The Folly of Homophily

I came to the United States in 1999 to attend graduate school and prepare for full-time church ministry. It was not very long before I took a class title “Church Growth by Small Groups”. In that class I learned several rules about the composition of effective small groups. Among these rules were:

  • The smaller the group, the more homogeneous it needs to be. The larger the group, the more heterogeneous it can be.
  • Small groups are not the place to conduct intergenerational ministry.
  • Primary Group Interaction works best around age, interests and background.

This mindset isn’t restricted to small group ministry. It was carried over to small groups from broader principles in the church growth movement.

It is a core principle of the church growth movement that homogeneous groups and churches grow larger and more quickly. There is research that verifies this principle. So many churches focused their efforts to share God’s Good News with people most like themselves. Undoubtedly this makes sense. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that it’s simpler to “do church” when you don’t need to navigate a cultural maze.

A church located in a largely monocultural town in rural Idaho has a relatively simple path to integrate neighbours into the culture of the church. A church in New York City that has 27 different nationalities represented within 5 blocks of the church building will face many challenges during the process of meeting and integrating with these neighbours.

Sociologists use a term for describing the tendency of people to associate with other people like themselves: homophily. The familiar phrase “Birds of a feather flock together” aptly describes this preference. But the tendency of racial groups to congregate in particular communities arises from motives beyond homophily. The practicality of particular cultural resources (religious centres or ethnic grocery stores) or proximity to those who share a common language . In extreme cases ethnic or racial groups may congregate out of safety concerns.

Yet the fundamental mission of the church demands that we cross ethnic, language and cultural barriers. We are sent “into all the world to make disciples”. (Matt. 28:19) The homogenous unit principle creates a false dichotomy between the work of missionaries and the work of the local church.

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The church is at it’s best when it demonstrates the love of God to all people. The more homogenous we make the local church the less inclusive we portray the kingdom of God. Consciously focusing on serving one particular population group that happens to look and sound like me, unconsciously excludes minority groups that look and eat differently from me.

Monocultural churches look a lot like the problem Paul confronted Peter over in Galatians 2:11-14. We share the Gospel with people of other races because that’s our mission, but we revert back to worshiping with the people and culture most familiar to us because that’s where we’re comfortable. I believe God constantly calls us out of our comfort zones to stretch us and to benefit people around us regardless of their degree of commonality. I thought this quote (from this blog) provided an excellent summary of my concerns:

The main criticism of the homogenous unit principle is that it denies the reconciling nature of the gospel and the church. It weakens the demands of Christian discipleship and it leaves the church vulnerable to partiality in ethnic or social conflict. It has been said that ‘the homogenous unit principles is fine in practice, but not in theory’!

The Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) continues its life today because, thanks to homophily, it works. The theoretical breakdown also still exists because the HUP justifies passive racism.

Rather than embrace the fundamental missional example of the New Testament that the church must share the Gospel with disparate cultural and ethnic groups, HUP prioritises ministry based upon similarity.

Rather than celebrate the growth of the early church as it transitioned from its Jewish roots to include its Gentile neighbours, HUP avoids the struggle on the basis of effectiveness.

Rather than embodying the command to love our neighbours as ourselves, HUP encourages the church to love neighbours LIKE ourselves a little bit more than others.

Rather than promoting spiritual growth that overcomes prejudice and racial stereotyping HUP reinforces the supreme value of practical efficiency.

So the numbers produced by HUP may show a period of growth, but at what cost to the church as the embodiment of the Spirit of God.

Homophily may be a natural sociological phenomena.

I believe that God desires the church to redeem homophily by demonstrating an unnatural love for people who don’t look, sound, or live like “us”.

A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers that the father seeks.                    John 4:23

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The Church’s Cultural Captivity

In my previous post I began a summary of a presentation by Dr Soong-Chan Rah that I recently attended at the Northeastern Seminary. In this post I will describe his second session.

What is Cultural Captivity?

“When the church looks more like surrounding culture than the values of Scripture, it has been taken captive.”

Dr Rah suggested three ways that Western/White culture has captured the church in America.

