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Our Great Ungathering Is Killing Us



Great civilisations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History

Major league baseball, universities, churches, movie theaters, retail stores, college football, banks, family dinners, neighborhoods, colleagues at work – all have a common challenge. They are all in the business of gathering people – butts in seats/pews, feet in stores/branches, people around the dinner table, sales people face-to-face with clients, neighbors congregating. But today that business is faltering. It’s the same globally. Brexit, the (not so) United Methodists’ painful divide and the rise of smaller, more extreme political parties all point to a society whose default is fight or flight – rather than come together. Many of us charged with gathering people – to meet, connect, do commerce, serve or be in community – have developed gathering fatigue from valiantly trying and often failing to gather key stakeholders. It is time all of us to took a step back and look at our “great ungathering.”

Gathering: A Losing Record

Let’s go to the scoreboard. These 10 statistics collectively show just how wide-spread is our gathering decline:

1. Banks: closed 1700 branches last year and project a 36% decline in branch traffic between 2017—2022

2. Sports:

a. Major League Baseball: attendance down 4.4% in 2018, 8 clubs down 12%;

b. National Football League: 2018 attendance down for 2nd year in a row, lowest since 2010, off 3.4% from 2016

c. College football: ticket sales down 7.6% over the past 4 years – actual attendance running 71% of sales these days (The Wall Street Journal analysis)

3. Learning: university/college enrollments are down 9% since 2011; 59% of surveyed companies are increasing spending on digital learning vs. 24% for instructor-led

4. Churches: 49% of population attended in the 1950s vs. mid 30s in recent years. Pew now counts “active” as attendance once/month compared to 3.4 times/month decades back.

5. Movie theatre ticket sales—U.S.: 2017 lowest in 23 years, after a one-year spike in 2018, ticket sales the first 7 weeks of 2019 are down 18%.

6. Retail stores: 5,000 retail stores closed in 2018 and in the first six weeks of 2019, store closings were up 23%. Today 62% of U.S. households are Amazon Prime subscribers and Amazon North America revenue grew from $19 billion in 2010 to $141 billion by 2018 as ‘Amazoned’ became a nasty verb to retail stores

7. Working from home: people working from home in the U.S. has jumped 57% – from 3.3 to 5.2% in 2000.

8. Meeting with customers: as salespeople are more tied to screens, “virtual connections” with customers has increased 3.2 times more than in-person connections. Yet 88% of sales people believe successful sales depend on face time.

9. Meals together: 47% of parents report sharing fewer meals with their family than when they were growing up, 43% say they have fewer family meals now than five years ago.

10. Know their neighbors: only 31% of adults know most/all of their neighbors. In 1974, 30% spent time with their neighbors more than once a week vs. 20% today and 20% never spent time with their neighbors vs. 35% today.

Why Is Life-Saving, Happiness-Producing Community Dying?

We all know and voluminous research confirms that community is extremely valuable. In fact, many would say we are wired or built for community. A large BYU review of 148 studies found social connection is associated with a 50% reduction in early death. Pew just reported its findings that 36% of people who participate in religious community report being very happy compared to 25% for inactive or unaffiliated Americans. They are also more likely to volunteer outside of church. Overall, loneliness is associated with double the risk of death for women, and nearly double for men.

Yet the percentage of people living alone has doubled since 1960. The number of people with no close “go to” friends has tripled in the last 20 years. According to the UCLA Loneliness Scale, loneliness has gotten worse in each successive generation. It seems we have never been so electronically connected and so relational disconnected. On every front, we are gathering less. It has only gotten worse since Robert Putnam reported on this trend in his seminal book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community back in 2000.

This death of gathering is unhealthy. This past year life expectancy in the U.S. declined for the third year in a row – the first such drop since 1915-1918 according the CDC. It was fueled by 45,000 suicides and 70,000 drug overdoses. Loneliness has now been found to be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Our lack of gathering is not for a lack of trying. Leaders of banks, churches, universities, businesses and social organizational leaders have persistently tried to entice people to gather, form community, and to meet face-to-face. Many feel they are fighting a losing battle. A bank manager recently shared how frustrated he is in trying to get millennial bankers to meet face-to-face with clients. A group of university CEOs at a retreat I led described the competitive pressure they are experiencing from “distance” (operative word) learning alternatives. These leaders see the need and the opportunity, but convincing people to gather and form stronger communal bonds seems really hard. How do you convince a starving person they need to eat? Like an eating disorder, relational anorexia has distorted our own image of what we need. At the extreme, failure to gather is a failure to thrive.

If gathering into community is an antidote for loneliness, why are we rejecting it so decisively? Sure, we can point to tech and how “screen time” is screening people out of social interaction. But why are kids spending 7 hours and 38 minutes on their screens and worrying their parents – who are spending 9 hours a day on theirs?

