Churches can be pretty homogeneous. I noticed this the other day. I sat down at my local church last Sunday morning, and happened to look around. Pretty much everyone looked like me. Most people were White, and just about everyone appeared to be upper-middle class.
Why is that? Why do churches seem to be made up of the same kinds of people, whether it be race, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation?
I think there are two main reasons:
- We live in a religious marketplace. There are many different kinds of churches around. Depending on your preference, you can attend a small, cozy congregation of 100 people, a huge mega-church that has a coffee shop in the lobby, or something in between. You can go to a conservative church, a liberal church, or a moderate church. You can go to a church with lots of older people, a church with lots of young couples and families, or a church made up of mostly college students. The options are almost endless. Because of this, people generally shop around when looking for a church. I remember doing this when I first moved to Texas. I visited one church, and it didn’t really fit. I went to another one, and it felt good at first, but eventually I realized it wasn’t for me. And the process went on until I settled on a place that I really liked. Because everyone is shopping around for a church that fits their preferences, the people who end up deciding to go to a certain church often are pretty similar to each other.
- Religious homogeneity might make people feel better. From a sociological perspective, one of the primary functions of church is that it helps provide congregants with a sense of belonging and purpose. Religious groups that are homogeneous might do a better job of providing these two benefits of religious participation. For example, religious groups that have clear boundaries about who is in and who is out generally elicit a greater sense of belonging and loyalty than religious groups that have more permeable and fuzzy boundaries. Also, religious groups that are made up of similar kinds of folks provide their members with consistent opportunities for consensual validation of their beliefs and values. What this means is that if other people believe the same thing as me, I tend to feel more confident in my own beliefs and perspective, which can increase my sense of purpose in life.
Based on these two factors, I’m not surprised that many churches are homogeneous. But is this a good thing? I’m not so sure. If the overall goal is personal and spiritual growth, it is probably a good idea to be in a religious community that has a balance of support and challenge, which probably requires a balance of similarity and diversity. But it can be hard to find that, with so many factors pushing religious congregations toward homogeneity.
I think for churches to grow more diverse, diversity has to be a prominent value of the church itself. In other words, having a diverse congregation needs to be a priority. If congregants (and the leadership of the church) share the value of diversity and prioritize it, then the shared value of diversity may help maintain a sense of belonging and meaning for members, even though there are other important differences among members of the church.
Discussion: What do you think about the high level of homogeneity in churches nowadays? Do you think it is possible for a church to prioritize diversity, yet still do a good job of providing its congregants with a strong sense of belonging and purpose?