This post is a response to my friend Jarred Muray’s incredibly evocative piece on his blog over at The Screaming Room about (I’m painting with broad strokes) his difficulties finding a good, caring church community and, honestly, a church community where people would even speak to him when it wasn’t their job to do so. I started replying to it and realized that (a) my reply was getting incredibly long and (b) if I posted it here, he would get hits from my readers and I would get hits from his, and we could double our joint readership to something insane, like… ten.
So scoot. Go on over to Jared’s blog, then come back here for my response.
Welcome back. First, this isn’t a rebuttal, because I think Jared’s exactly, dead-on, precisely right. The hours between 8 am and 1 pm on Sunday are probably the most shallow five hours of the week. And I think it may be that way because, in a way, that is what it is expected to be. Churches are trying to build community in a place where a community wasn’t really intended to be built; to borrow from Mark Driscoll, a “city within [a] city.”
A bit of history
Before the industrial revolution, everyone lived (for the most part) in small towns protected by a Lord or a Baron in a castle, or maybe even prior to that, around Jesus’ time when towns would be so small that you needed ten Jewish men to have a synagogue, and sometimes you couldn’t even get that because the “city” wasn’t even big enough for that. The community already existed, everyone already traded everything (food, clothing, gossip), and the church wasn’t intended to act as a community within the community; it was merely the location for the already-existing-community’s religious expression.
This happened in the Americas in the 1600s when the Puritans arrived as well: The first solid building they built was their church. Singular. Church. They were already a religious community.
Even up into part of the 20th century (I think) when there were factory towns and coal-mining towns, there would be a few churches in town and most of the men in each church worked next to each other in the same factory or mine, and those who didn’t had stores or barbershops or restaurants or whatever where everybody went. The women did housework next door to each other and all went shopping at the same small stores run by the same people and took their kids to the same small playgrounds. And the church wasn’t intended to act as a community within the community; it was merely the location for (at least one part of) the already-existing-community’s religious expression.
And in your time as a college student, you had a community as well. You would go to church and see friends there, and you considered having seen them as having been a part of church community with them, because the church wasn’t intended to act as a community within the community; it was the location for the already-existing-community’s religious expression.
Well, welcome to the post-college 21st century. Everybody has cars. Everybody drives to work. Bob and Joe, who live next door to each other and live in one town, drive to jobs 45 minutes apart in two other towns. Their wives don’t go to the local shops; they go to Massive*Mart, the evil multi-national corporation, to get their food, their clothes, their whatever, and instead of always seeing Nels Olesen or Ike Godsey, it’s a different cashier whose minimum-wage job has nothing to do with relationships and depends mostly on scanning as many products as humanly possible, which makes much human interaction, well, difficult. Bob and Joe’s kids have some community because they go to school together, and their parents feed a little bit off that if they go to their baseball games or whatever.
And now you can see the problem.
The church wasn’t intended to act as a community within the community; it was merely the location for (at least one part of) the already-existing-community’s religious expression.
Except that the community no longer exists. It’s just a bunch of people living next to each other, many of whom have never even met their neighbors, much less been a tight-knit community.
Everybody’s trying so hard to get by, to make $5,000 more a year, to save a dollar on a tube of toothpaste or skip our lattes to save maybe $500 a year that we forgot how to talk to each other. Corporations are working like crazy to figure out how to get that girl at Massive*Mart to scan five or ten or twenty or a hundred more items per hour for the $7.25 they’re paying her so they can pass that little extra savings on to their customers and make it back ten times in extra profits.
So church is no longer just the religious expression of a community, or of part of a community. (By which I’m referring to actual human community, not a physical location). The church has to become a community of its own. The church has to evolve. And I think that some churches have.
Some things that have worked:
Many churches have started small groups on weekday evenings, but most of us are so ridiculously busy doing God knows what that we can’t (or don’t) make time to be part of them. But for the church to build a community of its own, the church has to split off into smaller communities that become a part of the larger whole. At least in some areas, church has to create community, even “artificially,” so to speak, so that it can continue to be the religious expression of a community.
One church I used to attend installed a Café in the back to allow members and guests to spend time together and interact, which was great if you didn’t know anybody (someone was bound to introduce themselves because it was that kind of church) and fantastic if you did (somebody would come over and say hi).
I was a member of that church’s young adult group that met on Wednesday night, and any time we saw a lonely young adult, we would reach out and pry him or her into our circle. Honestly, I was more loyal Wednesday nights than Sunday mornings. The young adult group has about 40 or so regular-comers and is presided over by a very charismatic, wise, and energetic older pastor. Community was built, and once it was, I felt safe interacting with others from the broader church community. The young adults introduced the others to their parents, who were also church members, and the community grew. I was attracted to that church like you would not believe. And when I came out to Huntington, where I knew absolutely nobody except my admissions counselor, I missed it. A lot.
Another church my family attended for a while was made up of mostly homeschooling families. (Homeschooling families, as everyone knows, are desperate for socialization opportunities). Because many families lived farther away, they would have an “evening service” in the afternoon and share a potluck (or whatever the midwestern name for everybody bringing food to share is) lunch. Every single Sunday. In the church gymnasium. Seating was limited, so pretty much everybody had to sit next to somebody, and it’s hard to avoid talking, especially when you’ve got that whole time scheduled and everybody’s just waiting around for the next service to start. Community just happened.
There isn’t just one solution, though all of them seem to involve the church creating community apart from the morning service. And many of them seem to involve food, a conclusion that I approve of.
There’s something safe and familiar about going to a building between 8am and 1pm every Sunday morning, having sunday school, singing some songs, passing a plate, and listening to a preacher expound the scriptures. In that order. It’s how we’ve always done things. And when someone asks if we’re available then, we don’t have to check our day planners or smartphones for conflicts because we already know we’re going to be in church. If we do the same for our small groups, maybe, just maybe, we can build community and save the church.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.