Monday, May 26, 2008

The Disconnected Society

"The tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work [is] … a land full of places that are not worth caring about [and] will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending."
-James Kunstler
Last night my wife and I watched an interesting documentary entitled Radiant City where film crews follow around some families who live in the suburbs so as to understand why they have chosen to live massive distances from the rest of civilization and gigantic "cookie-cutter" neighborhoods. When I delivered pizzas in Peoria, AZ, the only places I delivered to were these prefabricated, giant housing pods where all the houses looked the same. It was spiritually draining just being there and seeing the lack of character, identity, and history in these communities.

Now, the film was clearly in opposition to what it depicted as "artificial" communities. As one of the film's interviewees pointed out about the use of the term "community" for these places; according to them, a community is a gathering of people who come together to share commonalities, but as it is, the suburbs are "giant groups of identical houses where no one has to ever see or meet another person if they don't want to."

This leads to the real point of all this I want to reflect on, and that is what the sprawl opponents term "social capital." In sociology, social capital refers to the interconnections within and between social networks. It's what links people together even though they have little in common. In the case of towns and small communities, this could best be illustrated by a family playing on the lawn and having a casual conversation with a passing neighbor who is out for a walk. Here are people who have little to nothing in common being, nonetheless, brought together, even if only briefly.

With urban sprawl, people can go out for walks, but the housing is designed so that the familial interactions take place in the backyard, away from society. Every place must be commuted to by car instead of by foot, and so you see that opportunities for social capital are squandered.

What this all comes down to is the disconnectedness of our society. Hear me out before I start sounding like a nostalgic old-timer:

-Urban sprawl is leaving our society disconnected from one-another.
-Text messaging and cell phones separate people from holistic interactions, creating the illusion of community.
-The internet is substituting for real interactions between people (face-to-face conversations are becoming passe and outdated, aren't they?).
-Television and movies in our own homes prevents us from meeting people in more meaningful ways.

As I was watching this documentary with my wife (which only addressed the issue of suburban sprawl, not the other things I just mentioned above), I turned to her and said, "if these communities are all supposed to be perfect and ideal, what kind of churches are being built for them to go to?

The answer is, instead of building small churches for these subdivisions of houses, what has happened is, each suburb has a gigantic mega-church within driving distance (at least the ones in Phoenix that I'm familiar with did). Now, with all this complaining about social capital being squandered, it would seem, prima facie that the maximum opportunity for people to interact is being provided on Sundays at these mega churches. However, the opposite is happening. After all, one of my simultaneously favorite and also least-favorite things about mega churches is the anonymity they provide. When i lived in Phoenix, I went to mega churches occasionally before I found a PCA church to attend. One of the loneliest and most ironic experiences is entering a gigantic church where communion with one another as well as with God is supposed to happen and actually finding a more anonymous experience than entering a darkened theater to watch the latest blockbuster.

The reason these anonymous mega-churches are finding success is because of the disconnected populations which they appeal to. Their "customers" (isn't that how they think of their attendees?) want to go to church, but do not want the social accountability that the small community requires of them. They want a passive experience which they do not have to contribute to if they so desire. And, most importantly, they want non-invasive sermons so that they do not have to change or grow in sanctification if they do not so desire. These sermons should help them to get through the week, but should not challenge them in any deep or difficult way.

I do think the church is in a unique position to be the melding point of different social segments, and that means that if our churches provide sound teaching and social interactions between its members, then we can fight to reverse the trend of disconnectedness by intentionally meeting others face to face and challenging our brethren. I don't have a lot of answers, because I'm not a sociologist, and also because I'm better at complaining than I am at being part of the solution.


  1. I agree with what you said about Mega churches. The more people in the church the less likely you are to get to know anyone there. But I think the situation is more complicated than physical disconnection.

    Take for instance the broken down car dilemma. Studies have shown that when a person's car breaks down in an area where few people are likely to see them, (such as on a deserted country road - an area in which one is physically disconnected from others) the likelihood that someone will help them is high, whereas if someone breaks down in a highly populated area (such as a busy free way in Phoenix - a place you would think qualifies as an area in which there is no real physical disconnection) the liklihood that someone will stop to help them is extremely low. Why is this? On the deserted road, the person driving by realizes that he might be the only one that could help this person. So he stops. He feels a sort of sense of duty to help, and the duty is amplified and made personal to him by the seemingly low liklihood that anyone else will help. (This is ironic, because in fact he believes the liklihood is low, but the fact that everyone who drives by feels that the liklihood is low actually makes it high and his help is needed less!)

