Sure we pray, but…

Twice this week I’ve run across articles in secular magazines that use “praying in church” as shorthand for “you know, that church stuff.” Here’s one, from a New Yorker article about commuting:

The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people.

The other article, the source of which I can’t remember, dealt with what unattractive/unpopular people did with their time prior to modern times. “Praying in church” was one of the options named.

This got me to wondering. What do unchurched people imagine that Christians do in church? “Praying” is probably the only experience that we have in common, which the unchurched would at least partially understand and respect. I’ve heard many people who don’t go to church talk about praying on a regular basis. As far as the other actions in a typical service –

  • corporate singing: General American culture has now limited singing in groups to Christmas carols, and even those are on the decline.
  • a sermon: Probably seen as akin to a college lecture or motivational speaker, at best. Fictional sermons on TV and in movies tend to give a message something like “Be true to yourself” or “God is on your side.” At worst, sermons are imagined to all be like Robert Duvall’s character in The Apostle.
  • tithing: The closest equivalent – a group request for funds for general, unspecified purposes – might be the annual United Way request at the office.
  • fellowship: The Christian friendships I have at church, with fellow members of Christ’s body, who pray with and for me, worship with me, and follow Christ alongside me, are of such a different nature than friendships based on work or common interests that I’m not even sure they deserve the same name.
  • the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper: Do the unchurched even think of this when imagining church?

If you had never attended church, had never even visited one, what would you imagine the experience would be like? Would you even think of it in terms of an organized service? Or would your imagined church be more like one of those cathedral-esque Catholic churches that appear in cop shows so often, in the time between masses, empty except for a few lonely souls, presumably praying?

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