In 2000 a political scientist named Robert Putnam published a book about the decline of social involvement in the United States called “Bowling Alone”.
He wrote that now we “sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.” He went on to say, “We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by more than 40 percent.” In other words, even as bowling got more popular, more and more people were “bowling alone”.
The book was about a whole lot more than bowling, though. Putnam showed that from their peak years until 1997 almost every major group you can think of lost significant membership: the Freemasons (-71%), the American Legion (-47%), Red Cross volunteers (-61%), the PTA (-60%), Rotary (-25%), and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (-84%).
In other words, we have become a society of un-joiners, disconnected and adrift.
That stands in sharp contrast to the message Paul gives to the church in Corinth in today’s Scripture reading. Paul tells them that the church, the body of Christ, is literally like a body. And like a body has many different parts, hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart…so does the body of Christ. And each of us is one of those parts, each of us belongs to that body, and we all have an essential part to play.
That’s why a lot of times this Scripture is read to mean “the church needs you”. We tell people that they play an important role in the body of Christ, so that’s why we need them here. And, that’s true. The church’s body needs you, and the church needs the person who God has created you to be.
But there’s a flip side of that too, one that maybe we don’t hear about as much. And that’s this: we need the church.
That’s counter-cultural, because we may be a culture that bowls alone, but we are religion-ing alone too. Church attendance has dropped precipitously over the past five decades, and I believe that is because church decline is in a very real way associated with social disengagement as a whole.
Today there are plenty of voices out there telling you that you can connect with God on a hike, or over brunch, or at a party with a bunch of friends. And I’m not saying that’s not true, but at the end of the day, the solitary spiritual life is just that: solitary. And I don’t think God calls us out only to leave us alone. What Paul is saying today proves that.
That doesn’t mean that you are no longer an individual. Each of us has come to the church on our own journey, our roads now converging together. But as members of these communities we call church, we choose to bind part of our journey together. That’s why I am here. That’s why you are here. That’s why each of us is here.
And that’s also what religion is all about. But religion often gets a bad rap.
You can hear that fact in the voices of the people who tell you they are “spiritual but not religious”. The insinuation is often that spirituality is good and pure, untouched by the constraints and failures of human organizations (or maybe even humans themselves), and religion is messy.
But the reality is that everyone has a religion, even those who claim only to be spiritual. Whether we admit it or not, has a system of beliefs or values that defines our life, for good or ill. Each of us is tied to either that which lifts us up, or the baggage that pulls us down. In that sense we might do religion by ourselves, but we can never really do it alone.
Our religions are as varied as we are. We can worship in the church of career advancement, or in the tabernacle of addiction. We can devote ourselves to hobbies, or make sacrifices on the altar of beauty. We can serve money as our ultimate god, or even devote our full faith to the idea that nothing exists beyond ourselves.
Religion is everywhere. At its best our religion can make us better people, the kind who serve not just ourselves but the world. At its worst it can make us self-obsessed narcissists.
It’s the communities we are a part of that can make a difference. They’re places where we are bound together with one another. They are also the places where we’re asked to do something quite counter-cultural: make a commitment.
There’s a debate going on in clergy circles about whether we should do away with formal membership in the church. Jesus never required people to sign a membership roll, some reason, and people just aren’t “joiners” anymore anyway.
And yet, community and commitment go hand in hand. Community, at its best, requires something from us. It is not just enough to be consumers, but in a society where consumer culture reigns supreme, that’s a radical idea. Even the church has too often shaped itself around the needs of “church shoppers” and those who seek entertainment first on a Sunday morning.
We’re often wary of asking people to make a commitment for fear that we will scare them off. And so, we trash the membership roll. We sheepishly hand out pledge cards telling people to fill one out if they feel like it. We tell confirmation students that they can skip worship for Sunday morning soccer practice and still get confirmed.
Which is too bad, because in a real way commitments make us clarify our priorities, and our sense of identity.
Recently I realized just how much so when I turned away an opportunity to join a local service club. Not only did membership in this club require attendance at weekly meetings, but members were expected to make up for weeks they missed by attending the meetings of neighboring clubs.
I have to admit I was impressed by the idea that membership required something. In the end, I knew my schedule wouldn’t let me make the commitment. But in an unintended way, the club’s demands for my commitment forced me to clarify what really mattered to me.
I think we’re often reluctant to make similar requests for commitment in the church because we are afraid of rejection. If we ask for people to clarify their priorities, they just may discover that church is not one of them and leave for good. And that terrifies us.
That’s too bad, because community requires the sort of commitment that has the power to deepen our faith in ways we can’t imagine. It can even define us in powerful ways.
Each week, in my weekly email to you, I start with the same salutation: Dear Church. I worry at times that it sounds a bit impersonal. I could say “Dear members and friends of the Congregational Church in Exeter”, for instance. But I believe that “Dear Church” is actually the most warm and personal greeting I can use.
That’s because the church is who we are. Church is not a place we go or a group we join. It is the community that ties us together, and strengthens us for the lives our faith calls us to lead. Each of us is the church. And, paradoxically, none of us can be the church alone.
As Christians we believe that the church is the living body of Christ, active and alive in the world. If you are going to follow Jesus Christ, the one who called his disciples into community, why would you not want to be a part of that body in some form?
But the truth is that hasn’t always been easy for me, and maybe it hasn’t for your either. As an young Christian I wrestled with congregations. They always seemed to be messing things up and making mistakes. They were messy and frustrating. They seemed to be magnets for hard personalities and people on power trips. I truly believed that if Jesus came back the last place he’d be caught dead in was a church.
Things changed for me when I was able to acknowledge that church was indeed a frustrating, messy, difficult place filled with imperfect people. Including me. And so was the first church that Jesus called to surround him. Jesus never planted himself in the midst of perfect people. He always chose works in progress. The key is that he never chose them alone. I think he knew we’d need more than ourselves.
I’ll close with this. I was once listening to Mary Luti talk about how we learn to be followers of Christ. Despite her own deeply academic background, she didn’t tell us to read more books, study harder, or attend more seminary classes. Instead she said this: find someone whose Christian life you admire and study them instead.
I realized in that moment that this simple practice was exactly how I learned what it meant to be a Christian. It didn’t matter how many degrees in theology I pursued. It mattered that I had people in my life who lived their daily lives in ways that glorified God.
I thought of a mentor of mine who in my 20’s taught me to live in faith and not in fear. I thought about the way she talked about her own faith journey, and about how it shaped her priorities. And I thought about how even things that had seemed insignificant at the time, like the ways she showed up for me when I needed it, or the words she used when she prayed, had taught me powerful lessons about God.
And I realized a simple truth: I’m a follower of Jesus Christ, but I’m also following in the footsteps of a mighty cloud of witnesses who have walked these same roads. So are we all.
Without the community surrounding us, and binding us to one another, we become lost so easily. But when others light the way for us, we find that the paths we can take to follow Christ are all around us, and we have multitude of willing companions on the journey. We are one body. And we need one another. Amen?