I continued my Milwaukee presention on Family Ministry by defining community:

Community is key to ministering to families. Conservatives understands this. It’s time progressives did, too. And while we strive to have as expansive definition of family as possible, the truth is that when we talk put the concepts of family and community together, we must inevitably think of the children. Here’s what Diana Garland has to say about this:

The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” became a political slogan pointing to the importance of community for children, but it does not quite go far enough. All persons, both children and adults, need community. Because children are dependent on others for their survival, their vulnerability in the absence of community is more apparent. As James Garbarino has pointed out, children are like the canaries miners used to take with them into mine shafts. Canaries are particularly sensitive to poisonous gasses, and if they succumbed, the miners knew the environment was dangerous (Garbarino, 1995). Like canaries in mine shafts without adequate fresh air, children “succumb” without adequate communities of nurture and support. Adults, too, however, need to live in community. Some seem to need community more than others, but even self-sufficient adults seek the company of others and need a community when they become ill, injured, or threatened. (Diana Garland, “Community: The Goal of Family Ministry“[Word Doc].)

It’s important for the future of our religious movement, for spiritual progressives, for progressives in general, for the country, perhaps even for the entire world. As George Lakoff says:

I think the issue to bring progressives together should be this most central of all issues—raising children to become responsible, empathetic adults. (Lakoff: Moral Politics)

[By the way, I could easily see “raising children to become responsible, empathetic adults” as the primary goal to measure the success of our religious education programs by. The secondary goal would be raising life-long UUs.]

Unfortunately, this is one of the shared weaknesses of mainline Protestant denominations.

A recent poll conducted for PBS’s Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly surveyed 1,130 adults about faith and family. Anna Greenberg, vice president of the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc., told Sojourners [magazine] that “progressive religious groups [need to] make sure they are offering services on the ground for children”—something she said conservative evangelicals often do well. Greenberg saw this as important to the long-term survival of progressive religious traditions. (“Progressive Family Values,” Sojourners Magazine)

So we’ve got our work cut out for us. Here’s where I think we should start: the primary service on the ground we can offer to our children is to offer them connected communities in the form of nurturing congregations.

Here’s why:

According to Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities (a report by The Commission on Children at Risk), the “mental and behavioral health of U.S. children” is deteriorating.

We are witnessing high and rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit/conduct disorders, thoughts of suicide, and other mental, emotional, and behavioral problems among U.S. children and adolescents.

According to the report, these “rising rates of mental and emotional problems among American young people raise a red flag about how well we are nurturing our kids.”

While many American young people are thriving, many more are not, and there are worrisome signs that as a society we are losing rather than gaining ground. Notwithstanding sustained increases in material well-being and important medical advances in the ability to treat depression and other mental disorders, the rate of serious mental and emotional disorders among American children and youth has been rising steadily. Eight percent of high school students have clinical depression, 20 percent report having seriously considered suicide during the past year, and, according to the Surgeon General, 21 percent of 9- to 17-year-olds have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that will cause at least minimum impairment. A recent study of mental health problems among college students at a large Midwestern university found that over the past 13 years, the number of students being seen for depression doubled, the number of suicidal students tripled, and the number of students seen after a sexual assault quadrupled.

“Numerous studies,” says Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids “show that privileged adolescents are experiencing epidemic rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse rates that are higher than those of any other socioeconomic group of young people in this country.”

[I mentioned the cover photo from The Price of Privilege: a group of adolescents sitting together on some bleachers, each of them with a wireless phone in their face, probably reading or sending a text message.] In fact, here’s a blog post I read last fall that shows just how disconnected kids are from live human community:

Class of ’11 brims with gadgets, hope
Posted by Stefanie Olsen

My, my how time flies. In just four years, the profile of the average college freshman has vastly changed, thanks to technology. That’s according to a study published Wednesday from Alloy Media and Marketing and research firm Harris Interactive, which contrasted details of the class of 2011 from that of 2007. (It queried 1,592 students ages 18 to 30 in the United States to gather its data).

The gist is that most college freshman are likely carrying all of the following: cell phone, digital camera, laptop and iPod (or some other MP3 player). It may seem hard to imagine it any other way, but that wasn’t the case just four years ago, when “wired” still meant caffeinated and students weren’t necessarily messaging their professors on Facebook.
What are the differences? Here’s a short list:

No big surprise, but 93 percent of freshman say they own a cell phone, vs. about 78 percent four years ago.

A majority of students, 64 percent, owns a digital camera, double the figure four years ago. Sixteen percent say they plan to buy one this year.

More than half of students (58 percent) own an MP3 player, up from 17 percent in 2004.
A majority of students (63 percent) own a laptop, vs. 42 percent in 2005. The desktop is now considered “old school,” according to the report.

About a third of college kids are mobile on campus, thanks to blanket wireless connectivity at as many colleges, according to the study. That number has doubled in four years, and it’s poised to increase. Two-thirds of campuses say they have a wireless strategy in place.

More than half (54 percent) of students visit a social network every day. Four years ago, the number was too small to report. And 27 percent of students say they prefer to keep in touch with friends via a social network over face-to-face communication.

Finally, a third of this group believes they have an innate ability to change the world for the better and say they are more likely to buy brands that are socially and environmentally responsible. Harris didn’t report the earlier figure [four years ago], but it’s heartening.

The bit about the ability to change the world is heartening, but the fact that “27 percent of students say they prefer to keep in touch with friends via a social network over face-to-face communication” isn’t. While it’s not impossible to make real connections using Facebook and a wireless phone, it’s very difficult and it’s definitely no replacement for face-to-face interaction, or what Dr. Edward Hallowell calls “the human moment.” (He writes that the human moment is ”an authentic psychological encounter that can happen only when two people share the same physical space. It has two prerequisites: people’s physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention.”)