Do Modern Churches Facilitate Isolation or Community?

Is a bike lane really a threat to this church? Image: Strong Towns
Is a bike lane really a threat to this church? Image: Strong Towns

The last few decades have been difficult on the neighborhood church.

As population dispersed, many houses of worship built by tight-knit communities have given way to buildings surrounded by parking, so people can drive from miles away. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns is a regular churchgoer at a one such car-oriented church. He says it sometimes reminds him of sociologist Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the celebrated book on isolation in modern America:

It is more than a little ironic that I’ve had more conversations with our next door neighbors of the past sixteen years in the brief moments walking in and out of church than I’ve ever had on our street or, perhaps more amazingly, in each other’s homes. When either of us travel to church, we back out of our garages, hit the automatic garage door opener to close it, drive to church, park in one of the convenient parking lots, attend church and then do the trip home in reverse. Essentially, we’re Churching Alone.

[The church] was built in the 1960’s with the typical architecture of the time; horizontal construction in a field on the edge of town with lots of parking. It met all the needs of the new, auto-based parishioner who could arrive by car, avoid the traffic rush by leaving right after communion — but before the closing hymn — and be home by kickoff. While the church can be a vibrant and communally beautiful place at times, those times are always intentional. There is no passive, deep church community vibrating in and around St. Andrews.

Marohn’s priest says his church is now “threatened” by a city proposal to install bike lanes on the street outside. The church is encouraging members to express opposition to this proposal. Marohn writes:

I’ve long wondered just how much more fulfilling our lives would be if we did not live in such isolation. If God dwells in each of our hearts — and I truly believe that is the case — then seeking to live in communion with God should mean that we seek to have lives immersed with each other. To truly live in this way cannot be an active pursuit, one in which we have to get in the car and drive 25 minutes to a parking lot at a set time for a scheduled event with a self-selected group of people. It must be passive, where our natural day-to-day existence includes random interactions with the humanity that makes up our community, be they Christian or not. Be they affluent enough to own a car or not.

Not only should we not be opposing bike lanes, church leaders around the country should be doing everything they can to reconnect the social bonds of our communities.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Dan Malouff at Beyond DC writes that opposition to transit projects like the Cincinnati Streetcar and Nashville bus rapid transit is simply unavoidable. And BikeSD takes a critical look at a $600 million highway widening project proposed for the San Diego region.

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