Just Like Me? (RJS)

We all prefer friends who are just like us … personality, age, education, social class, marital status. This is simply human nature it appears – with both good and bad consequences. We tend to self-segregate. Should the church be any different?

I read an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (aka PNAS) recently where the investigators looked at self-segregation as a function of institution size. Both simulation and survey methods were used in the study. This article, Structural effect of size on interracial friendship, explored the influence that the size of a social context has on the diversity of interactions. The article itself requires a subscription to access, but the results have also made several news stories including this one at Science Daily and this one, School size plays a role in interracial friendships, that found its way to USA Today.

The general assumption is that people prefer to interact with people who are “like them.”  To quote from the paper: “Most social scientists assume that individuals prefer to make friends with people of similar social attributes, including race/ethnicity, relation, age, education, and social class. However, any individual’s likelihood of finding a satisfactory friend in terms of group similarity is constrained by the opportunities available in the person’s social context.” The purpose of the study published in PNAS was to investigate the structural effect of context size while holding everything else constant. The paper focuses on race for comparison of survey data from high schools – but the conclusions are not limited to race. They apply as well to age, education, social class and other selection parameters.

The major conclusions of this PNAS study are:

(1) Total context size has a distinct effect on interracial friendship. An increase in the size of the total group decreases the likelihood of forming an interracial friendship.

(2) The effect of size increases when the number of variables for preference increases. (Just race, race plus personality, race plus personality plus academic ability …).  The groups become increasingly homogenous as the size of the total pool increases because there is an increasing chance to find friends who match.

(3) “Noise” disturbs the trends somewhat. There will always be real anecdotal exceptions to the general pattern.

(4) The observations are not limited to interracial relations, but have application to many other parameters. While the surveys focus on race – but the simulations are far more general.

I think this study may have profound implications for how we think about church dynamics. According to this study a large church – however diverse it may be as a whole – will have less real diversity of interaction and fellowship than a smaller church of similar global diversity.

Is this good?

Is it Bad?

… or …

Is it indifferent, of minor concern?

Four observations …

First: A few weeks ago in the worship service we were shown a short video prepared by a megachurch (which one is irrelevant) that was designed to encourage people to join a small group. The video opened with a couple lost in a mass of people in worship, discussed the search for a comfortable small group, and ended up with the couple happily involved in a small group of “people just like you.”  That phrase bothered me a bit when I first saw the video – and when this PNAS article came to my attention about a week later it put a finger on some of my unease.

Second: A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a person who complained that the small group facilitator at their church kept sending them “uninteresting” people. They had to tell the facilitator to stop – and provided some guidance on the type of person (just like them) they wanted in the group.  The person I was speaking with felt this was an “of course” kind of issue, and there was nothing wrong with limiting fellowship to “interesting” people.

To what extent should Christian fellowship be about finding people “just like you?”

There is certainly value in affinity groups and accountability or fellowship groups of people at similar places. Sometimes we need the safety of similarity. But there is also value in diverse interaction with people who are not “just like you.”

Should a church encourage diverse interactions and fellowship?

If so, how can this be done?

Third: In a recent conversation with a friend where this article came up, my friend noted that some 20 or so years ago he had been part of a medium sized, relatively diverse church. The pastor of that church had commented that he was breaking every rule set forth by the church growth movement … and glad of it. He preferred his diverse relational church. I don’t bring this up as some golden example – just as a contrast to the focus on size that seems to run through the suburban (mostly white) evangelical church. Can we truly value both size and diverse relationship?

As laypeople, what should we be looking for in a church?

What kind of church should leadership try to cultivate?

To what extend should we or should we not focus on size?

Finally:  We live today in a highly mobile society faced with a plethora of choices. We are not limited to a neighborhood, a denomination, or even a city. On top of the competition from a variety of churches and other social groupings, we can find people “just like us” in virtual gatherings formed on the internet.  One of the authors of the original article is quoted in the Science Daily link:

One potential negative social consequence of the Internet as a social interaction medium in an ever more globalized world is to encourage social isolation and social segmentation by expanding group size immensely,” Cheng said.

This leads me to my last question:

Is valuing diversity of fellowship simply a losing battle, one the church can’t afford to worry about?

Is the answer that we need to yield to these pressures to reach and keep people?

My Opinion (take it for what it is worth): I think churches should, perhaps, cultivate a culture with multiple intersecting and overlapping groups. Rather than optional “programs” these are circles that cultivate diverse relationship. There is nothing wrong with a fellowship group of people “just like me” when also involved in a wide range of other community activities.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • your conclusion, that “churches should, perhaps, cultivate a culture with multiple intersecting and overlapping groups” is on the mark. I’m a pastor of a growing, diverse church, but the study you cite holds true. people tend to “retreat” to groupings of those most like themselves, almost as a haven from all the diversity of the larger group. A word we frequently throw around is “intentional,” meaning that we want to do what you suggest and be purposeful about having multiple points of intersection.

    thanks for your analysis.

