Congregations and Social Capital

Congregations and Social Capital August 7, 2015

In her thorough study of American congregations, Pillars of Faith, Nancy Ammerman highlights the various ways that congregations provide social capital – networks of friends and support – to members.

One of the main reasons people join congregations, her surveys and interviews found, was to get support in raising children and leading their families: “Almost one in five (18%) of the congregations we surveyed said that an important part of their mission is serving and supporting families. Drugs, education, and every kind of moral dilemma loom large in the minds of parents, and most of them hope that their congregations can help. . . . Not every congregation succeeds in providing effective support for families, but much of what members expect and leaders hope to supply is the sort of community where parents are not left on their own. Many want their congregations to be part of the ‘village’ that raises the children” (53-4).

More deeply, congregants look for churches that will serve as “home” and “family”: “Robert Putnam has warned that Americans are too prone to ‘bowling alone,’ that we are tending to our own needs and pleasures in ways that increasingly isolate us from others. . . . As we asked congregational leaders about what issues and concerns most burdened their members, we often heard about the need for connection. In some cases it was loneliness, but more often they saw a desire to go deeper than everyday interaction allows and to invest in the lives of others. The rector of an Albuquerque Episcopal parish was especially eloquent: ‘The thing I hear about most is community . . . you know, having a place where you belong, where you can connect, where there is some depth that you share together.’ A member of an African American Methodist church in Chicago echoed that need for village and family. Church, she said, is ‘a place where you have family, and when you come to a big city from a small town, it’s awfully nice to have someplace in that big city where people who don’t live with you know where you are. Know who you are and what you’re doing’” (52-3). 

Further, “in 37 percent of all the congregations, we heard about a perceived need for community building as a primary concern. Part of what they understand themselves to be doing is providing a ‘home’ for sometimes-rootless modern individuals” (52).

This social capital is not merely intangible. Congregations offer material support to needy members: “When people in congregations talk about building relationships and creating community, they are talking about more than warm, fuzzy feelings. These relationships often take on a depth of mutual obligation that involves pain and sacrifice, as well as joy and celebration. Once having entered these communities, participants are challenged to care for each other, in good times and in bad, and most of this caring takes place informally, rather than through organized programs” (65). Tangible support is particularly beneficial to immigrants: “In Chicago we encountered a congregation whose religious roots are in Nigeria—the Holy Order of Cherubim and Seraphim. There we heard, ‘Our church has a lot of immigrants that are coming to this country. Some of them are very young families. . . . So, you have the church trying to be like a family structure. To be able to mend all of this together so they can have a life.’ Mending together a life often requires informal assistance, rituals of healing and mourning, and the timely visit of a pastor” (66).

Without ever hearing of Robert Putnam, some congregations have bowling teams, so that no one must bowl alone.

Browse Our Archives