Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Church, Social Networks and Community

The contemporary Western Church faces many challenges. One of them, frequently mentioned in my blogs, is its gradual cultural marginalization. Since the 1960s this marginalization has favoured a reactionary resurgence in Christian fundamentalism and gnosticism. But there is a more subtle challenge which impedes the formation of successful well integrated church communities, a challenge brought about by modern social conditions. I don't think I would have become aware of this problem without being a member of a Church and also being acutely aware of the fundamentalist and gnostic fanaticism dividing some parts of Christendom; the latter is in part a reaction to the problems of group identification as community ties have been weakened by modern conditions, thereby favouring extremist responses. (See also here)

A community, by definition, is a group of people who are networked together via mutual social relations; it is these relations which define "membership" of the community and convey a sense of belonging. A person who is well connected to one member of the group will also likely have social connections with other members of the group. A strong community is a concentrated network of these mutual social relations. But to form these mutual relationships people need get to know one another and relate to one another in ways that make a community a community. These relationships don't happen suddenly; they need to be worked at and built up. To do this requires a variety of resources such as time, human social aptitude and perhaps a knowledge of a shared history and shared explanatory narratives, all of which ultimately lead to group identification. Each link between people in a social network is an implicit investment in time and the expenditure of mental processing power dedicated toward building social relations. But human beings are finite entities and therefore human mental, sensory, contact opportunities and temporal resources are limited. The upshot is that each person in a social network can only support a certain number of social links before their finite temporal and mental resources maxes out. If the average strength of a social link is measured in terms of the effective resources it consumes and is represented by the quantity and the number of links an average person maintains in a social network is represented by N then finite human resources will imply some kind of conservation law which limits human social potential. We might therefore conjecture a conservation relationship such as:

 R x N < some constant
Inequality 1

From a relationship of this type it becomes apparent that at the limit any one person can only increase his or her value of N at the expense of the strength of the social linkage, R. For example, a person who has mutual social connections with many, many people will concomitantly have a lower average linkage strength R. Conversely, a stronger average linkage implies fewer relationships.

Of course, relationships will not all be of the same strength. Any one person will have layers of social links of varying strength. The first and strongest layer will probably be family followed by close friends, other friends and then acquaintances etc. At the periphery of a person's social network there will be relationships where people only know one another by sight. In effect a persons relationship cluster thins out until at the edges it fades all together. In a small socially well knit town everyone will at the very least recognize everyone else by sight. But resource limits on human mental, contact opportunities and temporal powers will no doubt mean that there is some threshold (perhaps a population of a few thousand) when the power of an individual to at least recognize everyone fades out to nothing. Anonymity starts to become a factor in town life and this will have a bearing on the social cohesion of the community

In the past there would have been a strong correlation of community networks with spatial relations; those people you knew best were likely to be closest to you spatially and as a rough rule the further you got from your locale the weaker your social links. Towns were much smaller than they are today and travel and communication were primitive. The people you networked with were by and large in your vicinity. Moreover, it is likely that your family, your work colleagues, your neighbors and your church were groups with considerable social overlap. Thus a group of people related by spatial vicinity were, to a good approximation, also a community - that is, they were socially related as well as spatially related. Consequently, the resource burden of getting to know church people was less than it is today because your church may well have contained many of the same people who were your work colleagues, family and neighbours; this would undoubtedly have helped reduce the networking resource burden of church fellowship.

But conditions today are likely to be very different. Changes in travel technology, communication, working conditions, social ethos, and the size of towns etc have brought an end to the old parallels between spatial and social networks. The community experience has been fragmented: Viz: The social networks of family, friends, work colleagues, churches and neighbors have little or no overlap and constitute separate communities. The break up of a local self-sufficient industry in favour of national and international industry and the consequent need to move to a place of work has meant that family members often live far apart and thus are disconnected with church, work and neighbourhood communities. Travel from dormitory towns to work has disconnected one's work community from one's neighborhood community. In big cities Christians travel several miles to the church with an ethos & culture which suites them. Consequently the so-called "local church" with its catchment area taken from a local community is no longer meaningful.

