Homophily Abounds

Recent church visits strike me with an undeniable pattern — we tend to associate only with those most like us.  I have yet to visit any church that does not consider itself “friendly,” yet rarely is there a deep level of awareness that answers the question, “friendly with/to whom?”  Two brief illustrations.  First, I was a guest preacher in a mid-sized urban church where the attending congregation only nominally reflected the neighborhood where it is located.  Four visitors showed up on a Sunday morning — the parents of a couple who attend regularly, a torn blue-jeaned young man with beard and unkempt (by the standards of this congregation) hair, a swarthy, olive-skinned middle-aged man of mixed ethnicity dressed in slacks and a nice shirt, and a young, nicely dressed white woman with a very sweet 2-3 year-old daughter.  Go ahead — predict who was greeted and who was not?  Simplistic stereotyping?  Maybe, but I was the only person in the church that morning who spoke to either of the two single men who visited the church.  In fact, I watched a number of people physically keep their distance from the swarthy middle-aged man, eyeing him with suspicion and breaking eye contact the moment he looked back at them.  The young guy hung to the side of two or three groups, waiting to be noticed, until I went over to him.  He was very inquisitive, asking where I am a pastor, who the pastor was in the church we were visiting, why there weren’t any other young people, what kinds of Bible studies and small groups did the church have, etc.  I took the young man over to the lay leader to introduce him, thinking he would get more helpful answers from someone who actually knew the church, but the lay leader kind of nervously backed off, retrieved a brochure about the church’s program, gave it to the young man, then excused himself to go greet the visiting parents of the couple who attended church.  I noted that he stood and chatted with them for a good twenty minutes.

The second situation troubles me deeply, and I wrestle with an experience that I can only explain as racism.  An exclusively white congregation reaching out to its white community in some effective and creative ways has established a very relaxed and informal worship experience.  Families attend together, there are many children in worship, and the atmosphere is active, noisy and boisterous.  If you have kids and you want them involved, there will be chaos.  The Sunday I showed up (this time just to visit and observe — sigh, what a nice change of pace) a young mixed-race couple attended with their three children.  This couple had been attending for less than a month, but were feeling like they were connecting a bit with this congregation.  As things transpired, kids were active in the back of the sanctuary and in the aisles, and one of the visiting couple’s children was playing with something and another child came and took the toy away from the first child.  The little boy yelled in indignation and was swatted by the pilfering tot.  He began to cry.  Now, the noise in the sanctuary was reminiscent of Lambeau Field when the Packers are first and goal at the one yard line, and it had been like this throughout the morning.  But at this point, the worship leader stopped in the service and said into the microphone, “Would whoever is responsible for that child please take him out of the worship area so our service can continue?”  The joy, energy, and spirit of the room immediately vanished, the stricken mom scooped up her son and headed for the door, her cheeks scarlet with mortification, and “worship” resumed.  Will that family return?  Will anyone care?  I shared with the pastor what I observed and he was frankly appalled himself, but he reflected to me, “This congregation says it wants to grow, but they don’t like strangers.”

Well, that’s a problem.  We want new people, but we don’t want “new” people.  We want more of what we already have, not anyone who changes us, makes us uncomfortable, thinks differently, challenges the status quo, irritates us, is difficult for us to understand, or causes us to feel insecure.  But we want to grow…  And we’re a friendly church!  What we are is a homophilous church — a church that values most those who are just like we are.  Homophily is that essential characteristic in human nature to surround ourselves with those things that make us comfortable, secure, affirmed, and that confirm our personal worldview.  It is why we form alliances and friendships.  It is what either binds or breaks families.  It is how we make sense of the world.  There must be right and wrong.  There must be good and bad.  There must be normal and abnormal.  And the homophilous definition of “right, good, normal” is what I believe, and therefore for others to be “right, good, normal” they must think, look and act like I do.  At extreme forms we call this prejudice, bigotry, and a host of “isms,” but in its base form, it is the simple bias of the human psyche to find a way to fit.  This being said, mainline churches are making it harder and harder for new people to fit in — and the churches that are finding a way to grow are falling into two camps: homophilous congregations that are exploiting differences to create safe space for specific groups of people or heterophilous congregations that are establishing difference as the new normal and allow a place for just about any and every individual regardless of race, nation, education, income, language, dress-code, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity or cellphone provider.  The majority of churches between these extremes are struggling, declining, and are watching their old-guard homophily age and die.  This is where United Methodism is — caught in the untenable middle.  Any time we attempt a shift in either direction, the opposite number cries foul and drags us back into the mire.

