Several commentators of our social reality have noted a new trend. Parents deciding where to establish their home are not choosing the suburbs. The youth who fought World War II returning home found well paying jobs and government scholarships for a university education. These circumstances allowed them to buy cars and a home with a front and a back yard in the suburbs. As a consequence, cities suffered great losses. Many city dwellings became occupied by the poor who depended on public transportation and did not have the means for owning a home.
Since the middle and the high classes had left the cities, businesses and corporate offices also left for the suburbs where they could have large parking lots for clients and employees with private transportation. The dynamic of going to the corner store in the city to buy what was needed for supper is very different from the one that obtains when driving to the mall. Walking to the corner grocery one met and talked with neighbors. The grocer and his wife were also neighbors with whom one had an established friendship and with whom one exchanged favors. As a social unit, the barrio gave all its members elements of identity and a sense of security.
In the suburb, where one drives to the commercial strip, one hardly ever sees one’s neighbors. The cashier at the supermarket is a stranger anxious for the time to quit working and drive to a distant home. The result, as sociologists have abundantly documented, is that the suburbs became monotonous conglomerates of houses whose dwellers feel socially disconnected. Too often they are urban centers without neighborhoods, dormitories for singles occupied by families.
In the same way in which the automobile within reach of the masses facilitated the flight from the cities, and the arrival of businesses and offices gave to the suburbs a solid fiscal base, the cybernetic revolution is creating a new trend. Young families with small children are bypassing the suburbs and moving to the countryside thinking that there they will satisfy their thirst for being part of a community. The small villages, with schools that function as they should, and where old social habits centered on the public library, the sports organized by the county recreation department, the clubs concentrating on specific activities and the old churches linger, are having an unexpected attraction. It is to be noticed that this trend is facilitated by cell phones and portable computers with electronic printers that allow employees to stay away from the office, and professionals to work independently. Also to be noticed, however, is that the suburbanites who ignore each other and own their own lawnmowers, snowblowers and generators that empower their self sufficiency, drive to the mall ignoring their neighbors and texting to some stranger across the continent. Cybernetic communities, like the one constituted by this web site, however, are not made up of neighbors.
The thirst for being part of a community has been exacerbated by the collapse of the trust that once was had on the government, the company for which one worked, and even the church to which one belonged. Matthew Dowd, one of the political advisers of Bush/Cheney in the 2004 election, says: “Unemployment numbers, inflation rates, and all those figures don’t really tell the story anymore, because people have lost some faith in all the major institutions of the country – from churches, to political parties, to the government – and so they have this great deal of anxiety about what they can count on.” This explains the causes of our thirst for a solid sense of community. According to Dowd, part of what happened in the last 20 years is the loss of the ties people had with one another and with the organizations in which they, or their parents, or their grandparents participated. Thus they are searching for new ways of establishing communal ties.
It seems that the end of the XX century brought with it a reevaluation of the reigning individualism of western culture. In the United States, with the idealization of the man and woman of the frontier where survival required a strong dose of self-sufficiency and of the right to private property, individualism may have reached its breaking point.
During the last 50 years, the traditional protestant denominations have been loosing members in significant numbers, particularly in the cities. In the last 25 years, evangelical mega-churches without denominational ties have been emerging in the suburbs. Their success in attracting members has been carefully studied, and some 10 years ago many prognosticated that the future of Christianity in the USA was in the mega-churches. Some seminaries decided that their mission was to prepare pastors for such churches in the suburbs. Fortunately, the popularity of this distraction is fading. Even if a few pastors with much charisma are successful in a few mega-churches, the mega-church wave in the suburbs does not seem to be leaving its imprint on the beach. For some the Christianity of the mega-church is a spectator sport. For others the attraction of the mega-church is its ability to offer a great variety of choices for service activities, tangential to the weekly worship service. This has given an impulse to the fad of the “small groups”.
Forty years ago the flower children rebelled against the bourgeois family and the ideals that guided the lives of their parents. They established communes of free sex and shared property in the wilderness, if possible, and refused to participate in the government’s war in Vietnam. The flower children eventually returned to the bosom of bourgeois society and even became elected officials of the government. Now their children are searching for a new way to live in community not in rebellion, but still out of frustration with the institutions in which they had put their trust. Once again the search for a way to quench the thirst for the warmth and the sympathy of the neighbor is on.
Many churches are trying to create community with song services and programs in which several, especially young people and children, participate. Choruses and gospel songs are many times the core of the worship hour. The religious songs popular in churches these days see the relationship with God as a romance with deep emotional roots. Those involved in a romantic relationship, however, are usually oblivious of what is going on around them. Programs that occupy the worship hour do not constitute a community. True worship services are the only ones capable of fulfilling this function. Choruses and songs with religious themes that appeal to the emotions of individuals only reinforce the isolation of the person. Contemporary services do not quench everyone’s thirst for being incorporated in a community. Many have discovered that egotistical preoccupation with one’s salvation and religious programs that manipulate the emotions make one leave the church feeling a great vacuum. The thirst many took to church to be quenched in communion with God and with the neighbor lingers as they realize that instead of a fountain the church service turned out to be a dry cistern.
No doubt, there are churches whose worship services create a community that worships God, rather than providing a conglomerate of individuals some personal satisfactions with anecdotes, and wise-cracks that entertain. Communal worship distinguishes itself by centering attention on the object of our worship. The direction of true worship is from below upwards; it is not horizontal, nor from above downwards. The worshippers who create community come to offer themselves in gratitude for the gifts already received. The community that has worshipped God can afterwards attend to the necessities of daily living.
Ever since the dissolution of community life at the urban barrios, each generation has been trying to re-create community. World War II veterans and boomers failed in the suburbs. The flower children failed in the wilderness. Recently the search is in the small villages and evanescent mega-churches. It would appear that, by en large, the Christian church has been chasing after these trends rather than being the primary provider of the psychological needs for community.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1893