Uniquely Stupid and the Church: Social Capital

by Bob Turner on April 21, 2022

I’ll read anything Jonathan Haidt writes, so I was thrilled to learn of his newest piece, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” Haidt is the author of the brilliant bestsellers The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind, and has chiseled himself on the Mt. Rushmore of America’s public intellectuals. This newest essay does not disappoint.

America’s social polarization can be attributed to the loss of social capital, strong institutions, and shared stories. Technological shifts of the past decade have exacerbated this division. The most obvious factor is social media. Platforms like Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2009) launched with the promise of maintaining, and even strengthening, our social lives. Remember when people thought Facebook was a cool way to reconnect with people from 5th grade camp? The reality has been more sinister. Strangers can be hostile to one another online, and lonely people spend more time dunking on their adversaries than cheering up their friends. Haidt surveys the past ten years to explain how social media has platformed the most extreme voices in the society, incentivized bad behavior through certain algorithms, and alienated us in ways that will be difficult to repair.

The church has suffered from some of this too. I’ll spend the next few posts addressing the three things that Haidt views as essential for life together and how they relate to our work in the kingdom: social capital, strong institutions, and shared stories. First is social capital.

The term social capital rose in popularity through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (1995), where he defines it as “networks, norms and trust that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit.” Mutual trust is huge here. This trust requires that we be together both in physical and emotional proximity. We sacrifice for one another and defer to the wisdom of the group. The New Testament word for this concept is “koinonia,” which can mean fellowship (Acts 2:42), sharing (1 Tim. 6:18), and empathy (2 Cor. 1:7). It is being together and acting for the good of the group.

Jane Jacobs led the 1960s fight to protect Manhattan neighborhoods from being erased by a proposed freeway through the middle of the borough. She insisted that the community see itself as a group and not a collection of individuals who only thought about taxes and commute times. She emphasized the benefits of seeing each other in bodegas, having coffee on sidewalks, and chatting in laundromats. These experiences were impossible to replicate on the freeway or in the drive-thru. She knew that social interaction was required for social capital, which was required for trust.

Churches are no different. Relationships aren’t only maintained through shared theology, but also through work, experiences, proximity, meals, gatherings, funding shared projects, and shared burdens.

Livestream services will never be an adequate substitute for being physically together. They do not build social capital. The same is true for faith-based podcasts, online sermons, or Christian books. These are supplements for a life in church, not substitutes for it. They deliver part of an experience, but never the full experience. They are like skipping Thanksgiving and watching other people eat via livestream. I doubt it would be satisfying. Put simply: virtual experiences do not build koinonia.

White Station’s theme for 2022 is Build Up. One of the primary applications of this is to build back some of the social capital that was lost over the past two years. We want this church to be a place where people are in each other’s lives. We want our kids to be friends and our spouses to lean on each other. We want to celebrate weddings and show up at funerals. We want to be overflowing with trust. Because without trust, you have chaos.

The church is a 2,000 year old community providing trust, love, and support that cannot be replicated virtually. Let’s work from the original plans as we Build Up our community here.

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