What's Tony Thinking

The Obvious Question


Reader, Roy Howard, responded to my Wednesday blog on the benefits of participating in a religious congregation with the obvious, but important, question.

“If belonging to a religious community is so beneficial, why is that so many have abandoned these communities?”

Roy is a wise retired pastor who works these days as a clergy coach. He went on to sharpen his question by observing the following: “Many pastors do not experience their communities as places of ‘healing and wholeness’ or ‘sources of life purpose’ or ‘witness to God’s love.’ Rather they, and their members, experience all the things that undermine these ‘benefits.’”

So, yes, if church is as great for your health and well-being as the authors who wrote the article “Empty Pews Are a Public Health Crisis,” contend it is, how come attendance and participation are decidedly downward (and that was pre-pandemic — who knows about it will be if we’re ever post-pandemic)?

For sure, I don’t know the answer to that question. But here are several hunches.

One might call it American “individualism” on steroids. Maybe a better word is “privatization.” A lot of us seem inclined, these days, toward individual and private avenues to health and well-being. Becoming very focused on what you eat (and don’t eat), for example, or on your own personal meditative practice or exercise program. There are so many different therapeutic practices, self-help programs, and life-hacks. What they have in common is that they are individualized, even privatized. About me more than about us. The “us” world/ experience has atrophied.

A second observation is that there are fewer incentives for church-going than was the case in the past. Once, being a part of some religious congregation was sort of an expected part of life in this society. The question wasn’t whether to go to church or not, but which one to go to? That incentive structure is largely gone. It may survive in certain regions, say the southeast. But in places, like Seattle, the social consensus pushes more in the opposite direction. “You go to church?!?” Unspoken: “Are you one of them?”

A third factor is that churches have, like most everything else in American society, become more politicized in the last ten years. More identified, that is, with a partisan political party or agenda. Oh sure, there were always leanings, but there weren’t church-sponsored ballot “guides,” candidate endorsements or not so subtle cues about the “correct viewpoint.” There was more diversity of political viewpoint and affiliation, and tolerance — even support — for that than is often true today. Those who look to the church for something other than ratification of their politics may have found the door.

With respect to this Richard Beck makes an interesting point, faulting Christians with a “loss of imagination.” Here’s Beck:

“[Of] Both progressive and conservative Christians . . .  the only imagination we have for changing the world is Washington, DC. If we want to change the world the only lever to pull is electoral politics, winning elections. In short, the kingdom imagination of Christians has become wholly politicized.” Beck counsels finding and joining local work of liberation and healing.

Reader, Roy Howard, brings up one more topic, the “toxic church.” Far from being good for your health, some churches are actually — demonstrably — bad for you. Often in such churches people prefer a pretense of “nice” to being forthright or facing conflict. Unfortunately, that gives bullies and the emotionally immature permission to run amuck, wreaking havoc for everyone else, but for pastors in particular. This is a real thing.

Nevertheless, and all that being said, I do still agree with the overall point of the authors and article cited in Wednesday’s blog. Participation in a religious community/ congregation is (exceptions noted) good for you, for your health and your sense of belonging and meaning.

We are a society that is tending toward dis-affiliation and isolation, trends accelerated by the pandemic. But privatizing and isolating, at least too much of them, aren’t good for us. Long ago — see Genesis 2: 18 — God said it, “It is not good that man should be alone.”





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