A common refrain when I’m talking to churches these days is a desire for new people – especially younger people, younger adults – to come to church. A question that brings up for me (and as usual, I can’t remember the person who first taught me to ask it) is “what do you hope these people will find?” What do you think they might want from your church?
I’m afraid the answer, often enough, is actually “nothing.” Church is so far off the radar for most people under 50 that it just never comes to mind. Almost nobody is lying awake thinking, “where can I find a church in which I can __________?” “Church” simply doesn’t come to mind at all.
But the question still retains its importance. What important things do our churches do? What important gift do we offer the world, and what is it we do that is worth the giving of precious moments of precious lives? I remember Tom Bandy’s question from a couple decades ago: what is it, in our experience of Jesus Christ, that this community cannot live without?
Well… what is it about church that I can’t live without? Perhaps that’s overdramatic… what is it about church that I think is essential to my life, well lived?
In my experience there’s a fundamental malaise at the heart of North American life right now. In a sentence, I would describe that malaise like this: the current of our society is moving in a way that is contrary to our best values and best interests. The inertia of our culture is carrying us someplace very few people actually want to go. For instance, the consumerism of our system leads us to commodify everything. All of life acquires the shape of shopping: we want, we shop, we buy, have, and eventually throw away. Our lives and desires are all about the things we have. Even relationships, spirituality, vocation can become “things we have.” Not too many of us would consciously choose that – but that’s the stream in which we swim.
Similarly, not too many of us would choose to create a mass extinction, or warm the planet to crisis levels. But the inertia of our extractive, exploitive economy is indeed leading us there. Especially in affluent North America, we definitely live that way. I don’t think we’d consciously, intentionally choose racist structures, violent, divisive politics, increasing economic disparity, social safety nets that traumatize the poor. But in spite of our not consciously choosing them, those are the trends and the realities of our society. I’m not sure any of these things are getting better. Most, if not all, are actually getting worse.
What I long for from church is a spiritual community that allows me to live more congruently. I am looking for a community that enables me to resist the pull of society, that encourages me to live life more attuned to my values, a community that teaches and lives something more whole. I do think that is a more authentic religious life. But – and this seems to be my refrain here – it is a pretty scary proposition, in addition to being attractive in theory. It involves relinquishing the false goods, and I, at least, have grown quite attached.