Ecclesiology and Sociology
This is a long excerpt from a paper I wrote for my Association, a few years ago. The original paper was about the local UCC churches in Houston. I have removed that material, and left the "core" ecclesiological part. Ecclesiology through a sociological lens may seem odd to laypersons, but that is precisely how it is taught in seminary. In fact, I'm probably more pneumatological in my ecclesiology than my professors would be comfortable with.
Take this as groundwork and a beginning point for discussion. The "headlines" were part of the original paper. I had to scan this (lost the original computer file) so there may still be some "weird" symbols where letters should be. As I find any more, I'll fix them. And I have deleted the footnotes, so I'm not including all the page numbers from the book that is referenced here. The link is to my post with the relevant bibliographical information.
MEANING AND BELONGING
Emerson and Smith conducted a study of congregations and their members,of churches both black and white. They focussed on the continued segregation of congregations along racial lines, limiting their study to "whites" and "African Americans." The point of interest for us is when they layout the sociological principles that apply to groups, and how those principles identify what groups do, and why they do it. The first principle identifies why people gather in groups. We start then, with this basic sociological principle: "that the human drives for meaning and belonging are necessarily realized through interaction with others, primarily in social groups. It is within the context of groups, especially religious groups, that one answers questions such as 'Who am I?', 'Why do I exist?,' 'How should I relate to others?,' and 'How do I understand tragedy...." We saw this after 9/11, when people returned to church looking for answers to what had happened to the nation, or to them personally. It's an old and well-known function of the church: to provide a meaning to life. But the principle is, we have to get this answer from a group. "No one," as Emerson and Smith note, "can opt out of commitment to some fundamental moral orientation or take a normative view 'from nowhere."
Moreover, people need "a normative and moral orientation toward life and others," which is only available from a group. As Christians we say we are called into community by the Holy Spirit, that we are called to be witnesses to God's redemptive activity in history, or we are "commissioned" by Matthew 28:18 to carry the gospel to all the world, and make disciples of all nations. But these reasons do not, as Emerson and Smith show, override basic human drives or fundamental sociological principles. So we can equally say, as Christians, that people are drawn to religious groups because they want a normative and moral orientation. To put it confessionally, it is because they want to know God, and where two or three are together, Christ is there with us.
But even if Christ is there, we are still fallen and fallible human beings, and we gather in groups not just because of the promise of the gospel, but because it is in our nature. It is in our nature because groups provide meaning, and they provide meaning by establishing boundaries. "A group is a group, in part, by virtue of its difference from other groups; put another way, by virtue of its internal similarity." "Boundaries" are closely related to "internal similarity." We need to keep both terms in mind, but we'll handle them separately. First, 'boundaries:' "Groups must symbolize and utilize symbolic boundaries to both create and give substance to shared values and identities. So in Catholic Europe at the time of the Reformation, Protestant churches limited communion to certain Sundays in the year, simply because the Catholic Mass celebrated
the Eucharist at every worship service. "In many respects," Emerson and Smith note, "we know who we are by knowing who we are not. Thus, an ingroup always has at least one outgroup by which it creates identity. Blacks are not whites, Lutherans are not Presbyterians, evangelicals are not mainline Christians. This can also work within the congregation. A church mayor may not identify with its denomination; instead, it may identify with its history, with its traditions, an attitude often expressed by: "But, we've always done it this way!" That, too, is a source of identity, and a source of internal similarity.
The distinction is important, because denominational ties are greatly diminished these days. This is not a situation peculiar to the Houston Association or the United Church of Christ... Whether the complaint is over ordination of gays and lesbians or "liberal" theology or new forms of worship, that is fundamentally the complaint being made. It is a function of internal similarity: the larger church doesn't seem 'similar' enough to the congregation, and so the congregation objects to the identity being offered to it by the larger denomination.
