- Wednesday, May 11, 2011
If you live in suburban America, you're probably getting a little stressed by now, but please continue on for a few more minutes. Now consider church. If you are involved in a church, is it really one circle, or are there many circles of different activities and relationships (missions committee, women's group, choir, youth group, small group, support group, elder board, and the like)? The average suburban American who is really involved in church life can have four to six different circles. If an entire family is fully involved, there can be as many as fifteen different circles. Draw a circle for each activity or ministry you are involved with. Before you've finished drawing your circles, get some feedback from others about ones you may have overlooked. Be sure to have a circle representing the persons you will ask before you seek their counsel.
Next, you need to consider the line drawn to each circle. These lines represent your commute to these relationships. You may consider drawing an object next to each line that represents the means by which you engage in this relationship. These may be automobiles, airplanes, letters, e-mail, telephones, and so forth. Place a time value on each line representing a round-trip commute to and from that circle. For example, if it takes you an average of forty-five minutes to get to work, write down ninety minutes. I'd invite you to multiply this for the entire month, but it just might put you over the edge.
Now let's consider the issue of commuting in an automobile. Harvard University's Robert Putnam, in his bestselling book Bowling Alone, gives some startling statistics on American commuting.2 His studies show that the average American family engages in thirteen automobile commutes a day! When I first heard this statistic, I immediately dismissed it as not a reality for my family. However, after taking a moment to calculate the average business and school day, I found myself easily within these parameters. To add to the misery, recent studies suggest that 80 percent of cars on the road systems in cities and suburbs in America only have one person in them — the driver.3 The only source for two-way interaction is either the unwholesome hand gestures exchanged when one is cut off or the cell phone.
Robert Putnam suggests this formula: For every ten minutes you spend in an automobile, you reduce your available social capital (time for relationships) by 10 percent.4 If his calculations are accurate, as you look at the drawing of your social world you may conclude that not only do you not have any social capital available at the end of the day; you are going into social debt. If you believe we are created as social beings who require a quantity (and a quality) of people interaction each day to survive, then this means we are dying — not from physical illnesses only but from social illness as well. I'm quite confident, as historians look back on this era, one of the marks we will bear is the death of community and perhaps even of the family.
Many people turn to the church to solve their problem of loneliness and disconnectedness. Because the church has been commissioned by Christ to reach out and to develop a functioning community, it is an appropriate place to turn. The church's principal solution for community over the last thirty to forty years has been the small group. Without question, the small group movement has made its mark on society. Studies show that 40 percent of Americans are involved in some kind of small group.5 Many people get involved in such a group to find a point of connection and a greater sense of intimacy and belonging, to have a place where they can share fears and dreams. Testimony reveals that small groups are good and helpful. But studies also show that they often don't work.6
Thinking of the old Chinese proverb that states "the beginning of wisdom is to call something by its right name," go back to your personal galaxy and add a circle for your small group (if you haven't already).
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