In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes the general decline in civic involvement in the US during the 20th century. Since the early 1970s, across the board, less people are members of clubs and societies, church groups, political organisations than before. The same is true even for less formal civic ties such as the amount of time people hang out with friends by having them over for dinner or pursuing a common interest. After charting the post-war peak and decline since the early 70s, Putnam then asks the question why. He concludes that civic involvement in general has been affected by longer work and greater commuting times, suburbanisation, two career families, the effect of the TV and a generational change as the older more active people in communities die off.
One thing that did not affect the overall rate of involvement was the decline in traditional marriage and family setups. In the secular world, the relationship between involvement in sports, political, professional, ethnic and social groups, neighbourhood associations and the marital status of the participants was non-existent, therefore he says that the decline in traditional family cannot be said to affect the decline in civic involvement. There was a correlation, however between marriage and children with religious and youth-related activities. This should not be a surprise.
“Americans who are married and those with children are much more likely to be involved in religious activities, including church membership, church attendance, and church-related social activities.
He is not clear which is cause and which is effect – whether the decline in traditional families has let to less church involvement or vice versa, but he is clear that there is a link.
Going back to his quote that traditional families are more likely to be involved in church than those who do not have families or those with alternative family setups, I wonder if this tells us something about mission. A couple of things spring to mind
- Is the church meeting the needs of, and is it accessible to those who are not in traditional families? For many, the answer is ‘no’. Much is made of the missing generation of 18-30 year-olds in church and more certainly needs to be done about reaching out to those in mission and asking the questions that they are asking and dealing with issues that they are facing.
- Perhaps this is a step too far, but I wonder whether the act of committing in marriage and having children makes us more predisposed to think about God. When a new life enters our world and we are placed in charge of it, does this make us think of something outside ourselves? Does the act of caring predispose us to question our life. As I say, it might be a step too far if based solely on the quote, but when children come along, it does seem that many discover or return to their faith.