The Challenge of Social Isolation to Christian Understanding of Community

The General Social Survey which tracks core
discussion groups and the social networks through which we relate indicates
we’re more isolated than ever.

The number
of people
saying there
is no one
with whom
they discuss
important
matters
has nearly
tripled.
–General
Social Survey

The bowling alone syndrome may be growing according to the General Social Survey. The survey measures the “core discussion groups” Americans use. Simply put, it measures with whom we talk–family and friends–and it identifies the social networks in which our conversations take place. It was first conducted in 1985.

Based on this year’s research, it appears we’re more isolated than ever. The researchers who conducted the report say it’s possible something fundamental is changing in the culture. They hedge a bit in identifying what this change may be, or what it foretells.

They suggest that new communications technologies may allow us to expand the reach of our conversations, but caution that this doesn’t necessarily result in the same depth of relationship that comes with face-to-face contact.

We really don’t reach out and touch someone through Internet or cellphone contact in the same way we do when we sit together around the same table.

This presents communicators with a dilemma. How does technology encourage or discourage community? Are we, in fact, undermining community when we implant technology into communities that have relied upon personal contact for communication? This becomes more than a conundrum as we seek answers to the questions raised by this survey.

Given the reality of pervasive media, the demand is put to us to determine how we can utilize media to foster community. When The United Methodist Church began its outreach effort known as Igniting Ministry, which was a training initiative coupled with television and radio advertising, the perception in the church was that the advertising component was the defining element. It isn’t.

The key to Igniting Ministry is how it prepares a congregation to review its life together and become a more welcoming and hospitable community. The Christian tradition teaches that we are created to be in relationship. We are created for community. I believe it was from Neil Alexander of The United Methodist Publishing House that I first heard the phrase, “We belong to God, and to each other.”

The key to meaning in our lives, we believe, is to experience relationship with the Creator and with our brothers and sisters through the mediation of Jesus whose teachings and self-sacrifice reveal the depth of relationship a loving God seeks to have with us.

Through this unique relationship we find meaning. We discover who we are and how we can most meaningfully experience life. Outside of that experience, Christian teaching says we are incomplete.

Some have made individualism a cardinal principle of their values. Following the formative philosophy of John Locke, they see individualsm as the highest state of human existence.

But, I think Augustine’s thought that sin is the state of separation from God is more descriptive and accurate. Sin is a state of unrealized community with God.

How does this get into a blog about media and culture? I think in this way: When major media are placed at the disposal of commercial interests, they serve the function of separating us. In the hands of those who want to sell us goods and services, they are merely tools for commercial enterprise.

The most effective way to sell to us is to focus on our individual needs and concentrate on creating desire for those products and services. This inevitably involves a process of indivualization; emphasizing our individualism to a degree that isolates us and leaves us alone in the world. This is the state of unrestrained individualism.

Ironically (perhaps) some of the more popular television programming targeted toward young adults who have grown up in this culture are those programs that provide a facade of community–the recently expired Friends, Sex in the City, and Will and Grace, for example. I think Marshall McLuhan said when something is no longer relevant, we turn it into an art form. (And if he didn’t say, he should have.)

Thus, the loss of community as a vital function is honored through the art form of television, perhaps providing us some consolation as we sit alone watching the artifice of community on the screen.

What this says to the Christian community is more complicated than we tend to consider. The mainline denominations, for example, concentrate on their loss of membership as if what were at stake, and most important, is the survival of the organizational church. In fact, what is at stake is the spiritual condition of people who exist outside a community of support and outside a relationship to the Creator and other human beings. What is at stake is the human community and a full understanding of what it means to be human.

Viewed in this light, membership statistics pale in importance, don’t they? The challenge is not merely to bring new members into the church for the sake of the survival of the organization. The challenge is to create community in which people are assisted to comprehend that their destiny is to be related to each other, the Creation and a loving God. How we use media is fundamentally a theological concern.

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