Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What Constitutes a Religious Community?

Much of my skepticism (cynicism?) directed towards the rising adoption of online churches arises from my detached (which is to say atheist) perception of religion as a major exemplar of the concept of community. I find that most of those who evangelize (what an appropriate verb!) social software technologies are, at best, naive about the subtleties that determine what makes communities "tick" and, at worse, willfully ignorant of any concept that does not fit in the technology-based worldview they happen to be promoting. This raises a more interesting general question: In a culture in which coming together virtually may be inducing coming apart physically, can we find any good exemplars of the community concept; and, if so, where are we likely to encounter them?

I know one answer in San Francisco, and I suspect it applies to other American cities of a variety of sizes. We find the concept of community in the dog park. Through all of their fixations on "communication" (scare quote intended) technology, people may be losing the social skills through which they get along face-to-face; but (notwithstanding that classic New Yorker cartoon) dogs have never communicated through the Internet (and I really hope that technology continues to ignore them). Thus, they come to a dog park with a set of social skills that probably arise from both heredity and environment and pretty much work out for themselves the sorts of engagements that seem appropriate. In other words dogs commune with dogs better than people commune with people.

So, if, in some sense of the word, the concept of "community" comes naturally to dogs, can those interested in maintaining or growing religious communities learn from those dogs? One answer to this question may come from the Reverend Tom Eggebeen, described by Associated Press Writer Gillian Flaccus as "interim pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church" in Los Angeles. Here is Flaccus' account of one approach Eggebeen has taken to his ministry:

He would turn God's house into a doghouse by offering a 30-minute service complete with individual doggie beds, canine prayers and an offering of dog treats. He hopes it will reinvigorate the church's connection with the community, provide solace to elderly members and, possibly, attract new worshippers who are as crazy about God as they are about their four-legged friends.

Before the first Canines at Covenant service last Sunday, Eggebeen said many Christians love their pets as much as human family members and grieve just as deeply when they suffer — but churches have been slow to recognize that love as the work of God.

"The Bible says of God only two things in terms of an 'is': That God is light and God is love. And wherever there's love, there's God in some fashion," said Eggebeen, himself a dog lover. "And when we love a dog and a dog loves us, that's a part of God and God is a part of that. So we honor that."

From my (let me stress again, atheist) point of view, this strikes me as a far more effective approach to cultivating a religious community than the use of social software. After all, one consequence of the ways in which dogs socialize at the dog park is that their people are more inclined to do the same. So, if Eggebeen wants to provide an opportunity for his parishioners' dogs to commune with God, perhaps the parishioners themselves will acquire a deeper (possibly more sincere) appreciation of their own spirit of communion. Thus, while there may be an abundance of opportunities for frivolity (such as Eggebeen's hymn "GoD and DoG" or the Boston church that has been taking a similar approach under the name "Woof 'n Worship"), there may also be an underlying spirit that could well be far more genuine than many other prevailing approaches to socialization, religious or otherwise. After all, those who believe must accept that the Lord works in mysterious ways!

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