Recently, I had some time to catch up on my long-overdue reading list, and one article in particular really caught my attention from the Atlantic, “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church” by Jake Meador from July 29, 2023. Based on much research, Meador attempts to explain the 40 million Americans who have stopped attending church in the past 25 years. He moves beyond the usual moral corruption and abuse scandals and cites the book The Great Dechurching by Davis and Graham, that it’s “just how American life works in the 21st century. Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life.” 

So here’s the push and pull of Circles in a community. Circles “builds community to end poverty” by bringing together people who want to work to leave poverty behind permanently and community members who want to share the journey with intentional friendship and mutual support. Circles is a volunteer-centric model that banks on “mutuality, care, and common life” and requires “time and energy” that may or may not contribute to one’s professional life. So not only is the underlying ethos of our model suffering from fewer and fewer people in a position and heart-space to volunteer, the very source from which the majority of volunteers come…aka churches…may be a well that’s drying up.

The Two Sides of Volunteerism with Circles

Nationally, our chapters are generally reporting a struggle with recruiting volunteers to sustain their anti-poverty efforts with the Circles model. However, we also have chapters reporting that the volunteers they do have appreciate Circles SO much precisely because they feel isolated and adrift right now in their local area, lacking a deep sense of meaning and belonging, desiring a driving purpose that brings a variety of people together to work on something powerful.

I spent four years previously volunteering with a Circles-based program, and upon moving to a new state, realized how important that community was to me. I really missed the connections I had, resulting in my own research to find a local Circles group that I could join. Having joined and spent a year with my current Circles program, I feel a very meaningful connection with my community. I feel a greater sense of safety, knowing I have a whole community of friends I can count on if I ever needed help. At the time I started, I had not yet made any local connections and felt very isolated. I really missed simple human connection, and Circles was where I found it.

– Brianna Lindke, Circles Washtenaw County

We also know that the majority of our Circles volunteers are committed for the long term. While there’s never an “all-eternity” ask like we might experience when volunteering at a church, Circles volunteers typically start with a task and a weekly meeting commitment, and then more often than not, they stay on from one volunteer role to another because Circles has become a family and a major part of their lives. For many, the Circles community meets the inner and outer needs of those who are no longer “church-ing.” 

And for those Circles chapters who are sponsored by a church (18% of our chapters), many lead organizations find an inadvertent growth in their membership rosters. While this is NOT the goal of Circles ever and we must remain focused on our priority of walking alongside those who want to leave poverty behind, it doesn’t change the fact that churches may engage more members with a dynamic social justice ministry that puts their faith into action. If Davis and Graham’s assessment of modern American life is accurate, then engaging with a compelling activity in a community setting makes it double-worth the time and energy that folks are loath to spare.  

For those who may be disconnected from their church community, whether on purpose or by sheer drift, Circles is a safe and non-religious place for people to engage with their community. As such, it can serve as a potential bridge for folks to re-engage with churches and spiritual communities that are offering a compelling community activity and living their message. 

The struggle of churches for membership is relative to Circles’ struggle with recruiting volunteers, and yet we may be mutually symbiotic at, what I hope is, a turning point in American culture as more and more folks are shifting from me to we.

From Me to We

My deepest hope is that all people feel a deep sense of meaning and belonging, as some define the Beloved Community, a concept made famous by Martin Luther King, jr. And perhaps, Circles could be the beginning of the end for this age of hyper-individualism and maximizing individual accomplishment. 

There is no such thing as a self-made person. We all rely on others to succeed.

– David Brooks

Perhaps Circles might give churches a boost as well, supporting folks who are stepping out of the relentless rat race yearning for connection and meaning, broadening their relationships with others.

Oftentimes people show up at the local Circles weekly meeting to bring a casserole, engage with the youth program, or share an expertise, a simple offering from the heart, because everyone has something to give and everyone has something to learn. And little by little, over time, trust is built, relationships are formed, myths and stereotypes are debunked, and communities are built from within. This secret sauce of Circles can only be made together over time, but once this is experienced, there is no going back to isolation and old ways of measuring success. Circles volunteers are for the long haul and for the betterment of the community.  

So our Circles chapters are intertwined with a community’s religious institutions, the primary source of volunteers for so many, and yet maybe Circles is the pre-church arena that reminds people how wonderful it is to be in community together and prepares the soil for more generosity, more mutuality, more care for common life. 

In a country that seems to be falling apart, this is the hope that Circles cultivates week after week in communities just like yours.  As the saying goes, when things seem like they’re falling apart, they may really be falling together.