...the other day, I asked our Youth Minister what he thought would happen if we took the traditional steps of building a church, roughly defined as:
1) buy/build a sanctuary of some kind
2) buy/build educational space
3) upgrade sanctuary for more space
4) add facility for children’s classes
5) add meal/fellowship area
6) expansion of above
7) add recreation space
8) engage in various methods to ATTRACT people into the buildings, realizing that the buildings are almost always under-utilized (lots of action on Sunday, but almost nothing during the week
…and turned them inside-out. What if, instead, the people who are starting a church, who SAY that they love the community, instead did the following:
1) built a community recreation center
2) added a low-cost/no-cost day care
3) create/promote programs for secular activities (theater, sports, etc)
4) find ways to repurpose these facilities for “church stuff” as necessary, but without intruding upon established programs/activities (that is, when they’re not otherwise being used by the community for other stuff)
What a concept! Be a part of the community and start doing good things first, and let the people respond to your good deeds. It's a little disconcerting that his first list seems to be the priority for most of the leaders of the religious community, but this guy seems to have worked a thing or two out.
It helps in his case that his church is free from a lot of the mummery and nonsense associated with, say, a Catholic church, which needs baptismal fonts and holy water dispensers and altars and various statutes and images for devotional purposes. The Baptist churches I've been in have sometimes had crosses (not "crucifixes"; there are no horrifying images of a man who has been tortured to death on Baptist crosses) and sometimes no symbology at all or very non-obtrusive paintings. The focus is on the preacher. So, it would be easier for a Baptist than a Catholic to create a multi-purpose facility and use it for religious purposes when necessary and community services on other days.
But the bigger message is, it's all about being good people and doing good things. So I'm encouraged here, as I am by several of my religious friends, who not only express but actually practice this way of life. It's not these folks who earn my ire and distress aimed at religion; it's the ones who use outward observance of a religion as a substitute for good conduct, or the ones who look at religion as a magical or contractual proposition. ("God, if I pray to you and go to church every Sunday, will you bless my family with prosperity or heal my sick relative?" Ideally, these would be what lawyers call "independent covenants" and not "dependent covenants.")
I know that back in Tennessee, today, even as I write, my friends at RET are debating the issue of whether it's better for atheists to confront the religious people out there with the argument for atheism, or whether it's better to simply ignore the religious messages out there in the world. One thing this message reminds me of is that neither approach is complete without some kind of effort to be a positive force on the community. Now, I think providing education to the public concerning the truth about science and the way the world works is an inherent good, but this is on one level equivalent to the message of religious folks about divine salvation with which atheists disagree.
Perhaps there ought to be a more tangible good that can be provided like child care or a community center, like the "inverted church" would provide -- although of course something big like that would be difficult to provide without a lot of money and organization, the kind which churches are better-equipped to provide than humanist groups. So if our good works are going to have to be the kind that individuals can provide, maybe it's time I started thinking about what my contribution to those good works are going to be.