Church without religion?

Today’s post is inspired by an item in the Times covering a woman who quit being a Methodist minister but hasn’t quit caring about community and congregations.

When Rev. Teresa McBain was working in a church, she came to realize that what she was preaching just ain’t so. But resigning her post and quitting the church left her bereft of the social contacts she’d built there. Ms. McBain is now working to build regularly meeting groups of atheists and humanists to do all the fellowship and good works that churches often provide, but without the religious part.

It’s an interesting problem. As social primates, we value community very highly. And churches have evolved to fill that desire in us, especially in the American system of free association instead of geographically based parishes. Churches that don’t fill a community seeker’s needs will not grow. People who visit churches (at least more than once) are usually contacted by someone to invite them back to the group. Rarely will a church promote itself by saying, “we may be assholes and ignore you, but what we say here is worth listening to.”

We find community in a lot of different places – through churches, work, neighborhood, school (or our kids’ schools). And in the last couple decades, the networked virtual Usenet groups and AOL forums and Pinterests and Reddits and etceteras of interest, who may never meet “IRL“, are providing a universe of ersatz communities.

Could the diversity of other types of community be decreasing people’s interest in turning to religious organizations to fill that instinct? After all, a century or two ago, the work, family, neighborhood, and church communities all had significant overlap since people had little geographic mobility. Maybe. Now that those groups have developed into different circles, people can find they belong to groups in many areas, and the strength of the church as a community gathering is less central.

Without the reinforcement of community (in both a positive, meeting-instinctual-group-desire and a negative, “all the neighbors will comment if you aren’t there” peer pressure way), a church has to hold on to its membership by offering a persuasive and compelling reason to go for the content. If you asked a group of people why they go to church, you’d get answers ranging from “to worship the creator of the universe” to “I like the preaching” to “it’s my duty” to “I like to see my friends there.” But I’d guess that a pretty sizable portion still go for the fellowship instead of solely the religious aspect.

From a pastoral perspective, is it right to be worried about competition for fellowship pulling people away from church? Or is that tantamount to conceding that your denomination has little else to offer? From a parishioner’s perspective, would you choose a church where the message was compelling but there was no community, or a great community with a message that you didn’t like? (Not that you have to, most likely there is a church with both positives, or you can quit and find your community elsewhere).

It’s getting late. I’ll have to return to this idea later.

Update, 9/2913: Whoops, looks like Ms. McBain got caught lying about her credentials. It doesn’t diminish the content of this blog post though.


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