Recently, Ted Neward posted a link on Facebook, “How We All Miss the Point on School Shootings,” by Mark Manson. It’s got some interesting points to it, the most crucial of which is that thoughts about gun control and mental illness are not the best conclusions from such events, but the disconnectedness between us as human beings is the greatest cause and cure for tragedies like this.
That got me thinking, and I’d like to issue a challenge to everyone who reads this.
Christian authors Steve Timmis and Tim Chester wrote a book called “Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission,” which was trying to address the construction of what they call a “post-Christian culture,” in which people have no intention of attending church. Since people don’t really want to attend a “formal church” very much, a living church should therefore find other ways to be act as a church. They said that small groups of churches – what many Christians would refer to simply as small groups today – were effective, mostly because of the way humans interact.
They stated that formal churches just don’t have the ability to actually establish interpersonal relationships, which they see as the way for Christians to minister and instruct others. As a culture, we don’t really want to dress up and go to church every Sunday, listening passively to some bloke behind a podium, reading from some manual of thought to which we have no connection. (Of course, that’s not always true: people worship at the altars of popular entertainers and politicians, but thankfully we actually listen to them about as well as we would some evangelist, too.)
Since we don’t do the whole church thing as a culture all that much, it’s up to the church to do the “people thing” instead. But that’s too much of a burden to place on a pastoral staff; people, including pastors (since they’re people), aren’t wired that way. If memory serves, Timmis and Chester said that we connect to around eight people consistently – more than that and the quality of connection drops off dramatically.
Therefore, a pastor with a church of four hundred members would be likely to have three hundred and ninety-two members who lack connection with him. That violates what I understand a Christian pastor to be: a shepherd to his congregants, someone who they know cares about them.
Times and Chester acknowledged that, and said that it was actually up to the church to rectify that; a church has limited staff, but a reservoir of members, after all. The members should care for each other, serving as pastors themselves, forming a giant network of connections that should span the entire church and keep it healthy and vibrant. The pastor’s responsibility is to create the environment in which a healthy network of members exists.
This makes sense to me, even while I don’t think I could actually handle eight connections – I’m not wired that way.
Now, consider the point on school shootings (that connections missed are the best chance we have to protect both the victims and the shooters). Consider how great social networking is at absolutely disconnecting us from the people in close proximity, replacing those real human contacts with ephemeral and light touches that actually don’t serve to reinforce who we are or our humanity, granting us the illusion of real contact with few of the psychological benefits.
So let’s consider my challenges to readers.
The First Challenge: To whom are you connected?
First, I dare you to figure out who your closest contacts are.
One would hope your nuclear family was on this list; your wife or husband, and your children – all of them. (If I had a protest against large families, it would be based on this: I cannot imagine being able to attend to the needs of sixteen children, such that I’m invested in them and they’re invested in me. It’s just too many people, with too many demands. If the parents are able to keep track of this, they’re far better at this interpersonal contact thing than I am; I get overloaded even thinking about it.)
It may be that your extended family is on this list in some form, too. Maybe that’s as far as it goes – and that’s fine.
Ideally, your list would stretch to at least two other people outside your family (number picked at random; three seemed like a lot to me, but one was just plain pitiful.)
It might be the guy who recognizes you when you get your coffee, or it might be the football player you coach with whom you’ve established some kind of special bond.
It doesn’t matter who is on your list – but it should be someone you’re willing to ask about. You know, you’d ask about how their day went – and care about the answer. If things aren’t going well, you’d know them well enough to recognize their situation – and empathize with it, and maybe even help. You’d be willing to listen to them, commiserate with them honestly, celebrate with them, help them when they’re down, and tell them when you are down. They’re the people who you’d go into a foxhole with, more or less.
If your list is empty, well… time to change that. Start talking to the guy at the coffee shop, or the people at the gas station when you buy your snacks for the road, or… basically anyone who’s in your life on a regular basis.
It’d hopefully be someone with whom you have actual physical contact, but I imagine it doesn’t have to be. I have close friends in my circle who live eight hundred miles away – and whom I haven’t seen in person in years, and that’s okay, I think.
The Second Challenge: Who do you know who’s not connected at all?
Second, think about who, of the people you know, lacks human contacts?
Take that coffee-shop guy, for an example. Do you know if he’s a loner? Do you even know if he’s alone? (A loner might not be alone – I’m in this category. And someone who is alone might not be a loner.) Do you know if he wants to be alone?
If you know of someone who doesn’t have those contacts – i.e., someone who you think couldn’t list out their contacts – maybe that’s someone in your life to whom you could reach out.
You don’t have to become their best friend, you know? It might be that that person could become your best friend in the future – who knows, who cares? But reaching out to them might be the connection to humanity that person is needing more than anything else. It might be the lifeline that kills the seed of disaster.
It might not, of course. Not everyone is a ticking time bomb (or so one hopes). But what would it harm, exactly, to form even loose friendships with people, in the hopes that those tenuous connections might become stronger, or at least establish human connections?
The benefits would be enormous.