According to Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University, a new social class is emerging in America, one he calls the “creative class.” Florida, a professor of regional economic development, has tracked work and workers across the country. He argues in The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002) that work, leisure, community, and everyday life are being transformed by the emergence of this elite.
Who’s in it? This social class consists of 38 million members, “more than 30 percent of the nation’s workforce.” It includes scientists, engineers, architects, designers, writers, artists, musicians, entertainers, and those who regularly use their creativity in business, education, health care, law, and other professions.
The emergence of this class is, Florida says, one of the three big stories in recent American social and economic history. First came the rise and decline of the working class. Next, in the mid-20th century, we saw the rise of the service class. Now comes the creative class, consisting of those who “create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content” or engage in “complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital” (p. 8).
Questions for Congregations
While developing his detailed argument, Florida raises provocative questions for those concerned about religion, congregations, and the health of communities. For example, he notes that the creative class is characterized by “weak ties”—that is, class members have more personal relationships but fewer deep and lasting ones than people in previous generations. He observes that this class has tended to be self-centered and not particularly interested in traditional patterns of community building. Members of the class, he adds, tend to structure their lives around experiential qualities of life; they gather in regions that offer the kinds of attractions they value. They use time differently, resistant to old nine-to-five patterns of work but always “on” and cramming every moment with activity. Often class members turn the tables on old career patterns, frontloading their work lives with intense experiences at the outset, then easing off into less demanding work as they age. Marriage and childbearing come later in life for these folk than for previous generations. They value diversity and tolerance and place a high value on autonomy and freedom in building personal lives.
These creative-class “traits” pose major challenges for congregations and leaders. Congregations have traditionally nurtured “strong ties” and placed high value on group cohesion. They have been accustomed to seeing nuclear families as the normative social unit, but must reckon with the fact that this norm now fits only 23.5 percent of all Americans.
How Shall We Respond?
I want to focus on another challenge posed by Florida. Stunningly absent from his analysis is any mention of congregations. Traditional religious communities are simply not part of the emerging picture he sketches. The question posed by his model is not only how congregations can adapt to the new realities he describes. Will congregations be a part of the future at all? Deeper still is the question of the relation of congregations to creativity. Are local religious communities nurturers of creativity? Or do they stifle it and exclude those who seek to express this fundamental human quality?
It is tempting to set Florida’s book aside as another ivory-tower product describing a world that will not come to be. Florida’s book appeared not long after the “irrationally exuberant” stock market tanked and 9/11 challenged the halcyon days of the techno-bubble. Yet I believe that much of what he describes is part of the future. Weak ties and the premium on creative work seem to be here to stay.
Welcoming the Creative Spirit
One may be tempted to see Florida’s book as one more piece of evidence that congregations are obsolescent. Instead, I think it’s time to ask some basic questions: Do our congregations welcome the creative spirit and creative people? Or will they stifle, exclude, and miss the opportunity to shape a new era? In the faith traditions that live at the heart of congregations are two sets of answers. First are the powerful messages that the divine creative spirit moved among God’s gathered people in such ways that the world was changed. But these traditions also carry painful memories of suppression and oppression, of resistance to the Creator Spirit’s movements. The contemporary record is equally mixed. I know congregations where creativity is alive and well, where it is welcomed and nurtured. They invent new ministries, welcome new people, form new communities of faith and energy. They heal the world. I also know congregations where it’s the “same old, same old,” and seemingly nothing new happens. Our challenge is to take a hard look at ourselves and see how creativity is faring in our midst—and then to make room for creativity to happen.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute special report on leadership.