Chapter 09: Basic Sociological Principles

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Chapter Summaries

With all of the different denominations and styles of worship it is easy to forget that most of us need the same basic things from our churches. Our churches must be both institutions that help us encounter God on a regular basis and they must be places where we can feel at home. Theologians concentrate their attention on the first need, while sociologists study the later. Luckily, these needs are not mutually exclusive, and there are many churches where people find ways of engaging God and feeling settled in their surroundings. Sociologists, however, have noticed that just beyond the safety of our church communities lurks the danger of chaos. When trusted ministers betray their parishioners, when once welcoming congregations turn hostile, when these things happen we face the prospect of losing our anchor. Disorientation threatens and the metaphorical sky threatens to come crashing down. This state of bewildered anxiety sociologists call anomie and it threatens us at our core, whenever our deepest convictions and expectations are challenged. This fear of homelessness and chaos is one of the factors that prevents us from acknowledging some of the deep disagreements that permeate our churches.


There is a joke about American parochialism. The scene is an international airport terminal. Sitting at a café, an American traveler notices a young speaking fluently to friends or parents in beautiful French. The American turns to a companion and remarks, “Can you believe how smart that little kid is? She already knows French!”

Of course this is a ridiculous comment to make. The child is French and grew up speaking the language; the American observer just assumed the kid was like him, an American, who grew up speaking English and must have been prodigiously smart to learn French so quickly.

We smile at the joke because we recognize in it a deep and uncomfortable truth: we often assume others are like us because we interpret the world according to what seems normal to us. But our “normality” is not the same as everyone else’s. We usually feel totally at home in our normality, like a fish in the sea, so we don’t even notice the water. Our normality did not simply fall from heaven, though. A tremendous amount of sponge-like learning goes into feeling at home in a culture. To put this another way, our normality, our local culture, is a valuable achievement of social construction.

For some readers this may be the most difficult chapter in the entire book, and for two reasons. First, it calls our attention to sociological research and methods with which many of us may be unfamiliar. On occasion the fields of theology and sociology have been at odds with one another, and Christians and sociologists have had some serious arguments. However, this chapter argues that sociological explanations of group dynamics can be very helpful. Sociologists study the ways in which groups establish and preserve themselves, and their work applies equally to church groups. Disagreements crop up when sociological explanations are taken as the last word and used by some to deny the usefulness of theological explanations and motivations. We need not do this in order to use sociology to understand ourselves and our churches better.

Second, this chapter suggests that behind all of our social constructions lurks a fear of chaos. In other words, Chapter 9 points to the fact that so many of the institutions and habits that we take for granted every day are socially constructed. Other societies construct life differently, have different religions, speak different languages, raise their children with different values, and organize their lives around different principles. This can be a frightening fact to confront because we realize its implications: there may be no absolutes in things cultural, and that which is socially constructed can be socially destroyed.

We need many things from our societies, but one of the most important is to feel like we belong. This goes beyond our biological requirements for food, water, and shelter. We need to feel useful, competent, and at home in our world and these are needs that can only be met socially. One of the most important functions of the church is to help meet these needs. When a church is socially stable and harmonious, we feel at ease. When it is unstable, we feel uncomfortable and threatened.

With this need to belong in mind, perhaps the easiest and most fruitful approach is to organize our societies and churches around strong central themes and values and demand total adherence to these. This has been tried before, in one or another form of totalitarianism and fundamentalism. But these approaches eventually fail in part because they do not allow for the exercise of other equally important human needs such as the need to express oneself, the need to be creative, the need to have some personal control over one’s life, and the need to make sense of encounters with people who are not like us. True long-term stability requires not tub-thumping rule-mongering but a blend of uniformity and individuality, a mix of restraint and freedom, and a balance of conformity and tolerance.

Get Busy


All societies recognize both the need for tolerance of difference and the need to set limits, though some emphasize one over the other. Totalitarian governments are famously intolerant of political, religious, and philosophical dissent, while Western democracies are famously tolerant of a vast variety of forms of self-expression, while still criminalizing behaviors that interfere with public safety and individual liberty. As George Orwell recognized in his dystopian novel 1984, even totalitarian “Big Brother” states cannot successfully demand complete uniformity. Thus, his novel divides the population into an elite cadre of conformists and a lower class of workers who are allowed some rudimentary freedoms. Interestingly, we may not always recognize those areas in which our society demands uniformity and those in which we tolerate heterogeneity.