When, of course, what the larger denomination is stressing is tolerance, not requirement. No church can be forced to call a gay or lesbian pastor, nor can any Association be forced to ordain or give standing to such a pastor. But simply asking for the tolerance of such an idea is objectionable to some, and that is an issue of internal similarity. As Emerson and Smith note:
Groups that stress tolerance, openness to diversity, and inclusiveness, typically lack the ability to have strong comparison groups by which to define their boundaries (with the exception that they may compare themselves to groups that do draw distinct boundaries). Their boundaries are fuzzy, and they thus find it more difficult to provide meaning and belonging.How many of us have responded with a lot of head scratching to the question: The UCC? What's that?" It's hard to say what we aren't, so it's hard to say what we are. This is not an attack on the positions of General Synod or the ministries in Cleveland. It is simply a sociological principle that deserves to be underlined here. As groups try to survive, they will try to establish boundaries and an identity against something. Some of our local churches are choosing to do that against the UCC itself (that's at least a partial explanation for the energy they devote to challenging the positions of the Conference or Cleveland). Others, however, simply stress their traditions or their history. In sociological terms, you could say they are expressing their "social solidarity:" "A group typically is said to have solidarity if its members are cohesive, working for a common purpose, and closely knit." So this works negatively as well as positively. Identity and social solidarity are essential for the group to continue to exist: "We are one in the Spirit, We are one in the Lord." But how are we one? When the larger church stresses tolerance and openness, local church identity can react negatively, insisting it's identity is in not being tolerant or open. As a man said to me once, retelling the tale of seeing my wife give money to a homeless person on the street, a tale he retold with some disgust: "There has to be a limit!" Why? Because without some limit, without some boundary, the group has no reason to exist, and soon dissolves.
Now this is one point where the advocates of "contemporary worship" and "social justice" run up against the "traditionalists." I don't mean to enter the fray of the "worship wars" here, or the controversy over pronouncements ftom General Synod. I simply want to point out a friction point that gets lost in the fray. A congregation bases it's identity in part on social solidarity. There is a great deal behind the statement ''we have always done it this way," and part of that is the cohesion, common purpose, and close-knit ties, of the group. Worship, for example, provides cohesion, continuity, identity. Change worship, and you change who the congregation is. Change worship, and you threaten the common purpose of the congregation. Change worship and drive someone away, and you threaten the ties of the congregation; you unravel the "close knit" identity of the people. Change, of course, can come in many forms: contemporary hymns, ''praise choruses," or simply a change in preaching style. Pastors in seminary now are not taught the homiletics (art and practice of preaching) that our retiring Houston Association pastors were taught, and that change alone can be disconcerting to a congregation. So this isn't simply an issue of "contemporary worship," it can be as simple an issue as what the pastor chooses to preach about. If the pastor does not contribute to the cohesion of the congregation, if the pastor leads the congregation toward working for a different "common purpose," if the pastor threatens the close-knit ties of the congregation, the pastor threatens the social identity of the congregation.
Which doesn't mean every pastor is a threat to every congregation. But the changes can be as subtle as the sermons, or as vast as introducing a "contemporary worship" service. What we have to understand is that these changes occur whenever there is a change in pastoral leadership, and the question of how congregations react to these changes is one we have to consider carefully.
Another aspect of social solidarity is directly related to my theme here, and that is age. More specifically, generations and aging. Congregations that age together can also solidify their identity around their age, their traditions, their local history. Change comes, inevitably. Social solidarity is a way of dealing with change, but sometimes it is a negative rather than a positive. Cohesion can form around a common theme, or it can form around shared experiences. The former can leave the group open to new members who share the same enthusiasm; the latter obviously builds on exclusion, because only those who have shared the experiences can share the identity. So it is not uncommon in a church for one group of people to "own" the Christmas decorations, or the Easter brunch, or be responsible for an annual church event which must be done in a certain manner. When the group begins to identify around such events or possessions, it automatically limits membership in the group and, as the group ages, the tendency to circle around the common experience becomes more and more important. So as congregations age, the groups get smaller and smaller, as well as tighter and tighter. As well as ever more exclusive.
