May 5, 2017 column
The Contribution of the Church to Society
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
More and more people these days believe that the day of religion and the church is past. In the last census, 35% of the people in British Columbia identified “none” as their religion. It marks a sea change in our society.
One of the questions raised by this kind of data is, “If fewer people identify with a religion, what kind of contribution does the church make to society?”
When I first entered ministry, people still asked the church for its viewpoint on public social issues. The church would make statements, and political leaders would listen. That’s no longer true. In fact, the church can’t even offer prayers at City Council meetings these days.
So does the church even contribute to society any longer? If so, how?
I think the church does still make a worthwhile contribution. Let me list three here.
Firstly, the church challenges people to be their very best selves.
As a preacher, I have the extraordinary privilege of preaching to a community gathered expectantly to listen for a word from God. We seek words which challenge us, direct us, and exhort us to seek to leaven the life of society with goodness and grace.
We gather together in the church to hear words which hold up for us an alternative vision of what life could be in our lives and in our world. In the church, we call this good news. Every week, we are challenged to go out and love the world in the name of God—which means engaging in actions which show God’s love at work, and which seek to make life better for all.
It strikes me, especially in these days in 2017, that any place where people gather purposely to be challenged to be more kind, more just, more self–controlled, more merciful, more compassionate, more forgiving, more peaceable, more loving, less self–centred, and so on, is doing something important. The church helps people seek higher ground in their lives. That’s not a small thing.
Secondly, the church counsels and comforts people in times of crisis.
As a priest, I have the high privilege of being invited into people’s lives when they are at the end of their rope. I work with people, seeking to find comfort and meaning when a loved one dies. I make hospital visits. I speak with parents about the challenges they face with their children. I work with people whose marriages are falling apart, or with life after divorce, or dealing with kids with drug problems.
I find that there are still people who sometimes turn to the church for counsel and comfort in times of crisis. The church is available to help people deal with serious pain, grief and loss.
At the same time, the church is there for lonely people. People join with us because they have few friends, or they are aging and their families have moved away, or because they need to find people with whom they can share some time, or a meal. I could name many people for whom our church is their primary community and their emotional lifeline.
If the church is helping people weather crises in their lives, keep their emotions together, take good care of their kids, avoid making destructive decisions, and grieve their most painful losses, we are doing something important. It is important not just for the individuals involved, but also because every person who is able to be sustained by the church doesn’t have to be rescued (or imprisoned or treated) by some other institution in society. That’s not a small thing.
Thirdly, the church provides a space for a community that transcends political and ideological loyalties.
North America has become increasingly tribalized in the last few years. We divide along political lines, economic lines, ideological lines, educational, moral and religious lines. We stay in our own little tribal groups, and mostly avoid crossing those boundaries to encounter the stranger.
Now, there are some churches which maintain those tribal identities. They are associatrions of like–minded people.
But a lot of churches transcend them. Some people in my church have signs on their front lawns for Tom Shypitka, and others for Randall McNair. Some watch Fox news, others watch CNN, still others watch MSNBC or CBC or CTV. Some of us like country music, while others much prefer classical music. We have poor folk, and those who are well off. We talk together across these tribal boundaries, and we work at living together.
What we have discovered is that in the midst of all our diversity, we are bound together as a community in Jesus who unites us.
As churches help to break down these kinds of boundaries, we are doing something important. We are making a major contribution to the life of our city, our province, our country. That’s not a small thing.
So here’s to the humble local congregation. We still make a surprising contribution to public life through our everyday work. It’s not “news”. But it is important.