Author: johnhawthorne

Headlines But Not Much Light: The Gallup-Purdue Index 2015

This morning brought a new skirmish in the silly “Is College Worth It?” discussion. The Gallup organization, in collaboration with my alma mater, released the second version of their “Index”. Headlines in the Chronicle of Higher Ed read “Just Half of Graduates Say Their College Education Was Worth the Cost“. Inside Higher Ed chimed in with Not Worth It?.

So naturally, I downloaded the Gallup-Purdue report. The actual data raise a lot more questions than they answer. As the American Association of State Colleges and Universities pointed out, even the topline analysis was misdirected. While it is true that “only” 50% of college graduates strongly agree that college was worth it, another 27% agreed, bringing the total agreeing to over 3 in 4. That’s to say nothing of the fact that there is no pre-existing data setting some expected benchmark to test against. Or the fact that asking attitudes about “college being worth it” is not the same as the actual financial benefit.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 7.56.49 PMThe survey had about 30,000 respondents among those with a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, the main table above doesn’t provide the subgroup totals. With the exception of private for-profit institutions, the most telling statistic is that the type of institution doesn’t appear to matter much.

The Gallup-Purdue report goes on to distinguish recent graduates from all graduates. That’s the lede on the Chronicle story. But the report doesn’t tell us the size of that subsample. Surprisingly, it doesn’t distinguish between institutional types where the degree came from.

The report again only focuses on the percent who Strongly Agree. We have absolutely no idea what the overall agreement percentages are. And missing the subgroup numbers makes it hard to make sense of the data.

The report explored an implicit hypothesis that favorable attitudes toward college would be negatively impacted by debt level. This is also surprising analysis for a couple of reasons. First, while they found that the median debt-level among recent grads was $30,000 (slightly higher than published figures), they analyzed four categories: no debt, $1-$25,000, $25,001-$50,000, and over $50,000. Again, there are no subgroup sizes nor breakdowns by institutional type.

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Another section of the survey examined the dependent variable by employment status and income level among recent graduates. While those who are underemployed are less satisfied (as we’d expect), it doesn’t look like that great of a difference; at least without subgroup population numbers. The other table breaks the same variable by income level. While recent graduates making over $120,000 (seriously?) are very satisfied, even those who make a mere $36,000 nearly match the national average.

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One positive aspect of the report were results on educational practices that positively impacted the “worth it” attitudes. Most significant is having a professor know the student, having a mentor, and having a professor get one excited about learning. Each of these nearly doubled the odds of a strongly favorable attitude. Unfortunately, these odds ratios aren’t clearly connected to the other data in ways that would improve college satisfaction.

So what can we take away from the Gallup-Purdue Index? We’re left to guess, so here’s mine. If our focus is on enhancing student engagement, students see that college mattered. If we help them learn how to pursue their calling, the uncertainty of the job market isn’t quite as daunting.

On the other hand, if we see students as a mean of funding our institutions, they’ll see our utilitarianism. If we think they are there to fill our classes and support our existence, we’ve offered little that adds intrinsic value.

Finally, we should read reports like the Gallup-Purdue Index and see them as the starting place for our university conversations and strategic plans and not as shocking indictments of higher education at a time when it is so critically important for our society.

Crying Wolf about Small Colleges

Yesterday afternoon I actually began working on my next project exploring the future of Christian Higher Education (I’m one and a half pages into the project!). As I was working in my local coffee shop, I got the afternoon update from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which included the following news (reposted here in its entirety):

Small Colleges’ Closure Rate Could Triple by 2017, Moody’s Says

By 2017, the closure rate of small colleges is likely to triple from the rate of the past decade, according to a new report from Moody’s Investors Service that is available to the service’s subscribers. That will amount to a “small but notable rise” in the number of institutions that will shut their doors or merge, according to the report.

The service cites patterns of limited revenue growth and declining enrollment, particularly among the smallest of private colleges.

The closure rate of small colleges was relatively low during the past decade, the report notes, with roughly five institutions closing per year. The number of mergers averaged two to three in that period, and that rate will more than double by 2017, according to the report.

