The Myth of Harmless Homogeneity

A significant number of Christians are content to worship in homogenous congregations and spend time with similar others. Describing the views of many Christians, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith write, “For many…there is certainly nothing wrong with attending racially distinct congregations, as long as the motivation is not prejudice. People are comfortable with different worship styles, want to be with familiar people, and have different expectations about congregations. For these reasons, if congregations end up being racially homogenous, it is acceptable, if not preferable.” (p. 135). Many of the people that Emerson and Smith interviewed believed that their desire to remain in a homogenous church was not motivated by prejudice and that it was in fact harmless. However, decades of social psychological research on group processes suggests that group separation and prejudice have a bi-directional relationship. That is, prejudice tends to contribute to division between groups and division between groups tends to contribute to prejudice. What begins as seemingly harmless homogeneity often snowballs into distrust, inaccurate perceptions of other cultural groups in the Church, prejudice and hostility.

There are a number of reasons why social psychologists believe this to be the case. One reason is that the simple process of forming a group creates a double-edged sword. On the one hand, group formation involves promoting a group identity and engaging in prosocial behavior toward others in the group. On the other hand, group formation involves going to great lengths to distinguish the group from other groups and ultimately derogating other groups. For example, Christians are fairly good at treating others in their church group well. However, we run into trouble when we’re asked to treat Christians who are different than us well, particularly if those Christians violate one of our core cultural values.

Research shows that simply reminding people of their identity as Christians by exposing them to Christian concepts like Bible, sermon, heaven and Messiah leads them to engage in pro-social behavior, but only towards fellow group members . After being exposed to Christian concepts Christians are more pro-social , generous , cooperative , honest and less hypocritical toward fellow group members. However, exposure to Christian concepts increases aggression toward non-group members, willingness to exact revenge on non-group members, and support for violence toward non-group members. These findings led psychologists Norenzayan & Shariff (2008) to conclude that “religious prosociality is not extended indiscriminately: the ‘dark side’ of within-group cooperation is between-group competition and conflict. The same mechanisms involved in in-group altruism may also facilitate out-group antagonism” (p. 62). In other words, with respect to cross-cultural contexts, activating Christian concepts leads people to engage with fellow church group members in pro-social ways, but denigrate those who are members of culturally-different churches.

This is likely due to the fact that (for reasons that I’ll describe in future blogs) we automatically think that the broad concept of Christian only refers to those who look, think and act like us and not to all of the diverse peoples of the worldwide body of Christ. (This isn’t helped by the fact that, for many of us, the only Christians with whom we meaningfully interact look, think and act like us.) Consequently, we create us vs. them boundaries that effectively separate us from culturally-different Christian groups. Once these boundaries are erected, we automatically treat “us” well and “them” poorly. In essence, the homogenous boundaries that seemed innocent have evolved into a breeding ground for inaccurate perceptions of and prejudice toward other groups.

If we want to love our culturally-different brothers and sisters well, we need to rid our churches of homogeneity – because it really isn’t harmless.