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Of Communities And Congregations

August 10, 2010

Judy Stark just passed along this provocative essay written by Rabbi Niles Elliott Goldstein about his own work and thoughts about organized religion in post-modern America. Here’s a snippet:

One thing that has become crystal clear to me is that men and women are looking for communities, not congregations. Most people care very little about denominational labels or theology. Some don’t even care about the institution of religion itself (I know some individuals who actually belong to two or more different congregations of different faiths and move with ease between their respective worship services and programs).

The icons, symbols, and images of the past no longer hold power for this new generation of Americans. Some of the largest and most dynamic megachurches, for example, do not even have crosses in their facilities, let alone fixed pews or pulpits. What people seem to crave is a sense of community, a feeling of being wanted and known.

Ultimately, we want to be loved, and to find protection through that love.

I believe that we need to rethink our congregations today less as houses of worship than as sanctuaries in the true, etymological meaning of the word—a place of safety and security. These are troubling times, and offering Americans a safe haven amidst the maelstrom around us is a very appealing gift. A sanctuary is different from a church or a synagogue. A sanctuary is not about symbols, rituals, sacred texts, or holy days—it is more about, as the Jewish evening liturgy states, being “guarded under the shelter of Your wings.” We have a military to guard our bodies. Who will protect our souls?

If we can transform congregations into sanctuaries and safe havens, we can begin to offer the shelter that so many people yearn for but cannot seem to find.

I think he’s discounting how much power “the icons, symbols and images of the past” have when it comes to building community. Goldstein argues that many young Americans are not interested in all that stuff–they think they are just relics of a dead way of being. However, speaking as a Christian and member of the American Episcopal Church, I stand by our church’s icons, symbols and images of the past as vibrant tools with which we build community day in and day out.

I agree with Goldstein that the number one goal of any church, synagogue or mosque should be to build community–inclusive, vibrant, loving community. But I disagree with him that each religious tradition’s age-old modes of worship, art, language and stories are somehow a hindrance to that sort of community building. They are the stuff with which community is built.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Murray permalink
    August 11, 2010 5:21 pm

    ‘I agree with Goldstein that the number one goal of any church, synagogue or mosque should be to build community–inclusive, vibrant, loving community.’I couldn’t agree less. Besides, a church would have entirely different goals than a synagogue or mosque.I take you again to Peter’s sermon in Acts Chapter 2 and then to what happened afterwards.First came the preaching and teaching of salvation through Christ and then community sprung up around that.Therefore, the foundation and the purpose of Christian community was established and the community existed thereby.Going straight to building community without first laying the foundation for it and establishing its purpose as winning people to Christ is questionable.I submit that such a community would be inclusive, vibrant and loving, not directly by pursuing those things but because of Christ in their midst.

  2. Murray permalink
    August 11, 2010 5:28 pm

    ‘I agree with Goldstein that the number one goal of any church, synagogue or mosque should be to build community–inclusive, vibrant, loving community.’

    I couldn’t agree less. Besides, a church would have entirely different goals than a synagogue or mosque.

    I take you again to Peter’s sermon in Acts Chapter 2 and then to what happened afterwards.

    First came the preaching and teaching of salvation through Christ and then community sprung up around that.

    Therefore, the foundation and the purpose of Christian community was established and the community existed thereby.

    Going straight to building community without first laying the foundation for it and establishing its purpose as winning people to Christ is questionable.

    I submit that a community with the foundation and the purpose I have suggested and which I see as having been instituted in the second chapter of Acts would of necessity be inclusive, vibrant and loving, not directly by our design but because of Christ in their midst.

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