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Time to thicken up the church

Are our churches truly leaving a mark on people? Or another way to think about it: Are our churches thick or thin?

What’s the difference between a job and a vocation? Or a collection of people and a team? Well, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, the difference is thickness.

“A thick institution,” Brooks writes, “becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul.”

Brooks tells of the Incarnation summer camp in Connecticut where he worked as a young man. When a former Incarnation co-worker died recently, the camp community came together, reaching out to his relatives in their grief and to one another in theirs. One posted a camp reunion photo with the caption, “My Family.”

As Brooks writes, “Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory. I haven’t worked at Incarnation for 30 years,” he said, “but it remains one of the four or five thick institutions in my life.”

According to Brooks, thick organizations—whether schools, employers, or something else—often share a physical location, where people meet regularly, face to face, and frequently, for a meal. Thick institutions often have and practice shared rituals—such as fasting or reciting a song or a theme.

There’s often what might be called a “sacred origin story,” and many members can tell of personal rescue or redemption, and usually can quickly articulate a common ideal—just think about Semper Fi for the Marine Corps. Membership is not a means to get something for themselves, but a way to be part of something bigger than themselves, for the greater good.

Now I find it interesting, telling in fact, that throughout this terrific description of “thick” institutions, Brooks never once uses the word “church” in his column. Isn’t this exactly what churches should be?

Think of the first-century church in Jerusalem as described in Acts 2 or the persecuted house church communities in China. The church was established by Christ to be the place of our primary relationships and loyalty, where individuals and families both invest of themselves and receive help, encouragement, rebuke and blessing. But in the age of “dating the church,” it’s too often a consumerist experience, in which leadership is forced to outdo itself each week to attract parishioners who are more shaped by consumerism than the Gospel itself.

Some churches, so afraid of losing attendees, have embraced a consumer model that offers all kinds of life advice and programming, but little that is distinct from the culture.

A recent study revealed that growing churches are the theologically conservative ones: with leaders who believe that Jesus really rose from the dead, that salvation is only available in Christ, and following Christ calls us to culturally unpopular commitments. But it’s more than just the right beliefs; it has to be the right practices, too—inviting believers to embrace the faith once delivered through shared worship, repentance, and calling. And of course, by caring for one another.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said recently that Facebook can provide community and a sense of belonging like churches do. But Facebook is a thin community at best, an illusion of true community. As one online commenter quipped, Facebook won’t show up at your door with 50 casseroles after you have a baby or lose a loved one.

Being connected is not the same as being in relationship.

And we ought to remember this, in an age of thin connections masquerading as thick, strong mediating institutions are the secret sauce of a strong civil society. They not only provide meaning for individuals, they’re necessary for a healthy citizenry. They do what government cannot: cultivate virtue and care for others, both of which are necessary for self-governance.

John Stonestreet

— by John Stonestreet

Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint. Copyright© 2017 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship.

 

Resources:
How to Leave a Mark on People by David Brooks | New York Times | April 18, 2017

St. Zuckerberg? Facebook CEO says company can fill role played by churches by Douglas Ernst | The Washington Times | June 27, 2017

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