Bowling Alone

There is a determined expression on the face of the bowler who stands ready to strike. What will follow in a few heartbeats already plays out in his mind. He stares down the bowling lane where 10 defiant pins radiate the confidence that nothing in the world will make them fall. But he will send the ball down the oiled lane and send those pins flying. But then the perfection of the mental image is destroyed as conflicting feelings bubble up. Self-doubt mingles with hubris. “I can do it”, says the Freudian Uber-Ich. “I am the greatest!” “No, you’re not!”, says that part of the human psyche that continuously relives the countless humiliations it suffered. “You’re a loser, you always have been, and you always will be!” As the heart rate goes up the self-confidence goes out the door. But constant training taught the player to get his emotions under control. He breathes, he calms, and he releases the ball. Strike! In triumph, the man looks around, but there is nobody. Not a friend to share the joy, not an opponent to be intimidated by a perfect play. The man is bowling alone; as are all who fill the bowling alley.

That is the situation that Robert D. Putnam describes in his Book “Bowling Alone” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). He writes “Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work — but no longer.” Today we bowl alone. Putnam’s thesis is that American civic life is collapsing as fewer and fewer people join clubs, groups, fraternal organizations and churches. Today we are even more alone than at the beginning of the 21st century when the Economist hailed Putnam’s book as “a prodigious achievement”. Marriage rates in the US are at their lowest point in recorded history and over 50% of Americans are single. Loneliness is an epidemic, which is devastating to the soul of the individual and the country. 

This trend does not exclude the churches. Less and less people in the West follow the man from Galilee who commanded his followers to love each other as much as Jesus loved them. That implies that they get together, overcome their animosities and grow into communities. Christ calls us to love our neighbors, especially those we don’t like. It sounds counterintuitive, but to love someone is not the same as to like someone. Loving neighbors is not a feeling, but a decision to approach others with genuine goodwill and respect. 

Community life might be one reason the worldwide church is growing. For us it seems to be a contradiction, but in the global context, the faith in Jesus Christ is not just growing; it is growing exponentially. Christianity is the largest religious movement on the planet. Every year, more and more people follow the man from Galilee and expect the communities that meet in Jesus’ name to heal their broken hearts. However, the center of Christianity shifts from the Western world to the global South. Where life is hard and uncertain, people turn to Christ. The pew research center predicts that by the middle of the century, one in three people on the planet will be Christians. 

Many Westerners expect nothing good from churches, but judgementalism, narrow-mindedness, and science-defying superstitions. But thank God, Christianity is an extremely diverse movement. Some research will point any lonely individual to communities that will not measure people’s hearts, control their lives, relieve them of their funds or tell people who to vote for. In a society that suffers from loneliness, churches can give lonely souls a good place to belong. Most likely, that community will change your life. In the same way that your presence will change the church. Jesus’ command to love God, neighbor and self-stood the test of time. And yet, if church is not your thing, fraternal associations, nonprofit boards and other organizations that need volunteers wait for you with open arms. America has to get out of the house more and stop bowling alone.

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Olaf Baumann

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