Social fragmentation - does it matter?

Archie Poulos

Sociologists often use the category of when 50% of thinking changes, the society has changed. I have been told that 1000 years ago this sort of change occurred less than once a century. In the twentieth century it occurred about every 25 years, and in the 21st century it occurs more than once a decade. Change is normal.

One of the big arenas of change is in social connection and interaction. 50 years ago it was normal for communities to gather to celebrate social events, for example Empire Day (does anyone remember that!). It was also normal for there to be Town Hall meetings, and the proliferation of School of Arts and similar halls were testimony to communal gatherings.

But not anymore.

A different world

Our society now does not gather like it once did. And when we gather we do not have much in common. Just a decade ago co-workers would congregate around the café Bar to discuss what happened on Home and Away  or to rehearse the latest episode of Seinfeld. Now, even though we still may meet around Nespresso machine we can’t discuss what was on TV last night as many people record it and watch it at their leisure at another time. What we once did at the same time and so we were able to discuss it has now evaporated.

The same happens in our churches. Because the sermon is uploaded to the web almost as it is being preached there is no need to attend church or conventions. I can listen to it at my ease in the comfort of my own setting.

This change has had the television networks active thinking through what to do. One of their answers is to provide live twitter feeds and SMS comments. You can only be involved in this if you are watching in ‘real time’. Another is to have real time voting in game shows so that you have to vote now to save or eliminate a contestant. That means you have to be watching when the program is aired.

Does it matter?

One question we need to ask and answer is ‘does it matter that we have lost doing things at the same time?’ After all we now have social media where contact can be made at any time.

And it is not all that bleak. It is not as though our community never gathers. Attendances at Anzac day Dawn Services are on the rise again. Throngs will still gather for a once in a lifetime event, and to miss it mans to miss it forever. Remember the congestion when the Queen Mary  passed the Queen Elizabeth II  in Sydney Harbour? And the crowds that gather for old music heroes where youth is re-lived and new music idols where being in their presence is as important as their music.

I want to argue that it does matter.

Community is created by hundreds of shared experiences, each of them inconsequential on their own, but without which we unravel as a society. Discussing what we saw on TV last night is part of the social lubricant that builds relationships. After all, you will not share something significant and expose yourself to being changed unless you trust the other person.

The living of independent, individual lives where everyone functions on their own time schedule destroys relationships in two ways. Firstly, by making it harder to know the other person through decreased interaction. Secondly, by the insidious self centredness that comes from thinking that optimizing my time is more important than relating to others.

And for our churches?

In our desire to ‘do church well’ we have sometimes inadvertently created a product to consume. Have you heard congregation members say “I come to church for the sermon/music/worship?” It is our responsibility to help each other see the importance of the little things done together: from pouring a cup of tea for another person, to the discussion that derives from something said or prayed for in church, to even the conversations of how the children are coping with growing through the different stages of life.

The world has changed and demanding that people front up at events we promote and chastising them for not doing so is not the solution.

We need to think of new ways to ensure that we do life together well, and that life together is to help each other live the life of faith before God, being led by what he has revealed in His Word. This must normally involve, at least at some level, doing it face to face, at cost to ourselves, for the strengthening of relationships.


Image: Jef Poskanzer, Flickr