WALKING THOSE BRIDGES
How integrated are Christians into their local communities?
When it comes to mission, churches often talk of the need to build bridges into the local community. Although this expresses an important truth, we sometimes state it unreflectively, and begin to sound like a power-crazed architect trying to burnish their reputation. In fact, many bridges already exist into the local community simply because people live and, sometimes, work there. We don’t have to try and become neighbours, shoppers, employees and school parents, because we already are. What might need to change is our awareness of this and of the opportunities our relationships afford us for living as ‘salt’ and ‘light’ as Jesus enjoined us to.
Critically acclaimed research, published as Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, on the collapsing of community in the United States looks at the way flourishing communities are built on networks of trust and obligation (what social scientists call social capital). Putnam spent some time looking at the impact religious communities have on their neighbourhoods, and his findings are encouraging. This is what he said:
Regular worshippers and people who say religion is very important to them are much more likely than other people to visit friends; to entertain at home; to attend club meetings; to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art, discussion, and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organisations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups.
It appears there are plenty of bridges across the river after all! I am encouraged by these findings because they come not from the Church, but from a Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. Although these findings concern the Church in the United States, I am sure they have a resonance here, and as Putnam is now engaged with Manchester University in a major piece of research on social capital in the U.K., we may soon find out.
Bowling Alone nevertheless uncovered some less palatable truths. One is that the major inhibitor to civic engagement is the television. More people now say they have less spare time to volunteer in any capacity, Church or otherwise, while the hours spent in front of the television (or almost as likely now, online) have grown. It is hard to challenge people when they say they have no time to help, yet in a number of cases it may actually be because they would rather watch television or browse online.
Lest that sound like a vicar on another volunteer crusade, a second finding should make church leaders think twice. Many of the best volunteers in life are already busy working people, yet as working hours become longer there is little indication that their volunteering is diminishing. How can this be? The answer from the research seems to be that less time is spent with the family. Personal sacrifices are relationally felt – a conundrum in Jesus’ call to die to self which is often obscured from all but the family concerned.
These caveats aside, Bowling Alone gives us good data to support our spiritual belief that the life of the local church really does add ‘salt’ and ‘light’ to its neighbourhood.
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