What's Tony Thinking

Why Your Church Is Important


I was in Wenatchee (central Washington town of 30,000 +) for a couple days this week. I skied at Mission Ridge just outside Wenatchee, which I really enjoyed.

I was struck as we walked and drove through Wenatchee’s streets by all the evangelical churches many of which occupy buildings of former mainline congregations in the downtown area: Church of the Nazarene, Calvary, Grace, Cornerstone were some of the names I spotted.

Many liberals dismiss such churches as places where “people are told what to think” or, worse, as outposts of bigotry and hate. That is a mistaken characterization, one that betrays our own biases. What I would say is that such churches probably provide a more intense experience of faith and community than your average mainline congregation. They will also be clearer about core beliefs and more prescriptive about right and wrong than most mainline congregations.

But there’s a reason for that, and there’s a reason that such churches have taken over the place (in Wenatchee but not only there) once held by mainline congregations in American society.

To sum up the reason such congregations line the streets of a town like Wenatchee, Washington in a single word or phrase risks over- simplification. But what it comes down to is many in contemporary America inhabit a wilderness (and not the John Muir type). Rather it is a culture where meaning, family and community have been decimated.

Andrew Sullivan, whom I quoted in a recent post on identity politics, has a long essay about the meaning of the opioid addiction crisis, The Poison We Pick. in New York Magazine. It is a very, very good piece and I urge you to take the time to read it. As always with these things, the problem and its causes are more complex than we have thought. Even more important and urgent, the cost in lives lost is staggering (more deaths of Americans in 2017 than caused by the entire Viet Nam war), and almost certainly likely to get far worse.

What Sullivan does an especially good job of is examining the wilderness that this society has become — not for all, but for many. Here’s Sullivan:

“Market capitalism and revolutionary technology in the past couple of decades have transformed our economic and cultural reality, most intensely for those without college degrees. The dignity that many working-class men retained by providing for their families through physical labor has been greatly reduced by automation. Stable family life has collapsed, and the number of children without two parents in the home has risen among the white working and middle classes. The internet has ravaged local retail stores, flattening the uniqueness of many communities. Smartphones have eviscerated those moments of oxytocin-friendly actual human interaction. Meaning — once effortlessly provided by a more unified and often religious culture shared, at least nominally, by others — is harder to find, and the proportion of Americans who identify as “nones,” with no religious affiliation, has risen to record levels. Even as we near peak employment and record-high median household income, a sense of permanent economic insecurity and spiritual emptiness has become widespread. Some of that emptiness was once assuaged by a constantly rising standard of living, generation to generation.
But that has now evaporated for most Americans.”

Just before this paragraph Sullivan described an experiment in which rats could access an opioid-infused drip. One control group are in a rat cage. No stimulation or engagement. The other group enjoy what might be termed a “rat park,” with lots of stimulation and interaction. Far less recourse to opioids in rat park. Sullivan sums up what has happened in much of American society as the transformation of park into cage.

“To see this epidemic as simply a pharmaceutical or chemically addictive problem is to miss something: the despair that currently makes so many want to fly away. Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.”

In such a cultural wilderness, many of those who  turn to religion are likely to seek something more intense and unambiguous. Hence the shape of church life in a place like Wenatchee.

But I headed this post, “Why Your Church Is Important.” Assuming that most of my (religious) readers are of the liberal or progressive variety, what am I saying to you, to us? Give it up? Sell your building to Calvary Chapel? Or become evangelical yourselves?

I do think many mainline congregations need to be clearer and more urgent about core theological convictions and the difference they make, something I addressed in the book, What’s Theology Got To Do With It: Convictions, Vitality and the Church (Rowan and Littlefield, 2007). But I also encourage you, church leader and members, to not give up on who you are and what you are doing. If Sullivan’s analysis has even partial merit (and I think it has more than that) your attempts to build human community, create a world of meaning and beauty, and to sustain human bonds and relationships is the most important work being done in our society today. I know it’s hard, but don’t give up.




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