Pass the coffee & donuts, hold the faith: KC Star looks at a non-church

GetReligion has occasionally looked at stories about "church" for the unchurched, as tmatt did last February. But the Kansas City Star takes a close, detailed, 2,100-word look at the so-called Oasis movement, especially in the newspaper's hometown.

These "self-described freethinkers, humanists, secularists, atheists and agnostics" chat, nosh, listen to music and hear engaging messages. All without God or Bible or prayers or doctrines or other stuff that made them leave church. But with a lot of what they really value -- community:

A half-hour before everyone takes a seat, the Sunday morning coffee and doughnuts are producing their desired effect.
Fellowship: Hearty greetings, handshakes and hugs. The chatter gets boisterous as the gathering space fills.
Coffee and doughnuts are a classic element at many a house of worship. This isn’t a church, though. That’s about the last place most of these people want to be. But it’s not anti-church, either.

It's a thought-provoking story,  posing the question -- without even asking -- of the nature of the "fellowship" offered in regular congregations. But as we'll see, the story doesn't quite get to the nugget of the "community" offered at the Oasis.

Although the topic has been done and done -- invariably pegged off the Pew study on the "Nones" in October 2012 -- the Star at least featurizes the topic for its magazine. And you can't fault the story on sourcing, not with 12 quoted sources.

They include:

* A couple who left Pentecostal Christianity -- the wife was even ordained -- then left over unresolved theological questions. Helen Stringer now leads the Kansas City Oasis.

* An Oasis member who says he literally walked out of church at 11 or 12 out of boredom.

* A nonreligious man who found at Oasis the fellowship he couldn't find among the nonreligious at college.

* A Jewish woman who used to attend synagogue "to appease my mom and the Jewish guilt that comes along with it."

We also hear from a humanities professor at Rice University and from Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist (But the story doesn't say that Faitheist is Stedman's book, as well as his blog on Religion News Service.)

One coup was quoting an avowed Christian who feels comfortable among these nice anarchists. “They have been very accepting of me and of people with other viewpoints," he says. "I hardly need to remind them not to do the same thing to Christians that some Christians have done to them.”

Would have been nice to ask what kind of Christian he is, though. It would make a difference whether he's, say, Baptist or Episcopalian or Eastern Orthodox. Even some Unitarian Universalists say they're still oriented toward Christianity.

The many profilettes make the story rather episodic, devoting six or seven paragraphs to each (but 11 for the Stringers, the founders of the Kansas City Oasis).  Still, they build into a clear composite: These people like the coffee and donuts and music and positive-thinking messages, minus the religion.

They also borrow other motifs from churches. They also hold potlucks, happy-hour events and do volunteer work at charities like a Habitat ReStore, the Star reports.

Says Mike Aus, founder of Houston Oasis: “I don’t agree with the dogma of religions. I don’t think there’s a single empirical fact informing any of them. But religion has done some things really well, and one of them is to provide strong communities where people find support.”

Most of the Star article is scrupulous in letting the people tell their own stories. Only occasionally does it lapse into secular-speak, like when it says Oasis might work even better in "staunchly religious" areas. "Staunch," of course, is code for conservative or fundamentalist. You seldom read about "staunch" liberals.

More blatant is the market-speak about the "community moment" or "personal reflection" (sermon or homily in churches). The writer gushes over a talk by Mike Aus as "an ode to joyfulness and a plea for playfulness throughout life."

And for all its length, the story ignores some basic elements of journalism. How large is the unchurch movement? Attendance at the Kansas City Oasis can reach 140, and the Star says such groups are appearing "around the country and across the world." How many groups? And how many people? If they don't know, they should say so.

Are surrounding church and synagogue leaders aware of these Oases? What do they think of them and their approach? Does it challenge them to rethink their own work and mission?

And what of the work and mission of the Oases and other gatherings like them? As a reader asked, who tipped us off to this story: "It didn't quite probe the question of why these people felt the need to do 'what church does, minus the dogma and exclusion,' as one of the members of the community put it in the article."

What, after all, is the nature of community? Just to chat, brew coffee and hear feel-good talks? Is there a goal or purpose beyond that?

The Star ends the feature with a testimony (no, it's not called that here) by an Arkansas ex-pat who feels an "intellectual stimulation" that he missed at his conservative Christian church back home.

"I don’t feel stagnant when I'm going," he says. "I feel like I'm constantly learning."

It's a sobering ending. Sobering, either because he didn't find an ultimate purpose in his old church, or because he's happy without one at the Oasis. Or maybe both.

Either way, this article, flaws and all, should be a must-read for pastors, program directors, or prominent volunteers at regular churches. The exodus isn't catastrophic yet; but as the Star points out, nearly a third of all adults younger than 30 told Pew that  they're unaffiliated.

Addendum: Chris Stedman has tweeted that Faitheist is the title of his book as well as his RNS blog.  I've tweaked this column accordingly.

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