Sociologists explain that "social solidarity increases as members' private resources contributed to group ends increase. In other words, as you contribute to your marriage, the marriage is strengthened. But just like a marriage, social solidarity can exclude others from contributing, and the group ends can change over time. What may have started as a group end promoting the worship of God, becomes a group end of promoting the life of the institution. The group end becomes not worship and service to God, but the survival of the institution, the group itself There is a sociological reason for this too, (naturally): "If a group is to achieve solidarity necessary for the survival of a volunteer group, it's primary purpose cannot be to do something outside the group, but rather to create something within the group, as in the case of married couples.". Every group, in other words, functions like a married couple, where the first importance is the group itself. So we see that social solidarity is a two-edged sword: it gives, but it can also take away and not always in the name of the Lord.
Now that leads to another principle that has to do with group function. Groups that are internally similar are less "costly" than groups that are internally dissimilar. In other words, birds ofa feather flock together. It's simply easier to be in a group of like-minded people than to be in a diverse group; and the more diverse the group, the harder it is for the group to stay together. Emerson and Smith describe this as "internal homogeneity."
The key generalization is this: the cost of producing meaning, belonging, and security in internally diverse congregations is usually much greaterbecause of the increased complexity of demands, needs, and backgrounds, and the increased effort necessary to create social solidarity and group identity, and the greater potential for internal conflict. Thus, internally homogenous congregations more often provide what draws people to religious groups/or lower costs than do internally diverse congregations. This is another reason why congregations tend toward
internal homogeneity. (emphasis in original)
There is an important point there, and one we need to stop and consider. That [bold] text seems to be aimed at evangelism efforts: that is, a happy congregation draws more people to it than an unhappy one. But turn it around, too: internally diverse congregations, that is, congregations with different people looking for different benefits from being part of the group, tend to lose people until only those of similar outlook are left. This explains the fracturing of Protestantism into so many denominations and non-denominational churches: but it also explains the loss of so many "young people" from churches in the 1960's and 1970's. Try today, for example, to minister to a church where some people remember ridmg in a horse and buggy, and others remember nothing earlier than MTV or perhaps the Internet. It isn't that it can't be done, but that dissimilarity alone exacts a high "cost," and other factors have to be equal to lower that cost to the point where the young will continue to worship with the old. But, as we saw in the '60's (my generation) and the '70's, it became easier for young people to leave than to stay.
While broad changes in society made that happen, one key reason for the departure was that the congregations were less and less internally homogenous. Young people simply saw the world differently from their parents; were, in fact, raised in an entirely different world. All but a few of our Houston Association churches are in urban settings now.
Only a generation ago, almost all of them were in rural settings. That change reflects the change in Texas in general in a generation, but those who grew up in rural areas are not going to have social solidarity with those who grew up in urban areas. The backgrounds, the needs, the expectations, of each group, are going to create greater potential for internal conflict, and make the effort to create social solidarity and group identity that much harder. In fact, it largely failed, which is why so many of our Houston Association churches have more people over 50 than under 50 in the pews on Sunday morning.
