Unshackling the American Church: Fraternitas


When I was small, I found comfort in something beautiful: the sound of laughter in my house. Mom and Dad liked to entertain, and I remember cold winter nights when the chill outside was dissipated by the sounds of adults talking and laughing into the wee hours of the morning. I’d fall asleep to those sounds knowing all was right with the world.

I fear my son won’t know that same pleasure, not because we don’t want to entertain like my parents once did, but by the sheer fact that it’s increasingly rare in our society that others come over for anything. According to Robert Putnam’s seminal work, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, nearly every social group that existed in American culture in the 1960s has seen precipitous drops in members or involvement.

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities. Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

From the webpage description of the book.

The title stems from the loss of bowling league membership in small towns, and in a frightening bit of correlation, I once spent an afternoon bowling alone in Silicon Valley for no other reason than no one else wanted to come. Worse yet, for the hour I was there, I was the only bowler in the alley.

Indeed, like its currency-based counterpart, social capital has value critical to the social economy of this country. Conserving social capital should be the hallmark of any belief system that calls itself conservative, but in an odd bit of data, Putnam’s own studies showed one of the most social capital impoverished portions of the country is the conservative South.

Alarmed by the data from Putnam’s book, a committee of top sociologists, intellectuals, historians and politicos convened at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss the findings and possible recourse. Their conclusion:

Incivility and coarseness are a continuation of behaviors that have always been with us. However, these behaviors are greatly amplified by the new economic dynamics of mass markets, by the new technologies of mass communication and by laissez-faire governmental policies.

The tender web of society depends on people, but we’ve instead chosen compartmentalizing technologies and cheapness.

Hands unitedI grew up in what was a brand new subdivision in 1972. We were one of the first residents of that new neighborhood, watching houses go up and people move in. A mostly Catholic neighborhood developed with us Lutherans and the AoG pastor at the end of the street.

I loved that neighborhood. Most of the people were seasoned marrieds with kids in elementary and junior high school. Plenty of other kids to play with. I was ten, the perfect age for navigating both the slightly older kids and slightly younger.

One of the things that neighborhood did that impressed me is that very early on they started having block parties once a year. Amazingly fun, these were the single most anticipated events of the neighborhood year. We ate, drank, played, danced, celebrated and enjoyed an entire day of fun.

Time passed and the neighborhood got a little older. A few couples divorced. Those two or three “life-of-the-party” couples moved away. The kids got older and a second generation of people moved in. That life-affirming decade of block parties came to a crashing halt.

When I returned to that old neighborhood after my first stint in college, a few houses had some new toys: Beta and VHS videotape players, plus video game players. More houses now had personal computers, too, the 128k Macs, PC XTs, and PC Juniors of lore.

I stuck around that neighborhood for a few years, but didn’t notice the change initially. One fine spring day I glanced outside to find a curious sight: an empty street lined with empty yards.

As a kid, we’d played in the dead-end street every day. The yards were big enough to host a football game if you played across three of them, or a softball variant we played constantly called Zoneball.

Yet despite knowing that a few dozen children still lived here, I saw none Even the ones who were toddlers when I moved in and would have been outside weren’t.

A couple months later, a strange thing happened. Gorgeous June day, blue skies and sun, and the power went out at 6:45 PM. From a lawn chair on my parents’ porch I witnessed a curious exodus, as the neighborhood residents gradually stumbled out into the bright sunshine and started talking to each other.

By 7:00, the streets and yards were filled with kids playing an impromptu game of kick-the-can, just like I had done for so many summers. The old neighbors reminisced, then pulled the new neighbors into the conversation. The energy level? Block-party-sized. You could feel the life.

But around 7:30, the unmistakable hum of air conditioners starting up broke the electrical silence. By 7:45, emptiness reigned once again.

Till the day I die, I will never forget watching people break up and head for their front doors.

The TV, VCR, Computer, Video Game—pick a device—called like sirens and we obeyed.  I took a stroll up the street, watching people through windows, each one parked in front of this tech gadget and that. The tech gods are indeed unappeasable.

