In and of the world: Why there is no Christian ‘community’

Congregational studies show that congregations differ, often quite intensely and extensively, in their life and language and in what they do and thus in their understanding of, say, the meanings of the word God. To say this is not merely to make the obvious point that the local Methodist church does things differently than the high Anglican church around the corner. Within the same denomination and in similar localities, congregations usually differ substantially, each having its own, often easily recognizable style.

Jerome Baggett’s study Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith (2009), for example, describes the substantial differences between six Roman Catholic parishes in the San Francisco Bay region. One is a largely gay congregation, another is centered on the Latin mass, one is oriented toward supporting suburban families, another is mostly Latino, and so on. Certainly all six share some characteristics, but each congregation’s life, language and what it does indicate a substantially different understanding of Christianity from the other five. The beliefs, practices and attitudes of the six congregations are not sufficiently held in common that together they form a single community, as in, say, “the Bay Area Roman Catholic community.”

Furthermore, there are far fewer commonalities within each congregation than one might expect. While data tables may point out certain beliefs held by most members of a particular congregation, there are always people who disagree with the majority, often in remarkably counterintuitive ways. Baggett records, for example, that even in a Catholic congregation clearly identifying itself as having very traditionalist beliefs, 8 percent of its members think you can be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus physically rose from the dead or without believing in the real presence, and 13 percent without following the magisterium’s teaching on abortion. And it’s not merely a question of beliefs, of course. Most American Roman Catholics are familiar with the large suburban parishes where the Saturday evening service is loud and excited, with clap-alongs and guitars, while the 7:30 mass on Sunday morning is contemplative and virtually silent, and the 9:30 mass family-oriented and noisy in a different way. Many people who usually go to one of these services would not go happily to either of the others.