What are congregations for? It’s a simple question at face value, but I think the answer to it is becoming less and less obvious in the West. You could reply with something like, “They’re for collective worship, as they have always been,” and quote me Hebrews 10:25 and be on your merry way to the next blog. But you’ll have oversimplified it and overlooked all the other things that people often hope or wish for, or benefit from, in a congregation. The frenzy of “church shopping” suggests people either don’t know what they want in a congregation, or else they don’t know what congregations are for.
Christian congregations do more than just get together to (produce) worship, obviously. Theoretically, people in congregations also socialize, form friendships, learn (via small groups or classes), support each other, and bear burdens and celebrate joys. Congregations often contain particular people that you want to (or hope your children) emulate or model, too.
But you don’t have to go to church to find this stuff. According to new nationally-representative data on 18-39-year-old Americans, however, 26 percent of men and 36 percent of women spend at least an hour a day using social networking. (That’s more than the share of Americans who spend an hour once a week in religious services.) So if churchgoing was once in part about social interaction with like-minded people, then very many people, including Christians, are getting plenty of that online today. In other words, people don’t need congregations for socialization as much as they might once have, because they can (and plenty do) get that online. Sure, virtual communities are different, but for many it’s close enough, and for some people I know it’s largely replaced the sociality of congregational life.
Facebook in particular seems particularly adept at fostering a mediated (although IMHO pathetic) form of social support: if you post something difficult about your life or circumstances, flocks of people seem to come out of the woodwork to post nice things in order to make you feel better. But caring classically involved a physical reality, so long as it was possible to be present. And yet plenty of people, Christians included, seem to have settled into a far more modest form of social support that is public and seemingly enthusiastic in appearance but short on real substance and nearly nil on actual effort. Forty posted comments can’t replace a bona fide visit or two if you’re in the hospital. But that’s where we’re at, and likely where we’ll stay.
So the social support function of congregations may be changing, giving way to virtual community rather than taxing, expensive presence. Now, on to social control.
In a coffee-time discussion with a friend whose marriage is on the rocks, we batted around this question about the purpose of congregations. He had hoped that his congregation would be more helpful around his struggling marriage. But what does it mean for a congregation to act to improve his position—in this case, to encourage a spouse to return? If Facebook posts are replacing in-person hospital visits, it’s almost beyond imagination that congregants would do the much-harder work of calling each other to account (even if people would concur about what to do in the first place.) I’m not talking about formal, old-school church discipline here–no–just the standard encouraging each other to do what is good (Heb. 10:24).
So this particular social purpose of congregations seems “on life support” today. Perhaps it’s OK: I can recall stories from before my time about public confessions of premarital pregnancies—yikes—and occasional “interventions” with alcoholics or chronic abusers (which of course strike us as far more reasonable). Congregational social control, if it much exists at all, seems pretty ineffective today. People really do mind their own business. And so we’ve largely become self-policing.
But the problem is that people still yearn for social control and authority. They want some things to be out of bounds, and at bottom social order and external authority is what helps people get through tough times. Parents have always known that about children. But parents, too, want order in their own lives. And yet we’re ambivalent about authority outside of the self. It seems risky.
Back to the question: what are congregations for? In a consumer-oriented society, social support will be what people say they want. But what if what they’ve become poor at—social order and authority—is what people really need?