This past weekend, Leeman and I attended our 10th reunion at our undergraduate college. Reminiscences were reminisced. Nostalgia was embraced. Amanda got to poke other alumni babies in their eyes. And generally a good time was had by all.
Leeman and I also had fun impressing the current crop of student workers at the reunion with tales of how we had been dating since our Freshman orientation way back in the fall of 2000. Yes, we really are Lily and Marshall from How I Met Your Mother. But, really, we are by no means unique in being a Kenyon alumni couple. Most of our close friends seem to have married people they met in college. I’m not sure if it is impressive or disturbing how many couples from our college days were still together and now producing babies 10 years later. But what I do know is that it is most certainly a result of the fact that attending a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere Ohio is basically like being part of a cult. Marrying someone from inside the cult just makes things easier on all parties considered. As one friend who married an outsider put it–her husband’s reaction to visiting our little college on the hill was to ask, “What is this strange place where everyone smiles at eachother and sings all the time!?”
To be fair, we Kenyon alumni do tend to be a smiley lot. And we do sing strange songs about how we are like a river called Kokosing and a dude named Philander who smoke hams and spank naughty freshmen well. We tell ghost stories about buildings on campus. Just, seriously, check out fellow alum John Green’s love letter to the college. Part of the delight in going back for a class reunion is getting to hang out with people who share these bizarre in-jokes and references. Seeing yourselves through the eyes of “outsiders”, though, can make you realize how insular and cult-like your undergraduate community truly is.
Really, there’s nothing wrong with an insular and cult-like college. It’s part of the joy of an institution that exists for its members alone. The purpose of an educational institution is to educate its students (presumably so they can become good and productive members of society, but there is also something to be said for education as a valuable end in itself). So, strange rituals that make no sense to the outside serve their purpose of creating a tight, close-knit community.
However, pondering the perspective of non-Kenyonite spouses toward our collegiate customs do get me thinking a bit about the church. Specifically how the church must at times look to outsiders. What do we do that makes no sense? What strange rituals do we have that would alienate, rather than invite, those not indoctrinated into our ecclesial culture?
Don’t get me wrong. We as the church can certainly make the error of “dumbing down” integral aspects of our worship in the name of cultural accommodation to contemporary society. I am not in favour of overhauling the liturgy or doing away with the creeds. It is nevertheless worth noting that the difference between the church and my undergraduate college is that the church as an organization exists for those on the outside, rather than for those on the inside.
What aspects of our corporate life are truly integral to our faith and worship and what are simply habits of custom that make us feel comfortable, while serving merely to alienate those to whom we should be reaching out? Do we want to be an inward-looking, insular community which takes delight in our own in-jokes, or do we truly want to be a transformative presence in the world around us? What will we have to change about ourselves to make that happen? These are not easy questions to answer. But they are the questions we must be asking as we prepare to move forward as the body of Christ in a dynamic, ever-changing world.