Summary: Socially and emotionally, American Christians are being torn apart, and the Church is only making things worse.
This article exposes a deep flaw in the American Church. This flaw, which has been largely overlooked, has set the stage for the current epidemic of serious social problems, including crime, divorce, depression, drug abuse, and suicide. It follows that the Church is indirectly responsible for these problems. The Church could bring significant improvements by making a few basic changes -- however, prospects for such changes are dim, as we shall see.
By "Church" (capital C) I am not referring to particular christian denominations or movements. Rather, I am speaking of the entire body of genuine believers in Jesus Christ. This article diagnoses a disease which has infiltrated the entire body of Christ. All churches are equally infected, whether Protestant or Catholic, traditional or non-traditional, charismatic or evangelical, liberal or conservative, modernist or fundamentalist.
Here is the source of the flaw: almost every christian in America is a member of four separate communities. These communities are not only distinct; often, they are entirely disjoint. These communities are like four horses tied to the christian’s four limbs, pulling him/her in four different directions. Emotionally and socially, christians are being drawn and quartered.
The four communities I am referring to are: neighborhood; workplace; extended family; and church. Some American christians are involved in even more communities than this. For instance, a Vietnamese-American or Chinese-American may be involved in a Vietnamese or Chinese ethnic society. A christian with a strong interest in sports may be heavily involved in a sports league. Christians concerned about issues such as abortion or the environment may participate extensively in a corresponding interest group. All of these organizations represent different communities, involving different relationships with completely different sets of people.
The multiplication of communities is a relatively recent development in human history. It is true that even in Biblical times, family-based communities were broken up by migration. However, living together usually meant working and worshipping together as well. In many Third World countries, this situation is still the norm. In China, for instance, is not unusual to find a family of three or four generations living under one roof, working at the same farm or factory, and worshipping together at a neighboring church or house meeting. Instead of time-sharing between four communities, they are deeply involved in just one. Their attention is not scattered in four different directions as ours is, so their relationships with others are much deeper and more satisfying. Their Gospel witness is far more effective, because they have so much more in common with those they share with. This example shows the secret behind Third World revivals we sometimes read about, where entire communities are converted to Christ. This can ONLY happen because human relationships within these communities are deeply intertwined. But here in the U.S., such revivals can never, never take place, because relationships are stretched too thin.
We claimed above that the multiplicity of communities is responsible for many serious social problems. This is because inter-community competition weakens the social structures which once provided stability, support and satisfaction. For instance, in many neighborhoods social ties have virtually disintegrated. Many suburban neighborhoods resemble ghost towns, whose streets are deserted except for cars. How can neighbors have time for each other, when so many relationships and responsibilities lie elsewhere? They may see each other during PTA, Girl Scout functions, or Neighborhood Association meetings - but this is hardly an adequate basis for intimacy.
After neighborhoods, the disintegration of marriages follow close behind. Husband and wife are pulled apart by their multiplicity of involvements. The closest acquaintances of the one are strangers to the other. This habitual separation becomes so deeply engrained that even spouses who attend the same church often have completely separate circles of church friends. If such a couple begins to have marriage problems, how can they obtain help? They certainly wouldn’t tell the neighbors about it. One or two office-mates might be let in on the secret, but most likely they wouldn’t even know both spouses. Extended family members could be reached by phone, but how could they be expected to accurately understand the couple’s day-to-day situation when they live hundreds if not thousands of miles away? At church, if they are lucky they might be able to obtain a token weekly or monthly appointment with a pastor or associate, who has tens or hundreds of other relationship problems to worry about. Or, they might be able to join a marriage support group composed of people who, because they live and work elsewhere, are little better than strangers. Small wonder that so many troubled marriages fail, because adequate supporting structures are nonexistent.
With the buildup of social pressures and the breakdown of neighborhood and family, it is not difficult to see that a host of social problems follow close behind. With social structures weakened, people feel aimless, alienated and empty. They seek "kicks" in drugs or illegal activity - or they simply decide to end it all. Since relationships are so impersonal, it’s easy for people to be callous or cruel to each other without qualms of conscience. Dishonesty is rampant, and con artists and thieves take advantage of the fact that people do not protect each other against their activities.