Community Building in an Era of Individualized Experience

A calendar notification brought it to my attention. My cell phone contract will soon expire. Two years have already passed. I’ll stay will my current carrier. I know that when I sign a new contract, I can get a new phone. I’m used to the one I have. It does everything I need it to do. But since I got it two years ago, two new generations of the same phone have been released. Wow! Two years old and it’s already out of date technology.

Things change very quickly today. Some aspects of the change we’re used to, like automatic up-dates to computer software or the release of new gadgets, like cell phones. There are other things that are also changing to which we don’t pay as much attention. Among those changes are cultural values and societal patterns.

I grew up in an era when there were strong values for community and connection in the United States. While society was changing during the Vietnam Era and the emergence of Flower Power and the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay movement (back then, it was “gay” and not “LGBT”), each of those movements as well as other sectors of society maintained deep connections among people. There was strong group cohesion and a sense of belonging. However, over the last fifty years, North American culture has become much more individualized. Our connections with others are often virtual rather than real life. Even in “real life” contexts, it’s difficult for many people to simply set aside their technological devices and be present to others in a real life moment.

In the midst of a culture that’s becoming more individualized, with people seeking out their own private experiences, organized religion faces a huge challenge: creating community in a culture with strong values for autonomy.

Some large Evangelical congregations are trying to respond to these cultural changes by incorporating more technology in the Sunday service experience. For example, some churches encourage congregants to text questions to the minister during the sermon or use Twitter to post comments about the service during the service. This seems to me to be just another passing fad that doesn’t address the actual shift in culture. It also prevents individuals from fully becoming part of the community. Further, I think there’s something deeper at work in our cultural evolution.

While we all incorporate technology to a greater extent in our lives and appreciate the virtual connections we have with others across the globe, many people also crave a sense of deeper, authentic experience. This is evident in the farm to table and slow cooking movements. It’s literally a hunger for food with richer, fuller taste than the heavily processed foods that characterize today’s marketplace. It’s also evident in the coffee house culture and popularity of craft beers. People want to know, to understand, and to experience how a brew is made, what ingredients shape the flavor, and what makes the beverage distinct. They also want the history behind their favorite brew. Gone are the days of the five pound cans of ground coffee that would last a family months at a time.

Today, people leave organized religion precisely because they are seeking for their own authentic spiritual experience. They aren’t interested in the pre-designed experience scripted by others. Nor do they want to be told what should be important to them. Instead, the quest is for authentic experience that touches one’s heart and soul.

Congregations that are able to provide authentic experience for their members are remaining vital today. In these congregations, energy comes from the life of the community rather than top-down. This often means that such congregations appear to be a bit messy and disorganized to traditionalists. Yet, because the life of the community takes priority, individuals in turn experience personal connection and spiritual transformation.

How does this happen? It’s not a matter of a new program or class or a different type of music. Instead, it requires a shift in how congregations organize themselves as communities which celebrate the faith experience of their members. That’s what I explore more fully in the book, Contemporary Churches: Spiritual Transformation of Congregations. In this book, I explore a variety of ways of moving organized religious institutions from a model of maintaining and managing the organization to building vital and dynamic communities. It’s the kind of shift that responds to the evolving culture in which we live. Contemporary Congregations doesn’t provide a step-by-step model to be implemented but explores how to shift the inner dynamics of a congregation. Contemporary Congregations draws on my work with actual churches over the last thirty-five years. As one person commented to me after reading the book, “You know, if the church had taken this seriously, I might not have left.”

You can preview the book for yourself on Amazon.com.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Community Building in an Era of Individualized Experience

  1. Derek says:

    “people leave organized religion precisely because they are seeking for their own authentic spiritual experience. They aren’t interested in the pre-designed experience scripted by others” — that’s right on the mark. People are looking for something real, for the authentic. Just out of interest, how do you respond to the point that “ways of moving organized religious institutions” sounds top-down?

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