Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America.
—Robert D. Putnam

I'm reading the book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, Harvard professor of Public Policy Robert D. Putnam 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. We did this without conscious thought about how important those communal bonds were to our health, education, safety and happiness.

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." He 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." It's a more Golden Rule, 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,
Privitized 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 committeed to a particular community of believers....

It is not my argument here that privitized religion is morally or theologically frivilous, or that inherited religious traditions are inherently superior.
Putnam is not pushing a theological agenda, but noting an important change in our cultural behavior. The reason this matters is that
Where once we could fall back on our social captial—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.

scratching each other's backsI am still reading and he is no working through the what change occured how, toward a conclusion of what he feels we can and should do about the problem. But for now I share his premise that social capital is as real as money or things and the networks of connections we have with other people are important to our health and happiness. I agree with him. What do you think?

In the archives are the related religion columns Why a Non-Believer May Want a Church and the more theological Get Connected which looks at this from the Doctrine of the Trinity.

The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor

Unless religious impulses find a home in more than the individual heart and soul, they will have few long-lasting public consequences.
—Martin Marty



  • At 2/15/2008 9:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I agree! People need to be connected to people whether or not they think that's the case.

    The more we involve others, I believe, the better the outcome. There is a lot of "If I want something done I need to do it myself" mentality in our society which creates isolation.I see many organizations that get individuals to join and then ignore what they have to offer. Reaching out to others and involving them in your visions allows them to feel needed and useful. Pretty soon you will have a community of people working together for a common purpose or goal, and usually, the outcome is better than orginally perceived.

    I say reach out to people, pull them in and take what they have to offer. The more the merrier! Everybody needs to feel like they are useful and have contributed.

  • At 2/15/2008 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I very much agree!!

    It took me a while to find a church that I felt at home in. I never felt comfortable in any of them. Then I came to KOP and wow!! I found my church home. Yes I desperately needed KOP when I came to it and I still do but it took me reaching out and in turn people reaching back to make me realize what I had been missing.

    Yes I can pray at home and worship from home but I didn't have that involvement with others who feel the way I do. The helping hand and also being able to help. I feel I am giving and not just taking from the lord and it makes me feel got to give. I have made friends who mean the world to me and I to them. I am blessed to have found a church family like KOP even if it did take me so long.

    True reach out and help them in.

  • At 2/15/2008 11:23 PM, Blogger November In My Soul said…

    I wonder if at KOP you found The Church?

  • At 2/16/2008 9:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I' not sure I understand. Of course, King of Peace is not simply a church, but together with other churches of many denominations it is part of The Church, the larger Body of Christ. Is that what you mean?

  • At 2/16/2008 2:41 PM, Blogger anything but typical said…

    I understand what November is asking. And yes, my experience at King of Peace has been one of finding The Church, a group of people living out the Kingdom of God together, and not just a group of people together for social reasons. Although, we do a lot of social things together that help to build the sense of community.

  • At 2/16/2008 10:25 PM, Blogger November In My Soul said…

    "And yes, my experience at King of Peace has been one of finding The Church, a group of people living out the Kingdom of God together, and not just a group of people together for social reasons."

    Anything But Typical you are correct in part. By The Church I mean the Ark of Our Salvation, The Church catholic. I guess I was trying to discern if church meant a place where I feel accepted and appreciated or The Church where I celebrate the eucharist, the assembly of persons that allows for the celebration of the Eucharist. Did the writer mean The Church as defined by the Orthodox Church?

    I am not trying to split theological hairs but the Church into which I was chrismated is distinctly different from the Lutheran church which I at one time attended.


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