Flash-forward twenty years and we loyal consumers opened a vein and told Sony, Panasonic, Apple, Microsoft and others to jack us in. Best Buy is the new worship center, its blue-shirted acolytes preaching to our itching ears that a 40″ TV is passé—60″ is the new hotness.

In his book Why We Don’t Talk to Each Other Anymore: The De-Voicing of Society, John Locke discusses studies that show that our dependence on technology for communication is damaging our ability to read instinctive social cues. Young people accustomed to interacting through computers and cellphones find that they can’t gauge other people’s feelings when confronted with face-to-face interactions. The result is an increasing disconnection between what one person communicates and another understands.

When a society can no longer interpret agreed-upon social cues, it won’t take Visigoths storming the gates for societal collapse to occur.

But what of the ultimate social capital bank, the Church of Jesus Christ?

A couple months ago, I petitioned readers to answer a few questions about their financial and living situations. One of those questions asked, “Do you live within thirty miles of extended family?” To my utter shock, out of the dozens of responses I got via comments and private e-mails, only about 10% answered positively.

Christians answered those questions, not unbelievers. But if we Christians–who so nearly make an idol of family with our rhetoric about it–aren’t near our extended families, then what of all our talk?

Joseph Myers wrote in his popular book, The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups, that  we Christians can no longer expect people to come to our homes since many are fearful of stepping across the threshold into another’s residence. If this is true, then we might as well pack up and turn out the lights.

Is it any wonder then that consumerism bedevils American Christians? If what God gave us to conserve is gone, why not find fulfillment in the latest tech gadget?

We used to be producers. Pre-Industrial-Revolution America saw capitalism flourish in home-based economies. Both parents worked at home. Both parents taught the kids. Both parents and children produced out of their home.

But after the Industrial Revolution, as our economy was wrongfully forced into big business models and city-living, the home’s essence as the base of family operations withered. The Church abetted that little death by failing to question this so-called march of progress. Instead, American Christians marshalled the parade of efficiency and championed late-19th and early-20th century triumphalism .

Consumerism rushed in to fill the void. Consumption replaced community. Advertising pitted the Joneses against the rest of humanity, handing us a new national pastime. Social Darwinism stirred that pot and told us that it was us or our neighbor, but it couldn’t be both. Someone had to win. Might as well be us.

If we wish to know why the “Church of Me” predominates today, why churches are filled with folks who want to know what’s in it for them, then we need only ask what happened to the home. We need to ask if modernism, postmodernism, industrialization, and globalization are bad for families, churches, and communities.

Destroy the home and you ultimately destroy community. Oddly, I hear no Christian leaders today arguing for a return to  home-based economies that fuel local communities. A few might be trumpeting the single-wage-earner households that homeschool, but that’s a band-aid on a bigger problem. Until we can find a way to resurrect real home-based economies, well never see an end  to the relentless onslaught of consumers trickling out of polished McMansions demanding that churches tickle their ears till the thrill departs and so do they.

No matter how much we talk about community, we simply don’t have real community in our churches. The Church in Acts broke bread in each others’ houses every day! And that was possible because of how they worked and lived out of home-based economies.

I think one of the reasons that revival has been so elusive in America since Azusa Street a hundred years ago centers around the fact that home-based economies afforded people the chance to linger at church to see revival. Can you imagine anyone today calling his boss and saying, “I can’t come into the office because revival broke out at our church?” That guy’d be pinkslipped the next day.

I think we can resurrect true community, the kind where you watch my back and I watch yours, but it’s going to take paradigm-shattering effort to do so.

A few ways to begin:

1. Stop with the materialism! Start getting rid of what we own. Stop letting what we buy rule us.

2. Start asking our pastors why they’re preaching that it’s okay for mom to stay at home, but not mom AND dad? Start asking how we can restore home-based economies that support the family, which supports the local community, and ultimately enhances the church community.

3. Start talking with other people we know about their always-going, non-stop-consuming lives. Create some dissonance in the standard thinking that we have to be robots who serve the State by perpetually buying things.

