I am wondering how much has the way that people relate to each other changed in the past ten years. As I look around the church and country, I see much different religious landscape than a few years ago. Headlines speak of the rise of the "nones", people who have no religious affiliation whatsoever. However, many of these same people hold religious beliefs and even engage in practices like prayer or meditation. Many people who do hold religious affiliation attend their community's activities less often. Some of the stock answers to this phenomenon speak of the rise of secularism and so on. I am wondering if something deeper is going on.
I am currently finishing up a book called "the winner effect" by neuroscientist Ian Robertson. Much of the book revolves around how certain behaviors we engage in produce dopamine in the critical areas of the brain giving us a reward of good feelings when we do. All kinds of behaviors do this, but this happens especially when we experience a "win" no matter how small. Robertson also goes on to explain how many of the addictions people develop happen because they manipulate these same dopamine receptors in the brain. Gambling, drug addictions and so forth fool the brain and subvert a biological process in the brain leading a person to self destruct.
The question that I have is, is there something like this going on in human social relationships? Are the activities of media consumption and online social networking doing something similar? Do we get a shot of chemicals in the brain when we connect online, or view our favorite TV show, that mimics the good feelings we get when we are relating to friends and family in person? I almost want to answer the question in the affirmative. Statistics in such works as "Bowling Alone" and "American Grace" by Robert Putnam speak to the collapse of community and social capital in the US today. Is part of the reason because we can get the same good feelings of being in community when we are sitting on our sofa in our underwear? Do we feel that we get the benefit of community without the risk? I do think it is obvious that we are rapidly changing how we relate to each other. While much of the positivist tech press talks about the upside, I am sure there is a downside that we haven't thought of yet. While we hear many horror stories of the Internet exposing someone's dark side, the real risk seems to be the reverse. The Internet allows us to shape, control or manipulate our image very easily, while this is safe, no one gets to know the real you. Grace is always a gifted affirmation of the person and not a controlled one.
The practical ministry question that arises from all this is do the old ways of being in Christian community work anymore? If I answer yes then perhaps we just have to plug ahead a do what we have always done. If I answer no, do I have to learn how to be in this brave new world? I have no answers in this post just questions.