November 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

In the last few years many  have pointed out how the continuing  breakdown in social relationships and old forms of community associations  have contributed to increasing social problems. Even to the point of threatening democracy itself. Robert Royal and his colleagues have argued convincingly that we can no longer take community life for granted, for “the fate of American democracy may hinge on the renewal of such associations or something like them.”[i] He insists that when we wonder what happened to the old neighborhood, we are “not merely suffering from neurosis or nostalgia.” We lose a quality of living when we lose the old neighborhood.[ii]

As our society becomes increasingly urbanized and secularized, we see the direct results in increasing crime and subsequent social problems. To rebuild the type of communities needed for a strong democracy will require “significant and far-ranging changes.”  Relationships between neighborhoods, schools, churches, and workplaces must be strengthened. Royal’s research confirmed that our practices have changed in more recent years. Now, Americans are much more likely to join private associations that don’t deliver the same support of the common good. People are engaged with one another, but not in the same way as in the past. Royal is also convinced that these newer community connections do not promote “conversations across class, racial, and ethnic lines” to the same degree.[iii]

Philip Selznick, is another researcher who concurs that at the heart of our social problems in America is the breakup of traditional community life. Modern modes of living tend to lead to isolated lives, cut off from extended families and long-lasting friendships. Selznick points out that “People participate segmentally, that is, on the basis of special interests and occasions rather than as whole persons, and they do so in groups that are themselves only weakly bound into the rest of society.”[iv]

We don’t build relationships with close neighbors to the extent we did in the past. With comfortable cars and good roads and money to purchase plenty of gasoline, we are willing to drive significant distance to join with others who more closely share our concerns, values, and interests. In the church we see this operative when an individual or family moves into a new community and looks for a church home. In the past if one was a Methodist she simply began attending the Methodist church in the neighborhood. However, today, with increased mobility, people shop for a new church much like shopping for a new dress. Location, doctrines, and denominations are less important than in the past. People are looking for a place to belong, but one that limits one’s obligations to the group. This means a place where the congregation looks like them and therefore provides a zone of comfort. When asked why they joined a particular church the answer most often given is that “it just seemed warm and friendly.”

One of the hallmark principles of the church growth movement is that for a church to experience significant growth the congregation should be homogeneous. That is, everyone should look alike, think alike, act alike, believe alike. The church is not immune to this tendency toward segmental relationships in which we are relatively free to choose with whom we will relate and  the amount of time and effort we put into the relationship.

I have previously described how different my childhood was from that of my own children. I attended a very small rural school where teachers and administrators not only knew all the students, but knew their families as well. A teacher might not only have taught you at school, but might also have been your Sunday School teacher. When I was in the fourth grade, Mr. Copeland, the principal, spanked me and three other boys for smoking. The other three were from unchurched families  and their fathers smoked. Mr. Copeland knew my family well and was aware that my father was a deacon in the church. He did not smoke. After spanking us, Mr. Copeland dismissed the other three boys, but instructed me to wait. Then he said, “if I ever even hear that you are smoking, I will put a cigarette butt in an envelope with a note and send it to your parents.”

For years I lived with the fear that Mr. Copeland was going to tell my parents that I had been smoking. In that small rural community personal relationships were not segmental but rather were comprehensive, and overlapped many aspects of our lives. We knew the same people at work, at school, at play, on the streets and roads, and at church.

It is this point about the prevailing way that we develop a sense of community that is of greatest concern. We Americans are social animals that will, in the normal course of life, find some type of community to which we will belong. But the type of communities we are developing at this point in our history are inadequately connected to the wider civic society. Being social beings, the problem is not that we are  altogether too individualistic. The problem is actually more one of retreating into enclaves, denying reality, and disconnecting our group from the common good of the broader society. This is one reason we are increasingly dividing ourselves by color, black or white, red or blue.

The institutional church can easily become an enclave of like-minded individuals, cut off from the very people God has called us to reach. My old friend Elton Trueblood warned about this many years ago when he called the church to be an expeditionary force, not a fortress. Many Christians hardly know anyone from “the other side of the tracks.” All of our friends look like us, think like us, and share our values.

How can our churches be transformative in this kind of environment? The great commission calls us to share the gospel “as we go into all the world,” not as we huddle in our houses of worship. Evangelical churches talk a great deal about  but few Christians ever lead another person to a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. Trueblood pointed out that many of the metaphors Jesus used for Christians are permeating images–salt, light, branches. As you go make disciples, not “build it and they will come.”

It is no accident that the effectiveness and influence of the church in society is diminishing at the same time we are experiencing a breakdown in bridging social capital. A clear understanding of what is happening with the bridging social capital  in our country should lead us in the church to reorder our priorities. We should be training a compassionate expeditionary force of Christ followers to penetrate our society, building relationships with a broken world, and offering the transforming power of God’s grace


[i]Robert Royal et al, Reinventing the American People: Unity and Diversity Today (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). P.   [ii]Ibid. p. 4                                                                                                                                           [iii]Ibid. p. 2-                                                                                                                                        [iv]Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1992). p.5.

Dr. Gary Thompson


I am a retired United Methodist pastor. I write adult curriculum for the United Methodist Church and have been doing so for over 10 years. My passion is helping the Christian Church more effectively fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ and to help individuals identify and fulfill their God-given personal mission.

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