Every year we have a new group of people on the stewardship committee that are ecstatic when we tell them that 10-12% of the pledge campaign comes from families that have never pledged before. And they are crestfallen when our financial secretary informs them that about 10% of the congregation has moved.
It is the curse of living in prosperous suburbs, where people move primarily for vocational opportunity. Few of them make a lifelong commitment to place, although they love living in our town while they are here. They love the education for their children, the vital sports programs their kids get involved in. They love the block parties and the dinner parties that they have with incredibly interesting people from all over the world.
But when economic opportunity presents itself, they usually move. Either they have a well thought out retirement plan in Florida or South Carolina that will dramatically reduce their cost of living or they move downtown because they can afford to do whatever they like, and they want to live with all of the cultural opportunities that urban life can offer.
During Covid, a decent group of them have returned to worship with us on-line, so I hear from them regularly. All of them report that they are happy and prospering. But they have two recurring complaints. First, almost all of them report that they have never been able to find another church. Sure, they have visited other places and some of them have even attended one church for a year or so. But all of them complain ‘it’s not the same’. They just do not have the same sense of belonging that makes all of the eccentricities of our particular form of worship so endearing.
And secondly, they complain that they are lonely. They just do not see that many other people. It is odd that you can live in a major urban city like New York, constantly surrounded by people, but feel lonely at the same time because you do not have many actual friendships with people that live around you. They still have family. They still have colleagues from work and friends they went to college and grad school with. But week in and week out, they do not have people over for dinner that they can really share their lives with. They miss the deeper friendships that they had with other people from our church.
I am reading “Together”, written by Vivek Murthy, who served as the Surgeon General in the Obama Administration. When he first assumed his duties, he took his staff on a country wide tour to listen to different groups of people, so they could establish a list of social medical issues that were confronting the country. What did he discover was the number one health issue in our country now? Loneliness.
Murthy, who was educated at Harvard and Yale Med School, did what good graduate students do when faced with an unexpected problem to solve, and began to immerse himself in the literature around social connection and loneliness. A decade later, his conclusions echo God’s pronouncement at Creation, “It is not good for humans to be alone.”
There are two things that strike me listening to people describe their loneliness. The first is that so many of their relationships in adulthood have been transactional. They make friends with other people that are their age and have kids that are the same age as their children, and they develop a social network that way. It works very well. Alas, it is not easy to replicate once your children are grown and remarkably few of these relationships last much beyond the graduation of your children.
Secondly, almost all of them develop their deepest friendships with people that they meet through the church and few of them expected that to happen as young adults. It is something about service, faith, praying for each other, and the experience of worship that invites them to zoom out and reflect on the bigger picture. So our dinner parties together are more likely to engage each other around the values that we share and how we want to give back and live a life of significance.
After years of sharing like that, you find yourself engaged in more substantive relationships. You have a deeper sense of connection and belonging. When people move, I think they overestimate how easy it will be to stay in touch with the people that they have gotten to know through the church, and they underestimate how much time and effort it takes to develop these relationships to begin with. And the older we get the harder they are to replicate.
Dr. Murthi says that whole culture is broadly evolving in ways that unintentionally let real community atrophy. Thanks to advances in transportation, it is easier to visit our families, but more of us live farther away from them than ever. We can order on-line and have things delivered to home, but we are far more likely to watch movies alone and our children are spending more time than ever playing games in cyberspace rather than engaging in face-to face interactions with their peers.
Just a decade ago, the Mayor of my town told me that he heard mostly from the residents at the grocery store. He told me he was going to write a paper entitled, “Could I have a moment of your time?” He complained that a moment meant 10 minutes, but it is true that we had so many casual encounters at these common markets, and these were the places that gave us that sense of ‘belonging’ that Dr. Murthi says is eroding all across our land.
The good news for churches is that the community building piece of what we do is more important than ever. The ‘Beloved Community’ as John so poignantly calls it, is more precious than ever.
During the Covid pandemic, more and more people have taken stock of their lives and decided to make chapter turning changes. We have had a record turnover as young couples living downtown craved the space of suburban living, pushing up housing prices, so that more suburban people could move. Only this time, more people that moved decided to join their parents or their siblings and reconnect with their people daily.
I suspect we will witness a sustained trend in that direction as more research is produced on how we find real community grounding that gives us deeper meaning. Never mind that the New Testament described this in the post-resurrection stories two thousand years ago. It must be learned again by every generation.