Who needs church?

The purpose of church may not be apparent in everyday life. But there comes a moment when we all wonder if everyday life is all there is. Church is waiting to help answer that question.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
The winter evening sky sweeps above an Episcopal summer chapel in Biddeford Pool, Maine.

Churches come in all shapes and sizes – a white-steepled Colonial nestled among Vermont maples; a cherub-packed basilica commanding a Roman boulevard; a megacampus hard by the interstate. A church can even spring up in a defunct Pizza Hut.

How and where people worship is constantly changing. Denominations may begin with a fervent few, rise to prominence, decline. Others reinvent themselves. And always there are new ones springing up. Churchgoing mirrors shifting populations and cultures. It’s like that old finger-play game of “Here is the church; here is the steeple.” Open the doors: Some churches are empty, some full.

Nowhere is denominational churn as pronounced as in New England. Five hundred years ago, religious refugees fled there, only to establish virtual theocracies. Later came Unitarians and other theists, gospel skeptics whose open-mindedness helped frame the US Constitution. Next up were the personal-savior preachers of the first and second “great awakenings” who fostered a populist Christianity. Then it was on to the transcendentalists with their celebration of nature and community.

Today’s New England is still a religious incubator. While it’s in the forefront of the “unchurched” trend – the growing numbers who see themselves as spiritually-minded but not denominational – New England is also seeing a mushrooming of nonmainstream churches. Jeff MacDonald’s cover story in the Monitor Weekly locates that creative burst in a desire for hands-on, make-a-difference faith.

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that this publication is sponsored by a New England-born denomination that, like many, has both thriving branches and shrinking ones. I asked Margaret Rogers, one of five members of the board of directors of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, about the ebb and flow of religiousness over the decades. She observed that children often push away from the familiar and traditional as they grow up but embrace those same qualities as they mature. 

Through it all, she said, there remains “a natural yearning that never goes away,” a hunger for communion with something beyond ourselves and for community with others seeking the same thing. Perhaps that’s why the founder of the Christian Science church, Mary Baker Eddy, saw church in deeper terms than just a building or congregation, describing it as the “structure of Truth and Love.”

In every era, churches change, but not their essential purpose. That’s important, because when we least expect it, we can suddenly wonder why we’re here and where we’re going. Church can give us a way to work that out. The great novelist of faith and family, Marilynne Robinson, in her nonfiction book “Absence of Mind,” describes that sudden startling thought about our purpose in life as originating in the “haunting I who wakes us in the night.” That “I,” she notes, is surprisingly close to the biblical name for God: “I AM.”

That “I” can shake us awake in a soaring cathedral or call quietly in an abandoned Pizza Hut. We can hear it when mowing the lawn on a summer’s day or feel it in a crowd of shoppers on a sparkly Christmas Eve.

And after we wake up?

Maybe church – not the building, but the essence of church – helps us understand what to do next. 

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at editor@csmonitor.com.

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