American democracy is not well. And the Trump presidency is as much a symptom as a cause of the disease.
Many Americans, especially young ones, distrust organized anything: religions, governments, and corporations. Relentless media exposure of scandalous behavior by public figures has discredited the organizations these leaders represent. People question whether any institution can be counted upon to serve the common good. Levels of voter participation, particularly in down-ballot races, is abysmally low. Fewer Americans identify with the political parties. The 2016 presidential election results reflect this malaise.
The ubiquity of access to electronic connectivity has devalued institutions that once were definitive sources of authority. People make their own choices among a plethora of information sources of variable veracity. At the same time, social media have created ways for people to create and maintain relationships outside of established institutions. But many of these interactions are fleeting and shallow.
Faith communities serve as building blocks for local community life and civic engagement. They are places where people meet and form mutually-supportive relationships in a context open to the public. But religious congregations are in decline across the theological spectrum. Some of their doctrines have turned off people who have been exposed, in person and online, to multiple world-views. Fewer people believe that any one religion has supremacy over any other. The organizational demands of churches and temples discourage people, also. Over a quarter of Americans aged 18 through 29 now have no religious affiliation, and this number is growing fast. There will always be a significant population of people who are attracted to faith communities, which will continue to be vital foundations for civic life. But is a mistake to presume that religion will be the primary nexus of that engagement, going forward.
People still need and want to “get out” and mix with others in public. But many of the old ways of doing it are losing their appeal, particularly for the young. Many Americans suffer from isolation, loneliness, and eroded interpersonal skills. The rich nuances of face-to-face relationships are not nurtured sufficiently through electronic social media. Public life suffers.
New forms of local community life are needed – ones that meet and greet people where they are today. We need joyful gatherings that are locally-centered, culturally-pluralistic, non-partisan, non-sectarian, not-for-profit, and accessible to the public on a weekly or otherwise regular basis. We need gatherings where people form ongoing mutually-supportive relationships and where they get involved, face-to-face, in local public affairs.
Such “gatherings” are bubbling up into existence around the country today. They sum up to an emerging movement without one leader in front of it, or any one organization behind it. It is “leaderful”: there are a lot of people taking initiative to create new building-blocks for civil society. Now is the time for progressive Christian churches to advance this movement – by sponsoring, supporting, and encouraging local manifestations of it all across the United States and beyond. Where these “gatherings” exist, we can offer spiritual and practical solidarity. Where they don’t exist, we should help them come into being, employing our deep skills in the creation and nurture of community life.
Here are some examples of “gatherings”:
Sunday Assembly: These are “gatherings” modeled much like churches, which meet in cities all over the world. This movement has a central organization that sets parameters for the local Sunday Assemblies. The Assemblies grew out of what I would call “angry atheism” – circles of people looking for support for their anti-religious views. But they have changed substantially into communities that have basically nothing to do with, or even against, religion at all. Sunday Assemblies meet at least monthly and include upbeat music, inspirational talks, time for “check-in” about changes in participants’ lives, and an emphasis on community service. Have a look at the website of the LA Sunday Assembly.
The Secular Student Fellowship at the University of Southern California: Read about it in the New York Times Magazine here. Again, a group of “angry atheists” morphed into an entirely positive and very vibrant and growing “gathering” of students who support each other in living lives of kindness and service. Their leader is Bart Campolo, son of the famous evangelical preacher, Tony Campolo. Bart left his own career and beliefs as an evangelical leader behind to do a different kind of “ministry” in a secular context. The SSF at USC is the remarkable result. The Church of Beethoven: It gathers in cities around the US as classical music venues that functions very much like congregations, but without sectarian content. Check out an NPR story about it here.
Open Circle: This is a new gathering in the arts district of downtown Los Angeles. It grew out of the Chalk Repertory Theater company. Again, it’s non-sectarian but has many of the characteristics of a church.
Fresh-Brewed Community: A writer named Cat Moore, tapping on her computer keyboard in a Starbucks in Los Angeles, became the grain of sand around which a pearl of a community formed. Enter that Starbucks today and you’ll quickly notice that it’s not normal. People know and care for each other there. Read more in my story about it here.
Within our churches, there is growing awareness of the need for new communities around us, and of our potential for bringing them into being. Cat Moore now works for the Presbyterian denomination on a project to create new, non-traditional communities that “fuzz” the boundary between the religious and the secular. Other church organizations are doing similar projects. Spencer Burke’s “Hatchery” creates new models of “church” that don’t involve steeples and Sunday worship. The Episcopal Church in southern California has a similar effort, as does the Lutheran Church in the Portland, OR area. They are experimenting in Portland with parishes that turn themselves inside-out by turning over their buildings to the non-profits that share in their use, creating new synergistic community-focused initiatives that serve the religious congregation as well as the community around it.
