Social Similarity & Faith

I’ve been thinking a lot about social similarity lately, and maybe you have too (uh, yes, that was a joke). In many ways, social life is structured by similar people finding and interacting with each other. Sociologists call this homophily. This tendency of birds of a feather flocking together has been observed with many socially-relevant characteristics, including gender, social class, age, race, occupation and, of course, religion. As a result of it, we tend to spend more time with people who are similar to us than otherwise.

It’s not just that we that we like people who are more similar to us, but in addition, we become more like people who we like. We mimic how they posture themselves, and that in turn makes us more likable to them. (For a strategic application of this).

So… what are the implications of this for the practice of Christianity? Undoubtedly, it’s the reason we observe so much homogeneity within congregations. For example, churches tend to be segregated by race, with people of a particular racial and ethnic group congregating in a particular church. (This trend is changing over time, but it still manifests itself strongly). Even if a church is racially diverse, it will probably be economically homogenous.

Even within churches, we seek out people like us–by age, education, and other social characteristics.

Is this tendency to seek out and bond with similar others a good thing, bad thing, or neutral, from a Christian perspective that is. At this point, I would probably lean toward neutral. On one hand, it presents challenges in terms of diversity–for racially-diverse (and, really, just about anything-diverse) churches are difficult to maintain, especially when they are small. On the other hand, homophily creates strong social networks along which information and assistance can be passed.

This tension, between embracing diversity and taking advantage of similarity, shows itself with how churches and para-churches seek to grow. I know of a college ministry who organize their outreach efforts by race and ethnicity–with meetings specially targeting members of different racial and ethnic groups. The trick then, I suppose, is getting these different groups to interact as a whole. This type of approach–seeking homogeneity at smaller levels of organization and diversity at larger levels is one way of trying to get the best of both.

Perhaps simply being aware of the presence and power of homophily is important for all religious organizations.

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  • Jeremy

    Sounds similar to the homogeneous church growth principle (hup) by Donald McGavran. People like to be with similar people and this principle can be used to see faster church growth.

  • George Yancey

    I would see it as negative Brad. This happens to be an area where I have done previous research. The work suggests that Blacks and Hispanics who attend multiracial churches (defined as churches where the numerican majority group is no more than 80 percent of the church) make economic and eduacation gains and whites who attend such churches develop more of a concern for our racialized society. Proving the causation of this is problematic but there is enough evidence suggesting that these trends are enhanced by multiracial congregations. Furthemore such diversity is helpful for eliminating some of the racial misconceptions we have in our society. Some of my research indicates that Chrsitians are more open to dating outside their faith than outside their race. It is hard for me to believe that such a propensity would survive in a multiracial religious setting. I am not saying that all churches should be multiracial but we should have more of them than we have today. Ideally this diversity would lead to diversity in other areas as well. For example, we know that multiraical congregations are also more likely to have diversity in SES. So count me as one to argue that Christians should openly push for diversity in all areas except for theology or diversity that may include categories of sin (i.e. we do not need to make sure that we have more people who practice adultery).