May 10, 2009
The Hansen Report: Community or Bust?
Will the economic downtown bring people to church?
The CNN headline echoed hopeful reflection I've been hearing in churches: "Shaky economy forces Americans to rediscover community." Optimistic Christians suppose the community they will rediscover is a local church that demonstrates how putting your faith in markets or government is a fool's errand compared to the incomparable power that comes from knowing Jesus Christ the Lord.
But the article by John Blake qualified the stark headline. And by qualified, I mean the article proved the headline wrong. It turns out the economic collapse has forced Americans to watch more movies. Blake reported that Netflix profits have increased 45 percent since the beginning of 2009. Gross movie ticket sales have jumped nearly 20 percent.
The headline writer might have avoided this mistake by reading Robert Putnam's comments to Blake. Of course, Blake called the famous Harvard sociologist and author of Bowling Alone by his middle name, David, so you can understand the confusion. Putnam explained that economic crises do not ensure that people will come together.
"Almost everybody believes that during the [Great] Depression that everyone got cuddled up next to each other and said, 'We're all in this together,'" Putnam told CNN. "I'm not denying that some of that occurred, but what's more typical is that people hunker down and pull in."
If the Great Depression didn't promote community, at least World War II did. And during the decades of prosperity that followed, civic pride flourished. So did local churches.
"They had just been exposed to five years of war bond drives, scrap metal drives, and Boy Scouts asking people to give up rubber mats in their car for the war," Putnam explained. "They lived with a sustained notion of we're all in this together."
But while the American economy boomed, European nations were crippled by the second global conflict that century. So were their churches. The wars shook Europeans' confidence in public institutions. Organized religion did not escape their ire. And the churches have never fully regained that trust.
In Blake's modern-day narrative, America's economic struggles might move the country closer to Europe. "Fewer" Americans, he wrote, "are turning to organized religion for support." As evidence, Blake cited the widely discussed American Religious Identification Survey that was released in early March. And he quoted Nancy Dallavalle, chairwoman of the Department of Religious Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Dallavalle told CNN that more people will find solace in pop culture than in a church community. Get-rich-quick infomercials and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will try to satiate their weary souls. And don't forget Internet websites that promise special spiritual insight.
"Folks might not turn to God as much as they turn to Google," Dallavalle projected.
By this point, the article had thoroughly confused me. Will dejected Americans turn to community or not? Baker cited an increase in applications to volunteer with the Peace Corps and AmericCorps. But other anecdotal evidence indicated that we prefer cheap forms of private entertainment to community-boosting projects. What about America's vaunted religious institutions? Are local churches doomed to second-class status as our neighbors watch Ty Pennington in the comfort of their new Snuggies?
The truth is neither John Blake nor Robert Putnam nor Nancy Dallavalle knows for sure how people will respond. Yet one thing is for sure. We cannot afford to assume that jobless Americans will think of the church in their time of need. Some will, no doubt. Our church buildings retain the respect of sanctuary for many Americans who cannot turn to family and do not trust the government.
But when they do show up in our churches, what will they find? A pastor may agree to meet with them. The church might even offer a little money set aside for just this purpose. Giving alms is a good and godly thing. Even better is a church where the down-and-out can feel like home. Plenty of churches fit that description. Perhaps more do not. As Putnam observes in Bowling Alone, the demands of private piety and church-based service can insulate evangelicals from the needs outside their homes and churches.
"Most evangelical volunteering, however, supports the religious life of the congregation itself - teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, ushering at worship services - but does not extend to the broader community as much as volunteering by members of other faiths," Putnam writes.
Worshiping God is a worthy priority, of course. The very act can even attract outsiders to investigate what marks our faith communities as unique. But if we depend on this outreach method alone, our churches become safe havens for respectable Christians. We give alms, but we do not give ourselves. And our neighbors will never learn what kind of life-giving community they could find inside.