Straight Talk and Hope for Relationships, Community -- and Faith


An atheist and a believer walk into a bar…

It used to be that people were born as part of a community and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals and have to find their community. Bill Bishop, The Big Sort

Today’s decline in relationships, community and the church is associated with dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, loneliness, suicide, drug ODs and hate-filled tribalism. Where do we look for answers?

Some might look to politics in an election year. Yet much of the relational disruption we face emanates from cultural change that resists top-down, policy-led change. If politics is the new religion, it seems more relationally destructive than the old religion and lacks key elements of forgiveness and grace that are tenets of faith, regardless of how imperfectly they are practiced.

So what role can faith play? Many in today’s faith community see faith as the answer. Many seculars or “nones” see the church as a key part of the problem. Yet in fearing, fighting and blaming each other, do we lose sight of how each group needs some of what the other group brings to building stronger relationships and community?

It is time to talk church. Not from the usual perspective of theology, doctrine, denominations and progressive vs. conservative arguments. Put all of that aside. No, let’s look at church, temple, and mosque through the lens of relationship and community-building: local gathering, serving others, music, ritual, grace, confession, forgiveness, accountability, relational values, prayer/meditation, higher purpose.

Remember that iconic commercial featuring the late Paul Harvey, “So, God Made a Farmer?” It highlighted the special role of farmers – their earthly struggle and heavenly delight to feed society. What if now, in the midst of all our relationship despair, we thought of our rich and diverse faith communities – traditional and not – in the same way: “So, God Made a Church” to feed our need for relationship and community – a Relational Church.

Let me state upfront that I have spent roughly one third of my life as a conservative Christian, one third as an agnostic fairly angry at religion, and one third as an active mainline church member. Surely time spent in all three of those camps should yield some insight.

Relational Decline: The Impact on Health, Wealth, Happiness

Let’s begin by looking at the decline of relationships. Our relational infrastructure – those mechanisms that undergird relationships – is crumbling at an alarming rate. While many readers are familiar with the research, it warrants a brief review.

The divorce rate has doubled since 1960 (albeit ticked down in recent years), the number of adults living alone has jumped 114 percent. Married men earn about 19 percent more than unmarried men. Starting in 2012, more than 50 percent of children born to mothers under 30 are born into single-parent households and they will be five times as likely to experience poverty.

The number of close “go-to” friends has shrunk by a third in a couple of decades while the number with “no close friends” has tripled. It’s as if we had a huge layoff of spouses, parents and friends – with painful relational and economic consequences.

We have invented ghastly new terms like “Deaths of Despair” to chronicle an increase of drug-related deaths of 108 percent, alcohol-related deaths by 69 percent and suicides of 35 percent among 18 to 34 year-olds between 2007 and 2017. Loneliness, which has the same mortality effect as smoking and twice that of obesity, has jumped 65 percent in the last decade. As smoking declined and healthier eating has become more popular, isolation has stepped in and filled the mortality void. Overall life expectancy declined for the first time since the early 1900s. John Ortberg’s words were never truer, “We would be better to eat Twinkies together than to eat broccoli alone.”

Joining isolation is a second big relationship ugly: ideological “warfare.” We have increasingly joined ideological tribes whose primary mission is war with other tribes. Nearly 50 percent of voters describe themselves as ideologically extreme compared to 29 percent in 1972. Forty-five percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans report they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other party compared to 5 percent in 1960. We don’t need stats to discern this shift – we can hardly avoid the vitriol on social media, cable TV and talk radio.

So, we are painfully alone and miserably together. When it comes to relationships, something has gone terribly wrong. While the topic is complicated, let me focus on a key part of the problem: the disintegration of community.

Community: The Bedrock of Relationship

Against this painful backdrop of relational coming apart stands hopeful new understanding of the role of social capital (gains that accrue from social interaction) and community. The medical community has historically seen disease as being located in an individual. However, as we study the impact of isolation on health and even addiction, we are better understanding how disease can also be about how individuals relate to each other and the kind of community in which we live.

Rachael Wurzman, a neuroscientist at SeekHealing, an addiction rehab non-profit, describes how the loss of meaningful interactions with others deprive the brain of natural opioids that make us feel good:

“A lack of strong social connection disrupts the balance among the brain circuits that use these feel-good chemicals produced by close relationships. When we are really hungry, we will eat anything. Similarly, loneliness creates a hunger in the brain which neurochemically hyper-sensitizes our reward system. If we don’t have the ability to connect socially, we seek relief anywhere, and if we seek it with heroin opioid painkillers, it will be a heat-seeking missile for our reward system…It sets the drug as the default state that keeps pain at bay and relief close, overriding the system that would otherwise prompt us to seek human connections.”

Addictive chemicals or other forms of stimulants, like social media-enabled political rants and fights, or indulging in stoked-up, righteous outrage about the latest offense by the other side, become substitutes for social interaction. The false choice is to fill oneself-up with addictive killers like drugs or risk loneliness so acute that it leads to the risk of suicide. Sustainable social interaction with community becomes life or death. As one participant at SeekHealing puts it, “the epidemic is not to drugs—the epidemic is the loneliness and the pain and the feeling that you can’t belong anywhere.”

Community is not just about surviving but also about thriving. Research is revealing that it is life-giving in another important way – a source of opportunity and hope. Historically we have thought about the drivers of upward mobility and opportunity at primarily the household level – your parents income, parenting, education, intelligence and the like. However recent research by Raj Chetty at Harvard reinforces the importance of community. It finds that the strongest predictor of upward mobility is intact families – not necessarily in the home but in the neighborhood. The make-up of the community, especially encompassing a critical mass of caring adults, seems to really matter.

