“Christendom is dead,” my friend Rebekah recently said to me with a mix of solemnity and glee, “it’s time for Christians to get out of the business of transforming institutions and get busy loving our neighbors.” Her sentiment is as common as it is understandable. No doubt, the church has too often sacrificed her calling to care for “the least of these” in an effort to curry favor with the powerful in the name of cultural transformation. “Citizens change,” my friend went on to say, “then society changes. Not the other way around.”
To be sure, Rebekah and I share the same goal: to love our neighbors by seeking their spiritual and physical wellbeing. The question remains, however, are her premises as true as her motives? It’s my contention that (1) our neighbor’s wellbeing correlates with the health of their neighborhood, which (2) correlates to the strength of that place’s institutions. In other words, we can’t love our neighbors well without engaging the neighborhood and the interconnected, embodied institutions that exist in a given place.
The key to understanding a neighborhood’s health is found in what Harvard Sociologist Robert Sampson calls “collective efficacy.” Essentially, this phenomenon refers to the trust among neighbors. Collective efficacy can be measured in several different ways. Would neighbors take action if a neighborhood kid were seen skipping school? Would they stop a fight on the street?
One interesting way to gauge collective efficacy is by using “the dropped envelope test.” Sampson and his associates dropped postmarked-mail in the streets of various neighborhoods. The letters returned ranged from 0% – 82%, pending on the neighborhood. The factor to predict whether or not a neighborhood would carry the lost piece of mail to a mailbox didn’t depend upon race or economy, but upon collective efficacy, which is dramatically important for all sorts of reasons:
“Collective efficacy is relatively stable over time and it predicts variations in future crime rates, after adjusting for things such as concentrated poverty, racial composition, and traditional forms of neighbor networks (e.g., friendship/ kinship ties). Dense friendship ties may facilitate collective efficacy, but they are not sufficient. Perhaps more importantly, highly efficacious communities do better on a lot of other things, including birth weight, rates of teen pregnancy, and infant mortality, suggesting a link to overall health and well-being.”
The social and physical structures of a place aren’t just built by the character of her inhabitants; her inhabitants are also formed by the structures of the neighborhood. This reciprocity is complex, but real and statistically verifiable. A healthy neighborhood creates healthy neighbors. Of course, the converse is also true.
“Fewer reliable jobs, less marriage, and less civil society are all manifestations of the same phenomenon,” Timothy Carney says, “Life for the working class is becoming deinstitutionalized.” In his new book, “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse,” Carney does a deep dive into the causes of the growing disenfranchisement of working-class Americans.
The dual culprits in Carney’s telling are centralization and secularization. Carney proves the former by showing that “Big Government and civil society are natural rivals, and the growth of one often means the diminution of the other.” If the population is looking upward to the government for assistance, they stop looking outward to their communities. What was once done by the Masons is now done by Medicaid, in other words.
While Carney laments the weakening of all institutions, he highlights the importance of one institution in particular, the church:
“[The wealthy neighborhoods] can do fine built around secular institutions. The upper middle class, the enclaves of college-educated married parents can afford other institution and keep them going. What the last sixty years in America have proved is that for the middle class and the working class, the options are (a) strong religious communities or (b) alienation and collapse.”
Carney compellingly shows that Donald Trump’s base is not made up of “deplorables,” but of those experiencing the “alienation and collapse” that comes with the demise of a thriving civic life. This explains why Trump initially polled so poorly in places like Utah and certain counties in Iowa and Michigan. The Mormons and the Dutch Reformed have built in those locales thriving institutions. Says Carney after visiting a particular town in Iowa:
“The happiness in these places doesn’t depend on the name of the church or on the Dutch blood. It’s directly tied to the strong institutions of civil society held together by a common higher purpose. Their institutions are rooted in the church, and their purpose is defined and articulated by the church.”
The more religious a place, the stronger the institutions; the stronger the institutions, the better the place; the better the place, the happier and healthier the people. And I do mean healthier. Carney references a study that shows those who supported Donald Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 Republican primary are more likely to experience an early death than those who supported another candidate.
This doesn’t explain all Trump voters. After all, many religiously or otherwise connected Americans supported the GOP candidate, but this sense of alienation explains part of the passion in our currently anti-establishment age.
Except in very wealthy places—where people can afford social substitutes to church, things like yoga classes, traveling basketball leagues, and country clubs—the weaker the faith, the weaker the institutions, the worse the place, the sicker the people. This explains the cry, “Make America Great Again!” It’s not deplorability, it’s desperation.
In my mind, the connection between collective efficacy, healthy neighborhoods, strong institutions, and our neighbor’s physical and spiritual well-being is settled. The question is, will we live up to our calling to bear witness to the Kingdom of Christ which is even now breaking into this present darkness? Carney’s clarion call needs to be heard:
“When the church manifests itself on the local level, on the human scale, it becomes the tool for lifting up us fallen humans from what we are in nature to what we are called to be.”
Circling back to the conversation which got me thinking about this: When Rebekah thought of institutional transformation and the Christianizing of culture, she undoubtedly pictured a caricature of Constantine or the very worst fringes of the Moral Majority. Yet, a robustly Christian city, with the church at the center, isn’t about currying favor with the powerful. As we’ve seen, the powerful are doing quite well today. It is, indeed, “the least of these” who would benefit most from a robust church strengthening the institutions of a society, thus transforming particular places.
My friend Peter Leithart likes to use the term “micro-Christendoms.” I’m betting that wordage will rub some of my Anabaptist friends the wrong way, but it strikes me that such a phrase captures the church’s mission in today’s globalized, fractured West. And, if you’re like Rebekah, it doesn’t look like what you’d expect. It looks like Pentecostals in urban San Diego delivering food to the home-bound in their neighborhood. It looks like Baptists in the Rust Belt developing a sports league in their gym. It looks like Congregationalists in New England starting a new Christian school.
They’re evangelizing their neighbors, yes, but they’re also engaging their neighborhood. They’re reaching people, of course, but they’re also revitalizing their place. They’re catechizing sincere disciples, to be sure, but they’re also cultivating strong institutions. Christendom may be dead, but micro-Christendoms are being born and re-born all over the country.
Dustin Messer is Worldview and Cultural Engagement Coordinator at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and author of the forthcoming book, Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church