Church or social club?
One of the huge advantages that American churches possess is the social network they include. I don't know if this holds for other types of congregations in other parts of the country or the world, but Southern evangelical churches are great at this.
Southern Baptists in particular seem to excel in this area. To be honest, I'm not sure if the churches exist to support the gymnasiums or vice versa, but the suburbs of the American South are littered with Baptist churches the size of small universities. Some of those spaces are dedicated to services, community service, and such, but there are a hell of a lot of taxpayer-subsidized gyms and game rooms out there too.
Some denominations, like the Church of Christ, refuse to devote money to such things on doctrinal grounds, but they build their social networks too. Instead of having social hour at the building, they just take it to someone's house. It soothes their consicience, but I see little practical difference.
So what's the point of all this? Well, if you have a lot of buddies down at 1st Baptist, you'll attend more events, become more engaged with the church, and probably hand over more cash as a result. You'll probably think twice about leaving, too. Who wouldn't want to shoot hoops after service, right?
The Church of Christ goes a little further to the dark side here. For one thing, some of them highly recommend that you socialize exclusively with other Church of Christ members, or at least minimize friendships outside of "The Church." Then, once they've got you dependent on them for your social needs, they then threaten to yank the rug out from under you if you don't follow the rules.
Actually, it's not just a threat; they'll really do it. It's a drastic step that they don't employ too often, but if you go too far (especially if it's related to sex or drugs), they'll withdraw fellowship.
If you haven't had the pleasure of witnessing this, what happens is that one of the church leaders will stand before the congregation and read a prepared statement detailing the bad things you did. It usually contains just enough information for people to guess what you were doing (assume they haven't already heard through the rumor mill), but not enough details to be at all interesting.
So now that they have aired your dirty laundry, they then instruct the other members of the church to no longer socialize with you. They use friendship and social ties as weapons to persuade their members to fall in line. These were some of the ugliest scenes I recall from my church-going days. I feel dirty just writing about it.
I will say that it's not all bad though. They do take care of their own, you form close friendships with lots of really good people, and you could always count on them for help when you needed it. And if you picked up and moved from one city to another, you usually could find a local congregation that would welcome you with open arms.
That's one of the aspects I miss the most. Atheists don't have that ready-made fraternity, and I felt lost without it for a while. I suppose that was the point though, wasn't it?
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