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Meaningful Community: Chasing Church
Part I - Why don't more of us find community in religious spaces?
In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999. (Source)
I’ve been chasing church my whole life. There were entire decades of my life when I wouldn’t answer the phone on Sundays for fear I’d be confronted by my parents with the dreaded question, “Did you go to church today?”
It was exhausting trying to find a church that checked all the boxes. I tried em all. If it was too conservative for me I got angry. If it was too progressive for me I got dismissive. I know I know, nothing is perfect. This is a me problem and not a church problem.
Some people love their church, as imperfect as is is, and find community and meaning making there. Some people want to just go on Sunday morning, get a good digestible lesson and send their kids to Sunday School. For some people church is nostalgic. For others, they want a rock concert and a guy in a tight t-shirt selling them certainty. And some people, like most of the young people in my life, just don’t really want it at all.
The worst experience I’ve ever had in a church was years ago when after visiting a new church two men showed up uninvited at my house at dinner time, wormed their way into my living room and asked me how I knew I was going to heaven. I mean seriously. WTF? Granted this is annoying but nothing compared to trauma that so many people have experienced in some religious communities which I’m sure has a big impact on why membership has dropped so drastically.
One of the best experience happened in my current church when the sermon was so moving that I came back an hour later for the second service. I’m often triggered by a kind of nostalgia in church and also a Holy re-do when I’m finally hearing the things I’ve wanted to hear for so long and didn’t. In those moments I can’t help but cry. Not in a “awww that’s sweet” kinda way but in a “shit, my mascara’s running and can I walk out of here with my sunglasses on?" kinda way.
But nostalgia is not community, and a good sermon is not a relationship.
A friend of mine says that church is the place in his life he feels least siloed. He can be in a place where he bumps up against people who think and do life differently. He goes to church to get pissed off. He said, “If my neighbor pisses me off, I avoid him. If my friend continually pisses me off, I’m gonna choose not to be their friend. But in church, I can’t disconnect myself from people who piss me off and still be in community. I need to work it out and that’s good.” He also adds that the bigger the church is the easier it is to silo one’s self off.
Great religious spaces create opportunities for relationships and community. When this happens church becomes a place of practice where we face head on what it means to be human and how we can be transformed by love. This happens when what we mean by “church” actually translates as “people.” Oftentimes this occurs not in worship services but in small groups and in volunteering where people can create meaning together.
But here’s the rub, most people don’t belong to a religious community, and if they do most people don’t join small groups. Most people don’t volunteer. For the people that do show up Sunday morning, unless there’s a built in small group after service or at least a coffee and donut time, most people leave afterwards and never talk to another person. In those situations church isn’t the people but something else.
Great religious spaces create opportunities for relationships and community. When this happens church becomes a place of practice where we face head on what it means to be human and how we can be transformed by love.
I’m making a confession here. I rarely go to Sunday worship services at my church. I find other ways to be involved that connect me more with people than Sunday service does. I listen to the sermons on Monday mornings in my shower. But I’m starting to question, what’s the difference between church and a good podcast? What’s the difference between church and the volunteering I do on the board of a local homeless shelter? What’s the difference between church and the small group of 8 people from all over the country who I meet with monthly online to share the deepest parts of our spiritual journeys? Maybe nothing.
But here’s also what I miss.
Standing up and walking down the aisle to take the eucharist
Sitting in sacred space together
Knowing people well enough to know what they’re going through
So my questions become, how do we build sacred community for people who are done with religious spaces? Or who just aren’t joiners? For people who are too busy?
What kind of communal experiences can be a community building experiences?
A Crazy Idea
In the time before I found the church I now go to, I found all my community in the theater. I developed 96% of my closest friendships through long hours of rehearsal, collaboration and storytelling.
Every year on the first day of my Theater Arts class I tell my students, “Look around you. These people you are sitting next to will be your friends by the end of the semester.” And I’m never wrong. More so than sitting in a math class theater invites relationship. You can’t have one without the other. There’s collective struggle, vulnerability, encouragement and joy. There’s ritual. If one person is absent it throws the work off. Their presence in the process intrinsically matters.
That’s the kind of church I want.
The best advice I ever got in my Masters in Teaching program was a professor who drew concentric circles on a piece of paper with dots scattered all over the page. Some of these dots sat within the inner circle and some stayed outside even the outer most ring. He said, “your job as a teacher is to bring all these dots into the center ring.” My job is to bring kids into community with one another. This was 30 years ago, way before Social Emotional Learning.
I have this idea that church spaces and educational spaces are so monolithic and so demanding in the frequency of their services that real change and innovation is tediously slow, if not virtually impossible. (unless forced by a pandemic) Theater, however, which is the first religious space, gives huge amounts of time in a collaborative environment to perform maybe 4-5 shows in a year. It’s an inverse process.
In religious communities, yes, there’s lots of people collaborating but the pastor/rabbi/imam usually creates in isolation. There’s no time for true collaboration. (I grant I know very little about Jewish and Muslim worship services.) Same in school. Teachers write lesson plans for the most part in isolation. We know it’s not ideal but there’s just no time when we’re teaching everyday.
In theater there’s a director, yes, but there’s a group of designers and technicians, there’s actors, there’s a playwright. Rarely would you want the director to also be the playwright or the playwright or director to be one of the actors. And in most instances this group of creatives are never the same from one production to the next. In order to get that kind of diffused leadership and real collaborative spirit you need time.
I know this might sound crazy, but how much more innovative could religious spaces be if they modeled their creative structure like a theater company? What if the sacredness was embedded not primarily in the service but in the collaboration leading up to the service?
In order for this to occur you’d need to sacrifice two things. First, you’d sacrifice mega culture for micro culture. And second, you’d sacrifice frequency. It’s kind of a bespoke, anti-evangelical collaborative pop-up space committed to engaging questions and building depth of community as opposed to breadth of community.
So maybe this space that I’m imagining is a paraspace. A space that goes along side whatever our primary community might be, whether Christ or Crossfit. (shout out to Greg) It would be a space that serves an additional function because nothing can be everything.
In school we have what are called paraprofessionals. These are additional teachers in the classroom who work alongside students who need extra help. Maybe that’s the kind of space I’m craving. Maybe I need extra help. I’m fairly certain I do.
note: I’ve been sitting and working on this one for a while. In the meantime, an article came out that furthered the conversation I’m having in my head. So tomorrow-ish look for a post on what makes a spiritual community generative?
Thanks always for sharing your comments and emails and helping me think through these thick questions. I value your voices in my head.
Be well friends,