Community, identity, and spiritual experience are not found exclusively in the Christian domain. Jill describes religion in the following way.
It’s a way to make sense of a hectic and confusing world, and to find people who are making sense of the world in the same way. It’s a gathering of your own people. It offers absolution. It gives us rules to live by and helps to create a set of the shared values and beliefs that keep a society functional. It can encourage academic and spiritual exploration. It offers hope and light when we feel alone and lost. It promises to answer “why,” to give us a reason for our existence and a justification for the hardships we face. It maintains traditions, sometimes thousands of years old, through which we can understand who and where we are, connect to a past and situate ourselves in the long trajectory of human existence.
This is bare bones human need… It doesn’t need a terrified conscience, manufactured or otherwise to shame people to Jesus. It doesn’t need a third use of the law to keep people in an assembly no matter how much a community fails them. Its a much much bigger deal than just deriving ones identity through community.
It also can be fulfilled quite well by any number of religions or even non-religious entities.
Even in relative isolation, spirituality can be experienced. Consider the following from Libby Anne in what is a church.
My husband Sean was raised in a religious family, but he has never had what he would call a “spiritual experience.” I tried to explain to him what it felt like to be so lost in prayer as to feel at one with God and through him the universe, or to be enraptured during a particularly moving hymn in church. Because he had never had them, he couldn’t understand what I meant by a “spiritual experience.” Then he and I went to a concert together and I watched as the music transformed him. We took a walk in the woods and I watched as nature thrilled his soul. I explained to him that the feelings people have when they have “spiritual experiences” are the same feelings he gets at a good concert or during a walk through a patch of wilderness, or while looking at the stars or studying physics. And then he understood.
Where the rubber hits the road and sets Christianity apart from religion is the incarnation, Jesus, the son of God in the flesh… but if we put so many barriers in place, how will people get there? How does edification of the fellow believers take place? How does discipleship happen?
I think part of the problem is that much of contemporary Christianity has a low anthropology quotient. We far too often gloss over the basic human need for religion, we lean towards a moralistic pietism, or swing towards gnosticism in the pew, and then wonder why folks end up leaving the community of faith.
I tend to think a fair number of folks are checked out, but may still be present. Ie, they compartmentalize and are present for an hour or two every Sunday for worship and in some cases Sunday school, but they walk separately for the other 166 hours in a week. I know this all too well, as I’ve done it myself sometimes by circumstance, sometimes intentionally. Some are likely to argue “the Gospel is enough and scriptures tell us not to forsake corporate worship, that’s all we need…” I think they are missing the point, but such is for a different blog post.
In years past, there was a reliance on communal identity as a means of retention, but it was a masking thing. It sort of parallels the reliance on birthrate evangelism rather than the making of disciples and the spreading of the Gospel. Taken to an extreme, it leaves the door open to abusive and other practices counter to the Gospel.
Such is why I see opportunities abounding as identity through community becomes less and less a factor within Christian assembly.