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The Big Sort

July 12, 2008
The Big Sort

The Big Sort by Bill Bishop

My family and I have only lived in South Central Austin (Barton Hills for you locals) for about 6 months now and one of the things I observed around the urban core was the marked differences from one neighborhood to another. You can see distinctions between Bouldin Creek and Dawson. Between Zilker and Barton Hills. Between Brentwood and Hyde Park. The differences are not just economic, but also social, political and religious as well. Those differences influence land use, education, the environment, voting patterns, church participation and types of businesses one would patronize. For the most part it was anecdotal evidence, but it was often confirmed by others collecting their own anecdotal evidence who had been here much, much longer. As a pastor seeking to bring renewal to people and communities in Austin it is critical that I understand these differences, learn how to see them, how to minister to them and how the gospel of reconciliation works within them.

That is why I was really happy to run across an excerpt of The Big Sort by Bill Bishop. Bishop (incidentally, who lives in Travis Heights) collaborated with other researchers, including Richard Florida of The Rise of the Creative Class, in mining through a great deal of historical demographic data and found some enlightening trends. While Florida focused on the creative class, Bishop focuses on how individual communities are being sorted into like-minded, homogeneous communities, into a balkanization of American communities.

I have posted some quotes below but I encourage you to read the full excerpt on NPR.com.

    1. “…people don’t live in states. They live in communities. And those communities are not close to being in equipoise, even within solidly blue or red states. They are, most of them, becoming even more Democratic or Republican. As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and, in the end, politics. Little, if any, of this political migration was by design, a conscious effort by people to live among like-voting neighbors. When my wife and I moved to Austin, we didn’t go hunting for the most Democratic neighborhood in town. But the result was the same: moving to Travis Heights, we took a side and fell into a stark geographic pattern of political belief, one that has grown more distinct in presidential elections since 1976.”
    2. “In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties.”
    3. “in every corner of society, people were creating new, more homogeneous relations. Churches were filled with people who looked alike and, more important, thought alike. So were clubs, civic organizations, and volunteer groups. Social psychologists had studied like-minded groups and could predict how people living and worshiping in homogeneous groups would react: as people heard their beliefs reflected and amplified, they would become more extreme in their thinking. …Americans were busy creating social resonators, and the hum that filled the air was the reverberated and amplified sound of their own voices and beliefs.”
    4. “Technology, migration, and material abundance all allow people to “wrap themselves into cocoons entirely of their own making,” Smith wrote. People are unwilling to live with trade-offs, he said. So they are “re-creating their environments to fit what they want in all kinds of ways, and one of the ways is they are finding communities that fit their values — where they don’t have to live with neighbors or community groups that might force them to compromise their principles or their tastes.”
    5. “We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life.”

      So what does this mean for me as a pastor? It means that I need to be a greater student of our individual communities. That I need to be more aware of how the gospel communicates effectively in these communities. This also confirms our need to develop strong missional communities that are able to contextualize the gospel for their communities, rather than starting a large homogeneous church that brings in like-minded, already convinced people from across the city. It means that I need some more prayer and more leaders to help in bringing renewal to the city. And that means I better get more serious about discipleship and shared leadership.

      One of the primary components of the gospel is the reconciliation between man and God and the subsequent reconciliation between one another. But as we continue to move apart from one another, the continuing balkanization and growing homogeneity will only increase the occurrences of people shouting at one another on street corners in protest of one another’s viewpoints and beliefs. I would prefer that we sit together in our communities, our coffee shops, our backyards, our living rooms, our kitchen tables and our lives and open ourselves to one another personally in one-on-one settings in order to care for one another and share what we have learned. I believe that the church, who has been given the ministry of reconciliation, should be at the forefront of bringing renewal to our communities, by both declaring and demonstrating the gospel in our communities. For some, this may mean intentionally moving into communities that don’t think like you think, or live like you live. As living in the urban core gets more costly, some will need to provide financial support to those enter the urban context. For each one of us, let us be the ones who step across the street first.

      After having read through at least the excerpt, how does this affect ‘the church’ and how does ‘the church’ respond?  Also, in what ways has ‘the church’ fallen into similar traps?  Especially with #3 and #5.

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      3 Comments leave one →
      1. July 16, 2008 8:32 pm

        I was discussing this “big sort” with a friend recently and he suggested that we take turns hosting one another’s missional communities in order to get a “little mix” into the church. We’ll be doing cross-cultural, cross-ethnic, cross-economic mixing; Im excited about it.

        He will also be speaking on diversity and planting at our next Austin Planters Network meeting–David Avila.

      2. Shaw permalink
        March 2, 2009 1:16 am

        there’s also an Economist article on this from June 2008: http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displayStory.cfm?story_id=11581447

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