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I’m on my way
to New York today to speak at Middle Collegiate Church on the subject of “Congregations
in the Public Square,” the sort of topic socially aware Protestants like to
discuss. When I learned of the
topic, I thought, “That won’t be too hard.” But, the more I stew on it, the more difficult the
reason? All three
words–“congregations,” “public,” and “square”–are up for definitional grabs at
the moment. Congregations are
going through profound change; the public is nothing short of surly; and square
seems an inadequate term for our common life.
congregations. The traditional
congregations (mainline, evangelical, Catholic, and otherwise) in which
religious people gather are in a persistent pattern of erosion. Only about 15%-18% of Americans attend
religious services on a weekly basis; somewhere between a third and a half of
the population “rarely” or “never” attends a religious service in a building. Patterns of churchgoing–and synagogue,
temple, and mosque going–are much different in the US than they were a
generation ago. The FACT 2008 (Hartford
Seminary) survey found that there exists “An emerging, but persistent and broad based
downward drift in congregational vitality…” in every religious group in
Second, public. Exactly
what is “public” anyway? Recently,
a friend worried that I was talking about “private” things too much in “public”
on Facebook. I didn’t know how to
respond to this concern.
Essentially, the line between public and private has become a picket
fence–if it hasn’t completely disappeared. Since the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the late 20th
century, theologians have argued that the “personal is political.” Indeed, in the 21st century,
we could rightly expand that thought to the “private is public” and vice versa.
Third, square. When we
think of the American commons, is “square” the image that comes to mind? The language, of course, is an old
metaphor for the square park that used to exist at the center of many America
towns. That square typically had a
church on one side, city hall on the other, with other civic buildings on the
remaining sides. The lovely and
nostalgic image of such a square is a deeply inadequate rendering of
contemporary American common life.
What does all this mean?
Except for the fact that the words congregation, public, and square mean
next to nothing in our social imagination, I’m not entirely sure. But when we think of how faithful
people engage in politics it would be helpful to rethink these three words by
asking three questions: 1) How do
people gather now and how do the ways in which we gather inspire political
action? 2) Who and what
constitutes “public” in a deeply pluralistic and often divided society? 3) What image might replace the
old-fashioned square in such a way that we open our imaginations to new ways
of engaging concerns of justice, peace, and poverty?
I don’t really know the answers to these questions. But I humbly suggest that we might go
further today if we think about “Faith Gatherings around a Communal Circle”
instead of “Congregations in the Public Square.” What do you think?