Does Christianity, Like Not Eating a Marshmallow, Make You More Successful in Life?

A longstanding theme in the sociology of religion is how religious beliefs and practices affect one’s place in society. I’ve been reading lately some psychological studies of self-control, and it seems that self-control might prove to be an important mechanism by which Christianity influences its adherents’ place in society.

Having high levels of self-control has all sorts of benefits (at least, that’s what I’ve heard). It helps people make good impressions on others, get more education, do better in the workplace, and avoid crime.

Previously, some researchers assumed that self-control was a static characteristic, perhaps developed in early childhood, and indeed childhood self-control levels are predict future success in life. This was illustrated in Mischel’s famous marshmallow study in which children were given the choice of eating a marshmallow at that moment or waiting five minutes for a second marshmallow. The marshmallow was placed in front of them, so to get a second one, they had to exert self-control for five minutes by not eating it. The kids who could wait ended up being described as more competent and having higher SAT scores.

Another view of self-control has come into play, and that is self-control is a muscle. It can be worn out from overuse (again, that’s what I’ve heard), just like a muscle can, and it can also be built up over time with practice. Studies have found that simple self-control exercises can make a long-term difference, exercises such as always sitting up straight, refraining from &%@!*^% cursing, and brushing your teeth with your left hand. What makes this potentially powerful is that these exercises provide a straightforward means of improving one’s life—by developing greater self-control.

Here’s where the practice of Christianity comes in. A dominant theme in Christian teaching is the practice of self-control. Pray regularly, read the Bible, attend church, watch how you talk, watch what you look at, be loving to everyone, and so on. The Bible even identifies self-control as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5).

In short, being an active Christian means daily working out the self-control muscle, and so it follows that following the faith produces a higher level of self-control. This, in turn, is associated with all sorts of other good things. Put succinctly:

Practicing Christianity = increased self-control = greater success in society

To be clear, I’m not implying that other religions or belief systems are unrelated to self-control. Also, I recognize that Christianity redefines what success means, and so perhaps Christians with strong self-control don’t pursue “worldly” success as vigorously as they would without faith. I also recognize that self-control is not the only linkage between religion and social status, and that others may accentuate it or counteract it. Nonetheless, this mechanism has interesting implications for the effect of Christianity on general effectiveness and even one’s place in the world.

The Power of a Simple Plan, But Should Christians Do It?

In the 1990s, a sociology psychologist named Peter Gollwitzer conducted a fabulously useful experiment. He wanted to know under what conditions intentions to do a behavior actually translated into doing behavior.

To find out, he did a simple experiment. His university students were getting ready to leave for home at the end of the fall semester, and he gave them a simple task to do. Write an essay about what they did on Christmas Day and send it to Gollwitzer within 48 hours of Christmas Day. The actual content of the task wasn’t relevant, instead Gollwitzer wanted to see how many students who agreed to do it actually did it.

Half of the students were simply asked to do the task and were given not further instruction. Of them, 32% followed through on the plan to write and send the essay.

The other half, however, we asked to do the task and they were asked to decide right then when and where they would write the essay. Of these students, a whopping 71% actually wrote and sent the essay.

Simply taking a moment or two to plan how they were going to follow through on the intention more than doubled their likelihood of doing so.

Gollwitzer calls this planning how to do things “implementation intentions,” and they appear to work with all sorts of behaviors. In a 2006 meta-analysis, Gollwitzer and Sheeran found that implementation intentions had a similar effect on behaviors related to health, academic achievements, weight loss, antiracism, altruism, and many others.

So, do we want our plans to be more effective? If so, then in addition to making the intention, we should make implementation intentions as well. For example, my intention is that “I will write this blog post.” My corresponding implementation intentions are “I will write this blog post at 9:30, after I finish my academic writing for the morning. I will write it in my home office using Gollwitzer’s meta-analysis as a guide. I’ll post it immediately afterwards.”

Given the dramatic impact of implementation intentions, I wonder why I don’t do them with all my plans? Perhaps if it’s my intention to do so, I should make implementation intentions about how to make implementation intentions. Something along the lines of, when I make plans, I will correspondingly make implementation intentions by … the who, what, where, and how of doing it. (I’m going to have to think about that one).

Sometimes I wonder if we Christians are unsure of detailed planning because it feels unspiritual. For example, James 4:13 warns against being sure about what will happen in the future, for we don’t “even know what will happen tomorrow.” For many Christians, a key feature of the faith is following God’s direction and doing his will. “Not my will but yours,” or some variation of it, has got to be in the top 10 of prayers uttered by Christians.

What does it mean, then, to follow God’s leading and still also make detailed, effective plans for the future? I have some ideas, but right now the question is more real to me than my answers to it.

Any thoughts?

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The Difficulties of Racially-Integrated Churches

I have been reading the sociological literature on race and religion, especially multiracial churches. A common observation is that Christian churches are relatively segregated by race and ethnicity. Different scholars have different estimates of the segregation, and it depends on how it’s measured. Among the statistics I’ve read: an estimated 90% of American Congregations draw at least 90% of their members from a single racial group and only about 8% of churches fit the description of multiracial.

In reading studies of integrated churches, I am struck by how very, very difficult it is to have multiple racial and ethnic groups in one church.

There are distinct advantages to demographic homogeneity (fancy work for saying that people are similar to one another). In fact, some churches explicitly tailor their outreach to specific “types” of people, and this approach often associates with specific racial or ethnic groups. Emerson and Smith (2000) likened it to retail stores aiming for a specific market—clothes for teens, kitchen supplies for the wealthy, electronic gizmos for middle-aged men. People often want to be in a church with others like them—they felt more readily understood, so this approach is effective.

When churches do seek racial integration, it can bear substantial costs. Among the possible costs that scholars have identified:

  • Churches feel like they are losing their identity
  • Churches have less feeling of group solidarity
  • Worship services are reworked
  • Decision making processes are changed
  • New staff are hired
  • Services and materials are offered in multiple languages
  • Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is frequently misinterpreted
  • Conflict arises in church about the smallest of issues. (One study told of a race-related row about where to place a statue)
  • Food service at fellowship events are changed
  • Length and style of sermons are changed
  • And on and on and on

One pastor exclaimed that multiracial ministry is simply exhausting, and this seems to be true in terms of time, energy, and material resources.

While some church growth specialists have argued in favor of a homogenous ministry outreach, most Christians (myself included) seem to be in favor of racially integrated community life. My point here is not to advocate racial integration as much as to be aware of the significant difficulties of accomplishing it.

Do Students Remember Anything They Learn in Class? Probably Not, So….

In preparing for another semester, I am struck yet again by how very little I remembered from my undergraduate classes and, correspondingly, how little my students will probably remember too. In fact, once I give a test on a subject, it’s not uncommon for them to forget much of the material almost immediately.

The comedian Father Guido Sarducci makes this point when he proposes a “Five-Minute University” in which students are only taught what they will remember years later, and that only takes five minutes.

Perhaps in response, I have over time put less emphasis on students remembering details of what we’re studying and more emphasis on learning how to think certain ways. I try to spend about half my class periods reviewing theories of topic under discussion. In large classes, I have students watch documentaries and analyze them using the theories. In small classes, I have student collect their own data–usually by observing social situations outside of the classroom–in light of the theories.

Either way, it is my hope that by giving students practice in how to think like a sociologist, beyond remembering the details of sociological studies, that they will have something with them in the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll increase what they remember up to 10 minutes!