Science in Christian Perspective
From: JASA 38 (December 1986): 251-257.
A review of the sociological concept of community concluded that sociologists are expressing an increasing level of concern about its loss in contemporary western society. Loss of community is reflected in an increasing number of social problems, including a higher suicide and crime rate, more mental depression and related psychiatric disorders. The need for community is deeply rooted in both the Scriptures and early Christian history. A reclaiming of this phenomenon is at least part of the solution to many of the problems currently confronting Western civilization.
The history of early Christianity reveals that community was one of its major social traits. Likewise, research on contemporary churches that are now thriving finds that they tend to be principally those that offer meaningful community. The degree of community in the early church is illustrated by the second century Christian writer, Justin Martyr (Roberts and Donaldson, 1885 translation: 186), who described a typical church service as follows:
On ... Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles, or the writings of the prophets are read. . . Then.... the president ... exhorts ... the imitation of these ... [examples). Then we all rise together and pray ... and the president ... offers prayers and thanksgivings ... And they who are well-to-do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
The experience of community, recognized as imperative in the early church, needs to be re-evaluated in an
attempt to capture its essence which has been diluted in
Christian history. This essence includes primarily a
focussed, active social responsibility, which was so
vividly expressed in the young church that more is
known about this aspect of the early church than many,
if not most, others (Sider,
emphasis on social concern and responsibility has been
adequately discussed by other writers, and need not be reviewed here. Our focus is specifically on the sociological concept of community.
Among the many New Testament passages which deal with this problem is Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-11. This account discusses an incident which highlights the religious seriousness of not responding to community needs:
The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed for his own use anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common ... None of their members was ever in want ... those who owned land or houses would sell them, and bring the money from them, to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any members who might be in need.
There was a Levite ... Joseph who ... owned a piece of land and he sold it and brought the money, and presented it to the apostles.
There was another man, however, called Ananias. He and his wife, Sapphira, agreed to sell a property; but with his wife's connivance he kept back part of the proceeds, and brought the rest and presented it to the apostles. "Ananias," Peter said, "How can Satan have so possessed you that you should lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the money [earned] from [the sale of I the land? What put this scheme into your mind? It is not to men that you have lied, but to God." When he heard this Ananias fell down dead. This made a profound impression on everyone present. The younger men got up, wrapped the body in a sheet, carried it out and buried it.
Later his wife came in, not knowing what had taken place. Peter challenged her. "Tell me, was this the price you sold the land for?" "Yes," she said, "that was the price." Peter then said What made you do it? [Did] you hear those footsteps? They have just been to bury your husband. . . " When the young men came in they found she [also] was dead and they carried her out and buried her by the side of her husband. This
made a profound impression on the whole Church and on all who beard it. (Jerusalem Bible)
This passage vividly shows that community concern
was not a Christian option, but a requirement that was
practiced by all of the faithful.
The Sociology of Community
The term community in the public's mind refers to a collectivity of people who live in a certain defined geographical area, usually a town, city, or a section of a city. As the concept of community developed in sociology, it came to refer more to the specific experience of a group expressing concern and various types of support for each of its members. In short, it is exhibiting those values which typify the stereotypic small, caring American city in contrast to the modern industrial megalopolis. Although Mitchell (1968:32) claims that in sociology "the term community is used in a general and deliberately vague way," the concept in fact often refers to Gemeinschaft. This term, coined by Toennies, was used
... to denote social situations wherein those involved treat one another as ends rather than means (as in the ideal type mother-cbild relationship); implies the same type of relationships prevailing in the ideal type primary group; contrasts with Geselischaft and sometimes with secondary group. (Hoult, 1969:142)
Community is essentially helping when needed, neighborly concern at all times and a genuine interest in each and every community member as well as the health of the group as a whole. It is other-directed ness and a direct application of the "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" Christian ethic. Its ideal is giving physically and psychologically of one's self in a total sense; its real is often clear, deliberate known efforts in this direction, and reasonable success. The implementation of community is always imperfect, yet is always set forth as an ideal. It is among the most worthy of goals, to be earnestly sought after by all. Fe%, disagree with its importance, yet most fail to live up to its goals (Packard, 1972). Community can range from functional concern for one's neighbors to a total family involvement typical of a commune.
