Bowling Alone, the 2000 book by Robert D. Putnam, was one of those best sellers many bought but few read because they got everything they wanted through media reports and interviews. I was one of them. His point, as I recall, was the social organizations that had bound Americans together in community were dead or dying. Bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, church membership, they were all being abandoned by Americans who no longer found them important or helpful. It was, said Putnam, leading to the alienation of one from another, and from a sense of community shared with others through personal conversation in the public arena.
That was eighteen years ago. He tended to blame it on television, but saw hope for a revival of community, enough to spawn a cottage industry based on it. In the meantime, the internet, digital devices and mobile phones have demonstrated their abilities to further the deterioration of face-to-face interconnectedness, while creating the illusion of community through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
Even in our rural city, bowling leagues have faded away, the Elks club is all but shuttered, there are no young Masons. The local Eagles, which openly markets itself to the so called working class, is doing very well. It may say something about who feels the deepest need for community, and where they find it. Is it an example of tribalism run amok? Maybe not. Maybe they know something the church doesn’t. More on that later lest I digress too far. I miss the bowling leagues. They brought together a mix of people who would otherwise not know each other. Could they not compete with the NFL, NBA and local sports bars? The Elks and Masons were restricted membership groups that appealed to (white) men who aspired to rise in the power structure, and, once vetted were admitted to the possibility. That plum is no longer theirs to offer. Oddly enough, the country club, once the most exclusive of them all, is doing quite well. It lowered its dues, opened membership to anyone who can pay, and provides the best available space for smaller events and dinners. If golf is your thing, it’s a great course. Whether it forms a nucleus of community is another, unanswered, question.
What are nuclei of community in your area? In ours, one might look to Rotary and Exchange clubs that have done well by becoming open to all, engaging in important local issues, and sponsoring local events raising money for crucial needs. Youth athletics and school events bring parents together, at least to know each other by face or name, but they tend to separate themselves by race and economic class. The colleges have various public offerings that bring a few together for an hour or two. The local paper works to keep the general public well informed about the region, and is generous in promoting events that can bring people together. They all have one thing in common. They don’t create communities whose primary purpose is to strengthen bonds that build and sustain community by nourishing each individual to become more self aware, to recognize their own value and talents, to trust themselves to be vulnerable in the presence of others, and to recognize the value and talents of others struggling to do the same in their own states of insecurity.
The result has been a troubling level of disconnect and alienation that has captured the attention of academics, authors, pundits, and political consultants. The evidence is on the pages of local internet forums that have opened doors encouraging free expression of isolation, fear, distrust, alienation from whatever is seen as the elite, the power structure, the old boys network, the other – whoever that might be. Instead of community understood at a broad level, it has become retreat into small groups of like minded people, sure that they’re surrounded by enemies, unwilling to enter the public commons for fear of being attacked.
It can’t be blamed entirely on the digital age of automatons walking around staring at their phones, or texting in place of conversation, and all the rest, though they stand justly accused. A signifiant part of it was hiding in the wings waiting to be expressed once the oddly comforting hierarchy of old boy networks and club elites began to crumble. People need to know who they are and where they belong in the context of community that makes sense to them, and in which they feel safe.
What about church? What is its role in all of this? Church is the house of religion, and religion has got a bad name among too many. Religiously unaffiliated is the fastest growing denomination. Atheism has become its own religion. And whatever church once stood for lost its usefulness with the collapse of the social hierarchy. Why waste a weekend morning attending a useless service? Look at them. Conservative evangelicalism has become an arm of secular right wing politics. The big non-denominational ones provide musical entertainment and uplifting talks that are a mile wide and an inch deep. And the mainline is the last redoubt of the old elite. Who wants to hang out with them?
What can I say? Mea Culpa. We have sinned in what we have done and in what we have failed to do through our own fault, our most grievous fault. The Church, at least the mainline churches, including Roman Catholics, fell into the ease of participating in the socio-economic hierarchy of the post war era. Too many preached a tepid gospel message that reinforced God’s endorsement of peace, prosperity, and patriotism epitomizing the realization of the American dream. Children in the once overflowing Sunday schools were fed a curriculum of thin religious gruel by ill prepared volunteer teachers. As soon as they could, they quit coming, so did their children, and their grandchildren never came.
Yet it is in the bosom of the gospel message that the deepest hungers for genuine community can be nourished with holy life giving food. It is in the strength of the gospel message that people can be led from prejudice to truth; delivered from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; break down walls that separate us; be united in bonds of love; and work through their struggles and confusion to accomplish God’s purpose on earth (BCP 815-16). These are the good things the church has to offer to a people starving for them.
Where is the place of the church in whatever socio-economic hierarchy comes into being? It doesn’t have one. It shouldn’t look for one. It should ignore whatever place others assign to it. It must focus only on following Jesus, proclaiming that the kingdom of God has come near, and serving as an agent of God’s healing, reconciling power in the world around it. Christ didn’t come to save the church. Christ came to save the world, and the church is the most important agency of that work.
In a previous column I wrote that the self can never be defined in isolation. It can only be defined in terms of its relationship to others, so community, one way or the other, is essential to our existence. Whatever we do always has an effect on others, and that effect will either help build up relationships, and thus community, or tear them down. God in Christ Jesus has called us, all of us, into community that builds up by strengthening bonds of love, lending a hand to those whose burdens are too heavy, removing walls of separation and oppression, and confronting injustice whenever it’s encountered. It doesn’t take a denomination or congregation to pursue worthy ends such as these. Any group can adopt them. What the church recognizes is that it is God, and not humanity, who has called us to this work. It is God who feeds us with holy food, drink, and Spiritual presence to have the strength to go on. It is God who forgives and heals. It is God who is the very source of life and love, and there is no other. It is God who says to each person, “You are created in my image, and it is good.” That’s what the church recognizes, proclaims, teaches, and makes available to all.
Those who enter into the community of the church are sent forth to live their daily lives in other places of work, society, politics, and leisure in all of their many manifestations, but always bearing the love of Christ as best they can. Is there genuine community outside the church? Of course there is, and it’s to be celebrated and encouraged. The church is bold to assert that the source of genuine community is always traced back to God, no matter how it is manifested in the world. It is in community that we are able to realize the full potential of our individuality, not as “radically autonomous,” but as radically complete.
The church stumbled in the work it has been given to do. It’s time to get back to it. It’s too easy to make excuses by saying that the church is only the gathered assembly of believers, and so it’s everyone’s responsibility. The clergy are the ones who have been called to serve as pastors, and they are the ones who must assume the responsibility of being the shepherds God has called them to be.