On the secular importance of the church

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When the Pew Research Center conducted its most recent study on the religious landscape in 2014, it found that while 76% of adults in the Chicago metro area considered religion at least somewhat important in their lives, only 29% said they had attended a church service at least once. one week.

Pew found that while the percentages of adults who say they believe in God, pray daily, and attend church services regularly have declined only modestly in recent years, this modest drop was due significantly to “no’s.”

The “nones” are “the growing minority of Americans, especially in the millennial generation, who say they do not belong to any organized religion.”

“Nones” made up 23% of the adult population in the United States in 2014, up from 16% in 2007, according to Pew.

“And, as the ‘nuns’ grew in stature, they also became even less observant than they were when the original Religious Landscape Study was conducted in 2007,” Pew officials wrote. “The growth of ‘nuns’ as a share of the population, coupled with their declining levels of religious observance, is pulling down the overall rates of religious belief and practice in the country. ”

This decline in religious observance has resulted in a shift in the Catholic landscape in Oak Park, with all four parishes in the village undergoing readjustments intended to cope with declining church attendance and the many challenges that decline brings.

I address this social reality from the narrator’s point of view in Philip Larkin’s 1954 poem “Church Going,” who can never resist the urge to stop inside an empty place of worship and to ask “when churches fall completely out of use, what will we turn them into?”

When churches become obsolete, we should all worry no matter what we believe or if we believe. This is because religious spaces (and I will refer to the Christian church, in particular, since this is the one I know best) are in fact important binding agents in the civic glue that holds our secular society together. At best, churches, the black church in particular, have helped build American democracy.

As political scientist Robert D. Putnam wrote 20 years ago in his famous book Bowling Alone: ​​The Collapse and Renewal of the American Community, churches are one of those places that help build social capital, which Putnam defines as the “connections between the social networks of individuals and the standards of reciprocity and reliability that flow from them.”

In Change: How to make great things happen, communications specialist Damon Centola takes issue with some of the received opinions we have on social media in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. While social networks are dominant, real social networks are unraveling.

As Centola writes, social networks are fundamentally the totality of people’s relationships, which may and may not (more likely not) be the same as Facebook friendships.

Networks “include everyone we talk to, collaborate with, live nearby and research,” Centola writes. “Our personal network constitutes our social world.

If we want to do more than just make a dance on TikTok go viral, if we want to create a movement to protect voting rights, for example, we have to rely on what Centola calls strong link networks, as opposed to link networks. weak. .

“The geometry of weak-link networks looks a lot like fireworks,” writes the author. “Each person is at the epicenter of their own ‘explosion’, and their weak ties are stretching haphazardly in all directions. Each tie jumps to a different place, sometimes far away. There is very little social redundancy in weak ties. These people tend not to be connected to each other.

“The geometry of the strong link networks is more like a fishing net,” he adds. “These networks look like a nested sequence of triangles and rectangles. This model, often referred to as clustering of networks, is distinguished by its abundance of social redundancy. People are connected to each other.

The Black Church, working in tandem with other civic liaison officers like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), is what created the strong bond networks responsible for the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks “was effective because she was not alone,” writes Centola, echoing Putnam. “She was part of a large social network of citizens who were coordinating their efforts to protest segregation in the southern United States.”

For example, before she rose to fame for sitting on a bus (an act that ultimately paved the way for the massive misconception of Parks as a simple, tired-footed maid who was passively squeezed into the story), she was one of the best sex in the NAACP. assault investigators.

Twelve years before the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Parks worked to investigate cases of black men falsely accused of rape – a common pretext for lynching – and blacks sexually assaulted by whites.

Historian Danielle L. McGuire documents this overlooked aspect of Parks’ biography in Down the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – A New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.

Too often, when we discover historical figures and successful people, their social networks are obscured. We tend to see them as if they have sprung fully formed into the world. But that’s not how change works in reality, says Centola.

“Social networks are the lifeblood of the coordination that allows a large number of ordinary people from all walks of life to act together,” he writes. “When people act as a coordinated whole, then the action of any person – that of Rosa Parks, for example – carries with it a mass of anonymous people. This is how revolutions are started.

So, as Centola explains, if we are to see how change really works, the first step is to ‘stop looking for the people in the network and instead start looking for the places. ”

Places like Holt Street Baptist Church, where King and other local leaders of the time met to strategize and organize the Montgomery bus boycott. Today, the historic church is unfortunately abandoned.

When I think of our current church attendance crisis, I think of my own church, a Maywood Baptist congregation that is going through its own challenges.

As in the Catholic parishes of Oak Park, membership is declining. Our pastor in his fifties passed away a few years ago. Next weekend, we will be responsible for selecting his permanent successor. I do not attend services very regularly, so I decided to withdraw from the vote (we will choose one candidate from five finalists).

However, I still consider myself a member. This church, after all, was where I grew up, where I was raised, and where I developed.

Sunday was a production, from morning until late in the evening, where I often fell asleep on the benches, often to the sound of the preaching of my relatives (my grandfather, my stepfather, my grandmother and a great aunt were all ministers, assigned on a rotating schedule, to deliver a sermonette on any given evening).

Prior to these late night Vespers services, as they were called, a small group of us would come together for what was called the Baptist Training Union or BTU, for short. It lasted about an hour in a room browsing the scriptures before meeting to sing hymns and share testimonies.

The experience, just like Sunday school 10 hours earlier, stuck with me. I now realize that it has helped build character, provided lessons in reading and comprehension, and built a strong network around me that I don’t think I could get elsewhere.

One of my Sunday school teachers was Don Williams, who was also a pastor in my church. Williams, the father of Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, was the second black mayor of Maywood (the first black mayor of Maywood, Joe Freelon, was the longtime chairman of our church’s deacons council).

Williams was also once the head of the Maywood branch of the NAACP, where he discovered a bright, charming and enthusiastic young student leader and decided to nominate the teenager to be the local youth leader of the civil rights organization. . That boy was Fred Hampton.

Various institutional nodes, whether churches or civic organizations like the NAACP, often interconnect, creating amplifying effects. Don Williams, Joe Freelon, Fred Hampton. I deeply feel their cumulative influence within me and this sense of history and tradition nourishes my own sense of purpose.

It is a powerful thing to know that you are not alone in the world, that you are part of a community of people who were before you; who live, struggle and have their being by your side; and who will come after you.

What happens, as Larkin asked many years ago, when these constraining institutions wither and die (“a less recognizable shape every week, a more obscure purpose”)?

I trust Larkin’s answer. Humans will be forced to recreate them, “since someone will always catch a thirst within himself to be more serious.”

Whether or not it is possible, in our lonely TikTok and Twitter era, to create such effective alternative institutions to weave social networks strong enough to spark the moral revolutions the world so desperately needs right now is another question. .

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