One major value of religion is its tendency to build social capital for people, creating networks of relationships that sustain them in both practical and spiritual ways. Religious congregations are extended families that increase the “surface area” of a person’s contact with the rest of the world. “Coffee hour” after worship often has a bigger positive impact than the sermon that precedes it, as people serve each other with listening ears, offering practical help as they mingle. In my days as a parish pastor, I practiced “power coffee hour,” working hard to connect with as many of the church members as possible during that time, so I could get a sense of the needs of the congregation while introducing as many people to each other as I could.
In his memorable book, “Bowling Alone,” sociologist Robert Putnam argues that as people participate less in local institutions in America, they suffer a loss of social capital. The churches, mosques, and temples in America are among the few neighborhood-based organizations that buck the trend. Saul Alinsky, the “godfather” of community organizing in the U.S., was not a religious person, but his first stops in his organizing projects were at local houses of worship.
I have witnessed the remarkable power of religious communities to bring social capital to bear on behalf of their members. Some congregations are particularly good at bringing low-income, isolated people into a milieu in which they benefit tremendously from contact with fellow congregants who have the connections they need to get ahead. It is as if they’ve stepped into an updraft as they enter the door of the church or temple or mosque, and find themselves swept up toward job contacts, vital information about services and resources, and good role models to follow toward creating better lives.
To some degree, this updraft of social capital is accidental, an unintended consequence of congregational life. But I believe it helps a lot to be intentional about it. I teach a course in public policy in the graduate school of Social Work at USC, and in my classes I constantly mix up the students in different small subgroups. Part of my purpose is to get them to engage more intensely and personally with the topics of the course. But another purpose is to encourage them to get to know each other, so they can offer informal practical and emotional support to each other, while in school and beyond. Part of the course is an exploration of the topic of social capital, so it’s best that I practice what I preach in class!
Mario Luis Small, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, wrote “Unanticipated Gains,” a study of child care centers. He identified them as surprisingly powerful engines for building social capital in neighborhoods. He noted that not all centers were equal in the degree to which they brought parents together in networks of friendship. The centers that expected or required parents to work together in such activities as fundraising and field trips with kids were much more effective at building social capital. The relationships formed among parents, resulting from their required participation in the child care center’s activities, sustained them with practical support and friendship that served them for many years.
Organizations of all kinds can make the creation of social capital an important part of their missions. How can we structure churches and all other institutions in such a way that they will serve in the formation of friendships and webs of mutual support among the people whose lives they touch? We need to invent reasons for church members to work together and get to know each other. This is the real “salvation” that churches have to offer – liberation from the loneliness, isolation, and alienation that people suffer in this culture. How have you helped to create social capital, whether intentionally or by happy accident? What else can you do to leverage the capacity of your congregation to generate a stronger web of personal relationships?
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California