Author and futurologist Faith Popcorn has written about the "cocooning of America" - people becoming isolated in their homes and spending increasing amounts of time by themselves in front of computer and TV screens.
It looks as if she was right. Participants in a new Carnegie Mellon University study report a reduction in their circles of friends that is proportionate to the amount of time they spend online. Because computer use tends to isolate individuals, even spending a few hours a week online results in a "decline in psychological well-being," according to researchers.
As a minister, I find that the sense of being part of a loving community is illusory for many people in my congregation. We work in office or factory "communities," and we shop and consume in "market communities," but we don't feel much cared for in any of them. And church can be just one more community among others where we remain anonymous.
At home many of us isolate ourselves from other family members, focusing on TV, the stereo, or surfing the Internet.
The church - which is about community and caring for one another - should have something to say about the loneliness of technology.
It can take another look at a potentially useful tool for community formation: home visitation. There was a time when the minister and church officers visited people in their homes. That practice fell into disfavor as administrative tasks required more of the minister's time, and people's lives became more hectic.
What if we trained and encouraged not only ministers, but church members, to venture out to people's homes for a friendly visit?
Perhaps we could learn to listen and to care for others in a new way. We'd feel more a part of a loving community if we got to know people, one on one, in their homes.
It sounds like a risky proposition, and it is. But the results could be worth the risk - a decrease in the loneliness of our church members and an increase in the sense of belonging within our congregations.
People are hesitant to become home visitors. What do you talk about when you visit someone? Talk about anything. The important thing is your visible, tangible presence with someone. It says a lot. You cared enough to get up out of your comfortable chair, drive the car through traffic, and call on someone who may be a perfect stranger.
Friendly conversation is the bridge of relationships. Talk about the weather, sports, or personal hobbies. Get to know the person you're visiting. In every person we see Christ.
Listening - that's the most important part of a home visit. To listen is to show love. To be the church means to love one another as Christ loved us. The book of James in the New Testament tells us to "be quick to hear, slow to speak."
James also says that visiting - especially visiting the widows and orphans - defines "religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father."
A few volunteers are all that's needed to begin. With those few, a church can make a statement to all its members that it cares. And by visiting people in the home, one-on-one, face-to-face, the church makes a statement to the culture. It says people matter.
If, a recent study indicates, a few hours a week of online computer usage increases feelings of loneliness and depression, could just a few hours a week of visiting in homes increase feelings of real connectedness and well-being?
It's time for congregations to take another look at the healing power of home visitation.
* Ray Schroeder is associate pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Sun City, Ariz.