Why do you go to church anyway?

Is it cynical to attend church
mainly to meet other people?
While in the U.S. church attendance continues to decline, during our eleven years in San Miguel we’ve noticed that English-speaking churches here seem to be growing almost as fast as restaurants and art galleries.

No doubt previous religious affiliations point some expats to certain denominations, but I suspect the chief driver of church attendance here may be largely social: To meet other expats and make friends as much as to formalize one’s relationship with the Almighty.

Come by and meet someone. 

The largest and least traditionally God-centered congregation is the Unitarian Fellowship. It shuns even the word “church.”

On a sunny Sunday it may attract almost two hundred people—a motley stew of atheists, Jews, lapsed Christians and others, along with ponytailed, gray-haired liberals still grousing over Vietnam War-era causes.  Another prosperous venue is San Miguel’s Jewish Community Center.

Both groups supplement their religious offerings with discussion groups, lunches and dinners where people get to know each other, a particular attraction for English-speaking Americans who may feel disorientation, even loneliness, living in a foreign, Spanish-speaking culture.
Stew and I are irregular members of the San Miguel’s Community Church, a relatively recent group that offers two services—a full-strength, Episcopal-ish liturgy at 11:00 and at 9:30 a small discussion group for a dozen or so people like us who prefer a lighter, less dogmatic sip of religion.

To this morning’s early service someone brought Osa, an affable, beefy mutt, who insisted everyone rub her behind the ears while they discussed how to deal with chaos in their daily lives. It may sound like an arid topic but it proved quite thought-provoking, as were the comments from the floor which ranged from old-time religion to no religion at all.

For Stew and me, our views regarding God and His/Her intervention in our daily lives remain, hmm, very sketchy. Yet Stew and I enjoy thoughtful, if sometimes arcane discussions even when laced with Scriptural references. Exchanges are invariably cordial and respectful.

Just as much, though, we like checking up on the friends we have made through the church and supporting its charitable efforts which last year came to almost twenty-five thousand dollars, a significant bundle of cash in Mexico. The Unitarians also distribute around thirty thousand dollars a year to social service groups.

Are Stew and I cynical for attending church partly or largely for social reasons? Or for abandoning the Community Church on certain Sundays when the Unitarians may have a more interesting speaker, and touching base with our friends there?

Might we be on a slippery road to hell for our sham religiosity, spending more time conversing with our friends rather than the Person Upstairs?
For the flip side of this existential dilemma, check out a short video in this morning’s New York Times of a drive-in church in Florida where congregants park their cars on a vast grassy knoll and listen to the service, in isolation, on a dedicated radio frequency.

I recommend the video, it’s great: https://nyti.ms/2uhbdQ1

When you arrive, you are given a sheet with the order of service, a small plastic cup with wine (or grape juice?) and a tiny communion wafer that you’re supposed to consume on cue.

The camera scanned past some of the congregants, including a large woman, her stomach pressing on the steering wheel, rapt with the minister’s words; someone in a convertible with a black Lab, the dog’s ears at full attention; and another person who brought a cat, all of them listening to a distant minister clad in a red polo shirt and speaking from behind a clear plexiglass pulpit.

Halfway through the service an usher on a golf cart drove around to take up the collection.

The visitors come to listen to the minister, maybe even God, but apparently want nothing to do with one another. At the end, everyone turns on the ignition and goes home with not even the benefit of a coffee hour during which they could meet other attendees.

How does this drive-in church handle more intimate affairs like funerals? Put the casket on the golf cart while the mourners mourn in their cars with the air conditioning and radio on?

And still, if the depressing existentialist philosopher who noted that “hell is other people” was literally correct, that would put the solitary churchgoers in Florida on a more direct path to Heaven than Stew and me with all of our friends.

I can just imagine St. Peter’s charge against us at the Final Judgment: “Attending church under false pretenses.”


11 thoughts on “Why do you go to church anyway?

  1. God is female, so she's more correctly addressed as Goddess. This is so because women encompass everything. Men, less so.Unitarians are people who don't believe in the Goddess, but can't break the habit of going to church Sunday mornings. My second wife and I were married by a Unitarian preacher. Many years later, we met at a coffee house in Houston to discuss some details of our divorce. There, sitting just a couple of tables away, was the minister who married us. That said something, but I don't know exactly what.


  2. Dear Felipe: Don't want to put words in Her mouth, but the Goddess might have been telling you to stay away from Unitarians, given your rather divergent political perspectives. I tend to agree. al


  3. This comment is from Magdalena García, an ordained Presbiterian minister and a dear friend from Chicago.Love this! And may you be comforted in knowing that your Presbyterian minister friend who no longer pastors a church hops around often and loves to visit the closest Unitarian congregation (Evanston) for some of the reasons you state. As I posted on my Facebook status recently, if Jesus prayed “your kingdom come,” why do so many pray “take me to your kingdom?” Jesus did not start a travel agency, but a social agency. Hey, I like Pope Francis. And that drive-in “church” in Florida? Sorry, that's not a church, that's a show. No community, no church.


  4. Nice post Al. One little correction about outreach monies spent by the Community Church – that amount we gave out Sunday morning of $25,000 USD mas o menos was for the 1st 7 months of 2017. We have 5 more months of spending to go and we will spend it to great projects. I'm projecting about $40,000 US for the year. Stay tuned.


  5. Duly noted and duly amazed. The amount is surprising for such a relatively small congregation. I also corrected the starting time of the second service to 11:00 a.m. Thank you, Jeannie.Al


  6. Oh, I do stay away from Unitarians now. But when the Unitarian married me to my second wife back in the 1980s, I voted Democrat, so we were in sync. I have grown since then.


  7. From Dan Lessner:I can't speak for others, but being Jewish is independent of believing in or practicing the Jewish “religion”. Technically, if your mother is Jewish, you are too–even if you don't believe in God and eat carnitas and cheese on Yom Kippur. With lobster sauce. Yuck. Some might even set foot in the Jewish Cultural and Community Center of SMA only for a film or to attend a secular-themed lecture, but that is the whole purpose of the JC3. There is nothing at all wrong with getting together for socializing; that is what it means to be part of a community like ours!


  8. Thank you for your comment via Facebook. I agree and I have shared several lectures and films at the Center, and even a Christmas dinner at the local Chinese restaurant. Community was very friendly. Chinese food? Not so great.


  9. Sr. Zapata – I too used to categorize the Unitarians as folks who “can't break the habit of going to church Sunday mornings.” We attended as a family from the mid-50's to the late 60's, a stirring time of boycotting grapes and marching for civil rights. But going through my mother's papers after her death, I found that she had truly been searching for spiritual sustenance after her evangelical upbringing, and that she had spent many hours with our Unitarian minister in Schnectady before joining the congregation. She continued to be an active UU member until her death.As for myself, many decades on, I'm pleased to hear that the UUs are alive and thriving in expat Mexico. Perhaps we will drop in during our visit this winter. There are many worse places to be on a Sunday morning.


  10. Deborah: I think getting out on Sunday morning, or any morning for that matter, and making human connection is a good thing for evangelicals, Unitarians and everybody in between. I wish I was better at doing that.


  11. To Deborah, Felipe, Dan and Magdalena: It seems we have something we can all agree on. Regardless of the differences in their specific rituals and beliefs, churches, synagogues and other places of worship provide a much needed community center where people can meet and relate to one another. al


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