Yet as I described in my recent essay, “Our Great Ungathering Is Killing Us,” our community infrastructure is in decline. Between 1974 and 2016, the percent of adults who said they spend a social evening with a neighbor at least several times a week fell from 30 percent to 19 percent. Since Robert Putnam’s seminal book Bowling Alone on the decline in civic engagement and gathering has accelerated. These stats reflect the demise of traditional gathering places in communities large and small:

-Community banks: down 24% since 2010; branch traffic down 36%

- Retail stores: 7,600 closings, up 29% over 2018

- Bars: 10,000 closed last decade – in 1940 90% of alcohol consumed in bars, today 30%

- VFW posts: 11,000 in 1993, 6,000 today; American Legion lost half members

- Churches: losing 6,000-10,000 year; Pew re-defines ‘regular attendance’ from 3/month to 1.4

- Sports: Attendance NFL, MLB, College football – all down in 2018

- Union membership of wage and salary workers: 10.6% in 2018 vs. 20.1% in 1983

And when we gather, we are often so media-addicted as to block community. My friend shares her experience at LA Fitness: “everyone has earbuds or whatever, shutting off even the most ordinary friendly interaction – and these are people I see and recognize three or four times a week.”

Moreover, the consequences of community disintegration are not evenly distributed – they are concentrated in the working class. Class-based segregation has increased. Tim Carney in his book Alienated America points out that as the educated elites have sorted themselves together, the working-class neighborhoods by comparison have less work, less church, fewer civic organizations, less involvement in local government, less involvement in school boards, and simply less neighborhood connection. Neighborhood scholar Robert Sampson concludes, “What is truly American is not so much the individual but the neighbor inequality.” Relational decline fuels relational inequality which fuels income inequality.

Church: A Key Source of Relationship and Community Building – and Destruction

So, if deaths of despair, the loss of community, political division, and the decline of relationships worry you, where do you go? According to Putnam, churches are still the most likely community resource, even as faith has lost ground. “Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America… Our evidence shows nearly half of associational memberships in America are church-related, half of all personal philanthropy is religious in character, and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context.” Further, people who go to church get more involved in nonreligious organizations than people who don’t go.

Nonetheless, Pew’s latest findings reflect the continuing decline in America’s predominate religion, Christianity (comprises 92% of those religiously affiliated). American adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped 12 percentage points over the past decade, while church membership has declined from 70 percent in 1999 to 50 percent today. This shift is heavily influenced by a younger group of Millennials who are just as likely to be “nones” who never attend church as those who go once a week.

Further, it appears that it is not the “spiritual” component of faith that many reject, but institutional religion. In 2017, 27 percent of Americans identified as “spiritual but not religious,” a 42 percent increase from 2012. Yet for most, exiting the institution – church – is another move away from community and relationships.

And it not just Christianity and it’s not just America. The Economist reports that across the Arab world those who report attending Friday prayers is down nearly half since 2013, to 33%. In Israel 44 percent of Jews say religion is “not too/not at all important” to them as the growth of secular Jews continues.

The church, like all of us and our institutions, is a mixed bag. Part of its story, history and many of today’s headlines are about abuse and relational destruction: crusades, support of slavery, sexual abuse, partisan division, exclusion of women and gays, misuse of money and many more. And while the church has also been a strong leader at times in countering relational destruction, today its reputation is very much tarnished by these commissions and omissions. In 1973, two-thirds of adults had “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in the church or organized religion, but by 2016, that had fallen to 36 percent. A majority (57 percent) of millennials agree that religious people are generally less tolerant of others, compared to only 37 percent of Baby Boomers. For many, the church is the last place to look for relational and community re-building. Full stop.

Yet, with all its sins, America’s approximately 384,000 congregations provide a rich source of relational infrastructure in local communities for the heavy lifting of relationship building. Existing and potential community resources provided directly or through partnerships range from traditional worship and study groups to addiction, grief, and divorce recovery groups, community outreach, political division dialogue (Better Angels), scouting, language (ESL), housing (Habitat), refugee support, mental health support groups (NAMI) – to name a few. Some key facts:

Relational Health: According to Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia, “Americans who regularly attend a church, synagogue or mosque are less likely to cheat on their partners, less likely to abuse them, more likely to enjoy happier marriages, and less likely to have been divorced. Controlling for income, race, education, age, gender and region, families who attend religious ceremonies weekly were much more likely than those who seldom or never attend to eat dinner together weekly (58% vs. 41%), do housework chores together weekly (71% vs. 56%) and go out to movies, sporting events, or parks at least once a month (56% vs. 43%).

Happiness: About half of people who attend church more than once a week say they are “very happy” compared to 41% among those who go weekly and 25% for those who go once/year or less. Among young adults The Atlantic reports those who attend religious services more than once a month are about 40 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not religious at all. Yet the share of young adults who attend religious services more than monthly has fallen from 38 percent in 1972 to 27 percent in 2018 as the share who never attend has risen rapidly.

Life Expectancy: A study of 18,000 baby boomers aged 50 and older from 2004 to 2014 found that those who attend church regularly were 40% less likely to die in that 10-year stretch than those who never attended. A study just released finds “lonely” women are three times as likely to die after cardiac surgery while “lonely” men are twice as likely. Finally, those who attend any religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to commit suicide.

Kids’ Relationships: Robert Putnam finds that churchgoing kids “have better relations with their parents and other adults, have more friendships with high-performing peers, are more involved in sports and other extracurricular activities, are less prone to substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, smoking), risky behavior and delinquency.”

He concludes: “Communities of faith seem more important than faith itself when it comes to producing neighborliness and good citizenship.”

As the number of “nones” has risen, many appear to experience a relational and communal void. It has led to the advent of secular churches – like Sunday Assembly or Oasis which utilize many traditional churc