Unchurched as a kid, churched for the entirety of my adult life until three short months ago, and now sitting as a newcomer in the dechurched crowd, I have some thoughts about TR Luhrman’s popular op-ed in the New York Times, The Benefits of Church. While I don’t so much disagree with any one of his points, and have made all of them over them the years, they did not lure me through the doorways of a sacred meeting space this past weekend.
One of the highlights, though, of my weekend was spending an evening with a friend from my former church home. Honoring the “hands off” rules about clergy severing ties upon departure, I don’t see many friends from the old days, so it was a treat. The invitation had come from her, the event was unrelated to church, and the evening was delightful. She asked me about church, do I attend now? The truth is complicated. We’ve attended with the Quakers some (love) and occasionally at a church nearby our home that’s in our denomination (also very nice), but on the whole, no. I am not actively attending anywhere. Following her inquisitive look, I volunteered my non-reason, “I have reservations about the institution.” At which point she, without skipping a beat, burst into laughter. “We’ve had this conversation, before I joined the church, when I said that to you!” Unspoken was the next line, that I had convinced her to give organized religion a try. And now it was I who had walked away. We laughed at the irony.
My walk is not intended to be an indictment or a permanent estrangement, simply the expression of a need for space to breathe. Lurhman is right about all of the benefits of living in community. At the end of the day, we need each other. We need to belong.
But here’s the challenge for the church of 2013. The current structure of the institution is not viable. A couple of years ago, following the challenge of a several colleagues, I invested several months in studying the math and it comes up short (just like they told me). With the expectation of weekly programmed meetings, the related staff and facility costs become self-defeating. The Achilles heel that many churches are now facing is decades of deferred maintenance in buildings constructed a half century (or more) ago. These costs are often astronomical and literally suck the life from the community. The church I served had a bare bones budget and truly pulled rabbits out of hats financially, but still the average annual family contribution needed was more than $2000 … even before the additional “capital” appeals! The cost of “church” as our parents practiced it is simply not sustainable for our children. Not surprisingly, the seed of most church fights is about money and the drama engendered in the struggle undercuts whatever benefits Luhrman identifies.
To be sure there are successful exceptions and for a time I believed that I was leading one. Maybe so. But as we attempted to shift our reality into a more sustainable model, increasing our base while holding our overhead, we ran into trouble. The choices we were asked to make affected our routines and our assumptions and were more acceptable in theory than practice. The lure of the familiar trumped the desire to chart a new course. Moving an existing congregation into a new and sustainable reality is a tough sell.
There are other alternatives worthy of note. The mega-church models (e.g. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church) are still making headlines and there are many that appear to be successful across the country. These churches appeal to economies of scale (c.f. Henry Ford’s assembly line, applied to religious experience). Whether or not they fulfill the community needs described by Luhrman is questionable, but they rely on a small group (cell) structure which is worthy of consideration and may well tend the need. On the other end of the spectrum are renegade groups trying house church models, meeting in school cafeterias, and other non-traditional venues that drive costs down. These too appear to have some success, but these efforts tend to have a more temporary presence.
All the while, the spirit that we seek is as close as our next breath. At some point the trappings necessary to garner new members and save the institution were impeding my access to the breath that I had encountered and to which I was attempting to point. When that happened, the need to exit was both clear and critical. To simply attend another institution is to ask another professional to do what I discovered was ultimately life-defying. So for today, I practice breathing on my own and with sojourners I encounter along the way.
I am intrigued with religious expressions who gather and breathe in configurations which are not so institutionally cumbersome. I am moved by the home-based celebrations in Judaism, the meditation of Eastern traditions, the volunteer leadership of the Quakers, the pithy wisdom of Buddhism shared in tweets, the access to religious study on the internet and spiritual challenge offered by non-sectarians like Krista Tibbett.
Inasmuch as Luhrman is correct, I know that community will be important for this sojourn to find health. But increasingly I am suspicious that community outside the church will be easier to find than sustainable health within.