Bruce Gerenscer recently said something fascinating:
Mainline churches need a make-over. They need to make themselves relevant again. Perhaps they need to hire an ex-Baptist atheist like me to tell them how their church is viewed from the outside. (yes, perception matters)
I’ve never considered this idea before and at first it seemed a little odd, like asking for marriage advice from someone who is permanently single or parenting advice from people without kids. Certain experiences are difficult to grok if you’re not part of them. As a non-theist I only think about religious topics when they directly affect me or my loved ones.
The longer I think about it, though, the more I suspect Bruce may be onto something here.
Should non-theists tell theists what to believe? No. Or at least not so long as what they believe isn’t negatively affecting our lives (e.g. through legislation that discriminates against people based on religion or attempts to blur the line between church and state). And, to be honest, I don’t care about anyone’s theology until or unless it is used against people outside of that religion.
Can non-theists offer a fresh perspective on church culture? Absolutely. Once you become habituated to a routine it’s difficult to step back and see how some things come across to people who aren’t accustomed to them. To give a mundane example, Drew and I used to live in an apartment building with a finicky front door. You had to insert your key at just the right angle and then jiggle it to get the door to open. People who didn’t know how this door worked could become pretty frustrated. Once you figured out the secret, though, it became second nature. When we moved to a new building I had to train myself to stop jiggling the key. It was no longer necessary.
Sometimes religious gatherings can be like that lock. Visitors don’t know, cannot know all of the quirks of a particular congregation. This isn’t always a bad thing. Discovering the quirks of a small group can be one of the most pleasurable aspects of getting to know new people. I find it really interesting to figure out who is the village peacemaker, jester, shit-stirrer or story-teller. But if there are too many things to figure out new members might give up before they figure out how or if they belong. This is where an outside consultant could come in handy.
I’ll be continuing this conversation on Thursday. In the meantime what do you think? Is Bruce’s idea a good one?