Starting a few years ago, I began to question everything I had learned about religion. I’m not talking so much about a crisis of faith, although I was willing to reject previous conclusions about God and look on everything with a doubt that I believe is healthy. I’m talking more about a rejection of business as usual in terms of how religious communities are structured.
I am sympathetic to that urge in American life which says, “Why do I need a synagogue/church/group/whatever?”
I read a book by George Barna called Revolution in which he described the massive number of people who go it alone in the faith world, dabbling in activities here and there at different mega-churches without committing or getting involved anywhere.
I attended a few experimental communities which shared a love for God, people, and helping people in need.
I went to see a Christian philosopher speak who has a community in Ireland where people meet in bars and watch performance art.
I attended minyan at an Orthodox synagogue.
For a while I though, “No one needs the kind of work I do or a congregation.” I thought about the synagogues and churches and the money spent on buildings and land. I thought, “It’s all such a waste.”
For all the failures of domesticated religion, which we all know and which tend to be trumpeted from every internet rooftop with regularity, it seems to me that the problem is not the idea of congregating with the same community week in and week out.
The fact is, we would do well to value a few things like worship, loyalty, community, learning, and service.
I have heard from the people who increasingly think God is a private matter, a sort of hobby that can be pursued informally at home and moving from group to group with no commitment. Barna calls these people revolutionaries and fairly praises them as if their choice is courageous.
I never felt a perpetual inability to commit and serve others was a virtue.
There is something about congregation that can be powerful. For every stuck in the mud synagogue and church service, I will submit to you there are those that shine. A teaching or speaking brings a tear, inspires, enlightens, motivates. A community prayer and worship removes temporarily the blinders that make this world seem godless and without hope and light. A round of laughter over lunch with people who share values and lives with one another lightens the load of a life that can be monotonous. A community bigger than our family is there to help us when our family is in crisis.
I feel that I have thoroughly questioned the congregational model. I now draw half of my income outside of the congregation. I am not a member of the priestly class simply defending my right to make a living by the congregational model. I’d give it up with no regrets if I thought it was a sham, a religious excuse to have a lazy job (ha! want to do my work for one month?).
Whether its the Temple at the festivals in ancient Israel three times a year or the synagogue in Babylonian exile or the modern synagogue or church, there is power in not only gathering in groups, but with the same people who become an extended family.
And there is power in loyalty to a group of friends, sticking it out through good and bad times, and being there long-term for and with each other.
It can work in a theater or a coffee shop, but it works even better in a building with fewer distractions. So don’t laugh at those stuck-in-the-muds who go to their building week in and week out. Experimental communities have nothing on simple congregations laser-focused on community, learning, worship, and service.
The Psalmist was glad when people said to him, “Let’s go to the house of the Lord” (Psa. 122). Our need to congregate is a human reality and to deny it is only to fool ourselves.