Building community

I read in an article on the New York Times website about recent polling data from Morning Consult that found 58 percent of American adults feel lonely. The study not only showed current polling data, but also compared results from previous studies. Among other information in the study is data showing that young adults are twice as likely to be lonely as seniors. 42% of young adults aged 18 to 24 report always feeling left out, compared to just 16% of people aged 55 or older.

Reading a single article about data obtained from polling does not make me an expert, but as I read and interpret the data, I see a direct correlation between feelings of loneliness and the decline in participation in church. Back when I was actively working as a senior minister, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a survey that found that hose who attended religious services more than once a week had a 33 percent lower mortality risk compared to those who never attended. In that study, it didn’t matter which religion. Longevity benefits came from different religions. It has been a while since I read that data, but my memory is that the health benefits came not from a particular set of beliefs, but rather from regular participation in a community.

As participation in religion continues to decline and churches around the world experience fewer and fewer regular participants, there is a marked decline in community. No other social institution is emerging to replace religion as a major source of community. I am not aware of data that directly links religious practice with loneliness, but the demographics show that a connection is likely. The population of most churches is decidedly older than that of the cities in which they are located.

The decline in community participation was exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. When the pandemic temporarily closed in-person services, people turned to social media to attend worship. A significant number of people who stopped attending religious services during the pandemic have not returned to regular in person attendance. Average attendance has not recovered. Many churches continue to offer online worship. Despite significant investments in equipment and infrastructure to support online worship, the church continues to decline in participation and membership.

I am convinced that there is a direct relationship between the decline in participation in churches and the increase in loneliness and its affects on individual and communal health. We are experiencing a failure of community.

When illness or travel result in my missing weekly attendance at church people miss me and I know that this is the case. I feel a sense of obligation about weekly worship attendance. Of course, for most of my life that obligation has been specifically related to my employment. As a church leader, showing up was part of my job. I know, however, that when my current job concludes this summer the sense of obligation will continue. If I decide to stay home from worship on a Sunday, I know that there will be people who will miss me. I know that because there are others who I miss when they do not attend worship.

Knowing that one will be missed creates a sense of obligation. Meeting that obligation creates a sense of community. The cost of freedom from obligation is a lack of community. Obligation is not optional. You think twice before opting out. There is a lot of popular talk about setting boundaries and decreasing a sense of obligation. I hear over an over about people decreasing participation in church in the name of setting boundaries and being more efficient in the use of their time. In the long run, however, the communities and people to whom we commit ourselves play a central role in what gives our lives joy and meaning. It is perhaps counterintuitive to some people, but there is a cost to the freedom from the obligation to participate regularly in worship and that cost is a decrease in joy. The failure of community has a direct impact on the health and well being of individuals. Loneliness has become epidemic.

I am not saying that becoming a member of a church solves all problems of loneliness. There is a big difference in the way younger people participate in churches from that of older members. Younger church members, including younger clergy, are far less likely to involve their entire families in church. Throughout my career there was a strong sense of obligation for my family to participate in the congregations I served. We rarely see the spouses of the other clergy in our church attend worship. Clergy are taught to create boundaries between their personal lives and the congregations they serve. Younger church members are less likely to attend worship weekly, opting for less frequent participation. That combined with the fact that they are more likely to attend alone instead of as a part of a family results in feeling less connected to the community. They don’t sense the obligation that I have experienced. They also don’t experience the support of the community in the same way that has been critical to my life and well being.

I understand that the world has changed. The pressures on young people are very different from those I experienced. I am in no position to tell others how to live their lives. I am, however, concerned about the lack of community in the lives of many of today’s young people. They may feel less obligation, but they also feel less joy and fulfillment that comes from participation in a community. I don’t know how the church should be responding, but I do hold a strong conviction that the church needs to continue to be there for each generation. Forming and sustaining community is an essential task of the church in every generation. The decline of the contemporary church represents a failure of community. And, as research has demonstrated the failure of community results in declines in health and well being.

I plan to keep the obligation. I’ll continue to attend worship in person. It is not only good for me, but also for the others with whom I worship. We belong to each other and that creates obligation. It also creates community.

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