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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Thoughts on listening

to my MP3 player and to church bells

It was one of those unseasonably warm days when we put aside our concerns over global warming, reveling in wandering about without a jacket. I set out with my MP3 player, Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” streaming through my headphones. The wistful tune combined with the day’s beauty to give me a sense of complete happiness.

Then I began to note the varying expressions on the faces of other folks on the street—and realized that my happiness was contained within my headphones. Likewise, whatever they were feeling, whether joy or melancholy, did not extend beyond their furtive glances in my direction. I was one of a multitude wandering the streets of Washington, D.C., each oblivious to the emotional states of those around them.

This scene struck me as a microcosm of our society. Few among us claim they feel as connected to their neighbors and communities as were their parents and grandparents. Fraternal organizations are facing declining membership. Exurban sprawl has led to the decay of many traditional neighborhoods. And fewer people participate in community groups. This extends to our personal lives as well. Family dinners are much less common than before, while entertaining friends in one’s home is a rare occurrence. These examples aren’t mine but are drawn from the Web site based on political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s now-famous book, Bowling Alone.

Technological advances contribute to this situation. Home theaters obviate the need to attend a neighborhood cinema, and microwave dinners allow each family member to eat independently. Even cell phones and MP3 players play a role: I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken a train from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia with all passengers plugged into electronic devices. The cars buzz with activity as people listen to their music or hold conversations with a distant partner, but no experiences are shared among all passengers.

One may agree with these observations but dismiss them as insignificant, the product of an overactive imagination. I believe, though, that it would be hard to argue that this is a desirable situation—that people prefer to be cut off from those around them. There’s a good deal of anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that people are less happy now than they were decades ago. Inside our beautiful houses with their state-of-the-art entertainment systems, something is missing.

The very popularity of many Web sites that allow users to connect with others, creating virtual civil societies, suggests a desire to end living our lives in isolation. People obviously still desire companionship, and they will search for it through whatever means are available. Such means range from the practical, like the Web sites just mentioned, to the absurd. “Cuddle parties” in which participants pay to cuddle with strangers were all the vogue in Manhattan a year or so ago.

The current state of American society is a challenging one for the church. Once a community’s social and spiritual events revolved around its steeples. Now the deflating of community spirit in many towns has led to a consequent reduction in the role of the church. And the self-contained nature of many people’s lives leads them to believe they have all they need—and what they don’t have, they can buy. This makes the church’s mission of spreading Christ’s word of grace more difficult. The decline in church membership nationwide seems predictable and persistent.

But this time also offers an opportunity for churches to have a greater impact on the lives of those who do search for connections. Church dinners and Bible study groups can draw them out ... and then together. Service and outreach programs lead them to greater involvement in the wider community.

Finding a faith home, again or for the first time, can help people discover what it is they are looking for—whether they even realize it: the unconditional love of God expressed through God’s people.

And about the technology that seems to be dividing us? It also could be used to connect. Perhaps a Web portal that would enable Christians across the country to interact?

As I continued my walk, my happiness began to dissolve as I realized that this experience is one I would keep to myself. A bit farther on, though, I heard church bells ringing joyously. I could almost picture the worshipers inside. By the time I came up to the doors, the chiming drowned out my individual music—and I felt the joy that can only be felt when shared with fellow followers of Christ.


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