Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why (Many) People Really Go to Church

This morning, while walking the dog down a switchback trail from the G. Ross Lord reservoir to the West Don River, I came upon an elderly woman dressed in many layers of Middle-Eastern garb, including a headscarf. Her clothes were old and drab. She walked with a limp and a pronounced stoop. No one else was around.

She was bending over and rising, bending over and rising, putting something that she was finding down by her boots into a plastic bag. As I approached her, I said “Hello! What are you collecting?”

She looked at me with real fright. I smiled, tried to disarm her. I pointed to her bag. She showed me—still, with real fright in her face. The bag was full of young dandelions, not yet flowering. She put her free hand to her lips and said, “Eat.” But she was also completely unnerved.

Maybe she was scandalized by meeting me alone, a man. Maybe she was afraid of me because it was a desolate place. Maybe she was worried about how to handle conversation, her English being nonexistent. Maybe she was ashamed to be collecting dandelions, or ashamed of seeming so out of place, or maybe it was all the above.

Walking home, it struck me that it can be very hard to be an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land. No wonder so many immigrants stick together in whatever places they can find to do so. When I was a teen I worked in a chicken processing plant where most employees were either of Portuguese or Dutch extraction. When I used to go for a walk in the park in Cobourg I was always amazed that so many Pakistanis beat me there, especially since I didn’t think any of them lived in town. But then I remembered meeting the Dutch clans, as a kid, on the beach at Niagara-on-the-Lake, also on Saturdays.

It is hard to be an immigrant. No wonder, then, that so many also stick together in church or mosque or temple or synagogue. One thing that many of us—the Muslim woman picking dandelions, my many Jewish neighbors near Toronto’s Bathurst St., and I as a child of Dutch immigrants have in common is that ethnic religious services and communities play a huge role in helping us adjust to life in the diaspora.

At the same time, as children and sometimes even their elders adjust, the role such faith communities play in immigrants’ lives usually plummets. The faith communities themselves slowly wither away, usually while trying hard to deny their ethnic reasons for being, and while spinning off conservative splinter groups that continue to deny they’re ethnic groups in part by yelling louder and louder about their doctrinal distinctives.

But ethnic churches usually do go into decline. Since I’ve left the Christian Reformed church I’ve started noticing others who have done so. I have realized I can make lists many, many names long. These lists include family, friends, people I grew up with, people I went to parochial school with, and readers of my book, blog, and Twitter feed. My guess is that less than half of the Christian Reformed kids I grew up with still belong.

But it isn’t just the Christian Reformed Church. When I drive through my mother’s neighbourhood, in Brampton, just outside of Toronto, I’m struck by how many Sikhs walk the streets. They’ve mostly done very well. Of course, there have been racial and ethnic tensions along the way, but people are finding ways to get along. They’re a part of the landscape now.

How do I know they are Sikhs? Well, there were newspaper articles about how and why Brampton has become a favourite destination. There is a Sikh temple around the corner of my mother’s home. But mostly, Sikhs look like Sikhs: turbans and flowing robes and hairnets for younger men and great majestic beards and long hair and no earrings. Sikhs are hard to miss, and their dress is definitely a lot less boring than most of ours!

But last time I was in Brampton, it struck me how many people in my mom’s neighbourhood also looked like lapsed Sikhs. These were mostly younger men and women, who had the same beautiful olive complexion and dark hair, who often walked with other Sikhs, but who also wore miniskirts and t-shirts and jeans, colored hair highlights in many styles and bling—people who were obviously not participating in anything like Sikh orthodoxy. Many, many younger Sikhs must be leaving their temples and striking out on their own. Not so different than in my old Dutch Christian Reformed community.

What does it mean? Well, to the degree a temple or church or mosque relies on ethnicity to thrive (whether this is acknowledged or not) it probably will, but only for a generation or two. The thing is, like sticky notes, ethnic glue is not strong and dependable for the long term. Many who belong to such ethnic communities will leave when the protection and support such communities provide is no longer needed. Their leaving will also demonstrate that the spiritual convictions that were supposed to be at the heart of these communities are not and were not nearly as compelling as the spiritual leaders, professors, and teachers thought they were. Most people belong to spiritual communities for reasons other than what those communities teach from their pulpits or podiums.

Don’t get me wrong. I now belong to a denomination that has been bleeding members for nearly as long as my previous denomination has been in this country. Deep-seated conviction about theological confessions of any kind is not much in favour anywhere these days, in almost any faith community—again, except among the professors and professionals.

I’m reading a just-published (fascinating, too) book by United Church historian Phyllis Airhart. She describes how in the face of massive foreign immigration into Canada of non-Protestant people over a hundred years ago, part of the motivation for the United Church’s founding was the idea that it would missionize these people in order to help the Canadian state build a unified Christian society. The book is titled, A Church with the Soul of a Nation. It turns out to have been a lofty Constantinian-type goal that was never achieved. But it goes to show, once more, that the intersection of faith and ethnicity—in this case fear of new immigrants and what they meant—has a long history.

At the same time, this real function of many churches—being a safe place for immigrants and their children and (hopefully, they think) their children’s children—this actual function reveals the hubris that most denominations display in teaching that their way is the best way. That sort of confessional bluster is just smoke and mirrors for the real reasons churches succeed, sometimes, for a while. Or, at the very least, this confessional bluster is just a small part of why some churches succeed for a short time.

So what? I’m not sure. I’m thinking that someone, somewhere, needs to think creatively about what is going on when churches say they’re all about their confession or teachings or dogma, but the truth is that they fill quite a different social function.

And, given that community and love of neighbour gets so much stress in scripture, maybe that is something that should be more openly and strongly embraced, while doctrine ought to be given the public place in churches that it actually has in our hearts.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. It made me think about a brief conversation I had recently with my mother. Her CRC congregation has not grown in the past 10 years; in fact, it has likely contracted a bit. When I raised this observation with her, she said she believed that her church was still strong because "the people in it feel it is a real caring community", and are committed to continuing it as such. She further noted that her church makes an important contribution to the wider community; many people use it as a base (whether a physical, spiritual or relational base) to do good things in the community. She did not say a word in her response about doctrine or conformity to a particular set of beliefs. I think this speaks volumes. It certainly affirms your point as to what it is that really holds faith communities together and makes them relevant in people's lives.


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