Secular Reasons to Support Communities of Faith
When I promote Christianity, there is a certain self-serving aspect to it. After all, my salary depends on people going to and supporting my church financially. But when a Harvard professor of public policy makes the argument for church participation from a secular perspective that is oddly more compelling. It turns out that there are reasons for atheists to be concerned about falling church attendance. And the reasons matter even more to persons of faith.
In an ongoing effort to read broadly, I read Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it Professor Putnam systematically charts a significant social change of the last third of the 20th century in which Americans changed their behavior patterns in ways that caused us to become more disconnected from one another.
At its heart, the book is about the idea of social capital, which refers to the real value to the individual and the society of all “social networks.” It turns out that there is a massive amount of data to suggest that while we are busily running around, our business doesn’t have us more involved with others but less. Participation is down across the board from the PTA, to the church, to political parties, from what it was in the 1950s. But the connections formed in these groups held great value for us as a society.
Putnam says that the problem has been looked at individually, so that the Elks Club or the PTA has seen this as an Elks or PTA problem. But the problem is much broader. The issue was put succinctly by Yogi Berra who said, “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.” Berra was right.
Putnam argues that society depends on general reciprocity, which means that I do nice things for people not in the hope that they will do something nice, but confident that others will do something for me down the road. It’s not a tit for tat, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, like the Volunteer Fire Department T-shirt slogan advertising a fundraising breakfast with the words, “Come to our breakfast, we’ll come to your fire.” General Reciprocity is more Golden Rule based, in that if we all treat each other well, then we will be treated well.
No where does Putnam seem more concerned than with the church where he sees the move in the 1960s and 70s as toward a private faith with no public expression. He writes, “Privatized religion may be morally compelling and psychically fulfilling, but it embodies less social capital. More people are ‘surfing’ from congregation to congregation more frequently, so that while they may still be ‘religious,’ they are less committed to a particular community of believers.”
Putnam is not pushing a theological agenda. He has no stake in whether private religion is better, but just notes that it does not help make the important connections needed for both individuals and communities. As religious historian Martin Marty puts it, “Unless religious impulses find a home in more than the individual heart and soul, they will have few long-lasting public consequences.”
The reason this matters Putnam says is that “Where once we could fall back on our social capital—families, churches, friends—these no longer are strong enough to cushion our fall. In our personal lives as well as in our collective life, the evidence...suggests, we are paying a significant price for a quarter century’s disengagement from one another.”
I see this in my own ministry that so often I am the one to meet with people in crisis. I am the one to try to help them negotiate a health crisis or a job crisis and so on. This is not only fine, but I enjoy doing it. Yet, many of the people I speak with do not already have a church home and are looking for me (and God) as their source of hope.
God backs me up well and I can bring
some help and some comfort, but nothing like the ongoing participation in a
community of faith. I see others who are better connected who get real help
through the connections they have in church and the community at large. I
have seen and experienced enough to know that Putnam is on to something.
The work of the church then goes well beyond the churches doors to all the many places in which people live out their faith in Jesus Christ in service to others. From his solely secular perspective Putnam shows how our nation would be a much poorer place without this service.
In fact, he goes on to cite solid data showing that people who attend church are happier than those who don’t. Furthermore, the increase in happiness rises with church attendance up to weekly attendance and beyond. The more you attend church, the data suggests, the happier you will be. Putnam is quick to point out that this isn’t necessarily cause and effect. It could be that happier people go to church or that people who go to church get happier or both. Either way, the fact remains that there is a correlation between attending church and feeling better off.
I know that I am preaching to the choir for a couple of reasons. First, Camden County maintains a good bit of small town life and is more socially connected than other parts of the country. Second, because newspaper readers are statistically much more likely to be involved in their communities. So to those in the choir, I want to encourage you that your involvement in the church and the community is vastly important to society as a whole.
But to those who are slightly on the outside looking in, because you have faith but haven’t settled down with a church home, there is a different message here. The evidence stacks up in favor of getting connected to a church.
It is possible to be a Christian without having a church home, in the way that it is possible to be a burning coal, but not be in a fire. Coals not in the fire tend to go cold, while those surrounded by other coals tend to burn more brightly. In that same way, your own faith will burn more brightly once you find the right church home. And beyond that the evidence suggests that your participation in a church community will be better for you in some real, tangible ways and it will make this community a better place.
(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526