Below you will find a chart with three columns. The column on the left names a social behavior or institution. The center column describes a limiting condition of tolerance. The third column offers a possible explanation or defense of the limiting condition. Several of the boxes have been filled in while others are blank, and several rows are entirely empty. As a group, try to fill in as many of the empty boxes as you can. The column on the right may cause some controversy, but remember that the explanation or defenses that you might write need not reflect the way things ought to be, but only possible arguments that some in your society might make or might have made in the past.


The purpose of this exercise is to call our attention to the many criteria we use to create and delimit social spaces where we can comfortably and effectively accomplish certain tasks. The exercise may draw our attention to social practices of which we are less than proud. At a different time in history we could have added many other criteria and noted the reasons given for them at the time. In medieval Europe it was thought unsafe to have Jews living in the town centers. In the United States women were though unfit to act independently and rationally in the voting booth until the twentieth century. Many of our social constructions seem not only cruel but absurd when we look at them from a distance of centuries or decades. Yet we need to recognize that we cannot live wholly without social conventions and limits.

There are many questions that we must ask as moderate Christians who strive to be radically inclusive while remaining Christ centered.

  • What kind of social institutions do we need our churches to be?
  • Our churches seem unable to include everyone; people who don’t feel comfortable quietly leave. How can we be inclusive while remaining sociologically viable?
  • When we must draw a line and exclude some people or behaviors, what kinds of explanations or defenses will we recognize as legitimate?
  • Once we create boundaries that are maximally tolerant as well as intellectually defensible and socially feasible, how can we enforce those boundaries without becoming xenophobic, bigoted, or hateful, and while preserving empathy for those on the other side?

These are difficult questions to ask and answer, but the task is made a bit easier when we recognize the necessity of being thoughtful in constructing our church cultures. Like it or not, all social bodies need organizing principles, and these include functional, even if unarticulated, distinctions between those who belong and those who do not. To repeat, our churches define and socially enforce boundaries, whether we know it or not (just ask of visitor who doesn’t fit in!), and that is not necessarily a bad thing. But a lot of creativity is possible regarding (1) our generosity when we define (or unconsciously enact) these boundaries, (2) the care we take to exercise love when we enforce them, and (3) the ways in which we talk about and treat those who are not included.

Get Caught Up

Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)

This week we will be discussing social construction and group dynamics. In preparation for this discussion you should be looking for a particular kind of behavior and keeping a log of such behaviors you encounter. Specifically, you are looking for people behaving in a mildly anti-social manner, who violate not the law but the “unwritten” social rules of society. It may also be behaviors that are rude, thoughtless, or self-centered.

Here are some examples of mildly anti-social behavior:

  • going through the express line at the grocery store with a full cart,
  • talking far too loudly in public places or talking about inappropriate topics, and
  • talking on a cell phone at the movies.

Remember to write down your encounters and anecdotes and bring them to share with the group.

restroom usemales and females separateminimizes sexual tension in a place where bodies are exposed and allows for sex-specific equipment
swimming pool useChildren and adults separate into kiddy pool and adult swim settingskeeps small children safe in small pool and allows adults to swim without having to contend with rambunctious children
keeps rich and poor separate
keeps races separate
male only or female only schools
guarantees that only an experienced person will be executive of the United States of America
only U.S. citizens can participate
only those over 21 can participate

Homework Discussion (during group meeting)

Sometimes when we use the word “law” we refer to a description of the ways things are – for example, the law of gravity describes how objects with mass interact. Other times, we use “law” in a prescriptive rather than a descriptive manner, as in criminal laws. Prescriptive laws do not necessarily describe actual behavior, but rather tell us how we ought to act and what we as a group will do to those who don’t act appropriately. As we all know, prescriptive laws can be and frequently are broken. They are designed to circumscribe and limit our social interactions and to construct our social world. We want to live in a world where children can play safely in their neighborhoods – no speeding. We want to visit parks and public places that are clean and aesthetically pleasing – no littering and no vandalism. Therefore, we live in a world that natural laws describe and prescriptive human laws seek further to define.

It is easy to concentrate on formal, legally mandated social laws like criminal law, taxation policy, and the rules of the road. It is trickier to notice and describe the vast number of informal social laws that also construct our social reality. When formal laws are broken, punishments are usually clearly defined. When informal laws expressing social norms are broken, something different happens.

Take some time together to share the different observations that group members made during the week regarding the breaking of informal social rules.

