David Roberts, a blogger at Vox.com recently wrote an article titled, “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult.” For a secular piece, Roberts is rather prophetic in his tone about the shape of society and its relationship with relationships.
Now, I want to be clear that this is a secular work. I am not recommending it wholesale. Roberts uses evolutionary theory and other things to ground his conclusions, and I am not there with him on some of that. However, I point out this article because it provides an excellent look into the culture around us. Pastors, church planters, and even local church members can benefit from reading this, as they try to engage the community around them.
Here are some insights from the article:
- American adults have a real problem making friends. The article points out that most people rarely develop significant friendships after college, and if they do, they are based in scheduling time together. Once people get married, they tend to atomize and isolate. Roberts points out that this state of affairs is fairly new in human history, or our own making, and “unnatural.”
- Our choices in housing and land use have changed our culture. With the development of the automobile, single-unit housing, suburbs, and the lot, our society has collectively chosen a living arrangement that impedes real relationship develop. Roberts writes, “Each of us living in our own separate nuclear-family castles, with our own little faux-estate lawns, getting in a car to go anywhere, never seeing friends unless we make an effort to schedule it — there’s nothing fated or inevitable about it.”
- But people crave genuine community. The fact that Roberts even wrote this article decrying the situation points to the desire for real community. In fact, Roberts’ “solution” is found in a physical restructuring of communities to force relationship. In this Roberts joins a flood of people calling for new city planning that creates walkable spaces and shared living areas. Our society is sick with isolation, and in many instances, sick of isolation.
- Relationships are formed through “repeated spontaneous contact.” Again, Roberts calls for a reshaping of communities to foster spontaneous contact. Whether that is valid or not, the premise about contact is sound. Here is a long quote from this section:
When we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere.
Thus, seeing friends, even friends within “striking distance,” requires planning. “We should really get together!” We say it, but we know it means calls and emails, finding an evening free of work, possibly babysitters. We know it would be fun, but it’s so much easier just to settle in for a little TV.
Those of you who are married with kids: When was the last time you ran into a friend or “dropped by” a friend’s house without planning it? When was the last time you had a spontaneous encounter with anyone who was not a clerk or a barista, someone serving you?
So what? Here are some key takeaways.
- The gospel speaks loudly to the deficiencies in our culture. In the US, we live in a world that is increasingly devoid of real relationships. We wall ourselves off into our little castles and do not even know our neighbor’s names. Now, more than ever perhaps, people long for and struggle with any kind of genuine relationships, but the gospel is the good news of a relationship restored. Furthermore, Christ does not merely save us out of our sin, but he saves us into a community. The church, rightly understood, is the truest human community on the planet.
- Unfortunately, the church often looks just like the culture on this issue. I wish I could say the majority of churches stood as a shining, counter-cultural example of rich community in a sea of isolated people, but I would be lying if I did. For most of us, we drank the Kool-Aid when it comes to isolated lifestyles. We are often pretty terrible at developing relationships inside our own local church, and our track record with lost people is even worse.
- Local churches have an unprecedented opportunity to speak to their community, but it will take intentionality. When the culture around us starts crying out for community, we must make sure the gospel is authentically displayed. For most of us, this means changing our habits. Roberts is right that our communities are set up for isolation, but Christians have a compelling reason to push against this. We must put the gospel community on display to the greater culture around us. This means local church members loving one another well in front of others, and it means meeting our neighbors.