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. Great article, well articulated, and in my “humble opinion” spot on. How do we assist our existing congregations to change from homophily to heterophily?

  2. Reblogged this on Walks In The Dark and commented:
    Its posts like this that really get me to think about the future ministry God has been placing on my heart. These are very important questions to think about and consider in our life.

  3. Having recently returned from a clergy retreat, I say (with love and respect) that our influential conference leadership (using behavior as the evidence) practices “homophily” on a regular basis and then habitually asks “why aren’t we growing…why are we declining…how do we turn it around?” That is the very definiation of insanity.

  4. As was said, “there is little agreement about WHAT to change.” There is no excuse for this sort of coldness, but it is useful to understand it.

    For the diffusion of innovations applied to evangelism, homophily is a technical term related to the enjoyment that people have in talking with one another. There are many people who are identical but poorly communicate with anyone despite their similarities. To engender conversations, identifying a form of kinship (Packers fan? Lve down the street from my brother-in-law? Graduated from the same high school?) leads to a better conversation.

    If the majority of people who attend the church do so because they already know someone who is there, then that’s the person who needs to watch over them … they already have a friend in the congregation. And wisdom suggests that empowering and equipping people who reach out in networking is the “WHAT” that needs to change. Peter Wagner said that the persons with this ministry are typically 5-10% of those attending – can you identify who they are? What is happening to encourage and support them in their ministry? (Obviously the lay leader is not one of them!) These are the people who are spirituality gifted to interact with these strangers prior and after the worship service.

    While some churches do attract some church attenders who wander in as complete strangers, I don’t believe that this is a number large enough that allows us to imagine any sort of healthy future.

  5. David Kueker – I have to disagree. The church I used to belong to grew a lot by strangers who visited the church and decided they liked it enough to stay. Often they were new to the area and visited a number of local churches looking for the “right” church. Our pastor at the time made it an issue that our congregation needed to be welcoming to strangers. And yes, we also had a lot of new members who came because they knew someone in the congregation. The congregation I am at now, also shows a warm welcome to strangers.

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