Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Michael Metzger

For the faith community to invest its hard-earned social capital, it might remember the parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

In 1994, Brian Turtle and two classmates at Albright College were watching “Footloose” on TV when it was followed by another Kevin Bacon movie, and then another. They joked that Kevin Bacon is everywhere. He’s the center of the entertainment universe.

This gave them an idea. A parlor game: “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” It’s based on the “six degrees of separation” theory that says any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart. Players link celebrities to Bacon, in as few steps as possible, via common movies.

“Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is how churches can plan to invest their social capital. They’ve earned a lot in the pandemic. Social is one of six kinds of capital, signifying six degrees of separation from the center of cultural impact. The closer to the center, the greater the impact.

Here are the six degrees of separation from the center. The sixth—the furthest network out—is relational. It earns social capital. This is where churches have excelled during the pandemic.

But social capital doesn’t move us closer to the center unless coupled with intellectual capital. This is the fifth degree of separation. It’s ideas, such as proven models for culture change. Few churches join this network. Too many espouse top-down or bottom-up models of change.

Neither is effective in the long run. To move closer to the center of cultural impact, the faith community must align with a historically proven model: significant, lasting culture change is center institutions out. The closer to center institutions, the greater the societal impact.

The fourth degree of separation is constructed capital. Ideas are great, but they have to become tangible products and services. Could be a business or a not-for-profit (NFP). Constructed capital is difficult to earn because your work must be repeatable, scalable, and bankable.

Few NFPs are. Think of the difference between food banks and Whole Foods. Food banks do a lot of good. The process is repeatable. Keep shelves stocked. But not scalable. Donations don’t make for a reliable supply chain. So food banks are not bankable. They have to rely on donors.

Whole Foods doesn’t. It has supply chains. Its processes are repeatable, scalable, and bankable. This is why Whole Foods is one degree closer to the center of cultural impact. It’s earned recognition capital, the third degree of separation. Your organization is recognized by the wider world as doing something impactful. Investors see your organizations as bankable.

This moves you into the second degree of separation from the center of cultural impact. Economic capital. Significant cultural impact requires significant investments. Serious players know this. But they also know economic capital alone doesn’t necessarily get you to the center.

With economic capital, quantity is paramount. But with the first degree of separation, cultural capital, it isn’t quantity but quality that counts most. It is cultural credentials and accomplishment. It’s the ability to speak on a wide range of other issues with great authority. It moves you to the center of cultural impact. It’s center institutions like Google, Apple, Amazon.

This is how the Clapham Circle operated (c.1787-1833). They recognized these six networks. They earned all six types of capital. Historians say Clapham is the last instance of the conservative faith tradition impacting the world in significant ways.

Since Clapham, the faith community has declined in terms of cultural influence. We’re not at the center of cultural impact, as Charles Murray notes. “Most elites do not have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian.”[1] The center hardly knows of the faith community’s work.

This includes my work. It’s not near the center, evidenced in the fact that twice I’ve been within spitting distance of Kevin Bacon. The first time we passed each other on the sidewalk. I turned to say Hi. My family begged me: Dad! Don’t embarrass us! Two years ago, Kathy and I went to his concert here in Annapolis. We sat close to him. Funny, he didn’t recognize me.

He shouldn’t have. Social capital is critical, but it’s the sixth degree of separation from cultural impact. It doesn’t earn cultural capital. A pastor friend recognizes this. Last week, he spent a day with the governor of his state in planning sessions. That’s cultural capital. He’s earned it.

So can any church. If your church seeks to invest its social capital, remember “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Begin moving from the sixth to the fifth network. Jettison bottom-up and top-down models. Apply yourself to the academically sound model of center institutions out.

[1] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), 107.

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5 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”

  1. This was a very helpful frame, which might be best grasped by a good visual. I’m guessing something like a bullseye is what you have in mind. Any chance of seeing something like that in a future blog?

  2. Michael Metzger

    Bailey: This is a compilation derived from at least four books: 1) James Davison Hunter, “To Change The World.” 2) Pierre Bourdieu, “Habitus and Field.” 3) Randall Collins, “The Sociology of Philosophies.” 4) Everett Rogers, “Diffusion of Innovations.”

    Carter: Good suggestion. Will do. Watch for a future Clapham ASAP video depicting six degrees of separation.

  3. Thanks Mike. I envision this as concentric circles where most Christians / churches are circling in the outer bands. Thanks for your redaction!

    Bailey

  4. “Begin moving from the sixth to the fifth network. Jettison bottom-up and top-down models. Apply yourself to the academically sound model of center institutions out.” Absolutely true. I kinda’ hope you’ll start your next post with these very words and go from there. I wonder why you said “academically” sound? Is it an academic fact / truth / ? Jesus moved right smack into the center and out again and back again constantly. The soundness of the model has maybe a better word that works to describe it: wisdom. Wisdom always loves, and confronts when and if necessary. When it comes to who was at the center in Jesus’s day, they were in His sight constantly.

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