The Function of Religion
When we were first married, my husband and I did not go to church on a regular basis. We only attended church with my father-in-law on special occasions: Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter Sunday, and Christmas. So we weren’t exactly CEOs—people who attend church on Christmas and Easter only, but we weren’t regulars either.
We talked about the kind of church we would be interested in, but didn’t look for one. Once, however, we attended a function in which my father-in-law’s church showed a video of all their ministries, and we realized that this church was already doing many of the things we were looking for. So our decision was easy; we started attending that church on a weekly basis and found it fulfilling.
After we moved from Texas and once we settled into our Florida home, my husband and I started looking for a church to attend. We found the nearest church of the same denomination as the one in Texas and made that our new church (Church One). The experience was okay; we liked many of the church members and were happy to meet several people with whom we have become good friends.
We did not enjoy the sermons however, since they were boring! Yep—I said it. They were boring. Boiled down to essential elements, church services are music and sermon. The music at this church was definitely not my favored style, but that was okay with me. I hoped to find the sermons inspiring and educational though. Instead, they were dull; most Sundays we had trouble finding a take-home kernel.
Even more troubling was that my stepdaughter—then only about 12—got even less than my husband and I did from the sermons. (There weren’t enough youth at this church to support a separate ministry, so there was no respite from the impenetrable sermons for her.) When I learned that our minister was retiring, I decided that must explain his lack of enthusiasm for a subject he had spent decades studying. Without another church in our neighborhood of the same denomination, and not being willing to take a long drive on Sunday mornings, we stuck it out.
A few years after we had been attending Church One, on my own, I decided to stop in at Church Two to see why there were always so many cars heading there on Sunday mornings. Church Two is a different denomination from Church One, and is actually the one in which I was christened. I loved the sermon! The minister—the fictitiously named Pastor Smith—was a fantastic public speaker. As soon as I got home, I encouraged the rest of the family to give Church Two a try.
The next Sunday when the three of us arrived, someone whisked my step-daughter away to the Youth Ministry. The sermon was like any good talk: clearly laid out with excellent examples to demonstrate the major points, sprinkled with a few drops of humor. My husband enjoyed the service, as did I. But the true test was yet to come: What was my stepdaughter’s response to her experience? She was engaged. Excited. Curious. She talked all the way home about what she learned. And she was anxious to return to Church Two! And that’s how we became church members at Church Two.
Fast-forward some years. We still loved attending Church Two and continued to attend regularly. One Saturday afternoon as I read the newspaper, a headline caught my eye: it said something like “Pastor Admits Internet Pornography Addiction”. Stunned does not begin to describe my reaction. There was MY pastor—pictured—admitting that he was addicted to internet pornography. That was part of the news. The other major part: Pastor Smith was voluntarily stepping down from the church (although given that he confessed his addiction to church higher-ups, I suspect they helped him decide to resign). I called my husband over and together we read the shocking news.
There is no indication that Pastor Smith broke the law; he was not involved with child pornography, and as far as I know, even with a search from an outside computer firm, no pornography was found on any church computers. So should Pastor Smith have stepped down? Would his marital status affect your answer to this question? In light of other high-profile scandals, such as former megachurch pastor Ted Haggard's admission to using methamphetamines and visiting a male prostitute, Pastor Smith’s behavior seems less troubling.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim argued from a functionalist perspective that the function of religion in society is for cohesion. Religious people meet, usually at church, so that they can, with regularity, share a common set of values and beliefs. What happens, then, when a leading figure of the church behaves in a way that conflicts with church doctrine? How much imperfection can we and should we tolerate in church leaders? In the case of Church Two, the answer was swift and unequivocal: church administrators would decide when and if Pastor Smith could return to the pulpit after addiction treatment, but he would never be allowed to lead Church Two again. Does that response make sense to you from a functionalist perspective? What other sociological theories might explain why Pastor Smith might have lost is position in our church?