BreakPoint: Time to Thicken up the Church

Belonging to Something Bigger than Ourselves

Are our churches truly leaving a mark on people? Or another way to think about it: Are our churches thick or thin?

What’s the difference between a job and a vocation? Or a collection of people and a team? Well, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, the difference is thickness.

“A thick institution,” Brooks writes, “becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul.”

Brooks tells of the Incarnation summer camp in Connecticut where he worked as a young man. When a former Incarnation co-worker died recently, the camp community came together, reaching out to his relatives in their grief and to one another in theirs. One posted a camp reunion photo with the caption, “My Family.”

As Brooks writes, “Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory. I haven’t worked at Incarnation for 30 years,” he said, “but it remains one of the four or five thick institutions in my life.”

According to Brooks, thick organizations—whether schools, employers, or something else—often share a physical location, where people meet regularly, face to face, and frequently, for a meal. Thick institutions often have and practice shared rituals—such as fasting or reciting a song or a theme.

There’s often what might be called a “sacred origin story,” and many members can tell of personal rescue or redemption, and usually can quickly articulate a common ideal—just think about Semper Fi for the Marine Corps. Membership is not a means to get something for themselves, but a way to be part of something bigger than themselves, for the greater good.

Now I find it interesting, telling in fact, that throughout this terrific description of “thick” institutions, Brooks never once uses the word “church” in his column. Isn’t this exactly what churches should be?

Think of the first-century church in Jerusalem as described in Acts 2 or the persecuted house church communities in China. The church was established by Christ to be the place of our primary relationships and loyalty, where individuals and families both invest of themselves and receive help, encouragement, rebuke and blessing. But in the age of “dating the church,” it’s too often a consumerist experience, in which leadership is forced to outdo itself each week to attract parishioners who are more shaped by consumerism than the Gospel itself.

Some churches, so afraid of losing attendees, have embraced a consumer model that offers all kinds of life advice and programming, but little that is distinct from the culture.

A recent study revealed that growing churches are the theologically conservative ones: with leaders who believe that Jesus really rose from the dead, that salvation is only available in Christ, and following Christ calls us to culturally unpopular commitments. But it’s more than just the right beliefs; it has to be the right practices, too—inviting believers to embrace the faith once delivered through shared worship, repentance, and calling. And of course, by caring for one another.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said recently that Facebook can provide community and a sense of belonging like churches do. But Facebook is a thin community at best, an illusion of true community. As one online commenter quipped, Facebook won’t show up at your door with 50 casseroles after you have a baby or lose a loved one.

Being connected is not the same as being in relationship.

And we ought to remember this, in an age of thin connections masquerading as thick, strong mediating institutions are the secret sauce of a strong civil society. They not only provide meaning for individuals, they’re necessary for a healthy citizenry. They do what government cannot: cultivate virtue and care for others, both of which are necessary for self-governance.

Please come to and click on this commentary. We’ll link you to David Brooks column. But more than that, this is something we should discuss in our families, and share with our pastors and friends.


Time to Thicken up the Church: Belonging to Something Bigger than Ourselves

Read David Brooks’ very intriguing article, linked below. You’ll find, as John has suggested, that being a “thick” community is what the Church is called to be as we fulfill Christ’s calling on our lives.



How to Leave a Mark on People
  • David Brooks | New York Times | April 18, 2017
Ask yourself, 'How thick is my church?'
  • Marv Knox | | April 19, 2017
St. Zuckerberg? Facebook CEO says company can fill role played by churches
  • Douglas Ernst | The Washington Times | June 27, 2017

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  • Peter Mead

    Great little addition: “And of course, by caring for one another.”
    Churches that pride themselves on having the right doctrine or the right practices, or that are driven by ambitious young leaders, may find that little addition to be secondary. It’s not. It’s one of the things that has helped our church in the midst of our struggles — and most churches will have struggles. I’d like to hear what other people think: are you hungry to have more caring between members of your church (maybe you could call that “horizontal” ministry)?

    • Scott

      I for one agree with you. The gospel is much better lived than it is preached. We can’t show God’s love to those outside the church if we don’t spend time strengthening our relationships and practicing that love inside our churches. That and prayer have become the main focus of our church since our new pastor has arrived and I feel more connected to my church family than since we started attending 3 years ago.

    • Just one of many voices

      Yes! I’m always hungry to see more churches that have horizontal ministry.

      I’m confident in saying that whole paragraph describes our church pretty accurately. They are very proactive about horizontal ministry. Small group studies, discipleship classes, a food bank that’s been growing exponentially, financial aid programs for members going through economic difficulty, and so much more! They’ve always been very transparent about doctrine, leadership happenings, and every dime that is spent.

      I’ve always liked that phrase, “horizontal” ministry. I’ve heard a lot of pastors use the terms “vertical/horizontal”, and how one directly affects the other.

  • Phoenix1977

    “A recent study revealed that growing churches are the theologically conservative ones: with leaders who believe that Jesus really rose from the dead, that salvation is only available in Christ, and following Christ calls us to culturally unpopular commitments.”
    I’m sure that study indicates that. But what I’m far more interested in, is who performed and/or funded that study. I bet it was a group of religious conservatives, a conservative non-profit, think tank or university. So there might be a case of bias here.

    • Scott

      Ever the conspiracy theorist. : – )

      You could be right… the study might have been funded by religious conservatives, but even if it was, that doesn’t mean it is not accurate. The best way to know is to go to one of these churches and observe for yourself.

      God is real, Jesus died and rose on the third day and He did it because He loves you!

      • Phoenix1977

        Publication bias is one of the largest threats to trustworthy scientific research. It’s a problem we see in medical science but also in sociological science. And now we are starting to see it as well in public health science. So far all papers published “proving” education as a disease prevention works are published by, for or in name of organisations that benefit from that fact. Just as pharmaceutical companies benefit from registering new drugs. And conservative groups benefit from “proving” conservatism grows. That doesn’t make it science. That makes it propaganda.

        • Gina Dalfonzo

          Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself? You haven’t shown that this study was by biased authors, you’ve only speculated. Go get their names and organizations, then we’ll talk. 🙂