The growth of mainline churches in the 1950's and 60's was astounding. With the growth of population--the so-called Baby Boomers--and the explosion of suburbs, mainline churches adopted a formula. The formula was simple, find an area where a new suburb development was planned, buy up some property, knock on the neighbors' doors, and, voila, a new congregation is born.
Churches became centers for neighborhood activity. Women gathered at the church for activities and their children would play on the playground. Men would gather together, build a softball team and compete against other congregation teams. Neighbors became friends. There were common goals: sanctuaries to be built, Vacation Bible Schools to be planned, food banks to be developed. The church provided a sense of community, a sense of belonging. The model thrived for a few decades.
Recently, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that he envisions his social media platform will, like churches have in the past, build a sense of community among its users that will bring identity and the urge to serve. Reactions were mixed, but the fact is, Zuckerberg is right in many respects.
In the face of decline, mainline churches have doubled down on the sense of community that belonging to a congregation can bring. The UMC's slogan "Open hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors", the ELCA's "God's Work, Our Hands", TEC's "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You"are all grounded in the notion of being welcomed into a community.
So why isn't it working?
I suspect it isn't working for a couple of reasons. First of all, community isn't really that hard to build. If you have ever talked to the parents of a child involved in swimming, you know this. Swimming meets are often far apart geographically. Parents drive caravan-style to the meet. They stay in hotel rooms next to one another. They cheer for one another's children. They wait and chat for their child's heat to come. They have created a community. I have heard Furries--young adults who (for some reasons not known to me) dress up like woodland creatures and meet at hotel conference rooms--describe that part of their joy of being a Furry is the sense of "community". Community is not that hard to build and there are many, many opportunities find one.
The second reason may be that building community is not the calling of the church. The calling of the church is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So while the church can offer praise, provide charity, and build community, these actions are always secondary to the proclamation of the Gospel. Even when Jesus prays for unity among his disciples in the Gospel of John, it occurs as concern after the call to proclaim (17:20).
If the church wants to thrive, it needs to distance itself prioritizing the notion of building communities. Mark Zuckerberg will figure out a way to build community more effectively than we ever have. Let us instead put our focus on proclaiming the gospel. I guarantee--community will come.