Mike’s note: This is a Speakeasy-inspired guest-post from Together: Community as a Means of Grace, by Larry Duggins. If you are a blogger or podcast host, we have a limited number of review copies still available for request, here. Everyone else, get your copy!
Popular memory recalls a time when practically everyone in a community attended church on Sunday morning. The question people asked was which denomination a person belonged to rather than if they belonged. Sunday school classes were hubs of friendships, vacation bible school was a highlight of the summer, and Friday fish fries brought the whole neighborhood to the Catholic church. Churches often developed a special fund-raiser that emerged from the church kitchen – homemade noodles, steak dinners, fried chicken, baked pies, spaghetti dinners – and the whole neighborhood looked forward to them. Women worked in the neighborhood, children went to youth groups, and men did community relief work, all through church based organizations.
And then things changed. The television made it unnecessary to seek entertainment outside of the home. People rebelled against rules and societal and cultural restrictions on behavior. Family structures shifted as divorce rates grew and as two wage-earner families became common. Programmed activities for children became more popular, squeezing into times that had been previously dedicated to church activities. More recently, the personal computer and the hand-held screen has replaced “friends” and “communities” in a totally unprecedented way.
According to Gallup, 91 percent of Americans self-identified as Christian in 1950 as compared to 70 percent today. Actual church attendance is much harder to track, but an interesting study done by Tobin Grant, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, compares over four hundred survey results over the past sixty years to create a religiosity index. “Religiosity” is a sociological term for the quality of being religious or pious, so in layman’s terms, the index seeks to measure whether people are religious. The index reveals a huge decline in “being religious” from 1952 to 2013.
And yet, we’ve noticed several surprises, even when interpreting this data.
The first thing we noticed was, despite the fact that its role as a community hub has diminished, in many places the church continues to play an important role as a center of community. This role varies from church to church and region to region, but church continues to fulfill an important social role for many people. Sunday worship, Sunday school, crafting groups, choirs, and service organizations still fill an important connective function for many people as vital components of their spiritual growth and development.
This observation is a critical one as we consider alternative forms of Christian community. We need to be careful to preserve as many of the historic communities within established churches that continue to serve as means of grace, while making room to ask bold new questions. Building new types of Christian community does not require the destruction of the old. It may be necessary to reallocate resources and update priorities, but that can be done within a framework of healthy respect for tradition. There is a temptation to sweep away the old practices and the old congregation because they are no longer attractive to some or because they do not meet some criterion for vitality or financial stability.
In many cases, this is unnecessary and counter-productive. Embracing the old practices and the old people as a part of developing new forms of community preserves a library of faith and experience, and recognizes the ways in which God has entered the lives of those who came before and those who appreciate and are filled by the old practices. Closed churches that have been transformed into coffee shops make me sad. Churches that have incorporated coffee shops into their space and lives give me hope.
During our research, we noticed that many people form community within their workplace. People form friendships with their coworkers and clients that extend outside of the workplace itself. It is not uncommon to find groups of coworkers who socialize together after work or who join each other in fitness or enrichment activities. Many workplaces encourage this interaction through gym membership subsidies or by sponsoring general interest seminars or book clubs after work hours or during lunch breaks.
We also noticed the significance of food and table in community formation. Many of the workplace communities we became aware of revolved around shared meals at lunch or dinner and around after work “happy hours.” The pace of daily life and the increasing number of two wage-earner families have resulted in a significant increase in dining out, a phenomenon that has led many to join with others while eating. Scanning a restaurant during a weekday evening will often reveal groups of individuals, couples and families, sharing a meal together.
The restaurant phenomenon has also coincided with a growing interest in the production of fresh, healthy food. Gardening is growing in popularity in a variety of settings. Those concerned with social justice have observed the lack of healthy food options in low income settings, and community gardens have become a popular response. As neighbors work together to produce food and address the needs of the community, friendships are formed. Also, groups that garden together often realize that many of the food preparation skills taken for granted by older generations have not yet been taught to younger generations, so communities arise around food preparation. Growing, preparing, and sharing food draw people together.
People are also drawn together by their children’s school and extracurricular activities. This generation of parents is heavily involved in the daily activities of their children, and the structured organization of children’s activities is at an unprecedented high. Club and school sports require an incredible commitment of time and energy by the children and the parents, and children are enrolled in sports from a very young age. The parents of children involved in these types of activities find themselves forming community as they encounter each other at games and practices and as they work together to coordinate travel and fundraising. Additionally, the advent of two wage-earner families has made after school enrichment activities very important, providing supervision and instruction while the parents finish the workday. Parents often come together into communities in the coordination and implementation of afterschool activities.
Finally, we noticed that people form community through shared recreational and creative activities. Perhaps as a reaction to the increasingly organized structures around children’s sports, we find groups of adults organizing around shared sporting interests like hiking, soccer, and tennis. Many people seem to be looking for groups to share these activities with. One additional benefit to communities formed around shared creative activities like sewing, quilting, woodworking, pottery, and knitting is that these crafts often have specialized equipment that can be shared or require the investment of a significant amount of time that can be more enjoyable with companions.
The traditional role of the church and of church buildings has been to facilitate the administration of several means of grace, including worship, public and private prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and the searching of scriptures. Specialized forms of gathering such as class meetings, love feasts, and commitment services might also take place on the church grounds. We have noted, however, that many of these means of grace no longer seem relevant to this generation, which has led to a reduction in the number of people who participate in church communities.
If one of the primary roles of the church and of church buildings is to promote encounters with the means of grace, how should the church and church buildings change to form communities that are relevant to people today so that those communities might become means of grace? If people form communities around workplace, food, their children’s schools and activities, and shared recreational activities, how can the church and the church building change to support those kinds of communities in a way that helps people to see God in their midst?
Larry Duggins is a pastor and a business person. He is equally comfortable in the worlds of spiritual leadership and financial analysis, and he seeks to understand the margins in which those worlds meet. Larry spent 25 years in the financial industry as a banker and an entrepreneur, and has led people all of his life. Central themes in Larry’s theology include the transformational power of pilgrimage, the importance of living into the mission Christ set forth for us, and the centrality of the Holy Spirit in prayer, discernment and ministry.
Larry and Rev. Dr. Elaine Heath co-founded the Missional Wisdom Foundation. Today, Larry works closely with Bret Wells, Denise Crane and Rev. Luke Lingle as a collaborative lead team to direct the activities of the Foundation.