What's Tony Thinking

The One Thing Church Offers That Others Don’t


Several people forwarded an article that appeared recently in the New York Times and invited my comment. It was the last in a series by Jessica Grose in which she examined the “decline of religion in America” and specifically the increase in the “Nones,” i.e. those reporting “no religious affiliation.”

Forgive me, but I am weary of reading such articles. Given the constant reports of their demise, what seems to me remarkable, and report-worthy, are the many thriving congregations that do exist. Or, if not “thriving,” then at least those that are, against the odds, continuing with grace and imagination.

“The odds” against church are many. The basic one is that in the latter half of the 20th century we ceased to be a society where participating in/ belonging to a church was built into American society. At one time being a part of a church was just something you did. No more. There are probably some regions of the U.S. where such a church-going culture still exists, but by and large, church like most everything in a consumer society became a choice. And not a choice for which there are a ton of incentives.

So, with so many other choices of how to spend your time, energy and money, fewer choose church. We’re an affluent society, with lots of choices. That fewer are choosing church is not really surprising. What is surprising is how many do choose church and the shape those churches are taking in a new time.

The theme of the final article in the series by Grose is that the one thing church offers that doesn’t seem to replicated by other groups or experiences is community. Just for the record, I don’t totally agree with that. I kind of think the one thing we offer is God, the strange and surprising God revealed in Jesus. But for now, we’ll go with Grose’s observation about community. “The one aspect of religion in America,” writes Grose, “that I unquestionably see as an overall positive for society is the ready-made supportive community that churchgoers can access.”

She cites a women in Washington State who responded to her survey by writing, “I was raised Pentecostal and went to church three or more times a week, so I desperately miss the community. It was where my friendships came from. I have very few friends now.” (Note: the correlation to another much reported aspect of contemporary America, a big increase in reported “loneliness”).

Grose says that what churches offer that people aren’t finding elsewhere is a “ready-made supportive community.” Here’s the thing. “Ready-made supportive community,” doesn’t just happen. Such a community asks things of people. Sometimes that apparently much longed for “ready-made supportive community,” asks a lot of us.

Church communities are characterized, says Grose, by “wrap-around support.” It’s true, from birth to death, and for all the countless challenges and changes between, good churches hold, comfort and carry their members. (I always thought churches did a lot of preventive mental health care. Church decline may be a factor in the current “mental health crisis” as in “the loneliness epidemic.”) But doing that requires effort, commitment, consistency in habit or practice, at times prioritizing what’s good for the group (congregation) over personal preference, and putting up with one another.

We tend to get all romantic about “community,” imaging something that looks like a beer commercial where everyone is young, fit, attractive and fun to be with. Or at least “community” means people who I like and who share my opinions. Is that really “community”? Community, like family, is not always just who we chose. Sometimes it is who we are given.

I think it was Parker Palmer who observed that “true community is where the person you least want to be with always is.” Even if that’s an exaggeration, there’s truth in it. And the point, again, is that community doesn’t just happen. It requires effort, investment and no small amount of just hanging in there. I’m interested in the places where people are putting in the effort. What is motivating them? What sustains them?

As a minister, I always thought that a part of what I was up to was “building community,” specifically “Christian community.” And I worked hard at that. But, truth is, I got paid to do it. The people that impressed me most were the steady, mature, caring lay members of the congregations I served who put in the time and effort, who kept showing up. Hat’s off to them. They were often amazing people. And part of my job as a pastor and leader was to support them, care for them, honor them and see that others were nurtured for such roles.

Point is, if we want what Grose says we want, it doesn’t happen without effort, even — dare I say it? — sacrifice.


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