Social Capital: the capacity an average person has to organize into groups, giving that person the power to accomplish social change.
The decline of the Church in the developed world has been debated ad nauseam. Many are quick to point out that their “global” church is actually on the rise, but that’s little solace to local congregations that are failing. People want to know what went wrong and how to fix it.
The Industrial Revolution created population densities never before seen as people moved from farm fields to factories. Even though their economic prosperity was on the rise, factory workers were able to see the disparity between their squalor and the splendor of the factory owners. Because of their proximity, they were able to form groups and rally against their oppressors, bringing all sorts of social change. In other words, their proximity was a new source of social capital. In England, John Wesley’s movement helped people to organize into class meetings (small groups) that in part, fought to right social injustices. Without such a religious outlet in France, they had a bloody revolution instead. Wesley’s movement, Methodism, led to the expanded reach and power of Christianity.
Here’s the secret formula: Social Capital + Social Injustice + Innovator = Church Growth
“The Great Awaking,” alluded to above, had a great run. We built schools and hospitals and took on governments and won, but over time those schools and hospitals have been secularized and no longer share direct ties to the churches that created them. Government and corporations have taken over responsibility for meeting social needs. The internet has given us even more social capital, but has also stolen it from churches and other social organizations. It used to be that the church was the community center where you met your friends, your spouse, and where you worked together for the good of society. It still does all those things, but the internet does them better with facebook, Match.com, and Kiva, for example. We spend way more time online then we ever did at church.
Early in Wesley’s ministry, he was banned from preaching in the Anglican church in part because he pointed out the disparity in how the church treated the rich and the poor. The rich had reserved sanctuary seating, among other examples. This forced a reluctant Wesley to take his ministry to the streets where it really took off. Did Wesley pioneer something new or did he simply move to a space where social capital was already concentrated? A little of both I imagine.
Following Wesley’s example, I’m inclined to believe that if we want to start a new Christian movement, we need to move from the church to the Internet, the current hub of social capital. Practically all recent social movements have been fueled by the internet, but few of them relate to the church. In the developed world, we live in a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity, yet so too are we more intimately connected to the injustices that grace our newsfeeds. What we are lacking, is the innovators, and the will, to do ministry in this constantly evolving frontier.