4. On the Web sites of prominent American Church leaders and their churches, bring up these questions and ask how real community can be restored.

5. Put people first, not things. Contact friends we haven’t spoken with in years. The alarming statistic for married men over forty shows that those guys have only one other man (or two) they consider to be a close friend. Time to better those numbers.

6. In church meetings, start brainstorming ways to keep people entrenched in the local body. Start questioning the need to chase work all over the country, too (one of the main reasons so few of us live near extended family). Americans are moving every seven years—and that number is getting smaller. We can’t experience real community in our churches if we’re turning ourselves over like that.

7. Make your home an open home. Find ways to make your home a nexus of community. Let your kids know that your home is for others; encourage them to bring friends over. Practice hospitality at all times. Start a block party.

8. Pray through your church directory. Then start inviting two or three families at a time to your house.

9. Develop relationships with local merchants. Consider the extra money you might spend at their place of business (versus a Category Killer or Big Box store) a tithe to the development of godly community.

10. Reject pat answers. We’re too busy, too tired, too disconnected, and too socially bankrupt. Time to divorce the status quo.

Despite the fact that our churches preach a form of Gospel today that is completely individual-centered, Jesus founded a Church, not disconnected individuals. It’s time we start thinking about Christ in Community and not always Christ in the Individual. But to get there, we have to be bold and question everything our society and our churches hold up wrongly as sacred, questioning assumptions in our churches that are based on non-Christian ideals and not on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We can have true community folks, but it’s going to cost us to get it back.

What are you prepared to give up to make it happen?


Other posts in the “Unshackling the American Church” series:

30 thoughts on “Unshackling the American Church: Fraternitas

  1. As usual, an excellent and thought-provoking post. I must admit that I am guilty of many of the things listed. However, when I became a Christian, I wanted to instill the sense of community that is experienced in the Jewish community, and which I missed.

    We have done several of the suggestions you listed Dan, but sadly, some of them are further out than I would like. And I am always taken aback by the people who have left our church to go to a mega-church for ‘the music’, or the excellent ‘programs’ run by professsionals, leaving our church without the aspect, or talent that they brought.

    People do not seem to be as interested in community as they are entertainment, or anonymity. The church mirrors society so much today that churches have professional musicians, who may not even attend the church(!), as the ‘worship team’. Most of the teachers are also paid professionals, and the building is a haven for the latest high-tech junk. Instead of dealing with the fact that we are unable to function in a society based on relationships, we have catered to that society, and we wonder why the impact of the church is almost nil.

    The Body has been reduced to ‘what can the church do for me?’ And the church, (ours is no exception), has bent over to ensure that we are providing all of the ‘stuff’ that society can provide, but sadly, we are providing little of what the Bible actually discusses.

    Sorry for the long rant, but this is an area where I am very passionate about bringing community BACK into the Body!

    • Ray,

      People need to know what they’re missing and whether the cost they’re paying is too high. We need to be the ones who start asking the tough questions within the church. We need to ask how the church is abetting materialism and hectic lives of consumption. We need to ask why dad slaves all day in a cubicle, unable to support his own home at home. Homeschooling moms are not the answer. Where are the homeschooling dads? Why do so many models that Christian organizations support seem to leave dad out of the mix altogether?

      People will tire of the anonymity of megachurches the second they have a life crisis. We can start by making sure that our own churches don’t suffer from that problem. Any way we can be there for other people in our body, we should. Time to brainstorm—it’ll take work.

  2. Dan,

    Awesome post! AMEN! Bringing true community back to the church has become a passion of mine over the last couple of years. But, this is the first time I’ve seen it from the angle of home-based economies. You have given me some new things to chew on. Where could I find some of the books and articles you have referenced? I would like to do some more study in this area.

    • Don,

      I’ve blogged about all this before, but I was inspired to revisit it by the book Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. That book has several resources listed and would be a great place to start. Wendell Berry is an author who’s written on a lot of this, too. His book What Are People For really challenged me.

