Sometimes it's not the results of a survey that reveal something remarkable, but the survey itself. Take, for example, a recent survey commissioned by Group Publishing to "determine where the church ranks as compared to other 'around-town' venues when measuring the places, people, and attributes that define friendly to Americans today."
Certainly, churches should be friendly places where visitors especially are welcomed and treated with kindness. But surveys like this inadvertently suggest something more. In our informal, egalitarian, and therapeutic culture, friendliness—warm, comforting, amiable interactions—has become the cardinal virtue.
As it turns out, churches didn't fare poorly in this survey of 800 respondents, three-fourths of whom identified themselves as Christians. Yes, more people think restaurants, bars, and pubs beat churches as the best places to meet people, but not by that much: 18 percent versus 16 percent.
This finding puzzled Kimberlee Hauss, the Religion News Service writer who summarized the findings. She asked, "Why would people choose a restaurant or bar over a church?" The hidden assumption here, of course, is that churches should be as friendly as bars.
Chris Howley, director of research of Group Publishing, replied that many people feel "compelled" to be in church. They go out of a sense of obligation and therefore have no spiritual motivation for attending. In contrast, he said, the social atmosphere of a pub or restaurant draws people in without the feeling of obligation.
The answer—whether misquote or not—accords with a common perception, which feeds into our confusion about friendliness. The answer traffics in the stereotype that churches are full of uptight, duty-bound ...