Okay, here’s where I get in trouble.  My objectivity will be called into question here, so let’s just do away with the argument and I will confess that an individual’s opinion is never objective, and that my own personal bias IS the basis of this analysis.  That’s what an opinion is.  In my humble opinion, there is no longer a long-range choice: heterophily is the only future — homophily will kill us.  This is not to say “anything goes.”  This is not to say we abandon our “core Christian values.”  This is about a radical reorientation as to our basic understanding of “us” and “them.”  One of the most underestimated factors contributing to the success and strength of many new church starts is that new congregations have a window of development to establish their homophily — their engagement with the question “who are we?” has no baggage from the question “who were we?”  We have nothing to live out from under.  Churches that effectively turn around and grow make a conscious decision to risk discomfort, insecurity, and change to reform as something different from what they have been in the past — much like the early Christian movement.  What Paul created and promoted had little in common with what Jesus launched.  The disciples wanted to keep things homophilous; Paul pushed heterophily — which led to all kinds of institutional homophily through the ages.  But it has been the counterwaves of heterophily that broke us free, gave us new mission fields, and brought new generations into the Christian faith.  Don’t agree or disagree with me — wrestle with the concepts and see if there is any value in what I’m raising.  If this makes sense, why and so what?  If it irritates or angers, why and what is it rubbing against?  Everyone says we need to change, but there is little agreement about WHAT to change.  Maybe we need to start with us and move forward from there.

13 replies

  1. An excellent name for an all too common phenomenon. We’ve been fishing with hook and bait, not nets! A big amen. Will share with my people and hope for provocation.

  2. I am afraid that these problems are even more deeply ingrained than most of us realize. My young-retiree husband and I have visited several United Methodist churches in our area. In all of them, we “looked like” regular churchgoers — white, middle-class, middle-aged. In one, we received no welcome at all, and in fact the usher refused to give us a bulletin because he was conducting a conversation with a friend. In another, we were at first eyed suspisciously and later welcomed very warmly — after the pastor pointed us out and identified us from the pulpit. In a third, where the emphasis is on growing the church with young families, we were completely ignored by the pastor, though we were greeted by people in the pews when they were directed to do so from the pulpit. (That little “ritual of friendship” is not as meaningful as some may believe.) Here is my point: even “safe-looking” people are not finding any kind of welcome in many of our churches. This realization has made me very, very sad.

  3. Points well taken, Dan, and cause for much pondering. I have one editorial suggestion: for Christmas I’m going to send you a big box of paragraph returns so that your run-on paragraphs get broken into pieces that people can read and internalize more easily. Check out the reprint on UM Insight to see what I mean. Blessings!

  4. And you can talk about what needs to change in the context of “welcoming strangers” until the cows come home. But at 59, my experience has been I wandered around the United Methodist Church all my life “waiting for something to happen”–for my faith to get stronger, to get comfortable with Jesus, understand how beinging a Christian impacts my life 24/7 as opposed to not being one. It never happened. I was finally pointed in the direction three years ago by a pastor who was personally “grounded in God”. I am now finding the answers, but on my own and horrors of horrors after a lifetime of being an avid un-questioning supporter of the Methodist Church, I am questioning what is the church in its present form here for? A failing church needs to answer that question first. I would love to be part of that discussion for the local congregation I have been part of most my adult life and is most definitely in a downward turn.

    Two things I learned from monitoring The Wesleyan Church: they are all about grounding people in the gospel and they are big on new church starts because they realize new people would rather become part of a new congregation rather than an established one probably because of the reasons you cited. A Wesleyan church reaches a “sustainable level” of attendance and then a group of people who are well-grounded in the gospel are tapped to go start a new church. They are a growing denomination. The General Superintenden has called for each church to refelct the ethnic diversity of the community which it serves. Maybe one of the mistakes made within the UMC is the expectation that a particular church will be in existence for perpetuity.

    One of the hardest things I am dealing with right now is the loss of a particular style of worship service that I embraced as being “right for me”. I’m all afloat without it–when I hit a speed bump, there is nothing familiar for me to “brush up against” to feel God in a tangible way so I can recenter myself. The worship you described with the children running amuck would absolutely drive me nuts–there would be too many distractions–it sounds “wrong”. And I could sit in that type of worship and keep telling myself it is Ok, but I doubt it would ever connect me to God simply because I would be too busy telling myself it is OK. I spent the last three years trying to come up with a way to approach/connect to worship led by a pastor I dearly love and respect and I never could. When he left, it was easier to quit going.

  5. I am part of a multicultural congregation and there are challenges to living that out. Our pastor recently quoted Juergen Moltmann, and here is my edited/scrambled version of that quote: “People who are no different…will become superfluous. Acceptance of people in their difference and particularity [constitutes] the Community of Christ.” My reading of other sources convinces me that each visitor is a gift, because they are the most likely ones able to invite others into the congregation (more than those who have been there 30 years). Out-of-town guests are much less likely than a neighbor to become part of the church. The other fact is that once new people join the church, the church has changed to some degree, and change unsettles people.

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