      If you Googled “agrarianism” or “new urbanism” I think you would find resources there, too. Check out http://www.biblicalagrarianism.com/ as well.

      Hope this helps!

  3. this is so sad to me! stuff I never really realized or noticed until I graduated from college (the ultimate “community life” in many ways), got married, and moved away from home. now I am seeing the deficiencies in the way we live as Americans and longing for something better…but you’re right, it’s awfully hard to be counter-cultural when everyone seems to be accepting the status quo.

    lots to chew on here, anyway. thanks.

  4. I would like to make some additional comments… While I agree that community is sadly lacking, and needs to be re-explored, A also believe that some of the other aspects need a bit more thinking…

    For example — the thought that home-based economies are one of the answers… While I do not deny that in some places people worked out of their homes, I fear that we paint an all-too-idyllic picture of earlier days, because we superimpose OUR lives into it.

    Truth be told, even in the 19th century, while some worked out of their homes on farms, we still needed textiles, (down at the local store), which were delivered by people who worked away from home, and produced by people in factory-like settings, and the cotton itself was picked by an enslaved people.

    Also, in the home-based economy we could experience pandemics that would come through and wipe people out because there was not a medical facility nearby, and medicine itself was not advanced. The medical community is one in which people would still need to gather together and work in a highly technical setting, away from home.

    And even our blogging right now is made possible by people working in a sterile, technical environment, providing the power, technology and protection for our servers.

    While I do not disagree with the thrust of the post, I think you are right on the money, I think there is a danger in making broadbrush statements about societal issues, based upon where we sit in society.

    Simply my .02

    • Ray,

      A few comments on your comment…

      Yes, we can romanticize the past, but there are people today who are going back to that pre-Industrial lifestyle and finding it to be the cure for much of what ails them. Is it an easy life? No. But it is proving to be more fulfilling.

      The kind of industry that we had in the 19th century is largely extinct. There is no textile industry in the US anymore—it’s all in India. Our economy is now based on knowledge, none of which needs to be handled by working in big glass boxes downtown. Even those industries that seem like they can only exist on a large scale can be modified into smaller components that would support more of a community model.

      The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was blamed on people living tightly packed in cities, not loosely gathered in the countryside. In fact, the countryside was a buffer to nation. We would have been hit harder if we’d been packed in more and didn’t have that buffer. So I don’t buy that argument at all.

      There’s no reason a community can’t support decent medical, either. I live in a town of 2000 people and we have three major hospitals within 20 miles of us. They’ll be building one right in town in the next five years. There are still doctors in my area that work out of their homes, too. Since 90% of medical care can exist on that level, that’s not an issue, either.

      I think that in some cases blogging is a substitute for real community. In know that in my case that is true to some degree. Power can be generated locally by wind and solar. The Amish community near me uses plenty of wind and solar to power the devices they use.

      Alternatives exist, but we have to be willing to explore them. We’ve gotten lazy about how we live.

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  6. A quick question before I get into the rest of my comment — regarding the technology, or knowledge sector — will we become BETTER communities by putting everyone at home behind a keyboard as opposed to bringing them together in a building? I am truly curious, as I often hear a lot of ideas (which, BTW, I think are great ideas) , but the implementation seems to get left on the cutting room floor…

    The point I was trying to make, albeit unsuccessfully, was that, yes the textile industry is gone, but it was here, and we have other industries that require a gathering of people. You and I may be in a knowledge-based industry but there are many who are not… Do we simply let them exist in the cities while we pursue the more fulfilling life? Or do we take them out and let them fend for themselves with little, or no skill set outside of an industrial one?

    I fear that those in the technology, or knowledge-based industries, FORGET that others exist in a different world. That was my point…

    Our church is in a lower income area of the city — I work with these folks I am describing everyday; they CANNOT simply grab up some land, and can some vegetables. It is not simple hard, it is well nigh impossible for these people.

    I often hear that we should get back to the simpler days — yes, I agree that we should simplify, and untether ourselves from the technology that is strangling us, however the simpler days were NOT simpler for everyone.

