What are local churches for?

Note: This article first appeared in The Daily on April 29, 2012 under the headline “Good Works.” It is no longer extant on their site so I have republished it here.

When I was an intern at a church on the south side of Chicago, I watched my veteran supervising pastor respond to the endless parade of human need that came to our door. He would listen, ask a few questions and then disappear into a big storage closet at the back of the church office. Moments later, he would emerge with a bus pass, a pair of shoes, an item of clothing or some food. He didn’t have much, but he always had something.

I’ve spent most of my career, such as it is, working with people like that pastor in places like that little church — places with care-worn carpeting on the floors, crumbling plaster on the walls and undermanned choirs battling through psalms. In that time, I’ve watched my colleagues respond to all sorts of human desperation by quickly calculating the odds of fraud or danger and matching up what they have to give, either material or moral, to the person at the door.

For better or worse, these, and not the mall-scaled mega churches, are what come to mind when I encounter the current, popular disdain for brick-and-mortar church communities as voiced by some pundits. “The institutions” of organized religion “have outlasted their original purpose,” pastor and author Christian Piatt wrote recently at the Huffington Post, by way of explaining why young people stay away from church. In his new book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” New York Times columnist (and practicing Roman Catholic) Ross Douthat describes the way in which evangelical “parachurch ministries” aimed at small segments of the population and organized around charismatic individuals threatened “to supplant the idea of the institutional church entirely,” even as the notion of an “unchurched Christian” has become common. And Slate’s Matthew Yglesias asks, quite reasonably, why we exempt church real estate from property taxes. “If we believed that building more splendid temples would appease the Gods and give us good harvests this would make perfect sense, but none of our popular religions hold that as a tenet,” Ygelsias concludes.

Whatever legitimate purpose one imagines a church serving — providing charity or spreading the Good News or offering a sense of meaning — is widely understood to be separable from the institution itself, from its physical plant, flawed leaders and hypocritical worshipers. Among Christians, at least, this is a comparatively new understanding. Protestants and Catholics battled over how to define and identify the true church during the Reformation, but no one argued that you could be a Christian without participating in that church. It was not thought of as a social organization, but as the body of Christ, created by God to endure until the end of time. This is admittedly a rather counterintuitive concept today. And leaving that article of faith aside, people in my position do owe the world an answer to questions like those raised by Yglesias and Piatt.

So why do churches still matter? For one thing, a church, or any religious community, is a sort of first responder to social problems. Churches have stepped in where housing policy has failed, providing badly needed beds for homeless people in the Chicago suburbs. Church professionals are front-line mental health care providers, usually intervening in family crises more quickly (and cheaply) than a therapist can. Churches are the major cultural institution for a lot of Americans, the only place we sing or play instruments or absorb something like a public lecture. They provide space for all kinds of hermit-crab community groups, from Alcoholics Anonymous to after-school tutoring. And they offer access to social capital to people whose schools and extended families aren’t as helpful as they could be. Churches are, for many people, the only place where they mingle on equal terms with those of different generations, economic classes or political ideologies (though we don’t mingle too much across racial lines, unfortunately).

Quite remarkably, these things tend to be true whether a church is “liberal” or “conservative,” whether it exists under a priestly hierarchy or an egalitarian lay leadership, whether its prominent figures wear us out with their position-taking or avoid the political arena altogether. This is not to say, as politicians like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan have recently suggested, that churches can step in to replace the social safety net. But in their own small, often invisible ways, local churches do something that I am tempted to call radical in our segmented, individualistic society: They ask us to bear with one another.

The mere fact that a drug addict and a drug company executive may both be equally welcome somewhere is not the sort of thing we should take for granted. Even the fashionable critics of the institution of the church tend to admire the Biblical social ethic we try to preach — an ethic of forgiving others even as we seek forgiveness, of loving our neighbors as ourselves. But to actually do that requires a willingness to face people directly, with their warts and hypocrisy and misguided politics and bad singing. The church may have outlived its purpose, whatever one thinks that is, but we still have a lot of those people. And if you happen need a bus pass, I’ll see what I can do.

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