According to Nisbet (1969) the concept of community has proved to be of fundamental importance in understanding all organized human relationships beyond the family level. Community is a social environment in which volitional relationships between individuals are characterized by social cohesion to the degree that commitment to each other is viewed, not just as an obligation, but as a normal, natural, and endless series of reciprocations. This commitment involves not only concern, but also personal intimacy and an emotional depth which is continuous in time and of such power that it transcends almost all personal conflicts. Although it may be conditional upon adherence to certain group norms, they are usually specified and well known. Community in these groups supersedes to some degree the individual. The welfare of the group is often above that of each member, and that of each other member is above, or at least equal, to one's own concerns. Individualism is at the least discouraged, and instead active concern over the group's goals is fostered. This concern is often translated as otherdirectedness expressed toward other individuals instead of toward the group Collective (Drummond, 1981).
One of the more extensive early discussions of community was by Toennies (1957). His major concern was the harmful effects of the impersonalization brought about by urbanization and industrialization. As persons moved into the cities in search of better paying jobs in factories, the changes that occurred in both their lives and the factory towns themselves were researched by sociologists. Their findings were of major concern to others, especially theologians, ministers, and humanitarians. The changes were primarily from a sacred to a secular orientation, from an ascribed to an achieved
Jerry Bergman holds a Bachelor's degree with the equivalent of a major in Psychology, Sociology, Education, and Biology, a Master's degree in Education and Psychology, and a Doctorate in Evaluation and Research and Psychology, all from Wayne State University in Detroit. He also has a second Master's in Social Psychology and Corrections, and is currently completing his second Doctorate in Sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. His last academic position was as Associate Professor of Psychology at Spring Arbor College in Spring Arbor, Michigan. He has over 300 publications, including 20 books, monographs and book chapters.
status, and from a corporate and communal orientation to a rational-individualistic one. Another shift was from mechanical solidarity (where associations were strengthened by commonality of problems due to similar work and play) to organic solidarity (where associations were held together out of dependence after specialization occurs).
A major response to the demise of community that usually followed modernization was an emphasis on deliberate moral education. Moral instruction and socialization into a set of norms which stressed the collective good, concern for others, and moral values, especially those which encouraged a responsibility to others, became a major focus (Gardner, 1978). Community is, by definition, generally highly responsive to human needs and it can be such without exploitation or dependency, a common charge that modern welfare systems face (Holloway, 1966). A unified, harmonious community can provide effective socialization because, for the most part, the values taught are consistent and reinforced by most individual members. This milieu provides the person with a strong sense of the validity of those values which he or she was socialized to accept. Within the impersonal city, a wide variety of divergent views almost always exist. This social environment serves to impede effective socialization of those norms which favor the group over the individual.
The research on depression has been especially helpful in understanding the importance of community. Durkheim was one of the earl-v researchers to recognize the mental health importance of bonding, the need to establish connectedness to society or to a meaningful social group. Those who have secure emotional bonds to significant others are far less apt to suffer from most types of mental depression (Fabrega, 1975). This explains the difficulty typically experienced in living alone or in adjusting to & loss of a mate. Research on bereavement has found that one of the most important factors in coping with this difficult adjustment period is the ability and initiative others take in fulfilling the various roles that the lost person successfully filled (Schoenberg et A, 1975). Providing emotional support and doing things for the person grieving would figure at the top of the list. Overcoming various emotional problems, such as loneliness or even some types of mental depression requires, principally, the mending of breaks that may have occurred between the person and his or her significant others.
