A lot has been said in recent years about the waning appeal of formally organized religion and its gatherings in our culture. We are nowhere near a nation of heathens, but an increasing percentage of people are giving up on religious affiliation and communal exercise, presumably because its demands (or other downsides) outweigh the benefits they can perceive. No surprise among people who don’t subscribe to faith, but the trend also applies to people who do claim belief.
I really get this–or at least part of it. I care passionately about the church, but every church where I’ve ever belonged has made me want to tear out my hair in frustration. And I’m telling you, if we have to repeat the last two lines of that stupid song one more time…
Ahem. I digress.
Some of our churches’ problems are trivial, and others are monumental. There are very good reasons to walk away from one particular congregation or another. But there are also many good reasons to find a new one or love the one you’re with despite its imperfections. I believe these reasons and I’m not going to rehash them here. I just want to mention one that hasn’t received much press. And it’s particularly critical for the younger ones among us.
We live in a world that, despite its increasingly multicultural nature, is increasingly segmented and customizable. Instead of being isolated by geography and the rigors of basic survival, as our ancestors were, we are more likely to be isolated by our own choices. In most arenas of daily life, we get to choose to interact or not, or at least who warrants an actual relationship. We get to choose which people we will listen to, and we get to ignore the rest if we want to. Even on the job, if we don’t get to choose our co-workers, someone has selected them for us. And in many cases, colleagues almost never spend time in the same building, let alone the same room.
My life is a striking example of what’s possible. I work full-time, self-employed, by myself in my basement. During the day, my family is gone and I interact by email with editors I don’t have to talk to (that is, if I don’t value my writing career), fellow writers and coaches, and people who contact me about things I’ve written. I don’t have to engage with any of them if I don’t want to. I talk by phone with coaching clients, and I don’t have to work with any of them if I don’t want to–I’ve chosen to engage in those relationships. When I go to a speaking engagement, I’m physically present with people and I like to talk with people who want to talk with me, but I don’t have to engage in long-term relationships with any of them. On a typical day, I’m not in the same room with anyone while I’m working, until my family comes home. And even when my whole family is home, I’m with a man I chose (and continue to choose) to spend my life with and two people who live under our authority. I have an enjoyable, thriving career, and it doesn’t truly force me into challenging, uncomfortable relationships with anyone I don’t want to be with.
Unless you ride the subway or work in places with particularly narrow hallways, you may not have to literally rub shoulders with anyone on most days. If we want relationships that will really annoy us profoundly, we have to go looking for them. This luxury makes us, in some ways–dare I say it?–far less tolerant than previous generations. And it’s not good for us. By nature, humans are narrow-minded and egocentric. Even the most empathetic among us can be hopelessly self-obsessed if left alone.
This brings me to one of the rarely touted but valuable things about going to church. It’s one of the only places left in our culture where, if we choose to engage, we will find ourselves in community with people we didn’t choose to be with. No good way around it. This experience shapes us in ways we have grown accustomed to resisting. But we desperately need this kind of sharpening and softening.
For most of us, the majority of people in our churches are quite a bit like us in some ways–they probably have similar socioeconomic status, live in the same area, speak the same language, share our subculture, have a lot in common with us theology and perhaps politically. After all, something attracted us all to the same congregation.
But we have a lot of differences too. And bottom line, when we independently chose that congregation, we didn’t know we were choosing each other. Not specifically. Some of us (OK, all of us) can be pretty annoying. And we learn a lot about ourselves and about each other when we are in relationship with annoying people. It’s good for us to face the conflicts that come up in these relationships and to have our perspective stretched. Even better, we learn about God from each other. After all, God is no more like me than like you. My perceptions of his higher ways are tragically incomplete. And unless I let you annoy me, I may never see something I need to see.