By Kent E. Fillinger
“Every modern brand that inspires intense passion—from Apple to Nike to SoulCycle to WeWork—has a spiritual underpinning,” writes Nicole LaPorte in the July/August 2017 issue of Fast Company. She tells the story of shared community, social connections, and a common purpose for those who participate in Tough Mudder obstacle course competitions.
Will Dean, CEO of Tough Mudder, believes their events can provide people with these same types of spiritual rituals. Dean told the magazine,
[Tough Mudder races] are the pilgrimage, the big, annual festivals, like Christmas and Easter [emphasis mine], if you use Christianity as an example. But then we also have the gym, which becomes the local church, the community gathering hub. You have the media, which is a little like praying. Then there’s the apparel, which is a little like wearing your cross or your head scarf or any other form of religious apparel. We exploit the power of the experience to bring people together.
On Easter weekend this year, your church will likely have its largest worship attendance of the year, based on my research. Regular attenders might bring a guest with them. Sporadic attenders will show up with anticipation. And some “CEOs”—Christmas and Easter Only folks—will quietly slip into a seat, unlikely to return again until December 24.
Each person comes from a different place—spiritually, emotionally, geographically. Each person has different expectations, wants, and interests from life and from church. But each person has the same eternal, innate need: the need to belong—the need to know others and to be known, the need to hear and know they matter, the need to know they’ll be missed if they’re gone. Belonging is spiritual.
The Virtual Reality
While each of us feels the need to belong, we live in an ever-changing world. The rate of change is now faster and more pronounced than ever. We talk often about generational shifts, but we’re really in the midst of an “era change,” according to Joseph Myers, author of The Search to Belong and Organic Community.
Because of new technologies, Myers said, we’re no longer limited by “geographical proximity” for relationships and belonging. Now we can virtually travel the world and interact with others in a new way. Thanks to the rise in technology and social media, it’s now about “relational proximity” and finding people with shared interests, like with the Tough Mudder events.
Tough Mudder used the power of social media to help “spread their gospel” and find followers when it started. The company now provides its followers with weekly training videos on Facebook and live-streams many of its events online and on multiple social media channels for people to watch all over the world.
Social media has shocked our system. Our world is now full of virtual tribes and online communities. For example, Facebook is fixated on creating more specialized groups for people to have an online and offline forum to discuss specific interests. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he wants to increase the membership of Facebook groups to a billion people in a few years, with a goal of helping people build more robust, meaningful communities offline.
Zuckerberg said he believes this will help reverse the declining involvement in “community anchors” (i.e., the church and service organizations like Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, etc.). He said, “A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor.” And he foresees Facebook serving in that “pastor” role of bringing people together.
A 2017 Barna Group study reported that 80 percent of people find their friends outside of the church. Many new smartphone apps are designed to connect you with other people. For example, the Peanut app allows mothers to log in via their Facebook accounts and uses a geolocation tool to connect users with other mothers nearby who share similar “life interests” such as “fitness fiend,” “wine time,” and “music is my medicine.”
One new mom told the National Post that Peanut helped her “create a digital space where I could form meaningful relationships while balancing the new, and often transformational, act of parenting. Another mom said her husband is a little jealous that she keeps making new friends with the app” (from “The Right to Swipe” by Sophia Kercher, May 31, 2017).
In spite of all these new and additional forms of connecting and belonging, there’s still widespread loneliness. It’s estimated 42.6 million Americans suffer from chronic loneliness.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told Time.com, “If we are feeling disconnected, that places us in a physiological stress state” that is as dangerous to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and more.
A Brigham Young University study found that “adults who are lonely have a 50% greater risk of dying within a given period than people who are more connected.”
“The foundational practices of belonging have changed because of social media, and now we have to relearn how to belong again,” Myers told me. This shift creates or contributes to the loneliness people feel.
Rethinking How People ‘Belong’
I asked Myers, “How has the rise of social media influenced your views on people’s ‘search to belong’ and the role of the church today? Where and how does the church fit into this puzzle?”
Myers said he would encourage the church to focus on the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37. Jesus had just told an expert in the religious law that the way to receive eternal life was to “love God” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Bible says the man wanted to justify his actions to make sure he could define it precisely so he could follow it as law. So he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Myers noted that Jesus’ description of a neighbor was the exact opposite of human nature and what would have been expected. Jesus described being a neighbor as a “one-time episodic event.”
The Good Samaritan and the Jewish man who had been beaten and left for dead didn’t become lifelong friends (probably not even friends on Facebook). But Myers noted this parable provides many clues to what it means to belong and the attitude we should have toward our neighbors. Myers envisioned the idea of this Jewish man telling the story of how he had been cared for and helped by a Samaritan to his children, grandchildren, and so on.
Easter weekend is a good example of another “one-time episodic event” at which the church has an opportunity to love its neighbor. Those who show up for Easter—whether they attend weekly or only once or twice a year—are looking for an opportunity to “belong,” even if that looks different than you would define it. And we need to realize each of these people is our neighbor, someone Jesus calls us to love well.
Likewise, we can extend this same attitude or mind-set to other aspects of our ministries. For example, when someone visits your website or your Facebook page in a “one-time episodic event,” they should feel like our neighbor as well—someone we love and care for, someone to whom we want to show mercy.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.