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Community as Church, Church as Community by Michael Plekon

27 May 2022

Harriet Baber reviews a book about the future of American church life

WE AMERICANS are not as religious as Church Times readers may think. For the past 50 years, religious practice and affiliation in the United States has collapsed. Michael Plekon suggests some factors that have contributed to the collapse, describes in detail the varied responses by churches of many denominations, and speculates about the way forward.

Plekon notes that churches decline when underlying social groups, whether multi-generational households, congeries of interrelated families, or ethnic communities, dissipate. Church membership, he holds, will inevitably continue to decline along with traditional communities of kinship and place, and with it funding to maintain churches as traditionally understood, employing paid full-time clergy and housed in purpose-built edifices. The bulk of his book consists of brief case histories of many churches responding, in various ways, to decline.

The responses that Plekon optimistically characterises as “resurrection through reinvention” are varied. Short of money, churches make do with non-stipendiary clergy. Smaller churches cluster. Church buildings are repurposed as community centres, housing non-profit organisations and small businesses. One asks, as Plekon does not: when does a revision or repurposing count as the church “resurrected” rather than the church replaced by something else, whether an arts centre, a social-service agency or, like one of the churches that he commends, a venue for dances and pilates classes, a café, and a children’s play area? Churches, strapped for cash, should certainly monetise their facilities. But they should not confuse their renters’ operations with church.

Plekon concludes with a discussion of the purpose of the Church and the parish, and of the way forward. He notes that “many well-educated, socially conscious, and ethical people” — a group once known as “cultured despisers” and later rebranded as “Modern Secular Man” — have “no interest in supernatural, other-worldly realities”. He suggests, therefore, that the Church develop other lines of business, in particular “community”. For most churches that he describes, however, communal activities bring no one in and serve only to keep remaining members occupied until they, and the church, pass away.

Church as Community is rich, detailed, and well-documented. Plekon, a sociologist of religion, includes material from the social-sciences literature. And the extensive bibliography features many links to online resources, including the websites of churches whose programmes Plekon describes.

Plekon’s proposal for the way forward, however, raises some questions. Why should churches provide secular goods — pilates classes and the like — that are readily available in the secular world? And, if most people aren’t interested in the supernatural, why not recognise church as a specialty item for the few who are interested in the supernatural or, more broadly, in church architecture and liturgy, rather than repurpose churches as purveyors of secular goods for those who aren’t?

Finally, most radically, we might ask: why understand church as “community”? Churches, as Plekon notes, can no long piggy-back on traditional communities of kinship and place. And there are currently few takers for the alternative communities that churches provide. Perhaps it’s time for a new model, of churches as facilities, like libraries or shopping malls, where we consume religious goods and services without commitment, without affiliation, and, if we prefer, without interacting with other churchgoers — settings for the flight of the alone to the Alone.

The doctrine of the Church as community has been non-negotiable dogma for decades, and Church as Community, Church as Community, detailed, documented, and informative, reiterates the conventional wisdom.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, California, in the United States.


Community as Church, Church as Community
Michael Plekon
Cascade Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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