Churching Alone

Churching Alone November 3, 2014

In his important 2001 work, Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam illuminated a significant, but detrimental, development in American culture: an disconnection of people from each other and a loss of “social capital” that resulted from our estrangement bowling_imagefrom other people–our solitude–in the midst of a busy, materialistic, pragmatic culture. The data he amassed showed that Americans (in 2001) were less inclined than in decades past to participate in civic and social groups. Who needs to bowl in a league when you can bowl alone?

In that light, we can also inquire about the phenomena of “churching alone.” In the eighties and nineties, seeker-sensitive mega-churches knew how to tap into the “bowling alone” culture by creating environments in which people could come and go anonymously: dimly lit (or nearly completely dark) auditoriums, loud music, low-pressure talks, tightly programmed “worship” itineraries. There are avenues for going deeper, of course, and opportunities for service and connection, but in the first-level environment, it is very easy to come to church alone or with your family, passively take it all in, and head home to live the rest of your life uninterrupted by the people of God. This was true of mega-churches, but the same sensibilities have crept into all sorts of other churches, too.

This individualistic, anonymous, low-pressure (and too often, superficial) environment has created problems in the church. It seems that younger people aren’t wanting the anonymity that their parents had come to expect. The secret doors that lead to greater community, deeper intimacy, and heightened spirituality are often too hard for them to find. People too often don’t know how–or where–to ask for that secret handshake so they can break through to the other side of solitude into community. Surely this lack of connectedness explains, in part, the rise of the “nones” (those who do not particularly affiliate with any particular religion, though many of them are personally religious). Anonymity and passivity are not values highly prized by Millennials (nor Gen Xers, I would think). What they do care about, according to a recent Gallup poll, is whether the church has any real discernible impact on the larger community. People are becoming more and more “unchurched” all the time, in part because “going to church” just doesn’t seem worth the time and effort.

In his more recent book, American Grace, Robert Putnam and co-author David Campbell have put together a impressive analysis of American religion based on their extensive research (“Faith Matters Survey”) and corroborated with  other research data. Among many other juicy nuggets, they show that deep, relational connectedness to a religious community (i.e. church) is far and away the greatest predictor of what they call “good neighborliness.” Good neighborliness is their term for, well, being a good neighbor: being generous with money, volunteering time to religious and civic organizations, voting, helping the poor and elderly, helping someone find a job, donating blood, etc. Their research shows that neither theology, nor religious affiliation, nor even church attendance as such (a major indicator of religiosity), comes close to the “gusto” impact (on one’s neighborliness) of having good friends within the religious context (this is a good confirmation of the well-established method of small groups, by the way). In other words, if we want more good neighbors in society, there’s nothing like close, significant friendships within the context of a religious community.

But to throw a little cold water on these warm feelings, I was surprised to read this tidbit, in American Grace:

In round numbers, people who’ve just joined a congregation report two close friends at church. On average, it takes two more years to add a third close friend, ten more years to add a fourth, and another ten years to add a fifth

So, easier said than done. But maybe this means, in the end, we should be less worried about our Sunday morning productions, less concerned with interrupting someone’s anonymity, and more concerned with creating opportunities for connectedness–genuine, close, connectedness within the people of God. More radically, perhaps we should be less concerned with filling in the cracks in the walls of established, organized Christianity and more creative in cultivating organic communities of disciples?

Like bowling, churching is more fun with others–and it’s better for the world, too.


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