  1. Individualism;
  2. Materialism; and
  3. Racism.

Let’s look at these:

1. Individualism

Most Western Christians fail to appreciate that the Bible was written to communities. In the case of many Old Testament books the targeted audience was the nation of Israel. In some cases the prophets also wrote to the nations surrounding Israel. Likewise, the New Testament was predominantly written to entire churches. Even the pastoral books were included in the Bible because Timothy and Titus obviously shared them with the congregations they served.

Yet when we read Scripture we predominantly seek personal applications. We ask, “How does this passage speak to my circumstances, or improve my life?” rather than asking “How can this church better represent God to our immediate community and the world?”

Our individualistic mindset is demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 3:16: Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (NASB) Both the context and the plural Greek word make clear that this statement refers to the church, not the individual. This hasn’t prevented us from using this verse to support everything from prohibiting smoking to supporting dieting, etc. while completely missing the point that Christ dwells within his church.

Without going into details here, other cultures with a more communal worldview will more naturally value the spiritual health of the body, the church, rather than focusing upon individuals.

2. Materialism

This point extends beyond simply the pursuit of material goods. Rah proposes that our vocabulary often betrays how we have reduced life and relationships to an exchange of goods. Commerce becomes the lens through which we view and describe life. Consider this list of terms:

  • We invest in people.
  • We spend time.
  • We value or treasure  those we love.
  • We waste time.
  • We shop for churches.

You could probably come up with your own list.

Many churches also reflect a materialistic attitude. We commonly assess the health of a church using the ABC measuring stick: Attendance, Building, and Cash flow. Matthew 25 and Acts 2 both teach that spiritual health has nothing to do with these measures. Rather, Jesus seeks justice and compassion, love for the poor, dedication to God, and commitment to other believers.

If we accept these attitudes as symptoms of Cultural Captivity, then we need to open ourselves up to the possibility that we can learn from Christians and churches in other cultures.  This realisation challenges any sense of spiritual superiority we might have because of large ABC’s.

3. Racism

Although “race” is really a social construct to explain visual differences between groups of people, it has proved a major point of conflict throughout the history of the church. In the NT the divide between Jew and Gentile was at once cultural, racial, and spiritual. While it is too simplistic to view the Jew-Gentile conflict as purely racial, surely ethnic heritage played a significant part in creating that divide.

Acts 15 describes a major council within the first church to address significant questions about Jews, Gentiles and Jesus. Sadly, the church failed to embrace that lesson and has throughout history sought to exclude various racial groups from full membership in the body of Christ.

The rest of the book of Acts describes the power of the church to grow when we concentrate on the Spirit that binds us together rather than various aspects that differentiate us from one another.

American churches have allowed cultural values to validate the establishment and preservation of separate black and white churches throughout the country. Rather than embodying a lesson the first church learned 2000 year ago, we have lagged behind culture as we have resisted and devalued the racial integration of churches. We have maintained our racial islands while watching institutions throughout society integrate. In this instance churches are captive not just to culture, but to a culture of 30 years ago. In the meantime, society’s values in relation to race relations now often do a better job of reflecting Godly values than the church does.

Is there Hope?

A major empowering feature of Cultural Captivity is that it’s difficult to detect from the inside. With no other reference point we read Scripture through our cultural lens and it feels normal and logical.

My previous post demonstrated the “browning of America”. As a result of this demographic shift our cultural assumptions are challenged. We find ourselves exposed to alternative ways of reading and applying Scripture. Exposure to different cultural values should prompt us to reexamine our beliefs and practices for areas where western culture has skewed our reading of God’s Word. As we study the Bible, we need to listen to others who speak from a different cultural perspective. Not everything that is “obvious” to us is obvious to everyone. And sometimes what’s “obvious” may even be wrong.

Multiethnic churches have an opportunity to lead the US church  in this process of  self-examination. However, it still requires a commitment to raise, discuss and study topics that may lead us individually and as a church to uncomfortable places. Racial integration will lead to healthier churches, but it requires each of us to be willing to live with a degree of discomfort as we encourage each other on our journey toward Christ.