Monday, October 16, 2006

Friends and the New Urban Tribes

One of my wife's favorite television programs was Friends. As American audiences know the program was extremely popular, and it may have been so for reasons in addition to its great cast and good writing.

I also recall sitting in on a leadership meeting at a large church in California when this program came up in conversation and it did so in a negative sense. One of the church's staff persons took exception to the program's depiction of sex and childbirth outside of marriage. But on reflection in light of some recent reading I wonder if the significance for the popularity of this series has been missed both by those who admired the program, and those who saw it as problematic.

Two sources for my ongoing research project into Burning Man and alternative communities has been Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family? by Ethan Watters (Bloomsbury, 2003), and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Watters writes about the trend in America (echoed in other Western countries) wherein some 37 million people are delaying marriage into their thirties and forties. These "never marrieds" as classified in demographic surveys are finding identity and community in small social groups and networks rather than through "blood ties" and neighborhoods. Watters describes these "urban tribes" as "small societies formed by friendships, and mutal interests." He rightly notes that television sitcoms such as Friends and Seinfield tapped into this social development on a popular culture level.

Watters references Putnam's research which notes that American concepts of community have shifted toward individualism and away from community as defined in previous generations. This has resulted in declining civic involvement, whether through bowling leagues, rotary clubs or church membership, and this decline has been taking place for some time. Watters recognizes the validity of much of Putnam's research as confirming the shift toward "urban tribes," but bristles at the negative implications of this social change for American culture.

This sizeable chunk of American culture that comprises these urban tribes should send messages to American churches.

1. Most churches continue to plan their programs and church structure around married couples and the nuclear family while ministry to the "never marrieds" in the urban tribes is relegated to "singles" or college ministry. These conceptions of singles seems woefully behind the social developments in American culture.

2. Those involved in the urban tribes are often those who have left involvement in traditional religious institutions behind. Adding new institutional programs for singles seems inadequate as a means of engaging the urban tribes.

3. Participants in the urban tribes have developed intense emotional bonds in their tribes not found in other social groups and networks. The church will have a difficult time in creating a social group that will speak with equal passion and relevance for these people.

4. While the urban groups have a connection to geographical location, participants in these groups are often members of more than one group simultaneously. This is due not only to geographic proximity, but also due to social affinity between group members in varying groups. This means that churches must not only think in geographic terms while assessing their "sphere of influence," but must also think in terms of loose social networks and how these can be interacted with.

Returning to what I began this post with, those who enjoyed or were dismayed by Friends, perhaps we've missed an important factor in the success of sitcoms like it. The rise of the urban tribes provides us with an important facet for consideration.

1 comment:

Sally said...

Interesting observations-
I've just been talking to my eldest daughter a musiciam who lives in Canterbury, she'd been to church with her boyfriend ( another musician) who lives 400 miles away in Newcastle- they were asumed by the church to be husband and wife- when they explained this was not the case, that he was simply visiting for the weekend the well meaning members did not know what to do with them... up until that point they'd been invited to an evening meeting & socil- but its emphasis was on young married couples, not singles... Em enjoyed the church, but asks where do I fit when Ralph is in Newcastle and not with me???
A challenge indeed!