Saturday, October 25, 2014

Churching Alone: The Collapse of American Churches

In 2000, an important book was published. Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Since the founding of America, we as a nation have always emphasized the importance of a strong and active civil society to the consolidation and perpetuation of democracy. When Thomas Paine wrote "Common Sense" before the American Revolution, people grabbed up his pamphlet and brought it to the tavern to discuss. Taverns and public squares were abuzz with discussions of ideas, concepts, philosophies. A robust public conversation with personal engagement among neighbors was the foundation of democracy.

I grew up in Rhode Island, the 13th state in the American Colonies, a place where there are more pre-colonial buildings still standing than anywhere else in the US. The first American Jewish synagogue is in Newport. (Touro). The first Baptist church is in Newport. A letter written in 1790 from George Washington to the RI Hebrew Congregation, assuring them, citizens of a newly independent United States, of tolerance and freedom of religion. Washington wrote,
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
But back to the old days. Men discussed ideas together in public spaces- taverns, the town square, the general store, front porches. They argued, persuaded, they met, they wrestled with ideas and formed community. It was that wrestling and knitting that made us strong enough as a collective of disparate farmers, millworkers, sailors, and the like, to dare to poke the eye of the mighty United Kingdom, and fight for freedom, including freedom to assemble and freedom to worship.

In this paper, the Daily Life of the American Colonies: The Role of the Tavern in Society Noon Inn Barroom, we learn of the importance of a citizenry discussing ideas together,
In the century or so leading up to the Revolution, colonial taverns and inns were an essential part of the community. Horses need frequent rests, travel by coach and horseback were far from comfortable. In Massachusetts on the roads leading to Boston, taverns and inns were spaced about every eight miles, which worked out to a reasonable journey in the winter cold before a person needed to warm up, inside and out.

The main reason for the importance of the colonial era tavern was as a social hub. Issues of the day were discussed and hammered out here, in fact, often in official settings. The City Tavern in Philadelphia, was the site of the first continental congress. The Virginia legislature met in the taverns of Williamsburg. And the initial investigations of the Salem Witch trials were supposed to be held at Ingersoll’s ordinary, [a name for a small tavern] though it was in the end was too small for the crowds.

To the common man, the tavern was where you learned the current prices for your cash crops. It was where you could find a newspaper, often read aloud for those who couldn’t read. It’s where local issues were debated and local governments met. The colonial era tavern was the link to the outer world for those in rural areas, and a place where you could meet your neighbors for conversation, games and diversion.

Entertainment included gambling; on horse racing, cockfights as well as cards. Actually the colonists were known to gamble on almost anything, including guessing the weight of pigs, a practice eventually outlawed on Long Island as it led to too many fights. The tavern also served as courthouse, where you learned of new business opportunities and worked out trades with your neighbors.

The tavern also served as post office. Originally the practice was to put your posts on a table, which travelers would then take along the route with them. It was commonly accepted that the travelers had the right to read your mail, providing a bit of entertainment along the way. Mail arrived in the community in the same way that it left, eventually becoming more organized and efficient.

In addition, recruitment and deployment of the militia took place in the taverns. Prior to the battle of Lexington, the militia organized and fortified themselves at Buckman’s tavern, before marching out onto the Lexington Green and into the history books.
In Newport RI, where our family would often drive on a Sunday, the White Horse Tavern still stands. It was constructed before 1673, is one of the oldest tavern buildings in the United States. It is located on the corner of Farewell and Marlborough streets in Newport. We used to eat brunch there. I'd sit in one of the many small rooms, with small fireplace blazing, hardwood floors and ladderback wooden chairs, and wonder about the Colonists who lifted a tankard in debate as to whether to separate from England.

In Wikipedia it is stated,
“In the first half of the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville had observations about American life that seemed to outline and define social capital. He observed that Americans were prone to meeting at as many gatherings as possible to discuss all possible issues of state, economics, or the world that could be witnessed. The high levels of transparency caused greater participation from the people and thus allowed for democracy to work better.”

White Horse Tavern, Newport, in 2009. Wikipedia
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42 KJV)

If the foundation of a democracy was forged by citizens together in community, discussing things of import, ideas traded, dispensed with, held onto; how much more should those behaviors be replicated in the church? Where do the community of Christ's members gather, discuss, flesh out biblical ideas, knit ourselves together in His name? Where are the robust discussions, healthy praises to Jesus, songs and fellowship? Because it's not in church. And increasingly, it's not in homes, either. Forget the public square, if a gathering occurs, say at Cracker Barrel, the talk is rarely biblical. Other times, Christians are prevented from speaking of Jesus in public.
Public domain

Corporate worship is extremely important. In this sermon by Phil Johnson called A Foretaste of Glory Divine. Pastor Johnson explains the verse from Psalm 122.
Notice the plural pronouns in the first two verses: "I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD." Our feet are standing Within your gates, O Jerusalem." One of the distinctive joys David is writing about here is the corporate nature of this worship experience. He had spent much of his youth alone on the hills tending sheep and meditating on the truth of God in solitude and that's certainly a good and valid exercise. But it cannot take the place of fellowship and public worship with the multitude of God's people. That is why the feasts were so important in Israel. Verse 4: "The tribes go up, even the tribes of the LORD--An ordinance for Israel--To give thanks to the name of the LORD."
And,
There's a sanctifying influence in the gathering of believers that you will not benefit from if you think watching a church service on TV or streaming church on the Internet is a valid substitute for real live participation in the public worship of God's people. Hebrews 10:24-25: "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
There are two problems in today's 'churching alone' era. One is that people increasingly satisfied to stay at home and watch someone on TV or streamed online. The second and the greater problem is that when people do attend church for any reason at any function, rare is the talk of doctrine. We might sing some 'me-oriented' songs, listen to a (too-short/self-help/topical) sermon. And then when the last 'Amen' is said, people are out the doors, never to speak of Jesus again until next week.

