Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Church in the State.

I was reading one of my books or packets or handouts, whatever it was, and I discovered a fairly disconcerting fact. Evangelical church goers (denominations such as Southern Baptist, National Baptist, other independent or branches of Baptists, Pentecostal, Holiness churches, Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free, Christian, and Missionary Alliance) are 20% less likely than Catholics to be involved in a non-religiously affiliated civic association (YMCA, PTA, Red Cross, NRA, NAACP, community associations- anything you can think of, really), and Evangelicals are 50% less likely to be involved in a civic association unaffiliated with their church than what are called “mainline” Protestants (these being Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, American Baptist, and United Church of Christ).

This, to me, is troubling. I read an entire article on this, and I am almost livid! I mean, ok, I understand it to a great degree. The examples they use (and not in a negative way mind you- this article has nothing to do with religion bashing or roe vs. wade, this is purely speaking to civic engagement) refer to Evangelicals (which can be a scary term, but let’s accept their ‘official’ groupings for now) who generally are highly involved (in fact in the survey they are more involved in their churches, they are more ‘faithful’ church-goers, etc) in their OWN churches. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but this article’s argument is that the inward gaze of evangelical churches is injuring civic America.

How? Well it makes sense. While evangelical churches are growing their own congregations and ministering to their own people, the communities outside reap no benefit. I think those of us who have attended ANY Evangelical church can identify with this, even if the church was successful in breaking this mold. Take our dear friend WHBC. How many outward, or “block party” ministries does a church this size offer? They have the Open Hand Ministry, which provides canned foods and other fresh foods for distribution to the needy in the community every other Saturday. It turns out that this is the only publicly advertised, consistent, and regular (these being the two key words in my mind) that the church offers. There are also such events as the Cantatas and the Christmas Dinner theatre that are annual events highly publicized in the community (though really mostly self-serving to draw people into the church, and into the body of believers ultimately, of course… but not a pro-active approach to practical community aid). Alternatively, they have over ten committees or groups that meet regularly throughout the year (and this is a very conservative count) that serve groups within the church. There is nothing wrong with the fact that the church functions to serve its members and the body within it.

The problem comes when it is so perversely limited to the service of those within its walls.

Another group that could be considered is the Navigators. Lots of Bible studies, lots of cool trips, lots of neat things to do and learn and meeting and ways to get involved… not so many opportunities to reach out into the NYU community or greater New York area. This is being aided by several programs that are started like the Alpha Course, the things that have been in place like the seeker-studies, and then the social action committee which does its best to meet bi-weekly and plan events for the group as a whole to reach out into the surrounding community. Still, the majority of time and energy is spent inwardly, looking to the needs of the members, of the people’s lives who are, in the end, relatively ideal and healthy.

This is not to say that the navigators or Washington Heights should give up serving the people who compose its numbers. It is not at all a criticism of the service and love that they give to the people who faithfully attend, or the newcomers. It is not an indictment of the core values or ideals or beliefs these (and many other) establishments hold. It is merely meant to be a reality check. Something is off balance.

If you’re thinking I’m coming from a secular perspective here, you’re right. But you better be careful, because I’m pretty sure Jesus hung out with prostitutes, homeless people, beggars, sick, insane, wandering, broken-hearted NON-Jews, and for that matter non-Christians. This, to me, indicates that he wanted us to reach beyond (though not neglect) our Peter, Paul, and Mary, and go chat it up with the Samaritan women of our community.

So how do we change? Well it’s tough. It is especially tough within a church because of the, to be honest, bureaucratic kind of set up that often results. And that’s a whole other issue, of course, but for now, all I’m saying is there are lots of people who make decisions, and usually those aren’t the ones reading this blog (hard to believe, eh?). I think where it can begin is our individual recognition that we’re called to better the WORLD, and that doesn’t mean flying to Africa. And now that we’ve said that for the millionth time (since we all hear it once a month….) let’s act on it. What are ways we can get involved passed the ends of our noses? It’s going to take TIME. It’s going to take ENERGY. It’s going to take INVESTMENT. But I’m pretty sure (actually, I dare say, fairly dang confident) that it will be worth it.


Anonymous said...

I would love to talk with you more about this in person. You seem to be really passionate about this, and I'm really excited because (if you're still going on the retreat) the topic is being a disciple. I don't know if this has been coming through very clearly, but we really want to bring Navs in the direction that you're talking about. I agree... there is a lot of time and energy, perhaps disproportionatly so, spent on the community itself, but we're trying to get people excited about looking outward. Yes, it's gonna take time and sacrifices and discomfort, but like you said it'll be worth it.

It's late and I'm probably not making sense. I think I probably just repeated everything you said. But whatever... we'll talk.