Honestly, sometimes I think these stories are planted by university trustees who want to make dramatic changes and Wolfneed to explain how we’re all on the verge of dying.

My first reaction was to learn more about the actual statistics. I did what all academics would do, I googled it. What I found is that Moody’s has been making a very similar prediction every year for the last decade.

My second reaction was to wonder what “closure rate tripling” really meant. When you land on the actual Moody’s news release, they explain that while the rate could triple, it would remain at less than 1% of affected schools. If I’m reading this correctly, the closure rate might “jump” from .33% to as much as 1%.

They set the standard for small colleges based on total revenues under $100,000,000. When I read that, I realized that all five of the Christian Colleges I’ve served had budgets under $100 million. In four of the five, I actually saw the budget shrink in response to financial pressures. As one of my current colleagues puts it, that’s just good management. If revenues shrink due to lower enrollment, higher discount rates, declining gift income, some form of adjustment to expenditures is required.

That doesn’t mean that those adjustments are easy. Enrollment pressures hurt long-term planing. Salaries freezes or additional courses hurt morale, potentially lowering faculty/staff retention. Administrators have many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to get from the current crisis to the end of the fiscal year.

I tend to set the benchmark for struggling colleges based on enrollment. In my experience, a school needs to have a minimum of 1200 students to be able to weather the ups and downs of economic shifts. In addition, some programming outside the traditional 18-22 residential market is a good hedge against demographic changes — online programming, degree completion, or a robust graduate program in professional areas. The central thrust of the institutional mission still rests with the traditional population (which is how our schools distinguish themselves from for-profit competitors) but we can’t afford to be myopic in terms of programming.

Two of my schools had less than 500 undergraduates. This made for a continual sense of fiscal crisis. As Moody’s said, it was difficult to compete with institutions with better amenities but the small-institution embrace of community seemed to offset that. In terms of finances, it seemed that there was an annual problem. Not usually the same one but the fact that the school operated so close to the bone meant that any discovered over-expenditure or inadequate-budget jumped up and bit us during the year. The only bright spot in this is that we learned exactly what the budget assumptions were and knew where to respond.

The other three were larger with between 1400 and 2200 undergraduates. An enrollment swing was still problematic and required adjusting the budget but there was enough critical mass to allow those changes even if they were painful. Obviously, a school that saw its enrollment shrink from 1400 to 900 would be in major crisis and would have to significantly rethink its offerings, staffing, and student programming.

Many of the stories about “will small colleges survive” happen on the heels of a closing announcement. I try to track these carefully. Some of these bear little resemblance to most of the schools in the CCCU.

For example, Marian Court closed this summer. For most of its history, it had been a two-year secretarial college and just tried to move to a four year school. It’s last graduating class had 64 students.

Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga announced that they were merging with North Carolina’s Piedmont International University. Temple at one time had 4000 students and had between 250 and 400 (depending on the news report) by the time of the merger announcement. Their Wikipedia page documents all the attempts at mergers, fundraising appeals, and property sales that were supposed to keep it afloat.

Another closure announced this spring was HBCU Knoxville College. It lost it’s SACS accreditation in 1997 and has been trying to solve its financial issues for decades. It April it notified the Tennessee Higher Ed Commission that it wouldn’t offer classes this fall for its 11 students.

One more thing that fits into Moody’s “small college” prediction. The Department of Education has a fairly open means of categorizing colleges. If you go to the IPEDS site (educational statistics for geeky types like me), you can find over 1500 four year schools with revenues under $100 million. But these include all kinds of special interest, vocational, and seminaries that don’t fit my enrollment criteria above. (Reporting on the DOE scorecard released a couple of weeks back showed a tremendous number of Beauty Colleges in the for-profit higher ed count.)

When I selected schools with bachelor’s degrees, private four year status, and budgets under $100 million, the count drops to about 470. But I’d argue that the closure rate for those would be substantially less than for those special interest schools in the previous paragraph. It’s like reading the college debt or loan default statistics without controlling for the type of school involved.

