The Fringe Benefits of Christianity

12 Apr

As I stood gabbing in church yesterday, as I do each Sunday after the service, my thoughts turned to how very convenient and helpful it often is to be a churchgoer. What had brought it to mind was my need to get some photocopies certified by a “suitable person” in order to open what is apparently the most security-conscious ISA in the world. Suitable people, by their definition, include ministers of religion and doctors. Naturally our church has a minister of religion, and for some reason we have more healthcare professionals than the nearest hospital, so it wasn’t a problem.

I started to wonder, though, how much more difficult it would have been if I didn’t attend a church. I mean, it’s one thing if you live in a nice middle class area peopled by doctors and teachers , or your social circle is packed with civil servants and lawyers, but what if that’s not true of you, and you don’t have a church? Obviously it’s still possible – we don’t live in a society segregated by class or wealth a la In Time, but surely it most be more of a hassle? Then I got to watching the little children tearing round the church as if they owned the place, which in a sense they do, and thought that maybe my childhood would have been poorer without that, too.

So here is my list the benefits of Christianity, apart from the obvious, intrinsic ones.* Some of these will apply to other religions and / or clubs and societies; this isn’t a competition, just some of the handy things I have noticed in my many years as a practising Christian. (And yes, being a practising Christian does necessitate going to church, unless you live on a desert island or North Korea or the like. You can’t be part of the Body of Christ on your own.)

* For the avoidance of doubt, the obvious, intrinsic benefits of Christianity are the salvation of your soul, the forgiveness of your sins, a relationship with God and so on.

Signing documents

As above. Churches are supposed to be the best places in Britain for social integration, providing an opportunity for members to meet and become friends with people of different social classes or ethnic backgrounds. So if you need a doctor or teacher to sign your passport form, you’ll probably find one there, along with the obligatory minister of religion.

Making friends

It can be extremely hard to make friends in modern, western society. It’s fine at school and university, but after that opportunities are a bit more limited. You’ve got work, of course (although I work from home, so that’s out) and maybe the gym or choir or whatever else you’re into, but it can take a long time to make real friendships. You can’t do the five-year-old “let’s be friends!” thing. You’ve got to invite the other person for coffee or similar, and then actually find the time to do it, before you can move tentatively up the friendship ladder until you’re in and out of each other’s homes and laughing about shared jokes. Then, if you move home, you’ve got to do it all again.

If you go to church, you have a ready made pseudo-friendship group (well we have to be nice to each other – it’s in the Bible), and one where it’s very easy and natural to develop real friendships. Of course, some churches are friendlier than others, but they all have times when you can all meet up (Sunday services) as well as, usually, mid-week meetings of smaller groups. If you’re in a small group with someone you get on with, you’ve already had coffee together several times, and got to know a fair bit about each other, before either of you has to make the first move to arrange to do something socially. (As you can imagine, the same principle applies to dating, too. In fact, people have been known to go to church just to get a girlfriend, St Augustine included. That is not a recommendation.)

I have lived in lots of different places, in the UK and Albania, and my life would have been vastly more lonely if I hadn’t been able to find a group of people to hang around with, from the very first Sunday. I have fond memories of kafe dhe llafe (coffee and chat) after church at Guri i Themellit in Tirana, and most of the people I know in Lushnje that I’m not related to (and some that I am) are from the church Kisha e Dishepuejve – including my husband, whom I met there.

There is a problem with Christians having only or mostly Christian friends. It can give you a rather cushioned view of the world, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor, and making friends outside church is something Christians should work at. But I would respectfully submit that a good part of the problem is not insularity, but the sheer ease of making friends within the church rather than outwith.

Freedom for kids

I haven’t been a child for a long time, so I could be wrong about this, but I can’t think of many places where kids can socialise in a large building (church, church hall, graveyard) with a number of kindly adults keeping one eye out for their welfare, but basically letting them get on with it. Most of the adults that kids have contact with are either related to them, or being paid to spend time with them. Given the kind of news stories we’ve had so much of recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that’s because everyone else is a paedophile. I just think it must be healthy for kids to have social contact with normal adults in a non-professional setting.

I think it’s also probably good for their self-esteem and sense of responsibility to be part of a community that goes from birth right up to old age (the oldest lady in our church is well into her nineties). The children sometimes take part in services or do a Christmas play, and are a real part of the church. Their talents are encouraged and their efforts are praised. All that probably makes it easier for someone to turn into a well-adjusted, responsible citizen later on.

Freedom from kids

The other side of it is that kids tend to disappear to Sunday school for at least part of the service, giving their parents some much-needed time off – although they do have to spend it singing and listening to a sermon, like it or not.

Music practice

And not just music practice, but tech practice, public speaking practice, childcare practice and so on. There are lots of activities to get involved with at a church, because everything in the church that isn’t done by the paid staff (usually only the minister) is done by the people who attend. Yes, some of it may be a chore, but some of it presents excellent opportunities. When else, apart from in a school, are you going to get the chance to perform on your musical instrument regularly, in a group of other musicians, even if you’re not yet of professional quality? Where will the nervous newbie to public speaking have the chance to perform readings or short talks to a fairly supportive audience? Where will you get the chance to be trained (for free) on a sound desk or projection system? There may be other places, but church is certainly one of them.

Elder care

Opportunities for socialising can be particularly difficult to come by if you’re elderly, especially if you don’t keep well or are unsteady on your legs. Church is a great place to mix with people other than your own family, but it’s also a place where people will go out of their way to help you socialise – or at least, my church is, and I assume most others do the same. People will arrange lifts to help you get to church, check up on you if you don’t show up for a while, and even visit you in hospital. Even if it’s only the pastor visiting because it’s his job, it’s a good remedy for isolation. If you’re planning to be old and infirm, it’s probably a good idea to join a church before you do so.

Understanding literature

One that’s dear to my heart, although I realise that not everyone will consider this an important fringe benefit of Christianity: a background in the Bible, gleaned from many sermons as well as private study, will help you to understand references in older literature – and there are tonnes of them! Writers like Dickens and Trollope would throw in biblical quotes and allusions without ever pointing them out or explaining them, because in those days every educated person in Britain, and most uneducated ones, had at least an acquaintance with the teachings and stories of Christianity. Even into the early twentieth century, novelists, short story writers and poets would pepper their work with Christian references, ironically or otherwise, and just expect people to keep up.

These days, when most people in the UK do not have a working knowledge of Christianity (as evidenced by this particularly egregious piece of drivel, saying both that Jesus did not exist and that his bones have been found), these references can pass by uncomprehended or even unnoticed, which robs the works of some of their richness. If you’ve spent your formative years in a church, you’re much more likely both to pick up on them and to understand the point the writer is making. Of course, that doesn’t help you at all with the fact that nineteenth-century writers also had a tendency to throw in lines in Latin or French without translating them. Sorry about that.

None of this is intended to be an advertisement, by the way. Naturally I would heartily recommend faith in Christ to anyone, but due to his being the way (to heaven), the truth (about everything) and the life (to the full) rather than for the reasons listed above. However, if you are a churchgoer, maybe these will give you reason to be even more grateful. And if you have got out of the habit – maybe you should get back into it.


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