I'm on my church's marketing committee so I listened up to the talking heads on this one.
I think our church is a great place to be. We're a progressive group that does not shove any dogma down anybody's throat. We love our same-sex couples who attend and are fighting from the inside of the United Methodist structure so we can actually hold their weddings. We put an emphasis on community, the church is in a not-the-best neighborhood so our food pantry and free breakfasts help a lot of people. We discuss current events, how to make the world a better place, how to find inner peace with whatever is messed up in your life. There's fun activities for kids so us parents can relax, we wear jeans and sandals, the band plays Cat Stevens one week and KT Tunstall the next.
One of the notes I heard on the radio was a statement that it's not just churches that are suffering... it's everything. "Joiners are joiners," the commentator on NPR said. "People who go to church also join book clubs and volunteer groups and professional organizations, and all of those are losing numbers." And he mentioned "Bowling Alone", a large book published in 2000 by Robert Putnam about why people just don't join stuff anymore. Now that's interesting, I thought. Maybe it'll help me. Because I am a joiner, for sure, he's right it's not just church. And I feel weird these days.
Bowling Alone takes its title from the fact that although lots of people still go bowling, league membership has tanked. In the 1950-1970s everybody loved to join groups, from bowling leagues to the shriners to PTAs. It's not just our imagination - all of that has tanked.
The book raises more questions than answers, but three reasons for the decline stuck out to me:
1. Television It's ruined everything. It's trained us to just zone out and watch stuff. Everybody watches entirely too much TV and has forgotten how to even invite a friend over for dinner.
There is a difference in TV watching though: there are people who just flip it on and zone out every night, see what Netflix recommends and let it run. And there's the intentional watchers... they think of a program they want to watch, turn on the TV and watch it, and then turn off the TV. The intentional watchers are more likely to be connected within their community and not totally lost to us.
2. Generational differences We do what our friends do, it all feeds on each other, and when people in the 1980s decided to be all independent and fight for themselves, we stopped trusting everybody. I'd add "the media" to this one too, Bowling for Columbine (another bowling title!) did a great job showing how media trends have made us untrusting of our neighbors even while crime rates have actually dropped.
3. Urban sprawl Slum-clearing and zoning have isolated us. We no longer live near a "mix" of neighbors, we all have our spread out houses. We don't shop at the neighborhood shop anymore, we all drive miles to the big-and-large and don't see a single face we recognize.
All of this is measured in a quantity Putnam calls social capital: how well-connected a community is. If a city has a lot of social capital, it has groups with steady membership levels. Neighbors know each other, parents are involved in schools, people vote (!). Schools are better, kids are healthier. On individual levels, things like depression, heart disease, suicide are lower... it's huge, he's got charts and charts of data.
And that's really his solution to the problem. Own it, name it, admit it's a problem and work to increase our social capital. Stress to people that good neighbor relationships are important. Be creative - whatever your hobby is, whether it's art or music, the internet or religion, look for ways to be more inclusive. Diversity is a hit, lots of the "bright spot" groups have found ways to fuse cultures to create something new and interesting. Get kids involved, so their generation will be an involved one.
He's got lots of charges for other people too... businesses need to allow for more part-time workers, since part-time workers are great for social capital: they get to know their coworkers, and have time to actually do things. Politicians need to get more people involved in government by working with organizations that have grassroots, active members, not just card-carrying, dues-paying, "on the mailing list" members.
We can all fix this problem, we just have to own it.
So personally, this week I re-posted a note on facebook about the group some of us created for our neighborhood association, and I plan to advertise it on the Little Free Library on our street. I will try to spend more time out on my front lawn. And I'm going to tell more people about social capital - because it's important. Results in lower crime rates and less violence, healthier people, a more enjoyable world altogether. We just have to value it. We have the time to get together, even if it's just inviting a family over for dinner, and then we can worry about big group memberships. It's about admitting that we want this.