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, [Read more…]