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Where Does God Fit in Our Social Networks?

Where does the church fit in your social network Donald Harrison or Alex Abian

Alex Abian

Brian Brown - published on 01/18/14

Church polity for an urban world

If you’re not a pastor and you’re under 30, it’s probable that church isn’t at the center of your social network. You might have Christian friends, but you likely didn’t meet them at church. Of course, statistically, there’s a better than three-in-four chance that they aren’t involved in a church at all.

As I pointed out in a prior article on religion and young people, Ross Douthat’s 2012 book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” documented how the decline of the mainline churches in America coincided with their conformity to political trends. But it’s equally true that the decline of the American church’s influence on Millennials has coincided with its conformity to inhumane social trends. I don’t mean abortion or marriage revisionism. I mean the way we order our lives as individuals and communities; or put in more fashionable terms, how God fits into our social networks.

Based on the trends I see in younger generations (trends which are the product of decades of social change, not Facebook), the Church will have to revisit this issue of church polity if it is to regain an active presence in the lives of Americans.

Christianity and Community

For Christians West and East for centuries, God wasn’t just a personal savior or shrink. From the earliest days of Christianity, church leaders were concerned with how to build their whole lives as communities around God, starting with the famous “communism” seen in the Book of Acts. As the church grew, the thinking did too—and a thousand years later, God could still be found at the center of European social networks, which were built around the local parish.

If you were building a town, the first building to go up would be the church, and everything else would be built around it. Older cities have regularly spaced churches at the heart of each neighborhood. That meant that church and the community were one; institution and organism were united. You lived around the church. Christian feast days dominated the calendar; church and its members were your social center. In England, local barons even outsourced taxation related to public goods to the church (that tax was called a “tithe;” maybe you’ve heard of it). Church was a crucial spiritual, social, political, and economic force in your life. Worship itself, as Alexander Schmemann puts it, far from being a “prayer break” or a “period of spiritual refreshment” separate from the secular or profane world, was designed to be a liturgical act performed on behalf of the whole community as part of its seven-days-a-week redeeming mission. (Alexander Schmemann, “For the Life of the World.” Crestfield, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963.)

Theologically, at the core of this was a paradox of the Christian faith: the dynamic of individual and group. The Church has routinely dealt with efforts to resolve Christian paradoxes, and (as Douthat again points out) has tended to err on the side of mystery; of letting God be God. Was Jesus fully God or fully man? Yes. Is God a god of justice or of mercy? Yes. The paradox of Christian community starts with just such a paradoxical question about God (is God three or one? yes), and ends in a question about the nature of the existence of humans created in God’s image: does God care about the salvation of your individual soul, or is the Christian life something inextricably linked with the Church? Yes. (Ross Douthat, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” New York: Free Press, 2012.)

Interestingly, modern social science has vindicated this paradox in the form of social network theory, a relatively new field that demonstrates the inadequacy of the Enlightenment paradigm of individual-versus-group. Social network analysis has instead revealed the complex interplay of individuals as members of groups, demonstrating that the happiest people are the ones with strong ties to others (and to their friends’ friends) through a diverse array of groups and shared relationships; in fact, we barely have an identity as individuals apart from those influences. And in a finding that would have been unsurprising to the early Church, we’ve found that “religious sensibilities are partially hardwired in our brains, and they are related to our desire for social connection to others, not only a spiritual connection to God” (emphasis mine). (Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, “Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do.” New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.)

The Individual and the 20th Century

Yet for theological reasons that are not the focus of this piece, the American church (under the influence of certain strains of Protestantism) has been less comfortable with this tension, and has mostly focused on the salvation of the individual soul. Many churches talk about the importance of community, but it’s rarely clear why theologically, and the core communitarian worship element (the Eucharist) is de-emphasized or even skipped. At the same time, since the mid-19th century, the United States has grown from an agricultural and merchant society to an industrial and eventually post-industrial one. We have grown from a society of small towns and parishes to a society of cities and suburbs and geographical mobility. Close-knit families, once economic engines (think of the family farm), have ceased to be common or economically important (or so it appears at first glance). And local churches have become things we look for after we’ve found a job someplace, not things around which we build a lifetime.

The inevitable result of these theological and social changes is the impossibility of the parish model I’ve just described. Columbia sociologist Robert Nisbet pointed out as early as 1952 that while the American church community (individualistic as it was) could survive for a while on the inherited capital of strong social ties from bygone eras, sooner or later the conservatives’ arguments about the central importance of family and church to human life would ring hollow. When institutions have no clear, concrete benefits to us economically and politically; when we can’t see their significance to the larger community or the world around us; their psychological benefit is reduced and people start to slip away from them or seek ways to redefine them. (Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, “Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do.” New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.)