  • What kinds of mildly anti-social behavior did you encounter?
  • What did you notice about your own reaction and the reactions of others nearby?
  • Did the behavior annoy or anger you?
  • Did anyone try to stop the behavior by intervening even mildly? Was there a stern glance or an “ahem” that functioned as a kind of social slap on the wrist?
  • What did you notice about the sex, age, or appearance of the person who was violating the social taboo?
  • Did they seem to be deliberately acting out or did their actions appear to be accidental?

There are many reasons that people violate unwritten social norms. Teenagers may purposefully rebel against social norms as a way of testing whether social limits have any meaning beyond the merely conventional. Some people may use mildly anti-social behavior as a form of intimidation or punishment. Disabled people may violate social norms because their brains are not equipped to register the many subtle social cues that help us navigate complex social worlds. People from other cultures may violate social norms out of ignorance. Whatever the reason, many of us find these violations discomforting. In making us uncomfortable, such violations point out the fragility of the social worlds that we construct and maintain, and thereby make us feel less at home in our world.

This exercise may initially seem disconnected from church life. But our churches, like any other social group, have similar dynamics. It is important to pay attention to the social dynamics in churches for two reasons. First, our religious institutions have cultures and social norms of their own that we ought to construct, maintain, and criticize carefully. We will address this issue in our case study and closing thoughts. Second, as institutions that help us engage God, the social forms we construct and maintain in our churches have theological significance. The ways in which we interact with one another concretely affect the ways in which we envision and engage God. We will address this issue in our scripture reading and reflection.

Get Scriptural

Bible Reading: Joshua 24

1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and called for the elders of Israel and for their heads and their judges and their officers; and they presented themselves before God.

2 Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.

3 ‘Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him through all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac.

4 ‘To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau, and to Esau I gave MountSeir to possess it; but Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt.

5 ‘Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt by what I did in its midst; and afterward I brought you out.

6 ‘I brought your fathers out of Egypt, and you came to the sea; and Egypt pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea.

7 ‘But when they cried out to the LORD, He put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and brought the sea upon them and covered them; and your own eyes saw what I did in Egypt. And you lived in the wilderness for a long time.

8 ‘Then I brought you into the land of the Amorites who lived beyond the Jordan, and they fought with you; and I gave them into your hand, and you took possession of their land when I destroyed them before you.

9 ‘Then Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and fought against Israel, and he sent and summoned Balaam the son of Beor to curse you.

10 ‘But I was not willing to listen to Balaam. So he had to bless you, and I delivered you from his hand.

11 ‘You crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho; and the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Girgashite, the Hivite and the Jebusite Thus I gave them into your hand.

12 ‘Then I sent the hornet before you and it drove out the two kings of the Amorites from before you, but not by your sword or your bow.

13 ‘I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and cities which you had not built, and you have lived in them; you are eating of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.’

14 “Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.

15 “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

16 The people answered and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods;

17 for the LORD our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed.

18 “The LORD drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God.”

19 Then Joshua said to the people, “You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins.

20 “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.”

21 The people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.”

22 Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the LORD, to serve Him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.”

23 “Now therefore, put away the foreign gods which are in your midst, and incline your he arts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”

24 The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the LORD our God and we will obey His voice.”

25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem.

26 And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the LORD.

27 Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be for a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD which He spoke to us; thus it shall be for a witness against you, so that you do not deny your God.”

28 Then Joshua dismissed the people, each to his inheritance.

29 It came about after these things that Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died, being one hundred and ten years old.

30 And they buried him in the territory of his inheritance in Timnath-serah, which is in the hill country of Ephraim, on the north of Mount Gaash.

31 Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, and had known all the deeds of the LORD which He had done for Israel.

32 Now they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for one hundred pieces of money; and they became the inheritance of Joseph’s sons.

33 And Eleazar the son of Aaron died; and they buried him at Gibeah of Phinehas his son, which was given him in the hill country of Ephraim.


The Judeo-Christian theological traditions have interpreted the prohibitions against pursuing foreign gods and idols as divine claims to loyalty. God was building a nation of worshipers out of a nomadic group of affiliated tribes. Therefore he called them together to share a form of worship, a set of religious and purity laws, and a land. We can affirm this basic biblical claim, but still pause to notice the sociological forces that were at work.

The biblical character Joshua was a warrior, not a sociologist, but he understood what it would take to construct a stable and settled culture out of a group of nomadic wanderers. It would require thoroughgoing social construction and rigid adherence to a central set of social rituals and practices. Not only does the text of Joshua speak about the first generation of Israelites to settle after their desert sojourn, but it also and perhaps more importantly speaks to later Jews and Christians about the need to construct a coherent social world that individuals can share.

