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Congregations and Community Involvement: The Impact of Friendships and Congregational Size

Contributor Jennifer McClure shares her recent published research examining the intersection of network connections, congregational size, and community involvement. 

A few years ago, I wondered how a congregation’s organizational context shapes whether attenders are involved in the broader community outside of their congregation.

I grew up in a large evangelical congregation with about 2,000 regular attenders. A few years ago, the senior pastor had taken a position at another church, and the church was searching for a new senior pastor. The church hired a minister who came from a church of about 400-500 regular attenders and who cared strongly about serving and making connections in the community. In observing this pastoral transition from afar, I began to wonder if the new senior pastor would find it easier or more difficult to mobilize attenders to be involved in the community in his new, larger congregational context.

One way congregations mobilize attenders to volunteer and serve their broader community is through the relationships that attenders have with each other, which social scientists call a social network. Congregational social networks have strong moral weight, and they can be used for positive “peer pressure”—encouraging fellow attenders to do good things, to become more involved in the congregation, and, in this case, to be involved in the community. Social networks differ, however, between small and large congregations in the following ways:

  • Strength of ties – Smaller congregations tend to be tight-knit with “strong ties,” or close relationships, between attenders, while large congregations tend to have “weak ties,” or friendly connections and acquaintances, and can be more impersonal and anonymous.[1]
  • Types of interaction – Social interaction can be more informal in small congregations, but it is more organized and programmatic in large congregations, which often use small groups and activities to foster community.[2]
  • Similarity of attenders – Attenders of large congregations are more diverse in beliefs, race, socio-economic status, and political views.[3]

Another strong predictor of community involvement is developing social connections with people from different backgrounds.[4] Because large congregations have more diversity among their attenders, I thought that friendships might matter more for predicting community involvement in large congregations than in small congregations.

To examine these factors, I used data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, a large survey of U.S. congregations and attenders. These data were collected by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Research Services office in 2008 and 2009. I find:

  • Church size matters—Attenders of larger congregations are less likely to be involved in community organizations that are not connected to their congregation.
  • Social networks only matter in larger churches—Having close friends within one’s congregation is not related with involvement in community organizations in small (~40) or average-sized (~150) congregations. It does, however, have a positive relationship with involvement in community organizations in large congregations (~500) and in megachurches (~2,000).
  • Who’s most likely to be involved in community organizations—Two groups: (1) attenders from small and average-sized congregations, regardless of how many friends they have in their congregation; (2) attenders with many friends in their congregation, regardless of their congregation’s size.
  • Who’s least likely to be involved in community organizations—Attenders of large congregations or megachurches who have few close friends from their congregation.

These results have an important implication for large congregations and megachurches, which tend to have weaker social networks, less organic and more programmatic venues for developing relationships, and lower levels of involvement in community organizations. In these large congregations and megachurches, attenders who have many friends are more likely than attenders who have few friends to be involved in community organizations. If these congregations want to encourage attenders to be involved in the community, they need to be intentional about providing opportunities for developing friendships through small groups and activities.

In small or average-size congregations, attenders are already more likely to be involved in community organizations. It doesn’t matter if they have close friends in the congregation or not – they’re still more likely to be involved in the community.

[1] For more information, see: (1) “A Place to Belong: Small Group Involvement in Religious Congregations,” written by Kevin Dougherty and Andrew Whitehead and published in Sociology of Religion in 2011; (2) Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, written by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke and published by the University of California Press in 2000; (3) “The Strength of Weak Ties,” written by Mark Granovetter and published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1973.

[2] For more information, see: (1) “A Place to Belong: Small Group Involvement in Religious Congregations,” written by Kevin Dougherty and Andrew Whitehead and published in Sociology of Religion in 2011; (2) Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches, written by Scott Thumma and Dave Travis and published by Jossey-Bass in 2007.

[3] For more information, see: Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches, written by Scott Thumma and Dave Travis and published by Jossey-Bass in 2007.

[4] For more information, see: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, written by Robert Putnam and published by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks in 2000.

Jennifer McClure
About the Author
Jennifer McClure is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Penn State.