  • A church I was a part of in North Carolina adopted, as their unofficial motto, “Do it together sometimes.” Since even in a relatively racially homogenous church there are still other fault lines along which fellowship can naturally divide, they’d decided to intentionally cultivate a culture in which people looked for those things that everyone naturally did, and then did them together sometimes – things like grocery shopping, eating dinner, weeding gardens, watching and sometimes schooling children, learning how to build a simple chicken hutch, etc. In diverse urban areas where people tend to have crazier schedules this becomes both more difficult and more urgent, since it is less likely that one “model” of community (as if something like that should be reduced to models!) will be able to pull in a wide enough range of folks.

  • I love that verse in Galations: “There is neither jew nor greek; slave nor free; male nor female but it’s best if you stay with your own kind”

  • Adam

    I think it would be good if there was a study of quality of relationships between the mixed and segregated. Are the people in smaller congregations “settling”? Are they choosing a lesser quality relationship because there aren’t any other options? Do we have better relationships with people who are more like us?

    Another perspective is that our friendships are dependent on who we meet first. So when our options are open I think we control who we meet first and that sets the pattern.

  • Successful diversity in the local church is perhaps the most important relational factor, one that voices to the surrounding city that in Christ, all are equal.

    The church I pastor is in the city of Atlanta, a very diverse population base as cities go. We have over 15 languages represented, and though we have grown younger in the last few years, we maintain an odd mix of people: bankers, artists, unemployed hipsters, suits and ties, and shorts and sandals.

    It’s not an easy set-up, and growth (numerically) is much slower. We don’t have the streamlined, pinpointed focus of a church with a target audience. But in the end, we see the unity coming from within a great diversity, and we will stick with that.

    Consequently our small groups are not affinity based. We run a parish / neighborhood model of ministry, so our groups are based on geography, not people groups. This means we have marrieds, singles, college students, and parents, all in community together.

    Easy? No way.

    But we like it.

  • well written and a good blog.
    we have recommended it from our Christian network.
    God bless you.

  • Matthew D

    @ John Hawthorne #3:

    That’s right up there with Luke 10 where Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” and the expert was all, like, “The one who showed me to a small group for experts in the law.” Jesus replied, “Totes.”

    Or the one in Colossians about how “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all; so, really, logically, you can still keep to your own and not feel bad about it because you love Jesus and that’s all that matters anyways.”

  • Bev Mitchell

    RJS, (and John and Matthew),
    Important post and I like your conclusion. Here’s another way to say the same thing.

    ” ‘Noise’ disturbs the trends somewhat.” Quelle surprise!

    There may be great benefit in doing a serious noise analysis on these data. I imagine they are quite messy. One ‘strategy’ would be for 30 somethings to search for some 50 somethings for their experience/wisdom and for some sixty somethings to search for some 40-50 somethings for their liveliness. This is over-simplified, of course, but it would be interesting to know how many follow strategies quite different from the assumed ‘natural’ approach.

    In an age where there is a group for just about any in-group in any large congregation, one could hope for one more group – the “it does not matter what age, sex, skin colour, marital status, number of children, age in Christ etc. you have” group. It has a kind of New Testament ring to it, no? If such a group existed in your large church, how many would sign up? This would be an empirical test for this general hypothesis.

  • RJS


    I don’t think we want explicit diversity groups … I don’t think it would work.

    One trend today is to “simplify” … who wants all those programs anyway? So an “in group” for just about anything is sometimes actively discouraged. But simplification also homogenizes.

    One small example …

    When we had a choir, over some 15 years my good friend socialized and participated with men and women, married and single, from 20 to 80. I met some of them at dinners at her house. A diverse group (except they all liked singing) met, socialized, and participated in a meaningful manner.

    Today in our “simplified” and “professionalized” church it is much harder to find ways to meet a range of people. One has to work much harder at it.

    Most of us don’t bother. As an introverted thinker I am terrible at unstructured interaction with people. I need those “ice breakers” for community.

    I think this is one way that Church can, without meaning to, cater to extraverts and marginalize introverts. (Just a personal observation.) And it is a way a Church can, without meaning to, homogenize.

  • RJS: I’ve been seriously missing the old fashioned Sunday School class. While not a fan of being lectured to, I do enjoy a good large group discussion. That discussion gives way to developing acquaintanceship conversations. It’s when you say to someone, “I really liked that comment you made.” It’s far short of a sharing time but an important piece of building a sense of community (we sociologists quote the article “The Strength of Weak Ties”). Focus on intimate small groups lends to isolation from the large group. (Which, strangely, is how they’re sold — “We’re too big to know everybody so you want to have a group you’re comfortable with”).

  • RJS

    Thanks John. I agree and I think you make the point well – and I’ll have to look up that article.

  • RJS


    Ok – I’ll have to read the article, and perhaps bring it into a post even though it is quite old. Anything with 5730 cites on web of science (127 already in 2013) is a obviously a classic.