    When we begin to think that living off the land and getting back to nature is the answer, we leave a lot of people outside the pale of that reality. Because I work in a technology world, I can work out of my home — but I have a friend who works in a concrete yard — what do I tell him? That he should develop some skill sets and take his family out to the country…?

    I am curious as to how we are deal with those OUTSIDE our immediate circumstances, people without land, skills, or money. How do they simplify?

    • Ray,

      Read Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher and tell me what you think. Folks are still living in the city, but adopting countryside-living lifestyles. Also, Google “new urbanism” and see if that stimulates some ideas for you.

      Thanks for writing and for your concern about this issue.

  7. BTW, not all industries can be broken down — Some industries are built around resource availability, and networking. How do we maintain Interstates, or do we scrap that idea? How do we maintain an electrical grid that supplies nationwide electricity? These and many other things require some type of centralized environment…

    Again, writing a book about this, or even trying it on a small scale is a long way from actual nationwide implementation. As I stated previously, I worry about those who are left behind when we start talking about this…

    I promise I will be quiet now! 🙂

  8. Sue

    I highly recommend another book “Generation Me” by Jean Twenge for insight into the mindset of people born in the 1970’s and beyond. Very insightful.

  9. Caleb Woodbridge

    One of the things that I’m very grateful for is the church that I’ve found here in Cardiff where I’ve come to university. From when I stepped in the door, I found Mackintosh Evangelical Church warm and friendly, and have really been made to feel at home there. There were some churches that were really good in many ways, but I simply felt lost in the crowd and went unnoticed when I visited for the first time.

    Last Sunday evening, one of the families in the church invited anyone who wanted to come back round to their house after the evening service. They provided some really nice drink and nibbles, and we sat around chatting about various issues, what the church should be doing, as well as general socialising.

    Hospitality isn’t an isolated incident either – I’ve been invited home to dinner by someone in the church every week since I returned from visiting home at Easter.

    It’s not unusual for those in the church to see others from the church outside of church services for more time than we see each other in them. Rather than corralling the students off into a safe little ghetto of student Bible studies, student services, student lunches (ok, we have student lunches, but for a very loose definition of student!) and the like, we’re involved together with people of all ages, and I’ve friends in the church from student age up to retirement.

    Not that my church should be complacent. One of the things we were talking about on Sunday evening was the need to relate outwards, not just to be a cosy social club. I think we have a lot of work to do on being involved with the wider community and reaching out to people, rather than just being welcoming once they’ve stepped in the door.

    But for all the work we still have to do, I praise and thank God for the fellowship, friendship and community we share in the church. So take heart – it’s not all bad everywhere!

  10. Thanks for this post and this series. Pearcey’s Total Truth touches on some of these things. My wife and I have been trying to figure the details out since reading it.

  11. Ron Lusk

    You might like to look at Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, in which he discusses venues that once promoted community, its loss in contemporary life, and possible reasons for its demise (zoning laws among them). Curiously (perhaps), he barely mentions the Church.

  12. Looks like i have some reading to do… Thanks folks — that is why I enjoy this blog so much — it goes beyond the surface to look at things in a different way, and makes me think!

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  14. Dan – You and I grew up in mirrored neighborhoods. We moved into our new house in Maumee OH the year I turned 10 as well, but it was 1976. We were house #5 in the neighborhood. I used to love playing on all the dirt and sand piles and exploring the unfinished homes.

    Mom and Dad still live in that same house, but the neighborhood has changed. A little older, but more than that just what you describe – isolated. We had the block parties too. Closed down the streets, I can remember the excitement of seeing the barricades get delivered. We had a little parade and all the kids decorated their bikes. There were tables of food put out in the middle of the street and we partied all weekend. It was great.

    Those stopped after a few years. By the time I left for college in Cinci in 1986 they were gone. In the neighborhood I live in now I hardly know my neighbors. I’m not so sure about the back to ‘home economy’ thing, but I sure miss the block parties.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • Dan – Ironically, my wife just informed me that our neighborhood is planning a block party for this coming July! A bike parade for the kids, closed down street, the works.

      Pretty cool.

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