STATUS QUO BIAS
Birds of a feather flock together. As soon as the young people of the '60's found they could flock in another place ftom their parents and grand-parents, they did. Not surprisingly, the fact that people "generally prefer to be with people like themselves" is also a basic sociological principle. I mention that only to assure you we have not wandered off into the realm of personal opinion or anecdotal experience. "Studies find that status similarity among ffiends is high, especially for characteristics like race, sex, and age. That last characteristic is key. People tend to join groups, and stay in groups, with similar characteristics to themselves. We tend to divide, in other words, along generational lines. "Given the choice," Emerson and Smith note, ''people tend to choose what they already have. Which means they tend toward inertia, not toward change. "Cognitive psychologists call this the status-quo bias. The status-quo bias is the tendency of people to stick with what they have, even if gains could be made by selecting an alternative. That is, the choices people make vary depending on where they make them. Researchers attribute this tendency to 'loss aversion.' Loss aversion means that, given a person's reference point, the prospect of losses weighs more heavily than that offoregone gains.,,18 Young people, with less to lose, will more easily choose another group, another congregation, while the older people, with more invested in the status-quo, are averse to the possibility of loss. While they may lose the young people ftom their congregation, they don't lose the status quo they are most comfortable with. That is taken away ftom them by mortality, but not by their choosing. Congregations, in other words, will tend not to choose those things that might keep young people attending and supporting the church, even if they can be convinced it is for the best.
ETHICAL PARADOX OF GROUP LOYALTY
Ironically, the next point comes ftom the work of a UCC theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. The insight is Emerson and Smith's, not mine. They note a paradox, one they call ''the ethical paradox of group loyalty:" "the paradox is that even if made up of loving, unselfish individuals, the group transmutes individual unselfishness into group selfishness. They develop this insight ftom Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society. While individuals should be unselfish, Niebuhr argued, societies (or groups) cannot afford to be. Part of the reason is the principles we've outlined above: the need for group identity, for boundaries, for social solidarity and internal homogeneity, is inherently selfish at some level. If the group is to survive, it has to act in its own best interests eventually, or simply go out of existence. The group cannot act unselfishly because it cannot presume to act on behalf of its' members against their interests. It cannot presume their agreement or acquiescence where group action might endanger the
survival of the group.
At the individual level [Emerson and Smith note], selfishness is usuallyThe paradox means that "members of a group cannot understand and feel the needs of another group as completely and deeply as those of their own group," so "reliance on love, compassion, and moral and rational suasion to overcome group divisions and inequalities is, in Niebuhr's words, 'practically an impossibility.'
considered negative, but at the group level, it is considered moral and just. Indeed, at the group level, it is not called selfishness, but morality, service, sacrifice, or loyalty. Although we are selfish if we always look out for our own individual needs first it is considered wrong and immoral if we do not consider the needs of our family first, ahead of other families. We house our families first, and only if we can spare extra do we help house other families. To do otherwise is considered immoral or, at a minimum, a sad case of misplaced priorities.
The story of Elijah and the widow notwithstanding.
For this reason, relations between groups are always mainly political rather than ethical or moral. As Niebuhr says, "They will always be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses atleast as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group.Anyone who has ever been caught in a struggle in a congregation knows this is true. "Groups" here can mean within the congregation, not just the group of the congregation itself. The struggle is always one of power, not ethics or morals. The group with the power and/or authority to enforce its vision is the group that prevails; and it prevails purely in terms of power, not of ethics. There is no ethical basis for who gets to decide how the Christmas decorations are handled, or what time worship will start, or how an annual church event is conducted. The discussion is never even along those lines. It is a matter of who is in charge, not what is right or wrong. The pastor may be expected to appeal to "love, compassion, and moral and rational suasion" to settle the issue; but the pastor seldom prevails on those points; at best, she wins a postponement of the conflict,not a serious resolution. So the paradox explains the inability of groups even within a congregation to function together, an inability that tends to sharpen as the "generation gap" widens. And that gap widens not as determined by the disparity in ages between people, but the disparity in numbers of people in the group ofa similar age.
