Secular churches for continuity

I tend to describe modern life as 'fragmented'. Lacking a 'canonical place' to create continuity from shared experiences, people rarely collide on a regular basis and end up separated from one another, despite wishing otherwise.

Although there is an abundance of spaces, events, and communities, they tend to lack continuity unless you are a part of groups specific to work, school, clubs, activities—I'm not aware of something that spans all of these contexts, other than places of worship. I re-encounter people mostly 'by chance' (it so happens we showed up to the same thing at the same time) or 'by appointment' (we booked a one-off time to meet and honoured it)—with luck, it might happen more than once, but continuity is a struggle. Committing to a recurring schedule is challenged by modern forces, including but not limited to: 'survival' responsibilities (like work, family, self-care, etc…); a culture of busyness; the feeling of limited time to pursue one's own interests; the idea that recurring meetings stagnate the dynamic (perhaps there won't be enough to talk about); compartmentalized living creates friction to knowing one's neighbours…

I might not be seeing past my personal difficulties in dealing with this, or maybe I'm just hoping to recreate something I felt was lost when I left the church, but I'm sure other people also struggle with these impediments, or worse, feel like they have no place to go.

What's missing

I grew up inside the church and it was a significant part of my life until adulthood, so it's the context I'm most familiar with. After spending the more recent portion of my life mostly in secular spaces, I notice things that I miss and would like to have as part of my experience:

  • it happens every week, but it's okay to miss it; even if people attend different time slots than you, you might catch them between services and have a chance to connect; you can pass various stages of your life there, or possibly all of it.
  • 'everybody' is there; a mix of friends, colleagues, coworkers, family, acquaintances; across interests, age groups, levels of education, and physical or mental capacities.
  • low barriers to participation encourage the previous point; being a 'professional' is not necessary; there are no entry fees or technical requirements; 'non-believers' are usually welcome.
  • community space where other things happen during the week; probably a local, physical place, but various aspects could be translated online; there's probably one near you.
  • not cohort-based like schools; people may leave, but not on a schedule; it's natural for different waves and generations to interact over time.
  • 'everyone' doing something together, perhaps through music or rites; there are various roles for people to participate (singing, reading, communion, announcements, organizing, training, collection); kind of a giant communal moment where all participate.

There are likely plenty of structural issues to consider, but I'm focusing on the parts that would be useful in other contexts. The result is a microcosm or universe with many subgroups and intersections, and a great serendipity generator.

Defragmentation possibilities

I'm not sure what to propose as a way to cultivate these properties in a secular context, but I have seen some ideas hinting at 'broader ranges' of people together on a regular basis.

The Sunday Assembly might be a literal translation: a weekly gathering of people who listen to talks and sing popular music together.

Places devoted to social lubricants like coffee or alcohol are probably more accessible and prevalent these days. I like the way Emmet Shear describes how congregation in these places decreases with technological change:

Vienna in the 1900s, was famous for its café culture. And one of the big drivers of that café culture was expensive newspapers that were hard to get, and as a result, people would go to the café and read the shared copy there. And once they're in the cafe, they meet the other people also reading the same newspaper, they converse, they exchange ideas and they form a community. In a similar way, TV and cable used to be more expensive, and so you might not watch the game at home. Instead you'd go to the local bar and cheer along with your fellow sports fans there. But as the price of media continues to fall over time thanks to technology, this shared necessity that used to bring our communities together falls away. We have so many amazing options for our entertainment, and yet it's easier than ever for us to wind up consuming those options alone. Our communities are bearing the consequences. For example, the number of people who report having at least two close friends is at an all-time low. I believe that one of the major contributing causes to this is that our entertainment today allows us to be separate.

Online communities may have some potential as they are always-on and can bring together the largest possible quantity of people, but molding the technology to avoid chaos or context collapse is a challenge. I'm most optimistic about decentralized communities around writing (longing for the blogosphere days), and deeper conversations with a diverse range of people (as might happen in Interintellect). Social networks each have subsets of 'your people' depending on how they relate to technology, and I've been trying to get around this by starting a weekly thing, creating affordances for more participation, and leveraging specific platforms to increase sustainability.

My hope

I would most like to see lifelong communities built around continuous learning, as described in this post about Free Schools:

Communal spaces (and schools) should be like this: always open, welcoming, and safe. A space like this, provides a place for people to learn, build, get practical experience, and express themselves.

Imagine schools or libraries as plentiful, and run by people within their own communities. Normalizing the desire to learn and grow would give anyone a common 'place to go', regardless of what they believe. How can this be encouraged today?

If you're thinking about ways to defragment society, please share your thoughts here with me, or in your public square.


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