Few organizations have as profound of an impact on a community as its churches, and Bozeman’s wide variety of churches approach fulfilling their congregations’ needs in very different ways. For the past three weeks, I spent each Sunday at a different church, observing the place of each in the community. I approached each as an average newcomer would, simply attending and observing.
First, I attended service at the Bozeman United Methodist Church. This church appeared mainstream Protestant, with an older average age and a small, smiling crowd of people.
The Sunday I attended, the message of the sermon was baptism. A group of youth group students got up on stage and gave a rehearsed skit, and the pastor added flair to his sermon by splashing all the congregants with water to underscore his message. Frequent announcements interrupted the service, with opportunities for members to participate in additional activities.
After the service, a nice couple stopped me to ask if I was a student, what I was studying, and other social niceties. The husband invited me to stop by his office for coffee sometime.
As I left, with a few visible water marks on my shirt, the pastor stopped me, shook my hand, made a joke about not doing that “every week,” and encouraged me to come back.
The second week, I went to Journey Church, Bozeman’s take on a megachurch and a spinoff of Billings’s Harvest Church. Their website says, “We’re not too interested in looking like or acting like a ‘church,’” but a tagline like “We’re really interested in looking and acting like a rock concert” might be a bit more truthful.
This was God, Inc. Upon entering, my senses were overloaded with material wealth: information kiosks, smiling attendants and the nebulously named “Guest Central” offices.
Inside the cavernous worship area, a thundering bass beat washed over me, coming from a 12-piece band and three massive flat screen TVs. Among the myriad seats occupied by a small army of the faithful, the material wealth was astounding; here, clearly, was a people who wholeheartedly accepted the prosperity doctrine.
During one of the breaks, well-dressed leaders appeared on the enormous TVs above the congregation and said that “a church of our size should be making a huge impact in our valley.” They called on congregants to shape the “cultural, social and economic” landscape of Bozeman.
The concert finished without a sermon — although I did ask someone who told me they “usually” have one. A lady made her way in front of the band and explained that if the concert didn’t work for you, there were people in Guest Central who would pray with you separately. Not a single person introduced him- or herself to me during the entire time I was there.
Finally, I spent a Sunday morning at Pilgrim Congregational Church. The church is quite small, and all the members have name tags and seem to know most of each other.
When the service began, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had stumbled into an honors seminar; members were talking about imagination, beauty and constructing meaning. Soon, we broke for a time of greeting, which stretched on as congregants crossed the entire sanctuary to chat, smiling as they saw members they knew
The service itself was more or less standard in its presentation, but everything progressed on a very intellectual plane. The pastor discussed experiencing God through imagination and employed diverse inspiration, from George Bernard Shaw to Thomas Aquinas.
One of the most striking aspects of Pilgrim is its statement of faith, which goes to great lengths to be “open and affirming,” regardless of factors ranging from sexual orientation to socioeconomic status. The supplemental hymnal has been purged of all gender-specific language, and all references to “Lord” or “King” have been excised, since those refer to male titles of royalty.
As the sermon ended, a few members stopped to say, “Welcome to Pilgrim” to me. One even invited me to a chili feed that afternoon.
All these experiences left me full of questions for the faithful and the non-believers alike, one of the most pressing being: What is the role of a church in a community? Is it to run as a corporation and recruit new members — in short, to proselytize? Or ought it concern itself with creating deep connections between its members? What works for one person may be anathema to another.
It is a unique symptom of modernity that many organizations — churches included — attempt to recreate intimate social settings on a much larger scale. Some Catholic masses have involved thousands of people for centuries, but there seems to be something uniquely American about megachurches. These churches are machines of capital, and much of the money goes toward “glorifying” the physical church building.
Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist, proposed the concept of Dunbar’s number in the 1990s, which posits that the physical size of the brain’s neocortex limits the number of relationships that humans can manage to roughly 150. This comes about because for one person to really understand two others, he must understand both his relationships with each of them and their relationship with each other.
Does community create churches, or do churches create community? Or is there perhaps no clear distinction?
Increasingly, talking about religion in the public sphere is difficult, but should discussing God be easy? Despite inherent difficulties, it’s crucial that we have open, vigorous discussion about religion’s place in society, without stopping at distracting wedge issues like gay marriage and contraception rights. A church means something very different to different people, and that’s something worth discussing.