Is increased movement and suburbanization to blame for the falling rates of civic engagement, including church-going? In the USA, Robert Putnam suggests that the amount people move cannot be held responsible because ‘mobility has not increased at all over the last fifty years‘ (p205). The number of people who move house and community by a small or large distance has not significantly changed.
Although it cannot be singled out as a reason for the decline since the 1960s, Putnam does add that people who move regularly from community to community are less likely to be involved in the communities and less likely to go to church. They have become adept at picking up and putting down friendships and as a result are less socially rooted.
One factor, however, that plays a major part is the increased suburbanization of the US resulting in much longer commutes. In the mid-1990s, over half the American population lived in the suburbs, compares to only 29% in the 1950s. The average journey to work increased by 37% in that time. At one point Putnam even claims that ‘each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10 percent’ (p213).
A quote from Kenneth Jackson, a historian in the area of suburbs:
A major casualty of American’s drive-in culture is te weakened “sense of community” which prevail in most metropolitan areas. I refere to a tendency for social life to become ‘privatized’, and to a reduced feeling of concern and responsibility among families for their neighbours and among suburbanites in general for residents of the inner city… The real shift, however is the way in which our lives are now centered inside automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared, and the social intercourse that used to the the main characteristic of urban life has vanished…. There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon.
Due to the way the suburbs were designed, local shops were left undeveloped in favour of malls, supermarkets and big-box stores – cheaper but more anonymous.
Despite the aspirations of some developers, mall culture is not about overcoming isolation and connecting with others, but about privately surfing from store to store – in the presence of others, but on in their company’.( p211)
Life has become more privatized – shopping alone or with family, spending more time in your house and less with others in the neighbourhood.
I guess that Putnam’s findings are no real surprise to us (but it is nice to have research that backs up intuition). What is the challenge of the church? Al Hsu has recorded his thoughts in his book, The Suburban Christian. I maintain that the longing for community is still there even though the default is to switch into a more isolated existence. Commuting isn’t going to stop but given the right activities, social involvement in the local community might tempt people out of their houses. The development of a third place – a local gathering place – where it is possible to meet people without needing to bring your own friends might prove to be a valuable addition. This is where a welcoming, accessible, fun church can come in. There is another book on third places that I am still to read.