Self-Selection into Situations and Church

In the past few years, I’ve started to notice just how often I choose to be in situations that have a lot of other people like me (age, gender, social class, etc….) I don’t think that I consciously choose to do so, rather how I express my interests in the context of the constraints and opportunities of my life end up being similar to how other people with similar interests, opportunities, and constraints do.

An easy example, I usually go grocery shopping early Saturday morning, and, lo and behold, there’s a bunch of other middle-aged guys there that time too. Same with going to the gym in the late afternoon and lots of other things that I do.

I notice this self-selection into situations the most when I end up in non-typical (for me) situations. So, if I change my shopping time, I’m surprised by how many elderly people are there in mid-morning, mothers with kids in the early afternoon, and professionals stopping on the way home from work in the early evening.

Similar principles hold in my experience with Christianity. My family and I attend a church which has a lot of people in the same general demographic categories as us. In fact, during services, we often sit among those who are most like us (think middle-aged).

This general principle–of similar people selecting themselves into religious groups–is one of the general explanations for religious homogeneity, i.e., why people in a given religious denomination or congregation or small group tend to be similar to each other.

Probably the most frequently studied form of religious homogeneity regards race. Bill Graham famously said that Sunday morning at 11:00 am is the most segregated hour of the week. This is because people feel most comfortable with similar others, and an important aspect of similarity in our culture is race an ethnicity.

So far this is rather straightforward, but here is where it gets tricky: Is this homogeneity a good thing?

On one hand, it provides a powerful mechanism for growth. Churches (or small groups or denominations) can probably grow best by targeting “types” of people. So, for instance, popular college ministries now offer different groups for students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, I know of a mega-church that offers different services targeting different groups.

On the other hand, this homogeneity decreases our interactions with people who are different than us, and so we might miss out on some of the benefits of such across-group interactions.

I don’t know if there is a “right” answer to this, and what’s best might vary by situation, but it’s an interesting, powerful dynamic to be aware of. If nothing else, it explains to me why I keep on sitting next to fellow old guys who like to joke around (and you know who you are).



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  • Jeff

    I am so glad to see this idea in print. Yes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” And churches may be the supreme social organization. Notice how often we hear how someone values a congregation because how close they feel to the other members. This is just one very small step from valuing a church’s doctrine by how comfortable they feel with the other members, and an even tinier step to valuing an individual’s spirituality by how well they connect with others. It is no wonder that charismatic individual can lead cults: the more empathetic a person seems, the more spiritual they seem.

    So what about those that are not very social? Do you think they would feel comfortable in a setting that equates social abilities with spirituality? Wouldn’t they feel damned because they don’t feel like they fit in church or anywhere else? I doubt they would come to church very often. And in the meantime the regular worshippers pat each other on the back about how spiritual they are because of how well they connect socially.

    But what about connecting with God? Isn’t that what spirituality is really about? Now imagine what doubts you cast into an introvert’s mind when you equate social abilities with spirituality.

  • Pat Pope

    As an African-American, I have attended both predominantly white and black churches. To me, race does not have to a stopper, but I realize there are many reasons why people self-select. Some blacks will not worship in white churches because of differences in worship style or lack of comfort in an all-white setting and the same probably goes for whites.

    My experience in the last church I attended that was predominantly white started off positive, but it didn’t take long for the differences to arise. I largely tried to overlook incidents in which insensitive and ignorant comments were made that seemed to reflect the lack of exposure that some people had to people of color or those who were different in some way. However, over time, I just grew tired of it and it all came to a head my last year there when as an elder I had fellow elders who disrespected me and one even slandered me in an e-mail to another member of the church. Up until then, I tried working with people and overlooking things, but I’d had enough and felt it was just time to move on.

    I now attend another church that is still largely white, however, it’s much more ethnically diverse than the previous church and they seem more open to people from all walks of life. As I look back on my experience at the other church, sometimes I wonder if it was even a mistake for me to ever have gone there in the first place. Is it sometimes trying to force something that just won’t work? I was there for 12 years and I’d like to believe it was not for naught. There are some who have reached out to me since leaving and the group of people that I worked directly with as an elder were largely upset about me leaving. However, when an environment is so different, sometimes the emotional toll is too great of trying to stay, tough it out, educate others to differences, etc.

    How do we get past this? I think Christians have to be more intentional about being around and getting to know people different than they are so that when those people come into our churches, they aren’t spending their time on the fringe of cliques, but are rather welcomed in as another member of the family of God. Unfortunately, some churches are like little enclaves that seemingly separate themselves from the outside world and while they go to work and shop and see people of different cultures, ethnicities, lifestyles, etc. it never goes beyond just seeing these people. In fact, I think sometimes we see and we don’t see. It’s just another face in the crowd and we never think about getting to know them or enlarging our world. This is difficult for me because I’m a person who enjoys diversity, but I’ve learned that not everyone does. After my experience, I would say that churches have to be intentional about blending their churches, but it is not easy by any means. We can say we’ll just focus on Christ and worship Him, but we are human beings living in a real world and reality always creeps in and we need to deal with the real issues rather than ignoring them or expecting the other group to just assimilate.