The one-time inter-connecting overlap between one's family, neighborhood, work community, and church is now largely absent, especially in large cities and conurbations. Thus, any one person will be a player in several otherwise disconnected community groups. Work colleagues, family, the neighborhood, hobby group and church will likely all be separate social networks with little or no connection. This lack of overlap, needless to say, will put a strain on those limited human resources needed for social networking. Church community life in particular suffers. Churches may only meet on Sundays with perhaps the odd mid-week meeting; this stresses those critical human resources which relationship-making necessarily consumes, especially time and contact opportunity. In fact church people may well form stronger social links with work colleagues than they do church members simply because they spend more time with the former. We must also add to the contemporary mix the addition of online communities - people now spend a lot of time in web forums and social media with people they don't meet face to face, This spreads those limited  human social networking resources even more thinly. Church communities thus face competing claims for social networking resources. Those competing claims have come to the fore in modern times. But it's not just church; go into a modern residential area and it is quite likely that it is no longer a community in the old fashioned sense. The social networking between neighbors which once existed are under stress because work, family, locality and church have much less overlap than they once did. Neighbors may well try to be spatial neighbors but they face the same challenges that churches face in trying serve the competing demands of all those separate and disconnected social networks. Identification with one's "natural community" can become a problem.

The upshot of all this is that modern churches may be quite loose associations of people. Sectarian and cultic Christianity addresses this problem by maximizing the networking time between their members and instilling a strong sense of belonging, identity and obligation to the status quo using guilt and fear; one's standing before God is called into question if your social networking isn't up to scratch; if not you may be categorized as one or more of a compromiser, a heretic or an apostate. For example, the Watchtower organisation discourages its young people from attending colleges as that will detract from their time spent studying with other Jehovah's Witnesses in the local kingdom halls. Also, as a means of spiritual intimidation character defamation is practiced by the Watchtower on those who fall short of expectation.  This is a tactic common  to fundamentalists in general.

 Another sectarian solution to modern community challenges is to mystify the nature of church social networks. This is achieved via the gnostic gambit, a solution which claims that gnostic initiation is a rite of passage into a sacred network that can't be seen or managed visibly, but neither can it be revoked without threat of divine displeasure. However, observation of sectarian gnostic Christianity generally shows highly partisan and schismatic behavior between different gnostic sects; evidence that the gnostic mystification of human relations is a very human attempt to cajole a belief in the presence of a super-spiritual social cohesion, when in fact no real cohesion beyond that implicit in Inequality 1 is actually present. Further observations of gnostic fellowships shows that there is no gnostic short cut to human social networking and that the real cost of social networking is implicit in the same inequality.

Non-authoritarian, non-fundamentalist churches can't, by definition, enforce community upon their congregations. They therefore have few options but to be simply conscious of the fellowship stresses that modern life places on their community and cope with it as best they can. Getting to know people brings understanding of their motives, problems, and personalities thereby giving greater insight into their behavior. But as we've seen, the modern Sundays only church (with perhaps a mid week meeting or two thrown in) means that community is only going to build slowly. Blank spaces in one's knowledge about people are easy to interpolate wrongly; if there are two ways of taking something then trepidation and fear of the unknown means that it is all too easy and all too human to take it the wrong way.

What churches need do then is to become aware of the relationship misunderstandings that so easily result when relationships are underdeveloped. Baring the pressures of cultist, sectarian, fundamentalist and gnostic social environments, relationships in the free churches will, under modern conditions, be delicate flowers. If it's any consolation at all to the free churches then it may help to understand that the problems which arise out of the loosely networked church environment parallels the problems also found in the wider society whereby people have difficulty identifying with their community and cultivating a sense of belonging - see here. In short fostering an awareness of the pitfalls of the loosely networked fellowship will help church members from being deceived by false interpolations and thinking its all down to church failure when in fact it isn't  - it's a product of modern times. If free churches realise this then members of congregations will be apt to give one another more allowance and leeway, thus removing one barrier to fellowship; namely the suspicion, fear and paranoia that so easily breeds in the silences. Although we are unlikely to be able to wind back the clock it may at least be possible to optimize fellowship under the constraints of modern times.

Interesting Links:


The Philosophical Muser said...

Excellent article Tim - thanks for sharing! Really good food for thought!

Timothy V Reeves said...

Hi James, I hope that was as helpful as some of your stuff on economics is to me!