Another great reason to join a congregation …

Thanks to Times columnist Tom Friedman and famous Harvard scholar Michael Sandel, here’s a message that I know leaders in congregations will say: “That’ll preach!”

On Sunday, Tom crysalized this central theme along with references to Sandel’s latest book—What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets—in a New York Times commentary headlined “This Column Is Not Sponsored by Anyone.” If you spotted Tom’s piece on Sunday, you may have overlooked it because the opening half was a rant we’ve all heard—and likely most of us would echo—about the rising tide of commercial advertising in all phases of our society. Some cash-strapped schools are even experimenting with advertising on school buses. Local politicians nationwide are scrambling to sell “naming rights” to every public institution within their grasp.

It’s the final portion of Tom’s column that points to the sermons and small-group discussions we should be organizing in congregations nationwide. It turns out that Friedman and Sandel knew each other as kids and one thing their families absolutely loved was going to baseball games—partly because sitting in the stands at a baseball game was one of America’s great equalizers. Of course, as kids, they didn’t describe it that way. But, even as youngsters, they envisioned this jostling family of Americans all cramming into the stands to celebrate the big games. Janitors cheered and booed and ate hot dogs next to millionaires.

We all know that iconic image of baseball right? But no more! That’s now a nostalgic snapshot of a nearly extinct culture, both Friedman and Sandel conclude. Now, millionaires avoid riffraff in their limited-access, air-conditioned skyboxes where they nibble and sip whatever gourmet delights they prefer.

Writes Tom Friedman: “Throughout our country, we are losing the places and institutions that used to bring people together from different walks of life. Sandel calls this the ‘sky-boxification of American life,’ and it is troubling. Unless the rich and poor encounter one another in everyday life, it is hard to think of ourselves as engaged in a common project. At a time when to fix our society we need to do big, hard things together, the marketization of public life becomes one more thing pulling us apart. ‘The great missing debate in contemporary politics,’ Sandel writes, ‘is about the role and reach of the markets.’ We should be asking where markets serve the public good, and where they don’t belong, he argues. And we should be asking how to rebuild class-mixing institutions. ‘Democracy does not require perfect equality,’ he concludes, ‘but it does require that citizens share in a common life. … For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”

Do you hear the sermon now? Do you hear the message that should echo loud and clear through congregations and communities nationwide?

I’m the Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine and I am regularly invited to speak to crowds about the future of religion in America. But, on many Sunday mornings, I love being just another guy in the pew, singing hymns and praying at appropriate times with everyone else.

On Sunday morning, I sat in a pew in a large, but aging, landmark church in a mid-sized city where a member of that church got up to talk about raising funds to repair the latest leaks and water damage in the venerable building. That member was a well-to-do, nationally known marketing expert—Kathy Macdonald who heads the Macdonald Group consulting agency. She could have told the congregation about all kinds of important marketing principles behind a successful capital campaign. She could have flashed her considerable credentials in urging other well-heeled men and women to step up and fix this landmark.

Instead, Kathy talked honestly and movingly about her family and the way this congregation is “our second home.” That’s true now and it has been bedrock truth in her family through several generations. I felt like I was reading an echo of Tom Friedman’s column about why he and little Mikey Sandel used to think of their bleacher seats as an extension of home. On Sunday, Kathy had the tough job of answering this question: Why is it worth fixing up yet another downtown dinosaur of a church—in this era when hot young evangelists are barnstorming the country and telling people to give up on large-scale old churches?

Why? Because, Kathy explained, this place isn’t a dinosaur. This place is sacred ground for countless individuals and families. This is a home. And I’ll repeat that like Kathy did: “This is our home.”

Remember what a “home” is? There’s no named corporate sponsor for Thanksgiving Dinner at home, except perhaps the matriarch and patriarch of your family and all the aunts and uncles who gather to help prepare the meal. And, when an extended family gathers in a home—like a congregation gathers in thousands of houses of worship from sea to shining sea—the rich uncle passes the potatoes (or sings the hymns) right next to the uncle who lost his job and is sleeping in someone’s spare room.

Just as Tom Friedman and Michael Sandel are arguing: There are precious few homes left in America that are big enough to welcome rich and poor—all classes of Americans—into a single family.

Do you hear the sermon now? Do you hear the message that should echo loud and clear through congregations and communities nationwide?

Yes, at ReadTheSpirit, we think: That’ll preach!

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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