My column in today’s Greenville News.  You don’t have to be a believer to see that, for all its flaws, the church has had, and continues to have, great benefit for those who attend.  And to the extent that it unites rather than divides, benefits for society at large.

https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/03/12/church-helps-bring-us-together/81575156/

By way of full disclosure, I’m a preacher’s kid. So, when I write about all of the benefits that accrue from church attendance, I’m speaking from both experience and from a slight bias. But before anyone gets angry and accuses me of all the standard Christian ‘crimes against humanity’ (shoving religion down your throat, intolerance, wanting a theocracy, hating people who are different, being ‘judgmental,’ being a right wing extremist, etc.), let me say that I’m going to talk about the benefits of church without getting into theology at all. That’s right. I’ll try not to even invoke the names of the particular deity that I worship. (I’ll save that for Easter Sunday.)
When I grew up, given that my father was a pastor, church was just what we did. Sunday morning church attendance wasn’t a negotiable (although other services were as I grew older). We got up, mom made breakfast, dad matched ties, polished his shoes and went over his sermon. Then we piled into the car and went to whichever church he was leading at the time. (We were semi-migratory United Methodists.)
In church, we children were herded into Sunday School classes where we were taught and mentored by kind men and women who knew us and our families. From them we learned the stories of our faith, many of which are idiomatic to Western culture at large. And we made dear friends. Some of them are still my friends decades later.
After Sunday School we went to the main church service. There we learned the value of decorum, respect and reverence. We witnessed and participated in the ancient traditions that our fellow believers have followed for two thousand years, and which help anchor believers in difficult times.
In the summer we had Vacation Bible School, that classic church activity held (now as then) in what was surely the hottest, muggiest time of the year, during which we did crafts, heard stories, sang songs, played dodge-ball in the basement and drank our total individual fluid volume in grape Kool-Aid,. We were nourished by sugar cookies and potato chips.
We later dated people we went to church with, although it turns out you aren’t allowed to make out with your girlfriend during church services. (A friend of mine discovered this in a fairly unpleasant manner). We went to camp and on other summer adventures with our friends. And we became adults together, moving slowly out of youth groups into adult classes and adult behavior.
We also learned music. Although these are days of microphones, amplifiers and Power-Point in church (nothing wrong with that), we not only sang in youth choirs and later with adults, we learned to read music and follow along. We appreciated melody and harmony. We read the beautiful lyrics written by great church composers, poetry filled with depth, wonder and hope. Those works are etched deeply in my memory. Many of those beautiful songs are lost to recent generations. It’s a pity. Even Christopher Hitchens, noted and brilliant atheist, suggested the value of reading the King James Bible. I feel the same way about great hymns.
In church, from childhood on, we saw sad, hurt people come to the altar to confess or lay out their troubles. There, friends and family surrounded them in love, in shared tears, touched them with compassion and prayed by their sides. It’s hard to witness that sort of fellowship and not learn to feel sorrow for the struggles of others.
We watched baptisms and took communion (and snuck extra communion wafers), even when we were still learning to fully understand their meaning. These became bits of our identities.
As time passed we enjoyed the delight of weddings. We also went to funerals. We learned with clarity that a group of people who spend so much time knowing and loving one another have to pass through both joy and the sorrow with them. And that death can be celebrated as surely as grieved.
I understand that many people take issue with Christianity. But church gave me great gifts: a community of fellow believers, meeting in love and sharing values and stories that were both culture foundations and individually inspiring. I continue to enjoy that every week.
And in these times of dissension, alienation and isolation, when the only thing we have in common seems to be division, I think we could use a little more church.

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