Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"What the church has that the Sunday Assembly doesn’t"

Here's something interesting at "Mission Minded":
The Sunday Assembly—an atheist, churchlike organization based in London—has received a bit of press lately, first in the Economist and then on the BBC.

On the one hand, I think the apparent success of the Sunday Assembly points to the deeply felt need in the Euro-Atlantic world for community and togetherness. So much of our lives is pulling us apart these days (or bringing us together in unhelpful ways) that I think lots of people are looking for a safe place simply to be with one another. If, for one reason or another, they can’t find it in church, they might look for something like the Sunday Assembly. That they have to look to the Sunday Assembly for this is an indictment of the church, not a critique of the Sunday Assembly.

But as I was listening to the BBC story—lots of upbeat, encouraging chatter, like “who’s ready for another song?”—I could think only of one thing: my many years as a summer camp counselor. In that line of work, the keys to success are enthusiasm and energy—the more the better. I have convinced scores of children to sing inane songs by acting like it was the most wonderful, best, coolest thing ever—my enthusiasm led to my success. The way these Sunday Assembly folks were whipping up their congregation was, I thought, more than a little similar.

But there are problems in this world—illness, addiction, death—to which more enthusiasm is not the answer. The Christian tradition, however, addresses these issues by speaking of sin, grace, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, and so on. I hope people go to church when they are feeling good about life. But it is when people are struggling with life that they should feel especially welcome.   Church is the place you go when things aren’t working out. (That it is not always seen this way is another indictment of the church.) It is hard to see how a new widower grieving the loss of his wife would find comfort or solace in singing “Celebration” but hopefully in the celebration of the Eucharist he finds the reminder of Christ’s ultimate triumph over death. And even my energy and enthusiasm as a camp counselor could give way to pastoral attention when the situation called for it.

(I grant that my knowledge of the Sunday Assembly is limited and perhaps they have ways of addressing these concerns I do not know about. Still, it’s hard to see a moment of silence compares to the triumphant victory of Christ.)

Church people don’t always like to admit this, but churches exist in a competitive marketplace—whether it is the Sunday Assembly, soccer games, or simply morning television, there are lots of other activities out there competing for people’s attention. But one thing about competition is that it can force organizations to refocus on their core competencies, their competitive advantage.

I wonder if the Sunday Assembly can help churches return to the central themes and traditions that have carried it the past 2000 years.

As I wrote over there, I actually think it’s a very good sign that people are meeting this way. I myself returned to the church after decades away (since childhood, really), and found it was good be there, to sing (and pray) together and think about the larger reality of things (something we normally don’t do, or do only rarely).

The question, really, will be: is there anything there that can continue to bind people together on a long-term basis?  It seems to me that only theology can do this – and from the evidence, only religion has ever accomplished it. Nothing else has ever lasted - and I do think that has a great deal to do with Jesse Zink's idea that "Church is the place you go when things aren’t working out. .... It is hard to see how a new widower grieving the loss of his wife would find comfort or solace in singing 'Celebration' but hopefully in the celebration of the Eucharist he finds the reminder of Christ’s ultimate triumph over death."   That is the church’s real strength: its ability to deal with all of human life, from the depths to the heights, is indeed “What the church has that Sunday assembly doesn’t” – at least not yet.  (It also, BTW, has something that’s absolutely central to the spiritual life – yet at the same time so unnatural to us that we’d never think of it on our own if it weren’t a regular and deeply embedded discipline: self-examination, self-criticism, and “amendment of life.”)

William James said, about religion, that “First, [religion] says that the best things are more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word. …. The second affirmation of religion is that we are better off even now if we believe her first affirmation to be true.” This, to me, is one of the very valuable things about religion, and about its being in deep touch with the human past – something that’s now almost unique to religion, in fact.

Getting in touch with the deep things, the eternal things – the book club and philosophy groups are attempts to do this – are ways of putting our own lives and our own problems into perspective. This also helps us identify with other people in a deeper way.

In fact, I won’t be at all surprised if the church ultimately benefits from things like this; it has 2,000 years of experience in doing these things, and does them as a matter of course.  The church's ability to deal at once in every kind of human joy, and also with the deep pains of life, is its central strength.  Once I returned to the church, and had a little taste of music and togetherness – I realized that the church had many deeper things to say, and I gravitated towards people and parishes that were unabashed about saying them.

I think the church today is living with the burden of its history – and its perceived (and sometimes real!) role as part of the “status quo” and of the “Powers That Be.” That is going away now, which means that the church can get back to its better and more fundamental role. 


Lee said...

I've been struck recently by the fact that churches (and other religious communities presumably) are one of the few places in our culture where it's OK to mourn, to grieve, to admit that we don't have it all together, etc. Not that churches always do a good job at this, but they have the tools to grapple with human failure and suffering in a culture where things increasingly seem to be about polishing your "personal brand."

bls said...

What I find really interesting about the church is that it can deal with grief and mourning in this way at the same time as it's telling its story placidly, week by week - even when the story has little to do with grief or mourning.

There's something amazing about its ability to deal with everything, and "all sorts and conditions of men," every week. I'm in awe, really - and still trying to understand this. It seems to me that it's happening at a very deep level.

I guess it's parallel, somehow, to what happens at A.A.; you can laugh uproariously while you're right in the middle of telling the story of your own downfall....