post and all the ones to come which make my head think and my heart turn to Jesus again and again.

  25. Eddy permalink
    January 12, 2011

    So praying “Kingdom Come” is a cry for Global Warming? 🙂
    I’m a ground hog trying to figure out when my winter will end.

  26. January 12, 2011

    qb – Great question!

    Eric – Wonderful quote! (How did I miss an N. T. Wright quote for this post?)

    Laura – Thank you. As I said, I got to minister among a very generous group of people.

    Eddy – Behold. February 2 is almost here! Easter is around the corner. Keep your eyes wide open!

  27. January 12, 2011

    I’m a winter Christian who’s praying for the everlasting summer of the Kingdom.

  28. January 12, 2011

    i am a winter christian as well, I have heard the terms before but am glad to have more info to read on them.

    I really enjoyed Adam McHugh’s book in Introverts in the church. A lot of the comments here also seem to fall along an introvert/extrovert dichotomy, as well.
    although I am not sure that’s the same thing as summer/winter.

  29. Amy Boone permalink
    January 12, 2011

    Awesome. Love this. I am with Sarah… among the no brainers! 😉 I am more of an in between person. I’m not the description of summer by a long shot, but don’t always fit with the wintery bunch. Good stuff, I say!

  30. January 12, 2011

    Well – like politics (cringe) – I guess I’m some of both, and all of none. Love upbeat songs, love to clap and hear and partake in loud singing, but squirm at super-duper testimonials. Can get sleepy or deeply introspective during slow music and somber preaching, but love saying the Lord’s Prayer every week.

  31. January 12, 2011

    While I think it is helpful to self-identify as “Summer” or “Winter” (or something in between) I’d hate for us to lose sight of the main point of Mike’s post: Narratives of injury and how we use those against each other in the church.

    That is, after after we finish sorting ourselves (a relatively fun activity) how have we stigmatized those who are different from us? How have we tried to marginalize them in our churches?

    Those questions are much less fun to contemplate…

  32. January 13, 2011

    That’s a lot harder, to be sure. As a start, qb’d suggest that, by default, we’re trying to solve the problem by self-segregating along the lines of macrophenomena like worship styles. That is obviously short of the mark by a long shot. At its best, it’s a sort of benign tolerance.

    Where that is not happening, though, the situation appears to be this: there is a dominant summerness or winterness in most congregations, so the greatest opportunity for marginalization – and therefore for its antidote(s) – resides with those sharing the dominant ‘ness, and especially with those who presume to lead in establishing and perpetuating that ‘ness.

    (BTW, qb wrote “greatest,” not “only.”)

    In any event, the only way qb got yanked out of his erstwhile theological myopia was to be forced into a body of literature outside his zone: John and Trevor assigned Wayne Meeks, and the die was cast. Perhaps that’s a parable for the kind of change you’re after in this “seasonal” psychological context, Richard?


  33. January 13, 2011

    Of course, that doesn’t deal with the stickier, inner problem: the development of contempt and bitterness within the wounded heart. Anybody who’s interested in the geography of that problem, qb can draw a pretty detailed map.


  34. January 13, 2011

    Wayne Meeks will do it every time — to say nothing of Richard Hays, Luke T. Johnson, Barbara Brown Taylor, the (former) Bishop of Durham, etc.

  35. Kathy permalink
    January 13, 2011

    I’m called Christian because I believe in and follow the Christ. Like many here, if I must be qualified or labeled I’d also be a mixture of the four seasons, also am an absolute optimist. My trust in God’s promises when grief hits so heavily it absolutely takes away all breath, replaced with a gasping almost touching death inability to breathe. But when breath returns I’m so joyful and trusting in God’s promises that my loved one, and believer is with Him and that’s where He will take me when it’s my hour to depart, to die to this world’s life.
    It would be difficult for me to complain about a worship leader’s choice of gleeful or meditative music, rather I’d hope we look around us and truly worship with those that surround us, be it clapping, hands in air, or heads bowed in deep meditation. I really don’t care which and find the Spirit touches me with that day’s summer or winter worship.

    One of the reasons I love Highland so much is the co-mingling of “Shout for joy to the LORD” and the “Be still and know I am God” moments.
    And Mike, I’m inclined to agree with Laura. You have expressed moments of giggly joy and those of deep, quiet worship and preaching. I love the joyful moments in you and so admire your deep, quiet worship times too. Would that mixture make us ‘winsums’ per chance? [I keep warning you, I’m a brat!!] lol
    Love you in Him, dear pastor/teacher, preacher/friend!!

  36. January 13, 2011


    Meeks shoved me into the water head first, Hays and Hauerwas held my head under, Brown Taylor extended her hand to me, and Wright and Willard are co-anchoring the rope that’s pulling me out…in a different place.

    All of which, of course, has been salutary. And so it brings me back to Professor Beck’s gentle reminder: if there is an identifiable source of marginalization in churches along the winter/summer continuum, do we, in our desire for graciousness, pull the very punches that would, if landed at full force, start the quasi-violent process of decentering that brings about healthy change?


  37. Richard permalink
    January 13, 2011

    That’s a good question. I’m not sure how I’d answer it, but I think about it a great deal.

    My “narrative of injury” is pretty weak given that I worship at Highland. Mike and Diane’s journey with Megan has kept Highland’s worship, theology, and rhetoric grounded and honest. Highland knows prayers don’t get answered. Highland knows that her children can be lost in car accidents on church trips. The Summer Christian stuff only gets so far before you look to your right or your left in the pews….

    But how this plays out in other churches, I can’t say. The experience of injury is, expect, different in different places calling for different responses.

  38. Dee permalink
    January 13, 2011

    I guess I’d fall into the category of being a Winter Christian…most of the time. There are times I see what I believe is a direct answer to prayer…or God obviously working something out in my life or the life of a loved one…and then there are times when it appears He is so silent. The “happy clappy” songs do not speak to my heart like some of the older hymns…and when I hear someone say, “God spoke to me and told me…,” or “I prayed, so I know this is God’s will,” I sometimes cringe, b/c I wonder if they are using God to do their own will. Thanks for the post…the thoughts.

  39. Jason permalink
    January 14, 2011

    I confess that as a winter Christian I have difficulty “willingly listening to their [summer Christians’] confidence in God” when that confidence strikes me as running counter to common sense and my own experience. I’m vexed by some summer Christians’ certitude of God’s involvement in even the most mundane matters of life, yet I find I’m frequently unwilling to budge in my own certitude that doubt and uncertainty are truer estimations of reality.

  40. January 14, 2011

    I did once have a friend who, I think, saw the truth that stings the Winter Christians while promoting the truth that sings in Summer Christians. I wish I were the sort of person who could talk about the faithfulness of God even in dark times with the sort of joy I see in my friends who are Summers. I believe God is faithful, I just believe that I won’t ever understand why things happen the way they do. I find myself repeating the words of C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed:

    “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don’t understand.”

  41. January 14, 2011

    Q, love the C.S. Lewis quote. Truth.

  42. Pip permalink
    December 17, 2012

    My experience of being a Winter Christian is not one of complaint or doubt about God. I don’t go seeking miracles so I’m never disappointed. It’s all about communion for me. I’m not angry at God. I can’t say the same for his representatives on Earth, however. If anything, that is where my complaint lies. Church is almost impossible for me. Almost. I keep trying and trying. But when those Summer types get close, and many Winter types, they soon get frostbitten. 1° above absolute zero, me..

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