True, technology is just so efficient: send a text, shoot an email, post on social media, buy an Instapot online. The problem is that the “easy” button is not the same as the “meaning” button. Relationships are messy. Meeting face-to-face often means more time, more emotion, dealing with unpleasant things and less control. As Henri Nouwen has said: “Community is the place where the person you least want to be with lives.” Tech offers the illusion of “outsourcing” relational messiness. Often community is a place where there are differences and challenges. Yet, it is in these gathering places of challenge and exposure to uncomfortable “other” that we develop. I recently heard it put this way: “The significant developments in my life have occurred mostly against my will.”

Moreover, we are undeniably entertained by our endless technologically-delivered choices – podcasts, games, music, movies, social media posts. Theodore Dalrymple nets it out: “Where there is no community, entertainment rushes in to fill the gap.” It seems we are in a downward spiral – less community makes us more entertainment-seeking which then reduces community. Overuse of the entertainment button does not fulfill us – it empties us. Are we becoming relationally lobotomized by bread and circuses like the Roman Empire?

And finally, let’s just say it: We only want to be with people just exactly like us, and technology enables us to be in more homogeneous groups and exclude those who have different views. But the benefits of gathering are to be found in differences, not in sameness. At a time when we talk so much about tolerance and can point to much tangible progress in acceptance and inclusion of racial, sexual orientation and religious differences we find new ways to be divided. Those promoting greater inclusion become frustrated and increasingly intolerant and excluding of those they see as “excluding” – both sides dig in, exclusion grows. The United Methodists are just the latest group where a compromise alternative lost out to a more partisan choice. And how about the Oscars where they couldn’t find anybody pure enough to host? At the extreme, the desire to have it “our way” leads to a lonely group called me, myself and I.

The net is we keep choosing to be more isolated and at the same time more oppositional – separating from and then repelling each other – adding to our relational distance.

Becoming Intentional About Gathering and Community

These days while we focus on diet and workout as key to health, we are ignoring relational nutrition and exercise. As John Ortberg has pithily stated, “We’d be better to eat Twinkies together than to eat broccoli alone.”

Let me pose three questions about our gathering that we each should consider.

1. Where am I to be more intentional about gathering? It begins with intention. Whether as a parent, business leader, team member or community member – what are you doing to fill the emerging communal void? Prioritizing community connections may mean volunteering with family or friends, collectively turning off devices for a designated period (a tech cleanse), joining a church or a church small-group, holding regular team meetings with time set aside to get more connected, initiating more in-person meetings with clients, turning the TV off at dinner/family time, recurring walks with others, hosting a block party, and, dare I say it, going shopping with friends. Our deep hunger that is literally taking our lives is not fed by easier transactions, but by more meaningful relationships.

2. Where will you advocate for Relational Leaders with the will and skill to gather? We need leaders who gather us rather than scatter us. David Brooks calls them weavers not rippers. Relational Leadership is about having the will and the skill to bring us together – physical presence. Unfortunately, in today’s world what grabs the headlines and eyeballs while hogging the oxygen is blasts of divisive drama: Trump, AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), Ann Coulter. Whether the candidate we support for President or nominate for club leader, we need to promote leaders who gather and galvanize diverse people around what they are “for” rather than hatefully divide around who/what they “oppose.”

3. Where will you redesign gathering experiences to be more relevant for today’s generation? What kind of gathering experiences are winning these days? All of the gloom and doom aside, there are places where gathering is experiencing growth. Travel is booming. Domestic airlines have flown more passengers each year since 2010 and is up 3.4 percent last year. Hotel occupancy is booming. Since 2005, sales at “food services and drinking places” have grown twice as fast as all other retail spending. In 2016, for the first time ever, Americans spent more money in restaurants and bars than at grocery stores.

At the church where I belong, like most mainline ones, our attendance has trended downward in the last three years. However, participation in small groups has grown nearly 50 percent. Gathering and engaging is different for today’s younger generation. The Jewish synagogue a good friend attends has a Director of Congregational Engagement. Engagement, experiences, eating – comprise the 3 Es of relational gathering. Our old mantra: “Build it and they will come.” Our new mantra: “Engage them and they will gather.”

Whether gatherer or gather-ee, it is time to get intentional about gathering. The cashier’s t-shirt at the Pot Belly Sandwich Shop I recently visited nets out the mutuality of our need to gather: Get in here before we both starve.

Robert’s latest book, “This Land of Strangers” is now in paperback. A “recovering CEO,” he has authored 150 published articles and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The Huffington Post, The CEO Magazine.


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