The need for human contact is such that individuals who live alone will commonly turn on the TV for background noise, or they may spend much time connecting with others by the phone. Interestingly, alienation caused by modern industrialization in society has been accompanied by inventions designed to
Loss of community is reflected in an increasing number of social problems, including a higher suicide and crime rate, more mental depression and related psychiatric disorders.
reduce the loneliness that it incurred. On large family
farms there rarely was a shortage of persons to talk to
and be with. Modern, mobile society, on the other
hand, has produced a shortage which has forced a
reliance upon electronic connectedness to other
The Other Benefits of Community
Community not only facilitates the satisfaction of emotional needs, but also purely physical ones. It is well known that a group of individuals, by cooperating and pooling their resources, can generally accomplish much more than can any one person separately. United we stand, divided we fall, is not only true in wars, but also in economics. An important factor of community, illustrated best by the many Amish and Bruderhof communes, is helping those physically in need. When a barn is destroyed by a lightning fire, when a couple marries, or when hardship befalls an area, the community helps out immensely. Young Amish couples often begin their families with a house, barn, land, et cetera, all debt-free (Hostetler, 1980). They are not burdened with the thirty-year mortgage or spiraling debts often incurred by non-Amish, which often require half or more of a lifetime to overcome. Their bank and insurance policies are other Amish. With no middlemen and a high degree of cooperation, most all will in time prosper.
Disaster research has found that the cooperation which a tragedy forces often causes those involved to realize that a resource exists that they were often far less conscious of during good times (Eurich, 1967). This resource is often far more valuable than that which is lost. Public service commercials often stress the need for communities to pitch in and solve problems ranging from crime to pollution to urban decay. As the community goes, so its individuals go, stressing the need each of us has for each other, and that the accomplishments of one person affect the achievements of all, often directly (Zablocki, 1971). Community is thus a crucial element in society, and ever present (although in some areas and some cultures it is far more obvious and more pervasive than in others).
Durkheim was one of the early researchers to recognize the mental health importance of bonding, the need to establish connectedness to society or to a meaningful social group.
The influence of community can be directly studied
in the developing African countries. Those tribes which
have prospered most tend to be those that are more
developed in terms of community. Long
extensively religious organizations which stress community in contrast to both religious and non-religious
organizations which lack this quality. He found the
former were consistently more prosperous, socially
successful, and materially affluent; other psychological
and sociological benefits of community were obvious as
Therapy for Deprivation
Some social scientists try to attribute the growth of certain religions, especially those known as cults, to economic, social, or intellectual deprivation (Montague, 1977:135). In short, they concluded that persons lacking the benefits of community in their social world are attracted to groups that offer it. Intense involvement in religions that offer community appeals to these persons because they typically provide both an explanation for their plight and a source of gratification, namely community and its normal benefits. Often a necessary pre-condition for joining many organized social movements, whether religious or secular, is the situation of felt deprivation, or at least a void in one or several life areas (Kanter, 1972; Houriet, 1971).
The achievements of block clubs and various community agencies illustrate both the rediscovery of the need for community and its continuing function. Periodically social scientists have endeavored to bring public attention to the human need for community. Vance Packard's popular work, A Nation of Strangers (1972) is one of many which illustrates well, via a popular presentation, the many important functions that community serves, In spite of its recognized importance, though, if community is not already a strong part of the local cultural tradition (as is often the case in large cities, although not nearly as much as in smaller. older American towns), we need to be periodicall-, reminded of its value (Kogan, 1960; Bettelbeim, 1960). It also requires a learned commitment both to others and the local community (Houriet, 1971).
The thesis that individuals long for community and its benefits has been explored by many writers (Nisbet. 1969; Zablocki, 1971; Richter, 1971). The quest for community, while not necessarily articulated by most persons, is a need that research on the individual psyche has revealed to be a strong drive in normal persons (Nisbet, 1919; Wooldridge, 1902). Alienation can actually be defined as either the inability to find community, or not being able to assimilate it once it has been found, similar to not being able to properly digest food, as in bulimia. The quest for community is so strong, according to Nisbet (1969), that
The single, most impressive fact of the 20th century in Western society is the ... widespread quest for community-in whatever form, moral, social, political-[and the fact that] ... too often the quest has been [sought] through channels of power and revolution which have [in the long run] proved destructive of human community.
A food analogy here would be seeking gastric satisfaction by eating poison. Endeavoring to satisfy a longing for community through religious sects which ultimately prove destructive to the person is another example (Manuel, 1965). Assuming that the quest for community is universal, many of the same motivations exist for joining groups as diverse as religious sects and political parties. And, according to Nisbet, some groups that offer quality community not uncommonly prove eventually destructive to the larger society itself.