I definitely agree that small special purpose institutions may struggle to attract long-term markets (that’s the ongoing Sweet Briar story). But to take generic stories about small college closure and generalize that across institutions is poor reporting, bad faith administration, and alarmist. In the long run, it keeps us from addressing those issues within our control that would strengthen our institutions on behalf of the students we serve.

Heroes and Housing: Reflections on the HBO Miniseries

This past weekend marked the end of HBO’s miniseries, Show Me A Hero. It’s a compelling story of Yonkers, New York in the 1980s. Written by The Wire’s David Simon, it attempts to weave together two disparate stories. On the one hand, we have the political ambitions of young Nick Wasicsko who became the youngest mayor of a major American city at the age of 28. On the other, it’s the story of a city forced to deal with its segregated housing and respond to a court-ordered solution. Judge Sand had ordered that residents of the Schlobohm housing project be relocated to smaller decentralized units across the city of Yonkers.

Wasicsko is the hero of the title. Early on, one of the other politicians quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a tragedy.” Watching Nick over the course of the three nights underscores this message. He so much wants to be a beloved and effective mayor but circumstances dictate otherwise. He actually becomes mayor by being willing to appeal the judge’s order even though he knew there was little chance of success. Having won, he then faces the ire of the citizens of Yonkers who can’t believe he’s supporting the judges’s plan. He’s defeated in the subsequent election. While he receives a Profile in Courage award that he believes will give him a ticket back to leadership, he proves himself willing to engage in all kinds of political moves, including turning on friends. His story is increasingly sad as we got to last Sunday. It ends badly.

HeroThe other politicians were interesting for other reasons. Hank Spallone (played by an over-the-top Alfred Molina) leveraged the anger of the crowd into taking Wasicsko’s position as mayor (he also only lasts one term). Spallone is the voice of opposition even though there is really no alternative to the court order. But he sees it as being in his political interest to keep tensions high. One remarkable scene from week two showed Spallone riding in his car having an aide take pictures of residents of Schlobohm. They’d ignore the mother walking her children to school and the blue collar worker heading to his job. But they’d take pictures of the young toughs on the street and make sure to snap the drug transaction going down between those other two guys. It was just a moment but it spoke volumes about how some politicians have made careers out of playing on the exaggerated fears of everyday folks.

As a sociologist, the housing part of the story was far more interesting than the political machinations. As in the book upon which the miniseries is based, David Simon goes to great lengths to develop the characters living in Schlobohm who eventually get the chance to live in the new decentralized housing. For the most part, they were strong supportive families who had their own reasons for wanting out of the housing project. There’s the diabetic woman who is losing her sight, the recent immigrant family hoping for a better place to raise her children, the daughters of the working family who move out on their own, have troubles, but get their lives back together. These were exactly the kind of families one would hope to have in the neighborhood, regardless of race or class. The character played by Catherine Keener goes from being a staunch opponent of the project to being a key neighborhood support once the new housing is built precisely because she got to know those families as people.

The opponents of the housing plan worry that their property values will go down, that their insurance rates will go up, that their neighborhoods will be unsafe. They are never quite clear on what they’d suggest as an alternative. They are primarily upset that “some judge” made this decision about their community, ignoring that a history of segregation got them to that point. Complaining about activist judges who interfere in citizens’ everyday lives makes for animated protests, but it is blind to the fact that courts have almost always overruled popular opinion when it comes to matters of equal rights. If the public was looking out for those on the margins, the courts would never be involved (there are some obvious contemporary parallels).

This tendency to defend the status quo (which I could call “privilege”) is not limited to 1980s Yonkers. Listen to the This American Life episode on school integration in the Saint Louis area and you’ll think you’re hearing the protesters at the Yonkers city hall. Families who have the benefit of a well-funded suburban school are outraged that poor black students will be coming to their school, without even considering the academic capabilities of those students.

