library

He’s talking about libraries, but an allusion to church is so easy you don’t have to be a preacher to make it.

The unnamed speaker is the photographic subject of one of my favorite social media contributors. Being from The Big Apple myself, I am drawn to the almost daily postings of the anonymous photojournalist and social commentator who gives us Humans of New York on Instagram and Facebook. A recent photo featured a man who works at the New York Public Library. He was asked about the future of libraries in a digital age:

“I don’t think the library is threatened. Circulation of physical books has never been higher. But I wouldn’t even agree they are in the book business. They are in the information sharing business.”

Yet even within their walls, churches, like libraries, provide physical and psychic space for people to come together to do “thinking work.” There will indeed always be a need for that, because that is how we are made.

He goes on to talk about how libraries have gone digital and share information now over the Internet. But when the question was put more bluntly about libraries becoming obsolete, this caught my attention: “Libraries provide a kind of third space that is neither home nor work, where people can come together to do thinking work. There will always be that need.”

Libraries, churches, civic clubs and nonprofit organizations are among what sociologists call the “mediating institutions” of society. They are safety zones that clear space for people to gather for good purposes. They buffer tensions between the individual and the state. They are humanizing communities that warm people from the impersonal cold of secular life. And they are fighting for their lives in a virtual age.

Churches (including faith communities of all kinds) hear and feel the critique of irrelevance and obsolescence. Faith and faithfulness are more now a cultural curiosity than a cultural assumption. This may be unprecedented in human history. Religion in one form or another has always provided the aspirational balloon and the intellectual tether of every civilization (save Communism, which couldn’t be saved, maybe in part because of its spiritual emptiness).

Libraries are closing, even as they are adapting. Public funding cuts undercut their mission and undermine our community character. Charitable giving to churches is down, too, even as church benevolence work is spiking everywhere. Churches are meeting human need outside their own walls, as the social safety net is sagging. They are people with portable faith who move among us, leaving breadcrumbs on the path to God.

Yet even within their walls, churches, like libraries, provide physical and psychic space for people to come together to do “thinking work.” There will indeed always be a need for that, because that is how we are made. We are social beings who need each other. We are spiritual beings who need God. When those twin aspects of our being come together, we move toward the wholeness we were created for.

Our library man mentioned one other thing: “This is especially important to immigrants, because you don’t have to prove anything to get a library card.”

Love that. Churches aim to be those kinds of communities too. At our worst, we put up invisible signs that say, “Keep Out.” But at our best, our signs match our ideals: “All Welcome.” And that’s because God is always more interested in where you are going than where you have been.

New Year’s resolutions anyone? There’s a library and a church nearby eager to welcome you.


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