July 30, 2007

"So, What Church Do You Go To?"

The Church in AuroraIf you've spent any time in the American South, you are aware that asking this question to complete strangers is commonplace here. I am not sure if I will ever get used to it, but a recent article in The Charlotte Observer (update: link no longer active) suggests that I should not expect to stop hearing the question anytime soon. It is part of the culture here, although I do not say that in order to excuse it.

I moved to the South after having spent most of my life on the West Coast. I'd lived in California, Washington, and Oregon. Religion was a private matter, not to be discussed with strangers. I believe that the inherent divisiveness of religion was recognized on some level. People seemed to realize that public proclamations of one's religious beliefs were antithetical to the maintenance of social cohesion (in much the same way politics appears to be these days).

But the South has a very different history than the West, so it should not be surprising that a very different culture has emerged here. Church is far more important here than in many regions of America. From the Charlotte Observer article:
In the South, the conversation-starter is born from history, tradition and sociability, experts and faith leaders say. In other regions, particularly the Northeast, it's a matter left in private life, newcomers say.
I was unprepared for this sort of question when I moved to Mississippi. It initially struck me (and continues to do so) as rude. My temptation has always been to respond with something along the lines of, "I don't see how that is any of your business." It really isn't! Of course, I also realize that saying this would not be terribly well received. At least, it hasn't been the few times I've said it.

Of course, part of the reason that so many Christians ask the question to everyone they meet is that their pastors tell them to do so. Recruiting new members to one's church is considered a source of great pride here. This is why the question is nearly always followed with an invitation to attend the speaker's church. They are hoping you will say that you haven't found a church so they can get you to theirs.
It makes some uncomfortable, even some from the South. "In a world where we tend to align ourselves with other people who are `like us,' the answer to this question may be immediately polarizing," said Jessica Hooks, who moved here from Raleigh.
And the polarizing nature of this question is exactly the problem. The implicit meaning of the question is something like, "Do you believe the same crap I do? If so, we can be friends. If not, you are doomed to hell."

With experience, I have learned that explaining I do not attend church and have no interest in doing so quickly ends the conversation (often right after being informed that I will "burn in a lake of fire"). Unfortunately, it often ends more than the conversation; it may end the possibility of any future interaction with the speaker. They have written me off.
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