“Your daughter would like you to come to church, because she will sing on stage. But she doesn’t want to ask you, because you don’t believe in God anymore”.
So there you go, I was back in church at Easter Sunday. After 34 years on this planet in which I attended church on every single Sunday (sometimes even twice), I abandoned it cold turkey style some 9 months ago.
But today I was back. For my daughter, but also curious how I would (dis)like it.
And you know what? I found the service to be quite powerful. I get it now. This is why church services have survived for centuries. What am I rambling about?
The Power of Church
For starters, just the numbers alone are powerful. To get together with a couple of hundred people (it was Easter) that all seem to believe the same thing is a powerful way to say “this faith thing must be real”. It doesn’t even matter what you do, if you get together for a common purpose, for a common truth, the sheer numbers alone made me feel like I have it all wrong because the majority around me sees the world so differently.
Then the organ starts to play (it was a reformed church with a professional musician), which was really beautiful (and emotional!), at least for me. Then the singing starts; which is so powerful that I wonder if church would have survived without it at all. Also with the singing the number of souls surrounding you kick in, because now you can hear everybody express their faith. And it’s made so very easy to just sing along, because of the poetic prewritten language, perceived group pressure and beautiful music. I honestly had to fight the urge to sing along, reminding myself that I should only sing that which I could agree with.
Then the praying comes along as well. With the bombs in Brussels still ringing in our ears, it is such a relief to put all these worries in the hands of an almighty Father who will fix everything for us in the end. Really, wouldn’t that be a great and powerful thing?
Then I noticed in the singing and preaching how often there are references to the emptiness without God, and the purpose we find in God. The common goal of Christians, usually found in “God” and the “Kingdom” is a very powerful way to make sure you want to stay in that church, in faith, because how else are you going to survive? “We find our purpose in You”. “We can trust in Your promises”, “You are the rock of our salvation”, “Without God there is no hope”. How on earth would you leave such a system?
And if you thought about leaving the faith anyway: I noticed that fighting to keep faith is another powerful mechanism. Just recently a research was released in the Netherlands that showed that only 12% or so regularly attend church, and well over half is now agnostic/atheist. The preacher quoted that research, and encouraged the congregation not to despair, but to keep on going, because ‘Jesus himself is leading the church’. It struck me how it actually can strengthen a community of faith to be under ‘attack’, even if the attack may be completely legitimate. It completely sidesteps the more important question: are we actually believing in the truth? The underdog is such a powerful beast.
Now I’m going to get a bit sharp here, but I was also struck at the power of ignorance. The preacher, who probably did his job for decades and was university trained, told about an example of a Russian prisoner reading the gospel of Mark out loud. One of his fellow inmates liked the last chapter of Mark so much, that he wanted to hear it again and again, and he started to believe. This was the chapter about the resurrection, he noted. But here is the thing: this preacher and I both knew that the resurrection story of Mark 16 is a later addition, it wasn’t part of the original and was only invented centuries later. However, the rest of the congregation has probably no clue. So why be picky and tell people the truth? Rather, leaving them ignorant about the truth of the complexity of historical reliability of the Bible is a much more powerful way to encourage people in their faith. Ever heard a sermon about the historic reliability of the Bible? Guess not. Simple truth only seems to get in the way of faith. Ignorance is bliss.
After the service ended, lots of people were buzzing around and chatting away in the hallway. The social life of a church was yet another powerful way to connect to one of our basic human needs: to belong. For someone to say: hi, how are you? To see faces smile upon your arrival. To build community, without having to be into a specific sport, or book, or some other hobby.
What I Took Home
Next to handicrafts made by my kids, some “forget-me-not” flowers (what’s in a name?) and a head filled with memories and emotions, I was once reminded of Atheism 2.0:
While I don’t believe in the Christian church as the bearer of Truth, I do believe that secularisation has thrown away the poor baby with the bathwater. After all, don’t we people want to have a social community without judgment or all sorts of entry requirements? Don’t we want to work across generations? Don’t we want to belong? Don’t we want to sing sometimes? Don’t we want to share what is on our minds?
I myself am happy to have found some alternatives: philosophy clubs and the “church of the atheists and agnostics”. I also know of Sunday Assembly and other non-religious “churches”. Do you know any alternatives? I’m happy to hear about them in the comment box.
Let’s take the incredible power of church, which has been tested throughout the centuries, and turn it into something good for all of humanity.