I confess that I have something like a love and hate relationship with "church."
I believe that we are made to become a loving community, and that, for those who believe in a loving God, faith communities -- after our own homes -- are the place to start. Indeed, it seems deeply ingrained in us to long for something that shared worship, prayer and fellowship have to offer, even for many who have left these communities or reject religious teaching.
Last year, several Sunday Assembly "atheist churches" were launched in the U.K. and U.S. Taking them at their word, these folks are not gathering to seek God, but as co-founder Sanderson Jones said, to think about "improving yourself and helping other people, and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?"
And yet it is so easy not to like church, as evidenced by recent books such as Why Men Hate Going to Church and Love Jesus, Hate Church. Whether it's aversion to a choice of music, a particular sermon, the donation basket, the peculiar habits of the people in the next pew, or a thousand other things, we can always find something not to like. And many of us can relate to the Tom Waits and Keith Richards lyric, "Well you say that it's gospel, but I know that it's only church."
So we want to be there, but we want it to be different.
If you've spent much time in a Christian congregation in the past several years, you've probably seen the short video MeChurch, a humorous look at adapting church to our personal preferences that shows us how ridiculous that can get. The message is simple: it is not about me. This is no new message; we hear it all the time. Occasionally we even embrace it, even though the exact opposite message prevails in our culture.
The church, of all things, is not about me. It is not about whether a place of worship meets my needs. It is, in part, about the people gathered there and around the world and what I can bring and give to them, and with them, to others.
As Derek Webb sings, imagining the voice of Jesus, "I didn't come for only you ... You cannot care for me with no regard for her. If you love me, you will love the church." We are made to become a loving family, not islands of individuals loving only ourselves.
I write in the context of the Christian faith, but I mean to recognize the good and true that is in all faith communities. Communal gathering places like synagogues, churches, mosques, temples of various kinds, and the atheist Sunday Assembly are not merely different versions of the same institution, to be sure. But they share some truth about how pursuing what is best for each of us is best pursued with others. When we are at our best, they are not so much places we go as loving communities of people we become.
-- Ken Jarman is a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a member of Christ the King Catholic Church in Richland. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.