For some persons, a major or primary attraction of their church is its provision of community. The existence and much of the success of not only the controversial contemporary cults, but of many religions, is due to their offering what in essence is a total psychological and sociological "belonging." A commune cult is the most extreme example. Some religions, while not as restrictive as the "family" religious communes, are psychologically pervasive to the extent that they offer an invisible commune which is almost as real as that offered by the formal commune itself.
Religious groups tend to grow and prosper to the extent that they provide community (Bergman, 1985). Those that have grown most rapidly often have been found to offer it more so than most others, partially because of a sincere dedication to a set of values which encourage community, but also because these religious groups are structured in such a way that community is integrally designed into its norms, goals, and values (Wilson, 1961, 1966). They stress that it is not only a positive good to give unto others, but a necessity (Wilson, 1970). Indeed, some churches teach that not so doing could mean eternal destruction in that God demands that one give as much as feasible of one's self to both Him and others. Giving is not an option for them, but a requirement. Members are thus conscious of this needand, however imperfectly they fulfill it, generally a sincere effort is put forth to do so. Their lack in this area often results in guilt, social chastisement and even, in some cases, in ex-communication (Bear, 1974). Exercising their capacity to give often results in rewards, both those which normally emanate from helping, and those which are given by the formal religious structure to encourage such behavior in the future. Instruction and community via role-playing and didactic reading material also have long been used (Wooldridge, 1902).
Bergman (1985) found that a major reason for joining the religious groups popularly known today as 11 cults" stems from their offer of a high level of community. A survey of the major contemporary 11 cults," including the Unification Church, the Mormons, The Way, as well as older, more established "Christian deviations" such as the Christadelphians, the Cooneyites, the Jehovah's Witnesses and even the Amish and Hutterites, finds that they all manifest a high level of community. Research has found that this is either overtly or covertly one of their major attractions (Bergman, 1985). Much of the concern expressed in the media over the growth of cults and the reasons behind this contemporary development has neglected this important factor.
Involvement in most of the strict, cultic or fundamentalistic religious groups clearly involves a trade-off, and one of the bargaining items of these fellowships is, quite openly, community. Whether the trade is worth it depends upon the person; undoubtedly in many cases it is (Quebedeaux, 1982). This is the reason why manypeople are willing to give up a great deal in order to involve themselves in religious groups that require a high level of conformity to a rigid moral and belief code (Bergman, 1985). The fact that many of these sects have grown fairly rapidly, and that many are continuing to add members in the face of massive negative public press, illustrates the powerful attraction of community. Even when the involvement in the religious group proves destructive, it is still extremely difficult to sever one's relationship with it (Penton, 1985). By doing so one loses community as well as social contact with persons that one has come to accept as significant others.
At least some of the costs of membership are known to neophytes-tbe clear possibility of persecution is often discussed with many converts, as is the requirement to adhere to moral standards which may well involve much sacrifice. Some deindividualization often takes place. One is no longer primarily a store manager, but a person among equals, one of the brothers and sisters (Peters, 1965). Mutual criticism is an important part of insuring conformity. The available sanctions are ever present. They range from minor (not allowed to say audible prayers at the meetings), to major (such as total banishment called disfellowsbiping). Thus sanctions as severe as not being allowed to speak to any other member in good standing, even including those in one's family unless absolutely necessary, always hang
Community is a social environment in which volitional relationships between individuals are characterized by social cohesion to the degree that commitment to each other is viewed ... as a normal, natural, and endless series of reciprocations.
Community Gone Awry
Involvement in many of the growing cults requires not only a high level of community, but a large investment of time, money, energy and emotional involvement in the organization. It also not uncommonly involves renunciation of many commitments to the outside world except those that are considered manifestly necessary (such as employment or buying goods at the store). Involvement also typically involves giving up status differences (one is just a servant of the most high) and submitting to at least ritual involvement (attending meetings, baptism) as well as adopting a new identity.
