A friend who is not a member of my church posed a hypothetical to me that I continue to ponder: “Your church is hit by a meteor and completely destroyed and can’t be rebuilt. News media come in from all over the nation and start asking the community about the church. What do people in the community tell them your church did?”
He wasn’t being critical. He was stripping things down to the essential. It is a critical question every faith community should ask itself.
The current pandemic has pulled back the veil on religious congregations and nonprofits alike. Instead of just moving from year to year, taking our mission for granted, we should take a sounding now and then to ask whether our presence does anyone enough good to compel support.
We can argue we don’t need to defend our existence to anyone outside our communities of faith, since our validation comes from heaven, not earth. But most religions talk more about earth than heaven, more about this life than the next.
So, what’s our role?
Some think it’s social welfare. Let the churches take care of the poor and vulnerable, they say. Implicit in our tax-free status is the hope that some of that will happen. But government can do all that without us if it has the will to and is willing to tax us enough to do it.
Some think it’s a society for the promotion of good morals. We hope that’s true, but people of faith aren’t always successful at that, as the news almost daily testifies. A good classical education in public schools could do almost as well.
The surge of the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus has polarized America between those who claim their freedom to reject the vaccination and those who want it mandated. We have deep suspicions of authority and trouble thinking about our behavior beyond self-interest. These challenges go beyond left and right.
At their best, religious congregations are voluntary communities that model for the wider society what it looks like to trust the truth wherever it may be found and to act on behalf of the common good more than individual freedom. We willingly commit ourselves to each other in covenantal relationship, not just claiming our rights but living up to our responsibilities. We say, in effect, I will not become myself without concern for you.
Families do this out of familial affection. But congregations rooted in their faith stories are mediating institutions between the individual and family on the one hand and civil society on the other. We practice neighborliness by our filial love for and deference to one another.
One vital purpose of religious congregations is to be a reminder to the wider world of what might be true for all of us if we cared for neighbors and strangers as we do for siblings of blood or spirit. We hope to be influencers for good, avatars of the possible, harbingers of the world of God’s promise.
GEORGE MASON is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church, president of Faith Commons and host of the “Good God” podcast. The Worship section is underwritten by Advocate Publishing and the neighborhood businesses and churches listed here. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.