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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Why Did Jesus Choose a Samaritan?

Luke 10 contains Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. The basic message is that we are to love each person that crosses our path.

The parable Jesus told contains an additional message that we might easily rush by.

In the previous chapter (Luke 9) a Samaritan village refused to provide food and shelter for Jesus because he was traveling to Jerusalem. That sounds like prejudice at its finest. Jesus’ disciples then sought to return the favour as they asked if they could call down fire from heaven upon the village. Jesus rebuked them and walked on to another village.

good samaritan 01A little later when asked to answer the question “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus tells a story that contrasts the religious leaders of the day and a foreigner. If Jesus simply wanted to create a contrast for his story, he could have told the parable of the Good Undertaker, or the Good Tax Collector. He could have used any number of unclean or unwelcome characters from Jewish society. Instead, Jesus made his hero a Samaritan.

In choosing a Samaritan as his hero Jesus provided a subversive commentary on Jewish societal attitudes of the day. So if you think Jesus wouldn’t have anything to say about race relations in the US (or any other country) today, you’re wrong.

A significant message from this parable is that we are to love our neighbours that have black or white skin. We are to love those who speak English poorly, or not at all. Of course, none of us are racists. But there are some groups of people we don’t like very much.

  • The (white) suburbs don’t like when the (black) city starts spreading outward.
  • We complain aobut all the Indians in the call centers who we can’t understand.
  • We don’t like the (sometimes illegal) immigrants taking “our jobs”.
  • We don’t like the Asians we see driving around town in their nice cars. (Because they all drive Mercedes, right?)
  • We’re uncomfortable driving through neighbourhoods where the store signs are all in another language.

Maybe we don’t want to call down heavenly fire onto these people, but it would be a stretch to say that we love them.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr Day. As a figurehead within the civil rights movement he played a pivotal role in bringing great transformation to this country. In his “I Have A Dream” speech he made the statement,

I have a dream, that one day, my four little children will live in a country where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.

That’s a dream Jesus had for the world. Jesus dreamed of a kingdom defined not by ethnicity, but by character. It’s certainly a sentiment found in this parable. In verse 37 we find that the true neighbour is not identified by race, but as “The one who had mercy upon him.

We need to respect the colour of skin, and the riches of languages and cultures of other people. We also need to look beyond these traits to their heart needs and their character.

In The Parable of The Good Samaritan Jesus makes a subversive statement about race relations. “Samaritans are God’s people too.” It’s a message that retains its relevance in 2014.

Desegregating the Church

Do you know that only 8% of all churches in the United States meet the definition of multi-racial churches? THAT’S EIGHT PERCENT!! (Yes, I’m shouting that in shock and horror.) I’m blessed to serve one of those 8% but we need to keep reminding ourselves of the value of our racial makeup. It’s far too easy to take our racial harmony for granted.

DEFINITION: According to George Yancey a multiracial church is defined as “a church in which no one racial group makes up more than 80% of the attendees.

Racial harmony is not the Gospel of Jesus. Racial harmony is a powerful response and witness to the Gospel of Jesus and the power of God.

HARMONY Sunday 2013On Sunday our church celebrated it’s 4th Annual “HARMONY Sunday”. This special day celebrates God’s work not just in bringing two racial groups together 20 years ago, but on keeping them together for 20 years. Today our church consists not only of Anglo & African-Americans, but some Hispanics, and several other nationalities. We have members raised near the Gulf of Mexico, and others in the Dakotas. Undoubtedly, the Holy Spirit is the glue that keeps us together.

Our church forms part of the Restoration Movement. This group of churches has spent the past 200+ years calling the broader Christian community back to the forms and teachings of the first century church as described in the New Testament. This mission has been carried out more successfully in some areas than in others.

One aspect of the earliest church that the restoration movement has given little acknowledgement is the area of race relations. The pages of the New Testament are filled with examples and teaching relevant to Jew and Gentile relationships, but little application has been made to contemporary racial tensions. Churches of Christ are still as segregated as any other denominations in the United States.

I love God’s vision of his church as described by John in Revelation 7:9,

I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

God’s kingdom is multi-national, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual. That crowd at the throne of the Lamb is our goal and destination, and there’s only one building. (See also Rev. 5:9-10 and 14:6) If it’s Jesus prayer, and it is, that “God’s will be done on earth as in heaven” then this vision of God’s throne, must be part of our vision for God’s church.

One of the problems churches encounter is that our vision for the church is too one-dimensional. We focus on doctrine over practice. Where we do focus on practice we often limit it to corporate worship. It’s interesting that throughout Revelation the throne scenes don’t describe a liturgy (order of worship), but they take considerable time to describe those present and worshiping.

HARMONY Sunday 2013-02That the church in eternity appears as a unified body should not surprise those of us who’ve studied the first century church. Acts 2 describes how the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, which became the first church, consisted of at least 15 language groups. Although they held Judaism as a commonality, one can only imagine various cultural customs and values this crowd brought with it from across the Roman Empire. It’s no surprise that one of the first church arguments involved the distinct cultural groups of the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews. But they didn’t split!! They didn’t form distinct Hebraic and Hellenistic churches. That came years later. Rather, they worked to find a solution to the issues at hand.

God’s vision for a racially inclusive kingdom and therefore a racially unified church is found throughout the Bible. Here’s a just a few passages to consider:

  • Genesis 12:3 All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. [A messianic promise made to Abraham]
  • Psalm 67:2 May your salvation [be known] among all nations.
  • Isaiah 56:6-7 My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
  • Matthew 28:19 Go and make disciples of all nations.
  • John 3:16 God loved the world so much…
  • Acts 11:17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us… who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? [The apostle Peter after baptising the Roman, Cornelius]
  • Galatians 3:8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith…
  • Revelation 7:9 I saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…

Perhaps the greatest challenge most churches face is overcoming indifference with intentionality. Most churches I’ve visited will say “Blacks, Whites, Indians, Chinese, Hispanics… Anyone’s welcome here.” But this is a very passive statement. What most of these churches don’t realise is that they’re really saying, “Any Black, White… person that comes here and fits into our existing culture is welcome here.”

diversity 01Hispanics may be welcome, but we’re not printing anything in Spanish anticipating their arrival. African-Americans may be welcome here, but we’re not learning any Gospel songs or celebrating Martin Luther King Day. Chinese Christians may be welcome here, but we have no clue when Chinese New Year is, and little interest in learning much about it.

If existing churches are to represent the kingdom of God as seen at the throne of the Lamb they must learn to be become aware of different cultures and cater to them. We must admit that our way of doing things is not the only way of doing things, even if it’s the way that makes us most comfortable.

WE MUST BE INTENTIONAL.

What does intentional look like? Mark DeYmaz describes how in the early days of Mosaic Church in Little Rock the church began to attract Hispanic guests. Before long, they began printing their church bulletins in Spanish as well as English. One week a well-meaning volunteer separated the different language bulletins to different sides of the entrance. Yes, this is only a small thing but DeYmaz notes, “Think about it: two separate tables, two separate groups.” That’s intentionality.

I love that as chapter 21 of Revelation (v1-5) describes God consummating his relationship with redeemed humanity, there are no longer any nations, races, people groups or languages. Rather, God’s dwelling place is simply “among His people” and “They will be his people, and God himself will be their God.” The only distinction among people are those with God in his dwelling place and those outside his city who rejected the forgiveness he offered.

Now there’s a vision for the church.