People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18.15-16)
I’m sure you have heard and likely even said yourself, “Did you see who she was talking to?” This question is often borne out of the surprise that someone is reaching above or below their social status. It is a question about us and them; how we define ourselves; who we include in our social circles; and the power of social boundaries. As scripture reminds us, such questions rooted in social boundaries have persisted since the dawn of time. The disciples admonished people to stay away from Jesus on numerous occasions and while Jesus himself usually crossed those boundaries, he was not always as quick to do it as we might like (see Matthew 15.21-28).
Social scientists are interested in the ways that information is transmitted across social networks. This involves who talks to whom, what about these people makes their relationship likely, how cliques form and who is included in them, who act as gatekeepers of information, and who might be isolated from others. We have fancy statistics for analyzing these relationships that basically tell us the probability of a tie forming between two people given a certain set of circumstances. [Should you be inclined, search the internet for Exponential Random Graph Models and enjoy what you find!] This matters in congregational research because it helps us understand how congregants mobilize resources and information on behalf of others within their congregations. It addresses the fundamental question whether or not congregations can act as resource brokers or if they suffer from the social forces that keep us isolated from the world around us.
Congregations are webs of relationships. Think about your own faith community – you are tied to people because you see them on a regular basis, because you are related, or because you share a common friend. When you hang out around the fellowship coffee pot, you tend to talk to those with whom you already have a relationship (if you are like me). We would like to think that congregations are not prone to cliques, that we build relationships with everyone no matter how different they are from us. But my research on this is mixed though limited. I found that while at one congregation people tended to build relationships with others who are different from themselves, at another congregation people tended to build relationships with those more like themselves. This suggests that particular attributes of congregations either promote of hinder relationships that transcend boundaries, particularly when one congregation has significant diversity.
Findings like these suggest that pastors and church leaders may need to look for innovative ways to bridge potential social gaps between congregants of different backgrounds. Having served local congregations I know clergy and church leaders are acutely aware of these challenges and actively develop programming that seeks to bring people together. However, even in smaller congregations these challenges persist. We like to stay in our comfort zones and that means having friends very similar to ourselves.
This has implications for our ministries. It can set up us-them paradigms. It can limit our willingness to interact with others. It impacts our knowledge of need.
Did you see who he was talking to? Jesus talked with all kinds of people. Our challenge is to build new relationships, to risk uncertainty, to be uncomfortable, and to open ourselves to new realities. There is such richness in the world and we limit ourselves when we don’t mix with others who are different in some way. You never know when you might be the conduit that makes it possible for someone to land a job that allows a family to provide regular, nutritious meals. Through one conversation you might connect someone to a doctor who provides relief from a chronic condition. Over coffee, your advice might empower someone to make life-altering change. Let the children come to me, and do not stop them. Jesus of Nazareth has a knack of reminding us that we are part of a much larger whole and we are called to be active agents in creating God’s realm on earth. Whom have you been talking to lately?
Photo: Evangelical Church in Schmalenberg, Germany (July 2014)
Figure: Congregational Network Structure (each circle represents a person; each line a relationship)