Local Church & the Theory of Social Bonding.


Travis Hirschi’s theory of social bonding asserts that humans are socialized into four elements: attachment, commitment, involvement, and beliefs. He claimed that the higher the social bond is in each area, the less likely one will be to act on antisocial behaviors such as crime or violence. Hirschi developed this theory and presented it in 1969 (Schram and Tibbetts, 2018). It is interesting to ponder what role social media and the local church would play in this theory.

Photo courtesy of Kerde Severin

Social Animals.

Professors Pamala J. Schram and Steven G. Tibbetts of California State University, San Bernadino, note, that Hirschi’s theory was built on the idea that humans are social animals, each subsequently capable of committing acts of crime or violence (p. 279). Similarly, the Bible indicates we are born into sin (Romans 3:23). We will inevitably socialize to a life of either conventional norms or anti-social behaviors.

Four Elements.

The professors further posit that the life of conventional norms or anti-social behaviors forms through four elements, common to most everyone in modern society (p 279). Above all, these four elements are known to reduce criminal behavior. They appear to similarly have their place in the local church, however.

Attachment:

This is perhaps the most important element. Built on the Freudian idea of conscience or superego, it acts as a foundation for the other elements. The earlier these bonds form and the stronger they are, the better (Schram and Tibbetts, 2018). Attachment highlights the importance of relationships to others in becoming socialized and the subsequent internalization of norms. The local church, for instance, accomplishes this through discipleship; the early church (Acts 2:42 – 47) is an example of this.

Commitment:

The professors maintain that this element measures how invested a particular individual is in conventional society, and therefore, how willing he or she is to conform to conventional norms therein. The violation of these norms are weighed against what is at risk. Therefore, an individual must have something to lose if he or she is to violate to the norms (p. 280). We see this illustrated in this common verse: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2, NIV).

Involvement:

Another element of social bonding is involvement. Involvement in activities deemed acceptable and conventional by the norms set forth by the community is the goal. In criminal justice theory, for example, the more time one can spend in conventional activities, the less likely one will be to commit crimes. The inverse of this is also true. In the church, we see this similarly illustrated in Paul’s letter to Timothy (1Tim 5:11-15).

Beliefs:

Lastly, we come to beliefs. Hirschi maintained that an individual is less likely to pursue an action that is against his or her moral beliefs (Schram and Tibbetts, 2018). Conventional wisdom maintains the likelihood is in direct proportion to level of moral conviction, and the severity of the infraction. We can see this illustrated in Daniel 3:8-13, where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to worship an idol, even if the punishment was death.

The Role of the Church.

History shows Hirshi’s theory as widely supported, but not fool proof. For example, the type of conventional activities and level of involvement are variables. The professors note that both academic and religious activities seem to have the biggest impact on inhibiting non-conforming behaviors. Similarly, the levels of attachment and to whom or what the individual becomes attached are factors (p. 280).

Enter the Local Church.

Therefore, if the local church can be place in which young people can gather, feel comfortable, and become involved, they will likely form stronger social bonds. This may seem obvious to some. But what is not so obvious is why some do not become socially bonded to a church – and what role social media is playing in driving young people toward or away from the local church.

Are young people becoming socially bonded via social media? The connections in the digital world might seem less “real” to some. But to many young people, they are very real, indeed.

How exactly the church can continue to bridge the digital and analog divide in an increasingly but effective manner appears to be an ongoing and difficult, but necessary endeavor.


Schram, P., Tibbetts, S. (2018) Introduction to Criminology (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage Publications.