When believers gather these days, too often it is not really to worship God but merely to entertain one another. ~Phil Johnson
What are we losing by 'churching alone'? What are the effects on the church when its members forgo social intercourse, fellowship, and good discussions and praises to the Lord? Wikipedia summarizes Putnam's book,
Putnam surveys the decline of "social capital" in the United States since 1950. He has described the reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans used to found, educate, and enrich the fabric of their social lives. He believes this undermines the active civil engagement which a strong democracy requires from its citizens.
iPhone wallpaper
When we 'church alone,' whether at home or alone as an island at church, our biblical lives are not enriched. When we are not educated in biblical literacy, we weaken. When we are weak, the scarlet thread of our lives that should be evident when we gather with others isn't connected. And the Preacher said in Ecclesiastes 4:12,

And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

If Putnam's notion of social capital is an investment in social relations with expected returns in the marketplace, then in the church world, social capital is investment in spiritual-social relations with expected returns in the church. In Acts 2 we see the priority of fellowship, and along with that came praise for the Lord. (Acts 5:42)

It seems clear that the more we meet in His name, breaking bread, having fellowship, and discussing His doctrine, then the more we have glad hearts, generous spirits, and praise for Jesus on our lips. It stands to reason that the opposite is true too; less we get together, the fewer times we discuss His doctrines, break bread, and have glad hearts, and thus we praise Him and proclaim Him less.

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, (Acts 2:46)

And truth be told, if we do get together, how often do we really discuss His doctrines as the verse in Acts 2:42 states the first church did? Not a lot.

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)
Yet personal engagement at an all-time low. The previous networking availabilities in church, such a personal visits, dinners on the ground, home gatherings, have gone the way of the dinosaur. People don’t do that anymore. We do not 'continually devote ourselves to... fellowship.'

More often than not, the way this generation engages today is via social media online. Visiting in person is a relic from the past.

What do colonial times in the 1770s to 1800 have to do with today's church? Cut to 100 years later, the 1900s. There was still a public square. Before television, before the internet, people sat and talked. They had coffee. They visited. They had Sunday suppers. They sat by the pot bellied stove at the feed store and talked. People played bridge, gathered for parties, told stories. They discoursed.

The iconic Andy Griffith show reflected this reality- front porch sitting was a favored past time.
It was a time when people were invested in each other's lives. They know when someone wasn't feeling well. Or wasn't themselves. They knew when someone was struggling. They celebrated victories and pitched in during hard times.

We have lost that.

We're "crazy busy" now.

Yet the youngsters don’t know any other way of engaging except what they see online or through their parents or other trusted adults. They think fellowship is gathering at a google hangout.

I'm not saying anything that is unknown to anyone living in the year 2014. It's old news that we do not socialize anymore. Here is the new news. New, at least to me.

We are forgetting HOW to socialize.

The influence of personal cellphones and texting have infiltrated our psyche to the extent that front porch sitting, passing the time, just being with someone is a lost art.

If people socialize at all in person now, it includes a phone interruptions and texting, looking at email, or a myriad of other things that distract from looking fully into someone's eyes and listening to what they are saying with full attention.


This is my favorite episode from Andy Griffith. A business man in a hurry breaks down in Mayberry on a Sunday. Initially chafing at the slow pace of life and the almost uniform commitment by its inhabitants to the priority of fellowship on the Lord's Day, the man eventually succumbs to the love shown to him- and he slows down.

Will you visit someone this week? Will you sing with them, or speak of the glories of our savior, or read the bible together? Will you linger at church for a while afterward and praise the sermon and flesh out some of its points- coming to happy agreement with a fellow believer? Let us not "church alone." The foretaste of glory divine Mr Johnson was preaching on is the corporate gathering of believers on earth being the glad foretaste of the gathering in praise of all of history's saints at the end of time. What a true foretaste- glorying in the Lord together, never alone forevermore.

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Genesis 2:18)




Man in a Hurry- full episode

5 comments :

  1. Our pastorsaid he doesnt believe all Muslims are radical..your thoughts ?

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    1. This essay is about churching alone. Your thoughts?

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  2. Great post and delightful episode, Elizabeth! I just watched the whole thing. Great way to wind down. I have been learning the importance of slowing down lately. All of the hurrying can't be good for our souls.

    Melissa

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    1. great, Melissa! I love that episode. So glad you took me up on the offer to watch.

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  3. What a well written commentary on the current state of affairs in the church and also society at large. A few years ago, I saw a scene that epitomized this disconnect in society. Three women were sitting in a car in a parking lot - they appeared to be a grandmother, mother, and teenage daughter. Each one of them was so glued to their electronic item of choice, that they were not even communicating with each other. I stood and watched them for a while, to see if they would put down their respective e-devices and interact, to no avail. As I left, they were still bereft of human-to-human contact.

    It is sad that this level of worldliness has entered, and in some cases pervaded, the church. The truth of the matter is we believers NEED each other. As you said, in the book of Acts, the early church gathered daily. Yet today, we are all so Burdened Under Satan's Yoke (B.U.S.Y.) that we are like ships passing in the night, with no more than a "Hi, how are you?", "Good, you?", "Good", exchange for 20 seconds before or after service.

    1 John 4
    No one has seen God at any time ; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

    I look forward to the day when I can fellowship face to face with you, Elizabeth, as well as with the other believers who frequent your blog, as geography currently keeps us parted. It is nice to be able to communicate online, and meet believers that I ordinarily would not meet in my day to day life, but nothing beats truly being present in each others lives. May the Lord hasten that day, when we are all with Him, and all together at last, forever.

    -Carolyn

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