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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