    I think this devaluing of weak interactions in the church may contribute to my current ambivalence toward church as a whole. I wonder if it also plays into the reaction to the informal survey Scot linked yesterday.

  • Bev Mitchell

    That was partly tongue-in-cheek.
    Yes, there does need to be some focal point, but one which a very wide range of people will naturally share. Music works, but other foci might as well. For years my wife and I were in a large choir just like the one your friend was in. What a blessing! But choirs, as far as I know are sort of passé in many places, no? Pity, if it’s so.

  • RJS


    I rather thought it was tongue-in-cheek.

    I’ve been told that both choirs and Sunday School (see John’s comment) are “so 1950’s” and a church needs to jettison them to grow in the 21st century.

    Whether choirs and SS are the best way to form the weak connections John refers to, I don’t know. I rather expect that they are effective ways.

    Regardless of the form, I think that we need the web of weak connections to foster both strength and diversity of community in the church.

  • RJS:

    Yes, Grannovetter’s piece (in the American Journal of Sociology in 1973) never seems to go away. In a blog post last month (http://johnwhawthorne.com/2013/03/03/on-building-bridges/), I was building on social capital pieces that contrast bonding capital (friendship and liking) with bridging capital (linking diverse groups). Churches need both to be effective.

    I do think that there may be a connection to Michelle Van Loon’s stuff. The more people feel disconnected from the church and passive recipients of worship, the less their loss if they drift away. I’m concerned that two decades of focus on “seeker sensitivity” has lessened the engagement of long term church members.

    Today, the Barna group released data on how evangelicals relate to Christ-like versus Pharisaical attitudes and actions. Not a happy story. (http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/619-are-christians-more-like-jesus-or-more-like-the-pharisees).

    I’m not thinking that we have to go back to the golden days of hymnals and potluck dinners. But we do need new versions of those old community building mechanisms while still finding diverse and overlapping groups as you suggest.

  • RJS


    It seems to me that some of the community building mechanisms helped build diverse and overlapping groups. I expect you agree with this.

    Hymnals don’t build community, nor do pulpits or such. Choirs and potlucks (table fellowship) on the other hand … But the point isn’t to return to the past for the sake of the past but to look for ways to build community today (which may or may not benefit from some of the ideas of the past).

    I commented on a different post earlier –

    Scot linked an article awhile back (Has Militant Atheism Become a Religion) where Frans De Waal made some observations about walking away from Christian faith. One of his observations “If religion has little grip on one’s life, apostasy is no big deal and there will be few lingering effects.” He contrasted his catholic upbringing with the reformed church in the Netherlands.

    Reaching out to our world today, an increasingly secular world, is very important. So are community and relationship and discipleship. Loose connections with church will, I fear, come back to haunt us. If we ask the wrong set of questions, we will get the wrong set of answers.

  • Simon

    Really thought-provoking post that touches on a question I’ve been pondering for years.

    I admit I’ve been uncomfortable for quite some time that an ultimate badge of honor and an unqualified good is that a church is “diverse”; defining ‘diversity’ in the sense that homogeneous groups are not easily identifiable.

    There are three explanations I can find for my discomfort about the ‘goal’ of diversity. One is that I’m a white, English, male who naturally thinks that it’s totally fine for other people to be in close-knit groups oriented around their ethnicity or gender etc., but I should be part of a diverse group to feel okay with the world (I’m describing my own perception, which seems pretty skewed). The second is that Revelations speaks of “a great multitude … from every nation, tribe, people and language”, and I’m thinking, how will the wonderfulness of actual diversity (the diverse parts of which require a cultural vehicle to persist) exist beyond a generation if everyone worships with a homogeneous language and musical/cultural expression. And third because Putnam’s research – that he agonized about releasing – indicated trust within a community declines in proportion to increased diversity.

    I was glad to read John’s comment #15 on weak ties & bonding/bridging social capital. Now applying those concepts to a large church: could that not allow “self-homogenizing groups” to form – as apparently they are want to do in large contexts – which creates bonding social capital, but it would prevent “self-segregation” by ensuring bridging social capital exists (weak ties)?

    So – it feels risky saying this – perhaps in larger churches let the strong intra-racial friendships be what they are, and don’t expect as many inter-racial friendships, but DO make sure there is inter-racial interaction (bridging, perhaps ‘weaker’, but still incredibly important, ties). Within cities also, perhaps churches shouldn’t be trying to be diverse. Rather let a church be whatever the homogeneous cultural/ethnic church it is, in it’s glorious uniqueness. But make even greater effort to form bridging capital (weak ties) between churches – doing regular, publicly visible, works of service in the community, or service to each other, such that the diversity persists, is honored, and outsiders have an even greater chance of seeing “how they love one another”.

    I’d be curious to know if there’s research that somehow measure how long actual cultural/ethnic diversity persists over time within a diverse church or local community setting, or the degree they become a new, effectively homogeneous, culture?