Community & Congregation

This post was inspired by Elle’s comment on Daily Struggles for Healing.

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During my time at college a group of friends and I occasionally escaped campus early Sunday mornings for coffee (or hot chocolate or orange juice) and donuts, after which time we’d go visit a non-CS church service and get back to campus in time for lunch.

We went to a wide variety of Christian churches: Catholic, Lutheran, non-denominational Christian, Evangelical, Baptist (both the elderly white congregation and African American congregation – they had separate churches), and a CS service to round things out.

Every church we attended was warm and welcoming. Every church we attended had enthusiastic audience participation, and every church we attended had some sort of prayer requests read during the morning announcements as well as Bible Studies or youth activities. Every church we attended had a paid minister and some support staff.

When I say “every church,” I mean every church EXCEPT the Christian Science one.

The congregation, mostly the professors who were not members of the Elsah Church and other Prin support staff, were surprised to see us, but there was no real effort to greet the “visitors” as there had been in most of the other churches. Perhaps this was because they already knew us. Both Baptist churches singled us out for greetings by the Pastor, from the podium, while the other churches clearly had welcoming committees that were on their toes (the Catholic church was an exception to this, but they had 2-3 services a day over a 2-day period so it is easy to see how we might’ve been overlooked).

Christian Science church services are dull at best, they also haven’t changed in over 100 years. The responsive reading and “spiritual interpretation” of the Lord’s prayer trips new comers up, the soloist is usually bad, and most people start to nod off around the third section of the lesson. There are no prayer requests included in the notes from the desk, and most of the language used hails directly from the 1800s. When compared to other religions, CS’s services fall flat.

On one hand, I don’t need to hear about the details of why “Great Aunt Nadine” is doing poorly, stopping with “renal failure” is plenty, but it might be nice to know Ms. T’s kids have the chickenpox, Mr. L is recovering from the flu, and Ms. R’s newborn baby hasn’t slept in 6 weeks straight and she could use some assistance.

Church congregations should be there to assist each other in times of need and come together in times of celebration. Christian Science churches fall woefully short.  As Elle points out:

In CS, if someone isn’t at church, they’re either traveling or dead, pretty much. And you only hear that they were in bed with the flu after they get back… and you’d have been happy to bring them soup or something, but you never even knew and your efforts of kindness in hindsight were thwarted. Very frustrating.

Unless one is close with a fellow church member (or in on the church gossip) you are unlikely to hear about a church member’s problems until they share a testimony about it later – if you hear about it at all, because they might have gone to a doctor in which case they’re unlikely to tell anyone in the congregation lest they be judged (and judged harshly).

Even if someone “working on an issue” they are often reluctant to speak about it, much less share it with the congregation. They must remain firm in their knowledge that they are indeed God’s Perfect Child, and face the error with stoicism. To admit (even to themselves) would be to acknowledge the error and empower it. Until they have achieved a (sharable) healing no one knows. Often no one knows about what is going on with their fellow church members lives, in some ways, this is good (theoretically it cuts back on gossip), but in reality, many people are left working through problems suffering in shameful silence.

I think the biggest difference is that all the other churches had some sort of paid minister and some staff* (or, in the case of the Catholics, a dedicated hierarchy). Church members have a person to turn to if they need assistance. They’re not trying to juggle a job on top of a dozen church committees, ushering, reading, cleaning. In a perfect world the minister is someone the congregation can turn to for guidance, and day-to-day church administration. In reality, I’m not sure how that works because I was raised in CS.

I’m not saying they need full-blown nativity pageants at Christmas, but perhaps an after-church time of singing Christmas carols and refreshments during the holidays, or a Church-wide Christmas gathering (not just a member inviting a select few people to their house), maybe a Church-sponsored Easter egg hunt for the children. The Lutheran church near Principia put on an Oktober Fest for the entire community which included a buffet, raffle and small carnival.

I’ve heard some people argue that the Prin Clubs fulfill this role, but lets be honest, Prin Club events are quite exclusive, and unless you attended Prin, or are the parent of a current student/active alumni, you really don’t quite fit in. I graduated from Prin and I don’t feel totally welcome at Prin Club events, beyond the “hey look! we have a Principian in our midst!” – and I’m often the only Prin graduate and only person under 50.

If I still followed an Abrahamic (most likely Christian) religion, my ideal church would be built by the Catholics in the style of a Gothic cathedral, they would also do the pomp and circumstance, I love their organ music, outfits, and stained glass. I would have an African American Baptist minister to read the Bible, the one at the church we attended read it with passion and familiarity. I would have a Lutheran give the sermon, I don’t really remember the Lutheran pastor’s sermon, but it was mild and unoffensive. The New-Age Evangelicals should provide some music, as should a full gospel choir, and a very good organ/piano player (think Sister Act). The Lutheran and Little Old Baptist church ladies could provide refreshments after the services. The New-Age Evangelicals could also over see childcare.

My ideal church would have prayer requests, if nothing more than a shout out for “Ms. S needs an extra spiritual boost” or “think good thoughts for Mr. R.” If people choose to elaborate, “Ms. E’s kids have the chickenpox” or “Mr. L broke his leg” that would be fine too, so that people could meet the needs that arise in their fellow congregation. Churches should be about fellowship, community, charity and helping others, not just a place to gather on Sundays and get sermonized to.

Of course, this is an impossible dream, so I shall make my community elsewhere, beyond the limitations of Church and Prin Club.

*I do know there is some paid administrative staff for The Mother Church, but they’re also by far the largest of any CS church with several services week (beyond the regular Sundays/Wednesdays) and as The Mother Ship they get a large influx of visitors and tourists.