T.S. Eliot saw this coming as well. Writing in 1938, he said:

“In its religious organization, the church has remained fixed at the stage of development suitable to a simple agricultural society, and the modern materialistic complication has produced a world for which Christian social forms are imperfectly adapted. There are two oversimplifications of this problem which are suspect. One is to insist that the only salvation for society is to return to a simpler mode of life [i.e. to double down on the parish model]. This policy appears utopian. The other is to accept the modern world as it is and simply try to adapt Christian social ideals to it. The latter resolves itself into a mere doctrine of expediency, and it is a surrender of the faith that Christianity itself can play any part in shaping social forms.” (T.S. Eliot, “Christianity and Culture.” New York: Harcourt, 1948.)

While parish-based churches failed to adapt strategically to the changing times, some American churches didn’t take this lying down. Their leaders thought they had to reinvent church for the new era. They had to figure out how to help people squeeze God into one of the parts of their busy “secular” lives. In the process, however, they reinvented not only church but Christianity. The suburban church, the megachurch, was church adapted to the modern materialist lifestyle; ultimately, it provided a one-way, individualized strip mall commodity to which people could drive once a week to consume a product. If Protestantism had individualized Christian theology, the megachurch individualized (i.e. surrendered) Christian community. It gave so much ground to the prevailing culture that it conceded as lost (as Eliot predicted) the very notion that God could be at the center of our social networks. Although sometimes preaching that worship was something people were supposed to do every day with their whole lives, it failed to offer any serious model for what that should look like, and left it up to individuals to be Christian islands in a sea of secularism six days a week (and in a sea of thousands of fellow passive audience members on the seventh).

A Superfluous Church

Despite (and perhaps partly because of) these radical changes to church polity, Eliot and Nisbet’s predictions have to a large extent played out. Even among the most devout Christians today, church is rarely the spiritual (let alone social) centerpiece it once was, except as a therapeutic or educational gas station.

This is particularly true among young churchgoers, only 25% of whom say they subscribe to their church’s teachings (they prefer to pick and choose their favorite parts), and who are more likely to pick a church where their friends go than to build their social network from church as a starting point. Small groups are an inadequate counter to megachurch culture; they feel artificial to young people (especially the ones who already have a critical mass of Christian friends they’ve bumped into through other activities).

As busy as some megachurches appear, 75% of self-described Christians apparently lose their faith in college, hardly any can articulate what Christianity is, 82% of people under 30 don’t go to church regularly, 18% have left the religion in which they were raised, and only 4% of onetime nonbelievers say they have converted. (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Religion and the Millennials”) And on the parish end of things, the typical mainline pastor has watched her church slowly die, as its spiritual and political offerings vary little from secular alternatives and its institutional and social structure remains suited for an age that is long gone. (I recently toured a beautiful Pennsylvania mainline church that is now for sale, and the way its pastor spoke of it, you’d think we were on an archaeological dig site of a long-dead civilization. It was eerie.)

Where to from Here?

In light of all this, the critical question for a church leader interested in a revival of the faith is how to accomplish something like the vitality of the old parish church. It’s about more than converting people faster; the product itself is missing something it’s supposed to have.

Certain principles can be drawn from historical experience. The Church has, after all, thrived in secular cultures before, and the sooner pastors realize that that the age of Constantine in America is over, the better. Saint Paul’s awareness of the culture around him was obvious when he spoke to the Athenians, explaining Christianity in terms they could understand rather than trying to force them into a paradigm to which they couldn’t relate.  And yet the experience of the American church in the past century has demonstrated the fatal flaws of trying too hard to accommodate either political or social trends (in both theology and worship style), offering something that is so like the culture around it that eventually nobody sees the point of it.

But something new is in order. New approaches to the relationship between institution and organism are in order. The question is how to rebuild strong Christian social networks with God at their center—something the parish model did for post-Roman Europe, and something today’s church must do for a new time. Like Cleisthenes’ reforms of ancient Athenian democracy, the solution must consider human nature (e.g. social network theory), experience (e.g. tradition), and long-term social and economic contexts, and skillfully build a social network that taps into them. “Relevance” isn’t about making your youth pastor get a tattoo; it’s about building something that has clear significance beyond itself or its members as individuals.

What might this look like? It may not be the clear, exclusive, all-in commitment of yesteryear’s community. But it may not be church-by-social-media either. If the Church’s institutional experience is any indication, it’s possible that the right conclusions (though jarring to some American Christians) might be things that would not have seemed so radical to Hooker or Augustine.

Brian Brown is a social fundraising consultant and the founding editor of Humane Pursuits. He is the author of anthologies of local, art, and nature philanthropy and a contributing author to “Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity and Civic Life in Modern America” (2014).

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