When the Pew Research Center conducted its most recent Religious Landscape Study back in 2014, it found that while 76% of adults in the Chicago metro area considered religion at least somewhat important in their lives, only 29% reported attending a religious service at least once a week.
Pew discovered that while the percentages of adults who say they believe in God, pray daily, and attend religious services regularly declined only modestly in recent years, this modest decline was driven significantly by “the nones.”
The “nones” are “the growing minority of Americans, particularly in the Millennial generation, who say they do not belong to any organized faith.”
The “nones” accounted for 23% of the adult population in the U.S. in 2014, up from 16% in 2007, according to Pew.
“And, as the ‘nones’ have grown in size, they also have become even less observant than they were when the original Religious Landscape Study was conducted in 2007,” Pew officials wrote. “The growth of the ‘nones’ as a share of the population, coupled with their declining levels of religious observance, is tugging down the nation’s overall rates of religious belief and practice.”
That decline in religious observance has meant a shift in the Catholic landscape in Oak Park, with all four of the village’s parishes undergoing readjustments meant to confront declining church attendance and the many challenges that decline brings.
I approach this social reality from the standpoint of the narrator in Philip Larkin’s 1954 poem “Church Going,” who can never resist the impulse to stop inside of an empty house of worship and wonder “when churches will fall completely out of use, what we shall turn them into.”
When churches become obsolete, we should all worry — regardless of what, or whether, we believe. That’s because religious spaces (and I’ll reference the Christian church, in particular, since that’s the one I’m most familiar with) are actually important binding agents in the civic glue that holds together our secular society. At their best, churches, the Black church in particular, helped build American democracy.
As the political scientist Robert D. Putnam wrote 20 years ago in his famous book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, churches are one of those places that help build social capital, which Putnam defines as the “connections among individuals’ social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”
In Change: How to Make Big Things Happen, the communications scholar Damon Centola disputes some of the received opinions we’ve come to have about social networks in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. While social networking is dominant, actual social networks are fraying.
As Centola writes, social networks are basically the totality of people’s relationships, which may and may not be (more likely not) the same as Facebook friendships.
Networks “include everyone we talk to, collaborate with, live near, and seek out,” Centola writes. “Our personal network makes up our social world.”
If we want to do more than make a dance go viral on TikTok, if we want to create a movement to protect voting rights, for instance, we need to rely on what Centola calls strong-tie networks, as opposed to weak-tie networks.
“The geometry of weak-tie networks looks a lot like a fireworks display,” the author writes. “Each person is at the epicenter of their own ‘explosion,’ and their weak ties reach out randomly in every direction. Each tie jumps to a different, sometimes faraway place. There is very little social redundancy in weak ties. These people tend not to be connected to one another’s friends.
“The geometry of strong-tie networks looks more like a fishing net,” he adds. “These networks have the appearance of an interlocking sequence of triangles and rectangles. This pattern, often referred to as network clustering, is distinctive for its abundance of social redundancy. People are connected to one another’s friends.”
The Black church, working in tandem with other civic binding agents like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are what created the strong-tie networks responsible for the Civil Rights Movement.
Rosa Parks “was effective because she was not alone,” Centola writes, echoing Putnam. “She was part of a massive social network of citizens who coordinated their efforts to protest segregation in the American South.”
For instance, before she became famous for sitting on a bus (an act that ultimately paved the way for the massive misconception of Parks as a mere domestic servant with tired feet who was passively foisted into history), she was one of the NAACP’s best sexual assault investigators.
Twelve years before the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks worked to investigate instances of Black men falsely accused of rape — a common pretext for lynching — and Black people sexually assaulted by whites.
The historian Danielle L. McGuire documents this overlooked aspect of Parks’ biography in At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.
Too often, when we learn about historical figures and successful people, their social networks get obscured. We tend to see them as if they sprang fully formed into the world. But this isn’t how change works in reality, Centola argues.
“Social networks are the coordinating sinews that allow large numbers of regular people from many different walks of life to act together,” he writes. “When people act as a coordinated whole, then any one person’s action — that of Rosa Parks, for example — carries with it a mass of anonymous people. That is how revolutions are sparked.”
So, as Centola explains, if we want to see how change really works, the first step is “to stop looking for the special people in the network and instead start looking for the special places.”
Places like Holt Street Baptist Church, where King and other local leaders at the time met to strategize and stage the Montgomery bus boycott. Today the historic church, sadly, sits abandoned.
When I think of our present crisis of churchgoing, I think of my own church, a Baptist congregation in Maywood going through its own challenges.
Like the Catholic parishes in Oak Park, membership is down. Our pastor of some five decades died a few years ago. Next weekend, we’ll be tasked with selecting his permanent successor. I don’t attend services very regularly, so I’ve decided to recuse myself from the voting (we’ll pick one candidate among five finalists).
I still, however, consider myself a member. This church, after all, was where I grew up, was nurtured, and where I developed.
Sundays were a production, from morning until late in the evening, when I’d often fall asleep on the pews, often under the sound of relatives preaching (my grandfather, stepfather, grandmother and a great-aunt were all ministers, assigned based on a rotating schedule, to deliver a sermonette on any given evening).
Before those late-night Vespers services, as they were called, a small group of us would gather for what was called Baptist Training Union or BTU, for short. This was roughly an hour in a room picking through Bible scriptures before convening to sing hymns and share testimonies.
The experience, much like Sunday school some 10 hours earlier, has stayed with me. I realize now that it helped build character, provided reading and comprehension lessons, and wove around me a strong-tie network that I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else.
One of my Sunday school teachers was Don Williams, who was also a minister at my church. Williams, the father of Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, was the second Black mayor of Maywood (Maywood’s first Black mayor, Joe Freelon, was the longtime chairman of our church’s deacon board).
Williams was also once the leader of the Maywood branch of the NAACP, where he discovered a bright, charming and enthusiastic young student-leader and decided to appoint the teenage boy to be the civil rights organization’s local youth leader. That boy was Fred Hampton.
Various institutional nodes, whether churches or civic organizations like the NAACP, often interconnect, creating amplifying effects. Don Williams, Joe Freelon, Fred Hampton. I feel their cumulative influence intimately within me and that sense of history and tradition feeds my own sense of purpose.
It’s a powerful thing knowing that you aren’t alone in the world, that you’re part of a community of people who have been before you; who live, struggle and have their being beside you; and who will come after you.
What happens, as Larkin asked many years ago, when these binding institutions wither and die (“a shape less recognizable each week, a purpose more obscure”)?
I trust Larkin’s answer. Humans will be compelled to recreate them, “since someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious.”
Whether or not it’s possible, in our lonely age, to create alternative institutions that are as effective at weaving social networks strong enough to spark the moral revolutions the world desperately needs right now is another question.