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Churchgoers and Other Strangers

I visit a lot of church buildings that are home to a number of community groups. There's a regular rhythm to their activities: A scouting program, initially launched by parents in the congregation and continuing with new generations of nonchurch families and a beloved leader. A soup kitchen, approved by the church board after some dissent and now managed by a professional staff, including a paid coordinator of volunteers who drums up help from local businesses and college students. There's a dieters' support group, a neighborhood association and many others. In my own community, everyone who's anyone (a group leader) has a key to "the church on the corner." There are even neighborhood key keepers who are not church members, although in a crisis they may remember "someone who goes there, I think."

Yet for all of the good work happening inside these buildings, an unseen wall seems to separate these ministries from church members. I talked with an AA member who attends a meeting almost every night in one church or another. He prefers AA meetings that are held in churches because he believes that "church buildings make a difference." But he does not attend any church because, as he says, "I'm not very religious. But I am a deeply spiritual person--I know I need God every day."

A director of a church-based weekday nursery program told me that prayers and worship are emphasized in the daily routine. When I asked if nonchurch parents avoided the church or objected to overt religious education, she replied that she received the most resistance from a few parents who attended other churches. "The nonchurched parents, who compose the majority, say that they love the religious dimension of our program. For one thing, it teaches the children about God. But they also say, 'It relieves the whole family of getting up on Sunday to attend church and Sunday school--we've done that already.' That wasn't what we had in mind," said the director, "but what can you do?"

Like a great oak tree, the church building sometimes shelters nascent believers. In times of personal crises, people seem to seek out pastors for counseling, particularly in those old churches built of gray gothic stone, as if the building itself will stabilize their lives.

They refer to church buildings when giving directions, as if life might be oriented around the building on the corner. In Dynamics of Religion (1978), Bruce Reed describes people who participate in church through a neighbor. They never attend, but they are linked to the church through someone they know who goes there. They find that it feels good, Bruce says, "to live in the shadow of the cross." A/I of these people belong to the weekday ministries of the congregation. They use the church building to enrich their lives even though they are not, and might never be, members.up

Church members are out of touch and uninformed about these program people who live in the shelter of the church. As creatures of habit, church members rarely realize how difficult it is for strangers to find an open door to the building. I have a rule of thumb when trying to enter a church for the first time: if the door is large and close to a well-traveled street (the architect's grand entrance), it is probably unused and locked against intruders and strangers. I have learned to look for the less obvious door, off to the side and down the steps.

Church members tend to orient themselves by the door that they enter every Sunday. They also know their special places, including the pews where they sit and the classrooms they visit, places among their friends where they have a strong sense of belonging. Young and growing churches typically pay careful attention to signs that explain to visitors the options of classes (including weekday programs) and nursery care for small children. In older and more stable congregations, however, "everybody knows" where particular classes are conducted. In my experience, church members know the areas of their own interests, but are frequently unsure about other classes and programs. As I enter such congregations I am reminded of small towns in Mexico where there are no street signs or house numbers because "everyone knows what they need to know."

I am constantly surprised by the wide spectrum of people who exist in the shadow of the same church building but have little contact with each other. I am also astonished, when I see it, by the power of the social, financial and spiritual energy that is generated when - and if - these people get to know one another.

May-June 1998




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