    Wheras in a busy area, if the broken down car is even noticed, the person driving by still says to himself "this area is really busy -somone else will help him. " Because everyone driving by has the same assumption no one ends up helping. The person on the road frequented by 50,000 cars ends up being less likly to find help than the person on the road frequented by 50.

    The same thing goes for churches. If you go to a small church, generally the individuals in the small church are likly to greet you, befriend you, and welcome you into the community because they realize how small the community is and know that if they don't do it it won't get done. In the mega church, the attendees not only are unlikely to ever notice you, or know that you are new, but even if they knew it they would be likly to assume that someone else is going to greet you and befriend you. You end up being alone in a crowd.

    So I agree with a lot of what you said Adam. However, I think it's not as simple as personal interaction. The individuals in church are sitting right next to each other. They aren't seperated by car doors or cubicles. The individuals walking to the subway in new york who walk by the homeless person begging on the street walk right by him. Out in the open just like everyone else. The stood only 2 feet from him while waiting in line for the subway. There's no seperation there except in their mind. There's no physical disconnection at all! You could probably tell how long it's been since he's had a shower if you bothered to pay attention.

    But it wouldn't be quite right to say there's no disconnection ther, now would it. There is no physical disconnection. How is a seperation created then? It's created because of the overwhelming number of other people around. We hide in our numbers. We use the size of the "community" that we believe we are part of to justify avoiding the very community that we delude ourselves into believing we are a part of. The individual sitting in church doesn't hide behind the fact that he nevers sees the new attendee when he sits right next to him in the pew. Of course he sees him. Their legs are touching cause the pew is so crowded! He just pretends that both he and this other individual are part of this big blob of people. He acts like there is no seperation and the lack of seperation eliminates the need to interact. There seems to be no need for interaction when there is no physical disconnection... (but ironically the fact that there is no need means no one will interact, which in turn means that there is a GREAT NEED for interaction. Just as there is a great need for someone to stop and help the individual broken down on the busy Pheonix freeway because the liklihood somone will stop and help him is so low!)

    Complete irony. It's not the disconnectedness that's the problem. It's the connectedness! The connectedness fosters the seperation. These suburban houses are built almost on top of one another. There's only 4 feet of space between the houses. You can hear everything your neighbor does in his backyard and in his house, even! And yet you've never met him.

    But somehow the farmer who lives 3 miles from his nearest neighbor knows all of his neighbors and has them over dinner regularly. But isn't the farmer more disconnected from his neighbor? That's exactly right! He's disconnected physically, which creates in him the realization of his disconnection and raises in him a desire to elimimnate this disconnection. The opposite is true of the individual surrounded by millions of people living in close proximity. He is aware of the close physical proximity. Of the absence of disconnection, and so he does everything he possibly can to convince himself of disconnection.

    The place that needs community the most, is the community that seems to need it the least.

  2. This is a great post. i never intended to fall on this christian blog even though i am christian as i was googling disconnectedness and trying to find a solution. not necessarily for myself, though i think we all feel it, but to try and help society in general. as i write this comment and in respect to the above two pieces above, i hope that whoever reads this finds the solution into reaching out. whether its to God, your mum, brother, or friend or beggar, just do it. if you still doubt you are alive, take a pin and prick yourself and watch the blood pop out. then lick it and realise this is the stuff that makes you live. we all go through disconnectedness and as technology shapes us as humans even more so. but the secret is to know the truth. if you know the truth. all the technology in the world cannot distort you. if you want to know where to start finding the truth, start making a determined effort to look for it everyday instead of being complacent about it. finding truth seek effort. life as we know it is made up of doing the usual. spouse, kids, nursing home death. But if you are constantly seeking the truth, then it is yours and noone elses. and it will strengthen your identity and who you are. ok enough talk. do it. if you care enough about yourself. find your truth. and if you have to ask where do i start, then only you know the answer. you can do it. you owe it to yourself.


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