The fact that many of these sects have grown fairly rapidly, and that many are continuing to add members in the face of massive negative public press, illustrates the powerful attraction Of community.
Extreme isolation from the outside community can produce an indigenous culture which, although influenced by the outside values, finds much of the origin of its standards and ideals within. Such a group disapproves of the incorporation of elements from the outside culture, and clearly and often communicates to its members that its intrinsic values are superior. They are, in time, seen as natural and those outside as abnormal norms. Such an orientation may be functional if the community's norms are constructive, but if Dot it may be harmful. The children of Ida Eisenhower, for example, were raised devout Jehovah's Witnesses, yet Witnesses today not uncommonly berate them because as adults they openly rejected some of the major Witness norms. They joined the military, ran for public office, and went to college (Cole, 1955). As one Witness said relative to former President Eisenhower (Bergman, 1985:73):
What good has his success got him? He has rejected Jehovah God and has found his paradise on earth. But that is all that he will get; a few short years of adulation and, when he is dead, he will be cut off for everlasting. To think be was raised in the truth by Sister Eisenhower and yet rejected Jehovah's beloved promises for the world! I just cannot see how someone could do that. I really feel sorry for President Eisenhower, and certainly would not want to be in his shoes.
Community may be so strong that one may even give up a promising career because it may distract one from this more important work and produce excess wealth. fame, or worldly associations. The case of two Jehovah's Witnesses who gave up their careers when they converted was reported as follows (Douglas, 1969:51):
The English soccer world has been rocked by the decison of two top players to leave the game for full-time service with Jehovah's Witnesses. Last month, heedless of pleas from the giant crowd that included many tearful girl fans, 23-year-old Peter Knowles played his last game for Wolverhampton, Two weeks later Bobby Tambling ... an all-England forward, also decided to quit a lucrative career, be baptized, and give 150 hours a month as a "pioneer" with the sect. His pay would be $5.88 a month with $72 annual clothing allowance ... London's ... Watchtower ... spokesman denied special efforts to convert famous sportsmen, but football officials are skeptical of the disclaimer. "If any player is approached by these people we would welcome a chat with him before be gets too involved," says Cliff Lloyd, secretary of the professional footballers association. Meanwhile managers are understandably jumpy; as someone has said, they never know when a player will enter their office with the announcement: "I would like to pray with the Jehovah's Witnesses next season. "
Members of the exclusivistic religions not only believe that they know "who they are," but where they came from and where they are going. A continuous whole and a purpose is seen in almost every event that occurs (Penton, 1985). Those they view as negative are Satan's temptations, the positive are God's blessings. In contrast to the rootlessness of modern society, though, members of these sects have strong roots, even if they move elsewhere. The move is usually from a congregation in which they are intimately acquainted with the members to one in which they have yet to become so. And they are confident they soon will, and almost always soon do. The technological progress which may cause one to lose the natural human community is often not a concern of those in these cults and sects (Packard, 1972).
Much publicity has been given to various religious cults which deviate significantly from the mainstream of American Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic religious traditions. A major concern is "brainwashing" as a conversion method and the various physically coercive, or psychologically unacceptable methods of retaining members in these various religious sects (Conway et al., 1979). A major clue to conversion and commitment to many of these religious "cults" is not brainwashing, but community. They advertise a highly supportive environment, and this is often provided. The primary drawback is that such community is often contingent upon conformity to a particular belief structure and set of moral ideals. Unfortunately, the latter requirement is often not stressed until after involvement.
Although other attractions are often present, a religion often tends to grow and thrive to the extent that it offers community, and it will often remain stagnant or decline to the degree that it does not offer it. This factor has been understressed in the sociological research on various religions.
one of the major appeals of most successful churches is community. This support includes emotional, financial and social help in finding employment, personal helping such as housecleaning parties, and other aid. Gemeinschaft was historically found in smaller communities which were based primarily upon intimate social relationships. They also tended to stress that Christians should live up to an ideal behavioral standard, one that was somewhat difficult for many persons to live up to, but nonetheless was an ideal which would facilitate upward, social mobility, and provide a solution to some of the major problems of life.
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