I’ve read two interesting books recently, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness by Bryan P. Stone, and American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. I’d like to combine insights from both in today’s post.
Putnam and Campbell’s book is about the state of religion in contemporary America. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the book (I recommend it highly), but one finding from their research that I found particularly interesting was that people who are more connected to their faith community were more generous, “neighborly”, and engaged civically. Putnam and Campbell found that people who had larger religious social networks (that is, connections with other people through their religious congregations) donated more money to both religious and secular causes, volunteered more for both religious and secular causes, were more likely to work with others to solve a community problem, attended more public meetings, and were a member of more organizations and more reform groups. What was important factor was not just showing up at church (or synagogue or mosque), but being connected to others once one is there.
Putnam and Campbell found that this finding held consistent regardless of variations in age, income, education, gender, area of the country, and other control variables. They also interestingly found that this result held true regardless of theology. They made the intriguing point that even if an atheist had a lot of connections in a church community, that atheist would (statistically speaking) be more likely to volunteer, give, and work for the good of the community than an atheist who was not involved in a church community. Putnam and Campbell concluded that regardless of what else was true about a person, having church friends would make them more likely to give, volunteer, and work for the civic good.
I’m not saying that people who don’t have church friends are necessarily bad people (though Putnam and Campbell suggest that getting new church friends tends to make one a nicer person), nor that people who have a lot of church connections are perfect. Putnam and Campbell don’t make those assertions, largely because they’re talking about statistical averages, not iron laws, so I’m not asserting those things, either. Nevertheless, the correlation between being connected to others in a congregation and these aspects of “good neighborliness” was strong and consistent in their research.
This finding made me think about Bryan Stone’s book. In his book, Stone argues that the church, by being the site at which God’s kingdom is expressed in the world, is the primary venue and means of evangelism by being an embodiment of the good news that Christ proclaims. Christ says that we should live as an expression of God’s new creation of love and justice, and, while the church is imperfect, it is the best glimpse into what God intends for the world. In its “already but not yet” way, the church is the expression of God’s kingdom coming, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven, and that this is what should attract people to Christianity.
While Putnam and Campbell’s findings applied to all religions, not just Christians, the findings still made me think of Stone’s contention that the church should be where people see the kingdom of God breaking in to this world. I thought to myself, “If those people who are heavily connected to others in church communities are the ones who are giving, volunteering, and working for the common good more than others, isn’t that evidence that the church as a community really is where God’s kingdom is coming on earth?” Giving, volunteering, and working for the common good may not be a comprehensive list of what it means for God’s kingdom to come, but they do certainly seem to be aspects of living out love and justice. And any such expression of love and justice seems to me to be good news indeed.