Several times this fall, my local university has announced which of the university’s colors fans should wear to the Saturday football game. Remarkably, the word gets out and nearly an entire stadium dons the same color clothing. One week it’s yellow. Later, green. Most recently, white.
I’ve noticed a similar trend elsewhere. First, there were the two men dining near my table wearing similar western shirts, sporting shaved heads, and donning identical large, black-rimmed glasses. Then, I found myself sitting on a couch at a party with three other plaid-shirt wearing young adults in jeans. And now that it’s getting colder, practically all of my female students come to class wearing yoga pants and UGG boots!
It’s not quite breaking news that friends and those in similar cultural groups dress alike. What concerns me, however, is when these birds-of-a-feather seem to flock together in churches as well. What I fear is that the church is becoming just another place to associate with others who dress, believe, think, and act in ways that make people nearly indistinguishable from one another.
I recently attended an event hosted by a new church in town. I had a great time, but then again, when it came to politics, theology, community affairs, and even our favorite type of beer, all those present agreed.
Some aspects of contemporary culture would seem to support a more heterogeneous reality. The Internet, for instance, was once seen as a democratizing, inclusive tool providing access equally for all. Through the power of the Internet, we thought our connections would grow, our horizons expand, and our views broaden.
While this is certainly true to some extent, in other ways digital culture has narrowed our experiences. Likely, you’ve noted the phenomenon of searching for a product online only to find that, for several days, your Internet surfing has become inundated with advertisements for that product.
Writers like Eli Pariser have warned of these internet “filter bubbles,” describing personalized information created by Internet algorithms for individual users. For instance, if I search “Presbyterian Church” on Google I’m greeted with a page that includes churches near Fargo, ND and the blogs of three friends. But, if you search the same phrase on your computer, wherever it might be, results will differ.
Similarly, Facebook algorithms automatically decide what to send to a news feed according to recent likes, the posting habits of your friends, or even the time of day. If you like every cat photo that comes across your feed, there’s guaranteed to be more where those came from.
Web browsers send advertisements tailored to our already-established preferences. Google builds searches from our browsing history. Facebook trims the experiences of friends to those that keep us clicking. While each of these actions is intended to enhance our web experience, together, they narrow our view of the world. Before too long I fear my Internet diet will consist of only plaid-wearing, IPA-drinking, Presbyterians!
I can’t recall where I first encountered a provocative idea concerning church attendance and geography, but I remember it being attributed to the theologian Marva Dawn. What if—rather than attending the church that makes us feel good, or where we find the programs that align with our likes and the people dressed in clothes similar to our own—Christians simply attended the church closest to their home?
How many other churches does the average Christian drive by on the way to his or her own church on a Sunday? Might choosing a church by geography overcome our tendency to want to worship with only certain types of Christians? Sure, that sort of depends on how diverse or homogeneous your neighborhood is, both in religious and other cultural terms. But prioritizing worshiping in place, as it were, over worshiping according to taste does seem truer to Christian understandings of community. It’s not like Paul suggested the bickering Corinthians avoid the challenge of sorting through their differences by checking out the church in Galatia.
While it’s much easier to pal around with those like us, the gospel pushes us to appreciate a diversity of thought and practice. Perhaps there’s no more important time to remember this reality than during election season.
This week, hundreds of thousands of Americans marked their ballots on Election Day. We voted for governors, senators, representatives, mayors, and on ballot measures. It didn’t take any particular political genius to predict one certain outcome from Tuesday’s elections: everyone is not in agreement on the outcome.
I was invited to an election party this year. I knew that if I went, I could talk to young adults in plaid shirts and bold glasses, all of us checking our Twitter feeds and, in unison, bemoaning any outcomes that don’t align with our common political vision.
But, on election night, I’d really rather have attended a church party. I wanted to visit whatever church was closest to my house and celebrate in a different manner. I longed to gather around a table and hear the story of an ancient meal to which Jesus invited those from north and south, east and west, to join. I wanted to break bread and drink wine with a neighbor who perhaps looked—and voted—very differently from me.
Is that a possibility for 21st century ministry—the opening of church spaces where diversity and difference are actively cultivated? Where real conversations—even ones where people disagree, perhaps passionately—are seen as occasions to learn from others, to change along with them?
The prospective 2016 candidates are already making the circuit in Iowa and New Hampshire—the early primary states. Maybe it’s not too early, then, for churches to start planning the big, diverse, election night party of my dreams. In the meantime, maybe we all could start looking beyond our comfortable cultural bubbles to see where we might encounter real difference and begin to engage it as people of a complex and multifaceted faith. I’d vote for that.