The final session of the alpha course had two themes, the role of the church and asking whether God heals today. I think it was a bit of a shame that the two sessions were crammed into one as I think there was a lot to discuss here.
I arrived to find a smaller than usual group as a result of a couple of illnesses and the students heading home for Easter. This meant the two diminished groups formed one, slightly larger group. I was introduced to tonight's guest speaker, Chris.
After some informal chat, Chris began his talk about the role of the church. He defined it rather broadly, not as a building or clergy or organisation, but more like a family, school, hospital and community. I don't think he was speaking particularly about their church, but about the idea of Christians meeting up to worship together. People shared stories about the wonderful feeling of being in church singing or enjoying others' company. They described it better than I do, but I understand these feelings and I think they're genuine. I don't think that there is anything supernatural attached to them, though. In fact I think the effect of a supportive community on an individual is much more significant than most people, including the religious, would believe. For one thing, I'd guess that a group of people such as in a church or other social organisation could enable people to believe pretty much anything. If that sounds like an exaggeration, try looking into Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses or any apocalyptic cult and see what they believe. It's a moot point whether their beliefs are more or less far-fetched than mainstream Christianity, but plenty of people do believe them. However outlandish a set of beliefs may seem to outsiders, for those whose entire family, colleagues and friends believe the same thing, I imagine it's easy to agree. In that situation, it takes a real oddball not to follow the herd. In fact, if I remember rightly, Chris mentioned that church is meant to strengthen people's faith and encourage them to believe.
Interestingly, there's also plenty of evidence that community and social relationships have a huge positive effect on people's health.
...social relationships affect a range of health outcomes, including mental health, physical health, health habits, and mortality risk.
I did try to make this point and that this might explain many of the life-changing stories of people whose lives are changed for the better by joining a church. Before I could really get it across clearly, Matt quickly responded that the holy spirit and Jesus were a really important part of it. Then someone else started speaking. I didn't want to dominate the conversation but, as the only atheist in a slightly larger group, the dialogue felt a bit one-sided.
I'm going to discuss the healing talk in a second post, as it's getting rather long.
I think the effect of a supportive community on an individual is much more significant than most people, including the religious, would believe.