In the early 2000’s, I started SpiritQuest at College Heights United Church of Christ in San Mateo, CA, where I served as the pastor. SpiritQuest was a monthly Friday night event that brought local people together for book talks by authors, speakers, and small musical concerts, followed by nibbles and wine. The topics ranged from the arts to philosophy to world religion to music and to issues of civic engagement. An optional small donation was taken at the door. Over time, SpiritQuest became its own community, its own circle of friends who developed relationships of mutual support – connected to the church but independent of it. We always had at least a few church members in attendance, but they were not the “target audience”. Most of the attendees had no interest in joining our church, and recruiting them as members was not our goal. But over time, these people came to think of the church as “their place”: some contributed to the church financially. A number of them would show up at other special events and celebrations with the church congregation.
Progressive Christian churches have a long and beautiful tradition of organizing social justice movements and creating social service agencies – and then spinning them off as independent, secular entities. We don’t want or need to “own” these organizations. We’re not “conversion” oriented, because we don’t think anyone is going to hell if they don’t believe like we do. Instead, we take Jesus’ admonition to feed the hungry and clothe the naked very seriously – and we are much more interested in being effective at it than getting credit for it. So we are just the right people to take on the task of creating local community building-blocks for civil society. We know how to throw a party! We know how to get and keep people together in communities of mutual support. We know how to maintain civic engagement for progressive social change, for the long haul.
So let us carry on this noble tradition in a new and creative way that will go far toward revitalizing American democracy. Let us create and support and spin off community “gatherings” in our neighborhoods, with the following characteristics:
* Local communities of people who meet regularly, face-to-face, forming bonds of mutual support
* Engaging events that are open to the public on a weekly or at least monthly basis
* Non-sectarian, non-partisan, multi-cultural, fully LGBTQ-affirming, accessible to people regardless of income or ability
* Progressive in affirming government’s active role in meeting basic human needs that the market economy cannot provide: encouraging voting and engagement with civic life to hold public institutions accountable to the people – but not endorsing candidates for public office as an organization
* Encouraging voluntary community service
Here’s an imagined example of a prototypical “Gathering”:
The Meadows Sunday Gathering meets weekly at 5 pm on Sunday. It gathers in the Meadows Community Church building. All are welcome. At the door, volunteers greet people as they enter, and present them with a paper program. Inside, tapestries hang from the front of the room and intriguing art hangs on the walls. A colorful sign announces the Gathering’s mission statement: “We gather as neighbors to celebrate life, to take care of each other, and to take care of our neighborhood and our world.”
People take seats on folding chairs and the event begins with ten minutes of classical instrumental chamber music: there’s a team of musicians who perform on a regular basis. A volunteer leader gets up to welcome everyone and tell about the morning’s program. Kids are then invited for Kids Gathering – age-graded groups that offer music, art, and lessons that encourage service and community involvement. There is a short time of announcements about events in the local community: an upcoming City Council election candidates forum, a river cleanup event for volunteers, issues coming before the upcoming Neighborhood Council meeting. Then a soloist sings. Then there’s “Gathering Strength”: someone in the community has been chosen to tell an inspirational story about how they dealt with a crisis or a challenge. This is followed by a ten-minute period of silent mindfulness meditation, led by someone trained in this practice. Then a musician leads the Gathering in singing a pop or folk song with a positive message. Then the featured speaker talks: subjects range widely from “self-help” to intellectually stimulating topics. Often the speaker gives a talk on a book she or he has published, which is available for sale and signing afterward. Then there’s time for gathering donations from Gatherers: $20 is the “mean” suggested donation to support the operation of the Gathering.
Then there’s more music and singing to close, and the Gathering is invited to stay for “coffee hour” and dinner. Signs are put up in different areas of the room for people to gather and meet each other if they have particular interests: one sign might say “Hikers” – another for “Crafters/Artists” – another for “Civic Engagement”, another for “Musicians” – another for “Community Service” – etc. Often, candidates for local political office come to the coffee hour for structured conversation with interested Gatherers; all candidates are invited when any one is invited. Likewise, local grass-roots campaign leaders present at issue forums during coffee hour, before a simple, tasty vegetarian meal is served for a $5 donation (no one is turned away if they are unable to pay).
The Meadows Sunday Gathering was formed as a community service project of the Meadows Community Church, which provided the initial leadership and organizing. As the Gathering grew, it became an independent nonprofit organization with a self-appointing board of directors consisting of twelve members. This constitutes the leadership team, which recruits others to assist in particular tasks to keep the Gathering going. There is no formal membership in the organization; anybody who shows up and stays on the email list is considered a “Gatherer”. There are periodic open meetings of the board of directors to encourage input from all Gatherers, and there are “teams” that include both board members and other volunteer “Gatherers” to take on special tasks. There is no paid staff: certain functions like bookkeeping and janitorial service are contracted.
“Gatherings” can breathe new life into American democracy, from the grass-roots up!
What do you think? Do you know of examples of “gatherings”? Do you want to start one? Let me know!