On Sunday my church had a conversation about community. The discussion began with sharing positive experiences about belonging to a community, any type of community. Many of those brought up were secular groups relating to employment or profession, interests or hobbies and school groups such as one’s graduating class. We discussed what made these communities enjoyable to be a part of. Then the discussion moved to our church community (an Episcopal church rather small in membership). We worked to identify benefits or essential elements of our community. Some of the qualities that came up were: acceptance, forgiveness, love, support, faith, presence of the Holy Spirit and a feeling of family. Some of these elements may be found in (secular) hobby or professional groups. But I would argue that many would be uncommon outside of a faith community.
It has been argued that religion was more central in societies of the past because it was the main source of community. But as time went on, other secular groups came about to fulfill community based needs. This argument is often employed to explain the decrease in religious participation through the past decades. But it seems to me that people still have many needs that can be met almost exclusively by communities of faith. Secular communities cannot address some of people’s most vital needs. And yet the pews are empty. If faith communities are the only place some needs can be fulfilled, then people are going without. And probably having a rough time of it too, which means they do not have much confidence to come back or try new churches, further exacerbating the problem.
It is the up to people of faith to invite and bring people to church. To be gracious and welcoming, to share all the benefits of being part of a faith community. Whether it be church, temple or study group, people are missing out on what these faith communities have to offer: acceptance, forgiveness, divine presence in one another and love. Who couldn’t use a bit more of that?