Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once suggested that people usually approach life with routine but sometimes need to draw upon understanding. It saves time to tie my shoes without reflection. But let me injure my hand, and reflection comes into play: I may have to ask a friend to do the tying, or find slip-on loafers.
Congregations could function one way before September 11, 2001. Call this routine. Now they are called to be reflective, to rethink their character and situation. They need understanding. They must seek to discern their public role.
Joining the Human Race
Facing sudden cultural change, uprooted from the luxury of routine, congregations demand inquiry for understanding. The crisis of insecurity is one element that demands the congregation’s understanding. In 1951 theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described the United States as a paradise of domestic security suspended in a hell of international insecurity. On September 11 that cord was cut, and we joined the vulnerable human race. We have had to re-explore our ties—to family, country, voluntary association, and religious institution. The congregation is by far the most pervasive social form designed to “house” the 1.8 billion people that make up that one-third of the human race called Christian. Four decades ago these institutions seemed confined to private and personal life, to family and leisure time, beside the point in a culture of relevancies. Things political, economic, mass communicative, and commercial were relevant; they had their act together. Local churches seemed powerless and unimaginative.
Surprise! No institutions today (including, one must say, congregations) have their act together in a way that merits boasting. Congregations, however, have outlasted many of the other forms, and bid fair to endure. Routines that went with relative irrelevance must be replaced by the understanding that comes with a new situation.
The crisis of September 11 brought people together momentarily, as if in one national congregation. Yet these gatherings had no mechanism to sustain them. Yes, we had to pull together for defense, military mission, and fiscal support. But the ad hoc national conversation and community gatherings were not self-sustaining.
In the following weeks I monitored the public press. Many newspapers reported on reactions and adaptations in congregations as they had not for decades; they even quoted sermons. Why? Because local laypeople and their clergy had the stronger sense of what was happening, what toll it took on the human heart, and where to find resources to face the future. Press coverage is not the whole story. Dealing with and observing congregational leaders, as the Alban Institute sets out to do, is more revealing. Clergy and lay folk alike, in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic spheres, knew that the increased attendance after 9/11 would not last. They shifted gears and faced the “long pull” of using the religious message to build community, minister to fears, and inspire acts of mercy. When the lights went out after the interfaith gatherings at Washington National Cathedral and Yankee Stadium, local congregations with their often small flocks set out to address global and national needs and situations of hungry hearts in the age of insecurity. This paragraph points to a feature of congregations I want to highlight—their public circumstances and impetus. I think that conceiving of the congregation as a public, in public, and among publics is basic to the plot, though often neglected in “routine” times.
Such an observation goes against the grain of folkloric observation. To many, the congregation represents the plural version of private life in a nation where people have often deemed religion “a private affair.” Yet many dimensions of congregations are public.
Congregations as a Public
Thus, we can see the congregation as a public. Critics rightfully see that many congregations can look like huddles, become enclaves, develop carapaces, and attract look-alikes and be-alikes. Yet whoever serves even the most apparently homogeneous of these knows that they include diversities of personality, interest, taste, worldview, ambitions, and ministries. Romantics may look back with nostalgic favor on, say, medieval synagogues or New England parish congregations, as they might look with disfavor on suburban cookie-cutter parishes organized after World War II.
When social historians get close to those synagogues, compressed as they were in the small ghetto and made up of one people, they find tremendous contention, variety, and creative chaos. New England historians find that the village green suggested homogeneity only superficially.
If congregations were that way in times before pluralism and mass communication jostled most citizens, it is ever more true that congregations are made up of publics. Quaker educator Parker Palmer’s The Company of Strangers serves better to describe most than would words like The Ideal Community. Good preachers know this; committee leaders and agents of voluntary action to support justice and mercy soon learn it. The congregation is a public.
Second, more than we used to notice, the congregation is in public. Decades ago most who heard that notion would think one was supposing that all congregations were or should be engaged in political action (or should shun it). But public does not equal politics; it is a genus of which politics is a species. The congregation is “in public” because it is largely tax-exempt and concerned about zoning, building permits, and protection. It is in public beyond this sense, however, in positive ways. First, it disperses congregants into their vocations and professions, their situations and circumstances, all week long. Second, most congregations seek, beginning with “public prayer” and continuing through acts of care, to have an impact on public transactions. Third, its members often become part of alliances through which they work with people who do not agree on all details of religious confession and may, indeed, have nothing to do with religion.
Finally, congregations are among publics. First Presbyterian shares city space and agenda with Second Presbyterian, and both with First United Methodist, and all three with Holy Rosary, and all four with Har Zion, and all five with the friendly neighborhood mosque. All these get jumbled in the Yellow Pages under “churches and synagogues.” But they deal with publics on racial grounds. First United Methodist and First African Methodist Episcopal relate partly to diverse and sometimes contending publics. They may share concerns pro and con with the American Civil Liberties Union or Focus on the Family. They may represent different classes and aesthetic predilections.
In all these, the congregation is poised to do two things. The first looks “private.” It represents the core, magnetic, centripetal aspect: members hear the message, celebrate the sacred rites, nurture the next generation, comfort and console and inspire. And it is “public” if it then sets out to overcome thick walls and vast boundaries, shares some rites with other “publics,” cares about the civil order, and sends members out into it.
Now, these aspects look somewhat different in the present crisis, when we need new understanding. But I would hate to leave the impression that “understanding” always drives congregations to be kinetic, fickle, desperate to be busy and relevant. One hopes that members are given the luxury of having adjusted to some dimensions of the understood life sufficiently that they can render some of them routine.
At their best, congregations can relegate some of their finest features to the ordinary, the habitual, the taken-for-granted—so that they can be free to pursue ne
w understandings, and thus fulfill missions of justice and compassion to which virtually all of them, they will say, are called—when they congregate.