The tribes of Israel had many different customs and leaders, as did the tribes they encountered in and around the Jordan. The Hebrew Bible recounts many encounters between these different tribes where their customs clash. Texts like this chapter from Joshua echo a constant refrain that the people ought not to chase after foreign gods. Not only might it be religiously harmful, but it is sociologically harmful. A single coherent religion with central rituals, places of worship, and themes was critical to the formation of the nation. A common ideology was needed as a central point about which the people could rally and agree. Thus the Israelites were called to worship a single God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

At a distance of several millennia and with the tools of sociology we can see powerful social forces at work here. By forbidding idols the texts form limiting conditions that define the community. Who belongs as one of us? We are those who worship only the one God of Israel. We know from the texts themselves and from modern archeology that the Israelites would continue to encounter and struggle with other tribes, with other customs throughout their history. Theologically the Jewish and Christian traditions understand this struggle as a fight with temptation. Sociologically we can understand this struggle as a fight to remain a coherent social unit while resisting the forces of social decay and the erosion of common values, rituals, and narratives. As the story of Joshua exemplifies, the ancient Israelis were passionate enough about their religious and cultural identity that they went to war in order to preserve and reinforce the social and geographical boundaries that made them a people.

Xenophobia, the fear and persecution of foreigners, is common in part because people rightly fear the socially corrosive influence of new ideas and foreign ways of constructing reality. This is as much a sociological reality today as it was in Joshua’s time. Thus, the question that we must ask as liberals, evangelicals, and moderates is how we can both answer Jesus’ call to protect the foreigner and Paul’s call to transcend ethnic distinctions, while still maintaining social cohesion in our congregations. Can we form strong social bonds among ourselves without going to war with our neighbors? One of the chief aims of the rest of Part IV is to answer this question.

Get Practical

Case Study

Jason’s church is currently going through a crisis that is far too common. Lakeside Church is frantically looking for new leadership, having released their long time minister, Pastor Rick, for sexual misconduct with a parishioner.

The difficulty is heightened for Jason because Pastor Rick was an important factor in Jason’s decision to become a Christian and to join the church. Jason was an addict on the verge of suicide when he first met Pastor Rick. Pastor Rick helped him find his way back to health and happiness. For ten years Jason has worshipped joyfully at the church, given his time on the weekends to run church projects, and worked closely with Pastor Rick to help the church grow from a few dozen parishioners to several hundred. For Jason, Pastor Rick is the only pastor he has ever had and the worship at Lakeside Church is the only liturgy he has ever known. It is not going too far to say that, for Jason, Pastor Rick and the traditions and people of Lakeside Church are Christianity. Without them, he would be lost. With them he feels totally at home.

Now, in addition to wrestling with the fragility of the man he put up on a pedestal, Jason must face the world without the tools and truths that he has come to depend on. The new minister is running the church differently. The sermons have a different focus. The services have a different flow. Some church members have left and a general transformation of the congregation is underway. Jason finds the new minister to be quite formal and difficult to talk with and so he has no one with whom to share his concerns and fears. Since joining Lakeside Church the congregation has provided Jason with structure, meaning, and a place to belong. Now that so much is changing so quickly, Jason feels set adrift without meaning. The church is no longer a place of comfort where he feels at home. He feels the lure of his old chaotic life once again.


Chapter 9 argues that we all need to feel at home both in our churches and in the larger universe.

In fact, in churches this need to belong has cosmic dimensions and ultimate significance. For in church the question of belonging has fundamentally to do with being at home with God and feeling morally and spiritually oriented in the complicated world we inhabit. (122-123)

Without this sense of belonging we can experience a kind of social and psychological vertigo. It is critically important that churches perform this basic sociological task well. In doing so, they help us experience God as a source of peace and comfort. When churches fail in this task, we lose the ability to experience God as shelter and instead face the chaos of a vast universe and an uncertain future without sufficient support.

Imagine that you are a parishioner at Lakeside Church. Unlike Jason you grew up in a similar church and have found several church homes throughout your life. Your siblings and many of your friends also belong to churches, some of which have faced similar crises in their history. In short, while you are saddened by the recent events in your church, they do not shake you to your core as they do Jason, nor do these events call into question for you the basic truths of Christianity and your place in the universe. You are upset, but your entire world does not threaten to come unraveled. Now, setting aside Pastor Rick’s conduct, help Jason analyze the situation.

