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Church is place to practice, encourage empathy

I’ve started reading the book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter. So far, every few pages I find something that causes me to set the book down and think a bit. A paragraph on page 39 has that stuck with me:

Conference Minister
Mike Denton

Online interactions aren’t just different from real-world interactions; they’re measurably worse. Humans learn empathy and understanding by watching how their actions affect other people. Empathy can’t flourish without immediate feedback, and it’s a very slow-developing skill. One analysis of 72 studies found that empathy has declined among college students between 1979 and 2009. They’re less likely to take the perspective of other people, and show less concern for others.”

There’s a few reasons that this piece has me thinking. The first is just how much logical sense it makes. I think many of us have the perception that empathy is more of an innate trait that comes with being human as opposed to a skill that needs to be developed and nurtured.

A lack of empathy has often been stated as an accusation. It almost has been considered something a person ignored or chose not to use as opposed to an undeveloped skill. The idea that there may be societal responsibility or corporate intent that leads to a lack of empathy as opposed to individual responsibility changes things a bit. It opens up the opportunity to move from blame to more intentionally taking responsibility.

There’s rarely just one reason for a decline like this and, as several of the articles written about this study suggest, there are some pretty strong corollaries to the rise in personal technology usage in 2000 and a marked decrease in empathy. I can see that every day.

Although technology has helped open some doors that were once closed and helped keep some conflicts in the problem solving stage, that’s not always true.


If personal relationships are not in place and the commitment to be in community isn’t an intrinsic expectation of the conversation, a conversation waged using technology can easily overwhelm compassion and empathy.

That said, read the quoted paragraph again. The decline is tracked since 1979. The study cited started that year and one could assume that there was something the researchers saw before 1979 that lead them to see the need for such a study. 

So, even though this decline in measured empathy has decreased more quickly starting in 2000, it was decreasing before then. Sure there was other technology emerging then, but none of the articles I could find alluded to that. So, I’d like to suggest another potential corollary.

What if the decline in empathy has a connection to decreased church involvement and the way our relationships in church have changed?

In previous articles, I’ve written about the way church conflict has changed. I’ve also written about how the church might be able to encourage civil conversations in the political realm.

What if what we really need is to recommit to teaching, increasing and practicing empathy?

Although he didn’t call it empathy, Jesus clearly saw this as an important element of the faith walk. When confronted with sabbath legalism, Jesus pointed to the person suffering in front of him (Luke 13:10-17). The story of the Good Samaritan, a story about empathy, is Jesus’ answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:24-37).

Even the scripture about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-48) can be seen as Jesus’s method for awaking empathy in those who were persecuting others.

I’ve never been someone who believed we have to do something perfectly ourselves before we try and practice or advocate form something more widely. However, church is a great place to practice and encourage empathy.

Where might empathy need to promoted in your congregation’s life right now? Where might it be needed? Where might you need to practice it? Where else might your congregation be a voice for empathy?


Pacific Northwest Conference United Church of Christ News Copyright © April 2017


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