Only Belief Makes Churches Work (and Sometimes Bearable)

The local church isn't a club you join if you want to, but a gathering of people you're stuck with

By David Mills Published on April 30, 2015

It’s a story priests and pastors will recognize. “After 20 years of mixed feelings and more than eight months of discussion and debate with my husband,” wrote the novelist Judy Mollen Walters,”we had walked away from the place where our babies had been named, welcomed, and bat mitzvahed, the place where we had celebrated countless holidays, volunteered hundreds of hours, and — not to mention — spent thousands of dollars.”

They had not done this lightly, she explained on the Jewish web magazine The Tablet. “In the eight months of debate — and maybe even for years before that — we’d been feeling dissatisfied, like we were missing the essence of belonging. We didn’t feel particularly connected to the other members or that we were getting much out of it.”

They Felt Alienated

She goes on to tell the story of their membership and the reasons they felt alienated, including an over-controlling rabbi and people who bickered about small matters and avoided their share of the work. Changes in their own lives, particularly their children growing out of the need for Hebrew school and the youth group, loosened their attachment to their synagogue even more. It’s a story almost everyone has experienced, if not from church, though very possibly there, from other enterprises they’ve joined.

At the end of the essay she holds out a small hope they can find a synagogue they will want to attend.

We still talk about where else we can join, but we haven’t found the place, a place where we can volunteer comfortably and go to adult education classes and where everyone knows who we are and we know who they are, and we feel like we fit in. There are geographic obstacles, too — synagogues that sound good but are just far enough away that we know we wouldn’t go.

I think this even more important to her than the unhappy experience, though she mentions it only in passing: “I was never going to temple. Services were very long, I often got bored and itchy when we did go, which was rare, and I wasn’t feeling connected.” She doesn’t make much of it. Her description of the problems with the synagogue takes up far more space in the story than this report of how little value she found in its worship. But I think her inability to worship affected her more than she realized.

I think that not because I have any window into her soul, but because belief makes bearable the kinds of communities churches and synagogues so often are. They are bodies with histories, traditions, customs, with a rigid if unstated hierarchy that is only minimally meritocratic. The church on the corner may be God’s House, but it’s full of fallen people.

Churches are not like clubs or the group of friends you meet at the pub, which you continue only to the extent you enjoy them. They are made up of people you’re stuck with. If you are not enmeshed in that system, by long attendance or family connections, so that you enjoy being a member, you may well find parish life difficult.

For decades now, Christian leaders of all sorts have promoted “community” as a defining quality of Christian life. (They don’t usually mention culture, for reasons worth exploring.) Some, I suspect, did so as a way of justifying their escape from the supernatural, and some as a way of helping people suffering the effects of an increasingly impersonal, divided, alienated world. For reasons good and bad, a concern with the relations of the people in the pews grew greater than the concern with the relations of the people in the pews to God.

A Community and Haven

They thought, reasonably enough, that making the church a community, a haven in a heartless world, would bring people in and hold the people already there. Your boss may be a tyrant, your coworkers petty and vindictive, your neighbors malicious, but here at church you’re family. Even if your natural family is unbearable, here you’re part of an ideal family. Like the bar in the TV show Cheers of my youth, here everybody knows your name.

The leaders who promoted community expected people to pay for the blessings of community by regularly coming to the services, and as most people had some belief in their church’s supernatural connections, again reasonably enough. The church is a church and not a club because people gather to meet God. It’s the face time with God that makes this community different from all others.

At some point in the last few decades, most churches started to hedge their bets: making the worship more informal, shortening the homilies, replacing the hymnal with songs more like the ones everyone heard on the radio, inserting into the service itself gestures of community like elaborate performances of the Peace. The churches’ speech became more and more concerned with our duty to our neighbor, with the instruction to love your neighbor as yourself, and less with the instruction to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Religious leaders believed that although you might be meeting God in the Scripture readings and the sacraments, but you should also be entertained and welcomed. You might not come back otherwise. Humankind cannot bear too much divine reality without some worldly consolations.

Yet, make worship as entertaining as you possibly can, stress the symbols of community as much as you can, you still can’t do much to hold people who are not held by the conviction that something happens in church that happens nowhere else, who hunger for what they can find only there. Whatever the Church can offer in entertainment or fellowship, someone else can offer with better quality and at a lower price.

Walters writes at the end of her essay that she and her husband may never find the place where they know and are known by everyone and feel they fit in. “I’ve come to realize that it’s OK if we don’t. I’m as Jewish as I was the day before I sent the email releasing us from our old synagogue. I still celebrate the holidays; I still make Shabbat dinner. I’m just unaffiliated.”

Jews have the advantage of an identity that tethers them, if loosely, to their religion. Ethnic identity and culture does that for many Christians, especially many Catholics and Orthodox. That kind of connection with the church is something, but it isn’t enough to sustain a local community and make it the kind of place everyone needs it to be. It’s almost certainly not enough to sustain it for your children and grandchildren, living in a world that tries relentlessly to pull them away.

To sustain the community, we need a direct, countercultural, and sacrificial supernaturalism. We have to believe.

 

This is a slightly revised version of “Facing God,” which appeared in the March/April issue of Touchstone.  Judy Walters’s article appeared in Tablet and can be found here.

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