THE PROXIMITY PRINCIPLE
As congregations age, another problem sets in that insures they will continue to
age, and to shrink: the problem of social networks, or what Emerson and Smith call the "proximity principle:"
We have to meet people to form relationships with them. Therefore, our relationships form within groups. We rarely become connected with a person from another part of our community unless we meet in organized group activity. As research demonstrates, much of the reason people's networks consist of people so similar to themselves is due to the homogenous nature of their social groups As a group becomes more central for its members, its members more often find friendship within the group.And as the group becomes more and more the source of friendships, the groups becomes more and more tightly knit. Good for the group; bad for church growth. Newcomers need not apply. But note this is not necessarily because they are not welcome. The congregation can have the most sincere interest in ''new members." But it will not act sincerely on that interest. Instead, it will follow the path of least cost; and that path will mean reinforcing and sustaining the friendships that already exist, rather than trying to forge new friendships. As the group becomes more central for its members, the members find friendship within the group. The only time they wi11look outside the group, is when the newcomers closely resemble the friends already within the group.
THE CHURCH OF MEANING AND BELONGING V. THE CHURCH OF SACRIFICE FOR MEANING AND BELONGING
By this point you are beginning to consider a response something like, "yes,
but. . .." These are, after all, generalizations. And we are, after all, dealing with the church, an institution that is supposed to change hearts and minds, to release us to a new life, to make us better than we are or help us to follow our better, rather than our selfish, nature. And I have to answer "yes, but"
[T]he organization of American religion encourages religious groups to cater to people's existing preferences, rather than their ideal callings. In trying to create meaning and belonging, even to teach religious truths.. .religious leaders must act within a limited range shaped by the social location of their congregation. The congregation often looks to religion not as an external force that places radical demands on their lives, but rather as a way to fulfIll their needs Ifwe accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging within the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for the least cost [A]a seminary professor Charles Thomas, Jr. has summarized, "In practice congregation members expect the minister to do nothing (such as taking a prophetic voice) which would interfere with the harmony and growth of the membership.It seems a relatively benign thing, telling a church what it must do if it wants to grow; especially if that church has evidenced interest in the prospect. After all, the Conference Minister and the church at large and articles and books pour forth urging mainline Protestant denominations to reclaim their place at the center of the community, to "reach out" and "invite" new members. "Church growth" seems to be the reason churches exist. Pastors are encouraged to lead "mega-churches" and evangelism has become a synonym for adding to the church rolls. It is no surprise, then, that almost all of our churches in the Houston Association, including those who have released their pastors recently, agree that one of their most important missions is church growth. But it is not so benign as it seems. Church growth first means change. A pastor who urges a church to act to invite and include new members is a pastor demanding that the congregation do things it has never done before. She is soon heard speaking in a "prophetic voice" that says, quite simply, everything you know is wrong. Our churches, especially our oldest churches and the ones in the most trouble, all grew through family connections. Members were born into the churches, or married into them. Those that experienced growth in other ways benefited :trom the "suburb" phenomenon: newcomers flocked to the church of their peers. But then those newcomers left again, moved on, as people in suburbs are wont do to, and those left behind simply got older, and the congregation as a whole became less attractive to the neighborhood around them, less visible in the community, until they vanished altogether. Why didn't those churches attract new members? They didn't know how. The era of church growth coincided with the return of soldiers :trom World War II. People flocked to churches in a tidal wave of church attendance. And just as the tide went in, it went out again. The churches (across the country) did nothing to bring those people in, and did nothing when they left again. They didn't know how to. It wasn't in their culture.
And now we face a 'post-denominational" America. People used to attend the church they were raised in. But now we have a whole generation which was not raised in church, because their parents left church as teenagers, and never looked back. Now churches have to "advertise," to "reach out," to tell people they exist, are open, are welcoming. Relying on location and a building with a steeple is not enough anymore. I know of one church in Houston, on a busy street, with a large, prominent sanctuary, which many would consider highly visible. But two different residents of the neighborhood around that church told me, on separate occasions, that they drove past the building for years on a daily basis and never noticed it. Church buildings are now as much of the visual clutter of our streets as telephone poles and billboards. We just don't look at them. Where once it took an effort not to go to church, now the effort is to get people to cross the threshold. Faced with this change in society, most churches haven't themselves changed to be more inviting, to find ways to ask those people in.