Natural Community

Puzzle Pieces as they Fit

We all share human needs. If I may be so bold, our greatest needs are not physical, but precisely, inescapably that—human.

Within the church, much is made of man’s spiritual needs. Yet everything that we consider spiritual is expressed through human interaction, and nothing else affects us so viscerally. The joy offered by lifeless objects can never exceed the joy experienced with, or through, others. The threat of pain from nature can never exceed the threat of pain from others.

My interactions with people from all walks of life—however wide or narrow one may judge them to be—have led me to a conclusion that I can only express as a personal experience. My conclusion is that there are few places on earth more conducive to the formation of friendship, community and real human relationship, than the church.

If I had not been raised in the church, I would have never imagined what goes on inside. Indeed, a great deal of what goes on in Sunday morning church is unrelated to what’s really going on (although that’s another story in its own right). To all appearances, people file in and out of dusty buildings on a Sunday, and then they go home and live like everyone else. I couldn’t have suspected that the types of relationships that come out of those buildings—some of them—are unlike any I have ever seen in my life.

I’ve never felt the need to collect all the anecdotes and write them down in one place. They’re in my journal, they’re in my memories, and they’re in the memories of those who were there. The church brings people together who would otherwise never have been in the same place, at the same time. It transcends barriers of age, race, and personality that few other milieus can even attempt to overcome. Together, these people end up playing basketball, singing (in many cases, learning to sing), making side-splitting jokes, and causing a whole lot of unconventional scenes in unconventional places, confusing innocent bystanders so thoroughly that they would never guess the truth.

The so-called memetic critique of Christianity tells us not to be surprised that it is widespread. Such a religion is likely to reproduce copies of itself, since it contains instructions to pass itself on, and it offers things that people have trouble finding in other places. But I don’t have a problem with this, because it’s barely a critique at all. Why should we characterize the natural community of the church as ulterior motivation for religious belief? If the church offered cash incentives to newcomers, that would be one thing. But natural community is hopelessly intertwined with the beliefs of the church—if we find it there, it is not simply an explanation of why people “actually” go to church, as if it were guaranteed to arise in any crowd of people believing any number of things! No, it is evidence (at least some of the time) that what they believe is working.

Good ideas are widespread because they’re good ideas, and equally likely to survive in the minds of those who hear them. The real critique lies in the implication that, in the case of Christianity, the reasons for its prevalence are completely unrelated to the reasons people are expected to believe it. This may be true—but then again, maybe it’s precisely the type of evidence that some people are looking for.

The public does not generally perceive the Christian church in the way that I describe it. However, public perceptions are the product of a relatively narrow collection of sound bytes and newspaper clippings. I’ve found few traces of the fabled church that the public believes in. While the façade may be there, some prodding with a sounding pole reveals that the people within are not governed by these appearances. Some of the church’s problems are very real, and I wouldn’t dream of denying that. But those problems—the alleged intolerance, hypocrisy, and so forth—are more like subplots and overtones. They do exist, but (ironically) primarily in the form of memes, rather than in the form of people. The effect is generated on a macroscopic scale because of the accumulating contributions from individual people, none of whom are aware of the true effect that they are producing. All this is beside the point, however. What matters is that in at least some of these places, amazing things happen. People belong, in ways that they would never have otherwise belonged.

Observers go sour when something works that they feel ought not to work. As a result, religion has often been called a crutch for the weak-minded. Such insight! Could they fail to see that medication is a crutch for the weak-bodied, cars are crutches for the weak-legged, and love letters are a crutch for the weak-hearted? I have never seen a broken man walk without his crutches in order that he might better heal.

When the cold analysis is over, it remains that even if I renounced everything I ever believed, I wouldn’t want to leave the church. They wouldn’t kick me out, and unlike a cult, they wouldn’t make me stay. And that plays a small part in what I believe in the first place.


2 Responses to “Natural Community”

  1. I agree with, enjoy and appreciate this entry. It made me smile. 🙂

  2. Been finding the same thing here in that I know more about my new church family than I do about my classmates, despite spending a small fraction of my time with them by comparison. Yet we can remain humble in our unique community precisely because we recognize our need of it.

    Also, I like that last paragraph very much.

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