As the child of Baptist missionaries, I spent a multitude of hours in hundreds of churches throughout the United States. Now comfortably unaffiliated, (but spiritual in a sense that Sarah McLachlan would approve of) I don’t want to become the enlightened-former-believer who mocks their strict upbringing upon seeing the secular light. Religion added a lot to my life! (For example. I didn’t take SAT prep classes. I read the King James version of the Bible growing up and miraculously scored a 700 on the reading section. Holla-lujah.)
But, as I grew older, it became clearer that everything I thought I’d miss about being a church-going Evangelical could be replicated in a secular context. In some ways, replicated in an even more satisfying way. Here are a few examples of cherished characteristics of the Christian life one might miss when they leave the flock and ways to fill that hole in your soul.
A moral conscious and inescapable guilt
Watched a “Rated R” movie? Cue guilt. Tried your first beer? Cue guilt. Voted for Obama? Cue guilt. Guilt is one of the defining qualities of being a Christian. As it is written, If you’re a Christian and you pulled the metaphorical lever for the Democratic party, you might have felt a deep pressure in your chest. That’s good. This guilt, Christians argue, is the sign you know you are in good standing with God.
Secular alternative: Volunteering.
Working with underprivileged youth, the poor, the disabled instantly conjures hard questions. Why am I healthy? Why did I have a loving family? It’s hard. Luckily, we can use this guilt as a way for motivation to do something to help someone else. Misplaced guilt doesn’t do anyone any good. And it doesn’t take a spiritual foundation to feel compassion for others.
Now, you might respond that Christians are avid volunteer workers. You’re right. Between raising money for the Boy Scout troop, the new gymnasium, or Deacon Bob’s colonoscopy, Christians are constantly searching for ways to spread the good news. Except, sometimes, their volunteering is a sneaky cover for a more everlasting mission. Want a sandwich, poor person? Take this ham and cheese AND this pamphlet to learn how you can never be hungry. Ever. Again. Which makes it less selfless volunteering and more experiential marketing.
Music: the soundtrack of faith
It doesn’t matter if you profess to be the most fervent disciple of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins or Pontius Pilate, one cannot hear How Great Thou Art and not be moved. In a congregational setting, it’s pure magic. Whether you prefer the classics of Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley, modern day worship anthems, or a great gospel choir, music is fundamental to the experience of being in church.
Secular alternative: Go to a concert (ideally a Coldplay or Passion Pit concert)
Coldplay’s concerts are meticulously produced to give attendees all the tears, unity, and inspiration of a worship service without asking you to determine the fate of your eternal soul afterward. Speaking in tongues will take new meaning during Viva la Vida, as you chant with thousands mesmerized by your charismatic leader, Chris Martin. Additionally, Passion Pit concerts are the greatest form of pop rave, where hooking up and dancing are about celebrating life and humanity. It’s beautiful. But if you still miss hearing How Great Thou Art, watch the Country Music Awards.
Referencing the word of God
The Bible is a very quotable book. The apostle Paul wrote to his pupil Timothy that the Scripture is useful for doctrine, correction, and understanding. Regardless of whether you believe that the Bible is recalling actual historical events or simply moderately convincing myths, the versatility of the Bible is undeniable. If you’re facing instances where you feel pressured by your wife to procreate with your slave? There’s a verse for that. Find yourself having a dinner party of say, 5,000, and have nothing to serve them? There’s a verse for that too. This ability for the Bible to fit almost every situation makes it an essential addition to hotel rooms, United States court houses, and bookshelves everywhere.
Secular solution: Watch Glee
In many ways, the Glee Club at McKinley High is very much like a local church youth group. Intergroup dating? Check. Life lessons on the dangers of drinking and sex? Check. Singing? Uh, maybe some singing. And ask yourself this. Does the Bible have a verse on the dangers of texting while driving? Maybe in the Gnostic gospels. But we Baptists don’t count those.
Finger Food Fellowships and other casual dining
One of the most passionately followed passages of Scripture is “Thou preparest a table before me.” Between pot-luck dinners, pre-service donuts and coffee, barbeques, church picnics, food is abundant. As it is written, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there shall be a pizza in their midst.” (RWT) If you hunger and thirst for a great meal as much as you do righteousness, Christianity might be hard to leave.
Secular alternative: None
This is hard. For secularists and non-believers, typically we congregate over coffee, a beer or glass of wine. Maybe wing-night at the local pub. As satisfying as this can be, I’ll be honest. Nothing can beat a great meal with seconds and thirds of Ziti, macaroni and cheese, and Sprite-spiked punch. St. Peter, you win this round.
Perhaps the most important thing people miss upon leaving their church is the sense of community that comes with your. Having someone to call, check on your ailing mother, or someone to pray with, church provides a support system that is invaluable.
Secular alternative: Make a friend
I grew up being taught that there were two kinds of people in the world: people of the “kingdom of light” and people in the “kingdom of darkness”. These people were slaves to Satan. They were sick and in need of saving. Looking at my fellow fifth graders threw such a prism didn’t make me want to invite them to shoot hoops after school. I didn’t know how to make a friend without Jesus making the introduction. And I missed out.
So I understand there is something special about having a prepackaged way to have friends and people to care about. But with a little effort and a more open perspective on the possibilities all people can bring to your life, people to care about can come from any corner of life. Because I now determine the things in life I value, I look for people to share those values too. I don’t need a preordained fraternity to join. Just the choice to share life with one or a few.