Presentation on October 7. 2021 at St. Egidio in Rome

Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany

“Widening the horizon, rediscovering the others”

We all feel it: society is changing. But how? Today, community is experienced differently from former times. While then, community was homogeneous, with a strong common value codex and a fixed and often hierarchical order, community today is characterized by pluralization and individualization. I do not see this as a decay but as a chance to overcome oppressive forms of social life. As a chance of widening the horizons and rediscovering the others. I think religions can do much to limit the risks of this process of liberalization of community and at the same time honor its chances.


Pluralisation means that People today live in a variety of different communities - from family and neighbourhood to circles of colleagues, clubs, friends from the present and the past, and even children's schools with all their activities. For the associations, and one can say the same for the churches and parties, this is of course a problem, because people today have much less time for every single community they live in.

The American sociologist Mark Granovetter distinguishes "strong" and "weak" relationships[i] and assigns different functions to each. Strong relationships are those in intimate groups, which have traditionally been most clearly associated with the term "community". They primarily convey deeper feelings such as love and security, they require a lot of time and are characterized by a high degree of commitment. Weak relationships are characterized by being less time-consuming and involving less emotional commitment. Their greatest strength lies in the fact that they tend to be located at the edge of a personal network and can therefore fulfil a kind of bridging function to other community contexts. Through weak relationships, entry points into other social milieus emerge.

Granovetter did an interesting experiment. He put a message out into the community that said, "I need a job, who can get me a job?". The sociologist then tracked what circles that message went around. And he found it went through all kinds of communities, white, black, just all kinds of communities, it went through the weak relationships. And the person got the job in the end because of the weak relationships, not because of the strong relationships. So the sociologists say: For the "social support services" in everyday life, the weak relationships are of particular importance today.

That is why I say: one should not suspect the weak relationships and not always only badmouth them. Weak relationships are also very important relationships, they are bridges to other communities and are therefore particularly important in a pluralistic society. You can also say it a little more casually: so that we do not always just spin in our own juice.

The social Internet networks are playing an increasing role in this – with chances and risks. They can be a place for cultivating strong relationships - for example, when father and son from different continents can share their daily lives with each other through digital channels. At the same time, hate speech in filter bubbles are endangering our societal cohesion. It will be a crucial task to set rules for the internet which set human dignity based limits to the commercially driven algorithm based mechanisms that encourage extremist contents.


The second aspect I would like to mention is individualization. Individualisation by no means automatically means self-centred individualism, as is sometimes assumed. Rather, individualization means first of all only that people today have the freedom to shape their own lives as they wish, instead of being given fixed roles and life paths. The commitment of countless volunteers in political parties, churches and associations shows that such individualization by no means needs to lead to egoism and isolation. Freedom and solidarity must be understood as siblings. But community is now not anymore based on fixed hierarchies and social control but on freedom!

"Communicative freedom" as a form of individualization

Freedom and social commitment must not be played off against each other, but must be understood as reciprocal interpretations. Nothing makes this specific Reformation profile of the understanding of freedom clearer than the two sentences, rightly quoted again and again, which Martin Luther prefaced his writing On the Freedom of a Christian: "A Christian is a free master over all things and subject to no one. A Christian is a servant of all things and subject to everyone." At a time when the question is being asked more frequently than ever before as to what sources can actually still feed social cohesion today, this thesis, now more than 500 years old, is unexpectedly modern.

A Christian is a free master of all things and subject to no one" - this means that we may deeply affirm the modern freedoms, the possibilities of shaping our own lives, from our faith, that we may oppose all backsliding into a belief in authority, hierarchical thinking or rigid understandings of roles, and say "yes" to our own individuality. And at the same time it means that we cannot develop this individuality against others instead of with others. "A Christian is a servant of all things and subject to everyone" - that means: There is no better way to realize oneself and to let the gained freedom lead to a fulfilled life than the commitment to the community.

Community in the social life of today

The pluralisation of lifestyles and life plans offers society great potential for enrichment. It is true that the binding nature of belonging to a particular community is diminishing. But the fact that the people who meet today in various network relationships as modern forms of community bring with them different backgrounds of experience must also be seen as a resource for community, which should not be underestimated in its dynamics. Church congregations can become an essential source of social cohesion in society if they overcome social milieu formation, if they present themselves openly to the outside world and inhibit rather than promote narrow clique formation.

Under the conditions of liberalization of community, everyone must shape their own lives. But not everyone is able to do so. The less communicatively gifted, the less professionally successful, the unemployed or those affected by poverty are something like liberalization losers, because they have a harder time finding community. Church congregations must be places where not only the winners of liberalization, but also the losers of liberalization find a home.

Church congregations are expressions of an understanding of community based on communicative freedom because they are vital actors of civil society and the ideal agents of a global civil society. They are globally networked, but at the same time deeply rooted with their congregations in local contexts. It is precisely such actors that we need, actors who are passionately committed to ensuring that at some point in the future every person on this earth can live in dignity.


[i]  M. Granovetter, The strength of weak ties. A network theory revisited, in: American Journal of Sociology 78 (1973), 1360-1380 (1361).