“One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
It is well worth reading. In the article, Beinart, explores the demographic shifts in faith and culture and the way in which they have impacted the current political scene. According to Beinart, the key to understanding what is taking place is not by how people self-identify, but by what they actually do. In practical terms, this means that the key factor is not whether people self-identify as “evangelical” or “Roman Catholic”, but rather the more basic question of “do you attend church?”. When the question is put in these terms, everything changes. As Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman put it, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church”. He might have added, that Trump did best among Roman Catholic men in rust belt states who only see the inside of a church when attending a funeral or wedding.
We are becoming an increasingly secular society. Of that there can be little doubt. It is a secular society, however, with memories of better times. We remain nominally attached to certain values such as church, family, and community, but in reality these have become only abstract ideas to which many only pay lip service. This has led to a conflict between the ideal and the real. As W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia wrote, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives”. Of course, the same could be said of white Roman Catholic men in many of the rust belt regions of America as well. Divorce rates, opioid addiction and financial uncertainty are all blind when it comes to denominational affiliation.
It is easy, however, to point to “them” as the problem. “They” don’t go to church. But, how about us, do we go to church?
Recently on a friend’s social media feed, I saw an astounding statement – “Podcasts are my church this year”, with a listing of the podcasts they listen to on a regular basis. My friend commented, “Have said the same myself, and heard it said by so many others…” There seems to have been a progression in recent years. Originally, we were participants in a community of faith. Then, something happened… or, maybe, many things happened. Perhaps there was an issue with the pastor (that’s always a favorite one), or we perceived something in what was being taught that seemed at odds with our understanding of the Bible, or history, or theology. Maybe it was the new praise band or the new worship leader. It might even have been the people in the congregation – they were too conservative, too liberal, too rich, too poor… Regardless, we take ourselves elsewhere. No longer feeling connected and not really wanting to be a participant, having been burned, hurt or disappointed, we find a place to be a spectator. A mega-church works well for this, as do many liturgical churches. All you have to do is sit in your seat and watch the action. Yet, when once you’ve been a participant, it’s hard to be a spectator. Anonymity has it’s price. It’s difficult to make friends. You begin to wonder if anyone cares if you’re attending or not. Besides all of that, the preaching and/or teaching leaves much to be desired and you’re really getting more spiritual sustenance from a video series you’ve discovered, or a blog site, or even, a podcast. Not only that, you can pick the ones that agree with your way of thinking. You don’t have to engage, unless it’s in an anonymous comment, and you can do all this in isolation, comfortably, on your schedule, from your home or office. You can even confess your sins and have others in the comment thread tell you that you’re forgiven… all without leaving your chair. It’s church… or is it?
It is not church.
Friends, church is hard. Firstly, you’ll not find a perfect church, and if you do, it won’t be perfect after you join it. That’s just the way it is. Secondly, you’ll never find a perfect pastor. Setting aside those who are in ministry for all the wrong reasons – narcissists, abusive personalities, etc. – generally you’ll find a person who is really trying to do a good job. Not only are they trying to do a good job, they are generally sacrificing a great deal to do that job, especially in terms of family and financial security. Even the small perk of the respect that was once automatically given to clergy by the outside community is pretty much a thing of the past. It’s a tough job to do well. Moreover, they will make mistakes – some big, some small – and it will be up to you to extend grace to them as you would wish for grace to be extended to yourself.
Church is a place to know and be known. Church is the first place in which we are called to live out the precepts of Christ in a common life with others. For some, such as myself, Church is the place where I partake of Communion – in communion with both Christ and those kneeling or standing beside me. It is not a solitary act. Baptism is to be buried with Christ and raised to new life. It is also taking one’s place with all the baptized, through all the ages. It is not a solitary act. When we equate teaching that we hear online, or blog sites we participate in, or videos that we watch, with “church”, we have missed the point. Not only that, we also run the risk of a gnostic spirituality that denies the physical in favor of an ethereal abstract ideal known only to ourselves. In terms of “spiritual health”, we may be the ones creating a crisis, not only for ourselves, but for the Church itself and perhaps society as well. Salt is a compound, not a singular element. Light is a diverse combination, not a stand alone phenomena. If we’re to be salt and light, we need what others bring. We need church.
So, find a church, even if it’s imperfect. There’s a wide selection to choose from these days. Find a church that aligns with your theological understanding if you can, but find one! Then, be faithful – in attendance, in learning, in service, in giving, in prayer.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”