Thursday, November 9, 2023

Growing up in a small town. . .

As a child growing up in a very small town in Nebraska, I did not realize how social the community was.  Perhaps as a 12 year old working in a grocery store, I saw a bit more of it.  Saturday nights were busy in town.  Stores were packed (and the bars) and the streets of our town were filled with people.  Though only 600 or so people in town, we had several produce stations, a couple of grocery stores, a couple of lumber yards, a hardware store, a five and dime, several barber shops, drug store, a couple of meat markets, a cafe, a bowling alley, and so many more storefronts on the main drag.  As important as these were, it was the close knit fabric of community that kept the town alive.  Nobody seemed to be in a hurry and everyone had time to talk.  The talk was not generally by phone but nearly always face to face.  There were tears and laughter, serious debates and joking, with all age groups in the mix.  Now, nearly 60 years later, I see how rich and wonderful this community was.

I fear that some of that, perhaps most of it, has been lost.  Even the town is not quite the same.  Streets are empty.  Stuff is purchased online.  There is one grocery store, a cafe, a barbershop, a meat market, and that is about it.  Oh, yes.  The bars are still there though not so many vehicles parked in front of them.  With this loss of a real "main street" has come a distance.  People are more apt to use phones to call and text than stand on the sidewalk and gab.  People do not seem to have or want to have the time for the face to face things that dominated the past.  The loss of community is palpable even in small town America.  One can only extrapolate to the larger towns, cities, and metropolitan areas of our nation.  Yet at the same time, the numbers of folks reporting serious feelings of loneliness continues to increase -- exponentially.    Six out of ten report struggling with a sense of loneliness and isolation.

The Church was once one of the major hubs in our web of relationships and connections.  The rise of the online version of Christianity does little to exacerbate the loneliness or reverse the isolation and loss of community so many feel.  Even in the Church, we are working against many factors in our pursuit of relationship, fellowship, and community.  One is the loss of the parish.  Where people once walked to church, few even live within a radius of the congregation where that is possible.  Furthermore, many drive past other congregations of their denomination in order to worship at a preferred location.  The distance and travel time works against stronger community.  Sunday morning is literally the only time our people see each other.  With the explosion of alternate service times and satellite locations, large congregations are effectively several different fellowships -- divided by time and, in many, by style of worship.  This works against the larger goal of community.  The continuing use of electronic meeting formats also means that, while folks might enjoy the convenience of the technology, the casual conversations that once were held before and after such meetings has largely been lost.  Our increased sensitivity to diet and food preferences, amplified by the proliferation of means to get what we want delivered to our doors, has had an impact upon the proverbial pot luck -- the traditional common meal that was once synonymous with Lutherans and most other denominations.

The result is that the communal nature of the faith, our nurture in that faith, and our life together in worship, prayer, and service is no longer deemed essential or even preferable to our people.  The hyper-individualism of our age has taken solid root in our religious institutions as well.  Our social breakdown is a significant factor in the weakened condition of our congregations and their regional and national jurisdictions.  It may not be easy to address but if we fail to address it, we do so at our peril.  T. S. Eliot once wrote: “What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community, And no community not lived in praise of GOD.”