Only the Lonely

Broadcast religion cannot offer the depth
and multidimensional experience of faith communities in local
(I am posting a series of thoughts on the disengagement of the mainline denominations from mainstream media over the past thirty years that results in the absence of the mainline voice from the public dialogue. This is the sixth installment.)

As the society began to move toward a more media-driven lifestyle, people also began to experience atomization (individual isolation) and dislocation. Dr. Stewart Hoover of the University of Colorado wrote in 1988, “Robert Bellah’s studies of contemporary meaning and values identify an anomie and thirst for communities of meaning even in ‘secularized’ classes and social groups.”

After the tumult of the sixties–civil rights, the war in Vietnam, student protests–many people felt their world and the values of the civil society were coming unglued. This was followed by layoffs and re-structuring in basic industries which evolved, in turn, into the de-industrialization of the U.S. economy. These were (and are) unsettling times.

Hoover says for some, a minority to be sure, the electronic church under the management of television evangelists served a unifying, stabilizing function even if it did not serve up community in the face-to-face traditional sense.

Thus, it’s unfortunate that as media were contributing to isolation and loss of community, the mainline denominations, whose strength is inclusive community and social justice, were withdrawing from public engagement. Whether intentional or not, the mainline churches handed the public dialogue, and the opportunities for ministry with various audiences, over to the most vociferous and pungent right-wing religious broadcasters.

Religious broadcasters may offer balm when people feel aggrieved but Hoover says they don’t offer community, at least not in the same direct, personal way of faith communities. The limits of the broadcast medium also limit the personal interaction that is a strength of faith communities in local congregations. Televised religion, by the nature of the medium, is not as multidimensional and personal.

Mainline denominations offer more. They offer a body of knowledge (faith and values) and face-to-face community with outlets for creative action. In a consumer society that reduces us to individual wants and needs, the mainline claim is that Christian faith is about more than being a mere consumer. Life can be more than the passive experience of disconnected individuals sitting in front of a flickering screen. The life of faith is an invitation to live fully and to engage with others. It’s about fullness and wholeness in community. It doesn’t have to be existing as if we are only the lonely.

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