  • Since meeting Pastor Rick and joining Lakeside Church Jason has had a place to belong and feel comfortable. Suddenly this place is gone or at least different and he feels set adrift. In Chapter 9 we have learned to diagnose his present feeling of fear and confusion as anomia or lawless chaos (see page 124). Take a few moments as a group to discuss ways of defining or explaining this concept without relying on technical language.
  • In part Jason is probably feeling personally betrayed as well as lost and scared. How might these two feelings be related? How might you as a fellow parishioner use what you’ve learned in Chapter 9 to talk with Jason about his fears?

Religions and churches help us combat cognitive dissonance and the emotional vertigo that comes with it. When the world pulls us in opposite ways or presents us with contradictory goals and values, our scriptures and rituals provide overarching explanations and symbols that help us make sense of the chaos and contradictions. These same scriptures and behaviors help bond churches together and turn mere groups into communities. For Jason, the community that used to help him make sense of his broken world is now damaged and no longer performs this function effectively.

In short, the social construction function of the church, which used to be invisible because everyone took it for granted, is now painfully apparent because it is not working to sooth cognitive dissonance as it once did. Like a window that we do not notice until it is cracked, we do not often notice the socializing and world building function of churches until they break.

  • This issue gets at the heart of one of the difficulties we face when we deal with sociological tools and explanations of group behavior. Does acknowledging the social construction and soothing functions of our churches mean that they can no longer do their job effectively? Imagine that you take some time to get to know Jason better and talk with him about the church. If you point out the church’s role in helping us build comfortable social worlds does this help Jason or further depress him?

Our entire discussion of this case study may seem cynical to some. By admitting that sociological explanations of church behaviors can be powerful, are we not admitting that religions are mere social constructions? Certainly not! But one of the marks of mature Christians and churches is that we are able to examine and understand ourselves using the best tools that the social sciences have to offer. And we can do this even as we insist that our religious communities and narratives do in fact function to help us engage the living God.

  • Knowing that Christians are not immune from the sociological forces that shape communities and sometimes destroy them, what can you as a parishioner at Lakeside Church learn from Jason’s experience? Too often when our societies break down, we lose our place in the universe and feel set adrift. How can churches in general and Lakeside in particular help people who are struggling with such losses?

Get Going

For Further Thought

One of the chief dangers Christian churches face is our own sense of exceptionalism. We sometimes think that we are not subject to the same human drives, desires, and forces that govern other groups. One of the goals of this chapter has been to debunk that myth. Churches are subject to the same group dynamics that govern any other social group because, like other groups, Christian groups are fully human and subject to the limitations of finitude and sin. This implies that moderate churches face a difficult challenge.

As intentional moderates and liberal evangelicals we accept the call to build maximally tolerant churches–churches that maintain a clear identity but strive to be as open as possible. The rest of Lost will address some of these criteria and the many ways in which they can be understood, but we should be honest with ourselves here at the outset. This desire for openness and Christ-like radical inclusiveness is a very strange way of doing things.

Most social groups strive for group cohesion and consciously or unconsciously emphasize sameness, strong governing rituals, and shared narratives that create a unified sense of identity–a sense of “us.” Sociologists know that, for all of its drawbacks, this model for group life is very efficient at maintaining group identity and works very well in practice. As we will come to see in the following chapters, however, the strategy of maximizing tolerance to which many moderate Christians are drawn runs against the conventional wisdom expressed in the social reflex to consolidate identity. The Christ-inspired radical inclusivism of liberal evangelicalism runs against the sociological grain. Thus, it requires a deep sense of commitment, a clear reformulation of expectations, and a devotion to radical discipleship. 

Closing Prayer 

God of Abrahm, Isaac, and Jacob, God of Jesus and Paul and countless Christians before us, we thank you for the Church and for our individual churches. We praise you for the work you have accomplished through the faithful who have come before us and for the work you continue to do in and through our churches. 

We humbly recognize our own failings and finitude. We acknowledge our humanity, our sinfulness, and our capacity to cause pain and harm. 

But we also thank you for our humanity, for our instinct toward forming communities of fellowship and worship, and for our caring and nurturing intuitions. Help us to develop these in fruitful directions. Help us to construct stronger communities and nurture tighter bonds. 

But also Lord help us to grow together in love and tolerance for one another. Help us to know where to set limits. Give us the love and patience necessary to accept differences within those communal limits. Help us also Lord to care for and love those who are beyond those boundaries as you love them. 

Strengthen us as we work to make our communities more loving places and strive to share your love with others. 


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