Church social dynamics

I think if I got digging, I’ve got enough material to write an entire thesis on how most church divisions can be explained almost completely as function of various social dynamics.

When protestants typically start a new church, the usual M.O. is to use a lot of rhetoric about how it is a “new move of God” or some other sort of spiritual language.

Churches splitting for (seemingly) theological differences often describe themselves as the remnant of the pure church keeping the faith while the mothership sinks into the deep waters of heresy.

Sometime the reasons can be very complicated. Luther split from Rome over justification by faith at the start of the reformation. But thousands of people followed him. Judging by the simple fact that a LOT of people just really don’t care about theology very much, it has to be assumed that many of these folks that first joined with Luther and his major followers did so primarily for OTHER reasons. These reasons are most likely the influence of family and friends, geography, or any number of other motivations. Didn’t like the priest in your town? While for years you’ve been stuck with him. Now suddenly there is an alternative down the street! See ya! Never went to mass much anyway and then your best friend’s husband (who really does care about theology) starts taking his family to the protestant church. You follow along. I’m sure you can think of lots of other examples.

Of course the single most important factor is probably geography. In fact, it’s pretty much a given. Church’s are SUPPOSED to be divided by geography, right?

Next on the list of the influences is family. The Catholics often get accused of having children who grow up going to church but don’t care one bit for Christianity. The truth is though, this phenomenon can be observed in all the other churches too, to varying degrees.

Do you have any “friends” that are just hangers on? What about the obnoxious co-worker who drives you (and plenty of other people) bananas with their ineptitude, gossip, or astonishing lack of social skills? Who wants to be around these people? Almost nobody. And whaddayaknow, some of them go to your church! You get enough of these people together (or get one in leadership) and they start to drive people away.

When people start hanging out at a different bar, they probably have the honesty to say, “Well, I used to hang out there until a lot of drunk frat guys starting hanging out there too. The place got too loud. John’s Pool Hall is more quiet even though it’s kind of smokey.”. But when we leave a church, we have to say something like “I just didn’t think the gospel was being proclaimed there.” or “We wanted a richer spiritual environment for our kids” or even “We really felt God was leading us to join this new congregation. Everyone is so close! It’s like a real warm community.” When the whole freakin’ time, the real reason was that the new worship leader wouldn’t let your wife sing back-up anymore and that really obnoxious guy was always trying to accost you after every service and gripe about what he saw on Fox news last night.

Again, I’m not saying all splits are over petty things. The Anglican’s splintering over gay ordination is pretty significant. The local Assembly of God’s new youth pastor breaking off and taking all the cool kids with him is something else entirely. Splits don’t have to necessarily be over personal conflict either. If a new factory was built near your neighborhood and your church saw an influx of blue-collar workers, you think that might change the environment a bit? If the pastor decided to change his sermons to be aimed more at folks who never went to college and suddenly your children don’t know half the kids in youth group after the congregation went from 200-300 people, you suddenly find yourself shopping around for somewhere more comfortable. Somewhere were people are more like you. This is bound to happen.

Now, please understand me. I think a LOT of these sorts of divisions are not inherently sinful or petty. The are much larger sociological forces at work here. Listen to this recent commentary by Seth Godin:

Dunbar’s Number isn’t just a number, it’s the law

Dunbar’s number is 150.

And he’s not compromising, no matter how much you whine about it.

Dunbar postulated that the typical human being can only have 150 friends. One hundred fifty people in the tribe. After that, we just aren’t cognitively organized to handle and track new people easily. That’s why, without external forces, human tribes tend to split in two after they reach this size. It’s why WL Gore limits the size of their offices to 150 (when they grow, they build a whole new building).

Facebook and Twitter and blogs fly in the face of Dunbar’s number. They put hundreds or thousands of friendlies in front of us, people we would have lost touch with (why? because of Dunbar!) except that they keep digitally reappearing.

Reunions are a great example of Dunbar’s number at work. You might like a dozen people you meet at that reunion, but you can’t keep up, because you’re full.

Some people online are trying to flout Dunbar’s number, to become connected and actual friends with tens of thousands of people at once. And guess what? It doesn’t scale. You might be able to stretch to 200 or 400, but no, you can’t effectively engage at a tribal level with a thousand people. You get the politician’s glassy-eyed gaze or the celebrity’s empty stare. And then the nature of the relationship is changed.

I can tell when this happens. I’m guessing you can too.

A lot of newer missional church planter’s realize this last point. Once their church gets to 150-200 people, that’s IT. They pull the plug. Take 20 and start a new congregation. If you don’t initiate it, it won’t be long before some of your members get fed up (with each other or YOU the glassy-eyed pastor) and do it themselves and the results aren’t always pretty.

Mark N at the Boar’s Head Tavern recently made this comment. He was reading my mind.

Try and follow me on this one. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 99% of churchgoers could care less what your church’s theology is. There’s only one out of every hundred in your church who really cares, and he/she probably has a blog. What average joe does care about is your church’s culture, which is a combination of theology driven ecclesiology, covenant community, and the vision cast by leadership. So theology acts as a rudder, but the current (culture) plays a part in shaping your church into what it really is. This is how I see it, correct me if you think I’m wrong.

I’ll go out on that limb too.

Theology is a rudder. Bad theology will drive the ship into the rocks eventually. Wise folks on board will likely start jumping ship as the coast gets closer. But what the ship IS, that’s YOU! The people in it. That is, the ship is shaped by your church culture. It might look like a clipper ship. Or an ocean liner. Maybe a cruise ship. Possibly a space ship? Nevermind. That metaphor needs some work.

Church splits and divisions are just a really opportune time to analize these things. However, they affect every aspect. Check out this post about the singles culture at a particular church. I’m sure some of you can relate.

The Mars Hill [Seattle] vision Driscoll has repeatedly articulated that “young men would love Jesus, get jobs, take wives, and make babies” is totally a Social Gospel idea, a vision that through the preaching of the Gospel society will be transformed by Jesus into a better society. The fact that this is not a LEFT-leaning social gospel does not make it any less a social gospel.

How much of our post-millenialist-Jesus-will-subdue-the-earth theology is highly dependant our congregants having lots of babies? Is that a real move of God, or just us gettin’ moving? Maybe both, but watch out for rhetoric like this.

To shift gears a bit back to the theory, here is another post from the BHT, this time by Harmless Anarchist:

The advocacy by theological networks, coalitions, and all that rot, whether formal or informal, are 95% explicable as the expression of psychological and social needs and pressures of the particular religious society. Posts such as the one linked have a near ritual character and function [a rant about how right their theology is versus everyone else]. They build community identity. They are how a particular social species leverage technological means to construct their ecological niche.

Here on the interwebs, the theology-phile seems to have pride of place in the order of things. I don’t think anyone will contest the fact that theology sites are ubiquitous. While sites that talk about discipleship, community, and healthy church culture are there, they’re in the minority. Why is this?

Why is this? Well, talking theology is an easy front to avoid loving your neighbor. Studying the bible and the reformers is easy compared to summoning the emotional energy to listen to that obnoxious guy at church one… more… time.

More on all this later.

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