There’s another lesson in Show Me A Hero. Those protestors at the city council meeting weren’t wrong. There are very real issues of structural racism at play. If your neighborhood integrated, your housing values would go down because of the way that realtors and banks evaluate properties. There are real issues impacting insurance rates because insurance companies don’t want to take on risk even if it’s for the greater good. There are economic concerns that there is just not good money in integrated housing. Consider this story on a Chicago housing plan. Or think about why Donald Trump built fabulous and classy hotels and towers while his father made his fortune on affordable housing (as I’ve written before, if you aren’t following Emily Badger from the Washington Post, you are missing out!).

To a sociologist, there is a hero in the miniseries. His name is Oscar Newman. An architect with an incredible sociological imagination, he argues that decentralized housing is key to crime prevention, community development, and upward mobility. As he stubbornly explains, the affordable housing complexes had to be fairly small (no more than twenty units), be townhouses with internal staircases, have private back yards, lots of greenspace, and no common areas. This, he argued, would keep from attracting criminal activity. It would allow families the chance to be responsible for their own space. It would allow the development of neighborhood (the little kid talking to “The Poodle Lady” was one of the most touching parts of the final episode).

Oscar Newman reminds us that we don’t have to have crime-ridden, graffiti strewn, broken, low income housing projects. We never did. We wouldn’t want to live in that environment and it’s hard to believe that anyone else would. But changing that would prove disruptive to our way of life, would limit our status quo and financial opportunities, would cause us to be responsible for folks we don’t know. Better to put them in the high rise on the other side of the interstate and assume that the housing is run down because “they don’t know better” and not because we built the projects for failure. When I lived near Chicago, the two miles of Robert Taylor homes was always a depressing sight. Today they are gone, which is a good thing, but I fear we’re no closer to grasping a vision of what the common good looks like. Maybe the events of recent years have opened people’s eyes to issues of residential segregation and its monstrous effects.

If an HBO series can catch our attention, maybe it can motive some more of us to action. Maybe our politicians will see it as in their professional interest to care a little more. Maybe economic interests will realize that there is profit to be made in addressing some of our pressing social concerns.

Show Me A Hero could potentially have a serious and lasting effect on our society.

It might even be more important than Daenerys Targaryen’s Dragons.


The Importance of Conversation: Faculty Colleagues and the CCCU

This past week, Chris Gehrz asked, “What do you love about Christian Colleges?” So far the response has been less than overwhelming. But his question got me thinking.

It is true that I love working alongside undergraduates eager to make sense of the world around them. And there are no other settings where I would get paid to pontificate about sociology.

But one thing stood out as I pondered Chris’ question: my faculty colleagues.

We come from a variety of different places and experiences. We come with different disciplinary lenses. We have different frameworks in terms of our understanding of institutional mission. We adopt different political philosophies. And yet those differences don’t seem to define us (at least for the most part — more below).

When I first started the writing project that became my book, I was focused on the importance of what I called Christian Academic Community. This concept was how I distinguished the Christian College from other institutional contexts. It’s why the Christian College isn’t the same as the state university — we take Christian identity seriously. It’s why the Christian College isn’t an extension of the denomination — it is Academic in character and process. It’s why the faculty aren’t focused primarily on making a name in the disciplinary guilds — we are a Community.

Outside of my classes and university meetings, I spend significant time in interaction with my faculty colleagues. We don’t sit around in spaces quite as nice as those in Augustana’s picture above. Our conversations happen in offices, in stairwells, at lunch, over coffee.

Those conversations are the places where we wrestle with the world’s big issues (as well as institutional politics). I have had many conversations with colleagues about the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states (these were prior to the June’s Obergefell Decision). We have talked about economic inequality. We have talked about the role of the church in a post-Christian era. We have talked about the value of liberal arts in a STEM environment.

We are not of one mind on any of these issues. There are legitimate differences between us. Some wind up being negotiated over months and years of conversation. Others get so far and then we identify the one barrier that separates us and decide to live with that tension.

As I write this, I’m thinking of a particular colleague whose high view of scripture calls him to land in a particular place on same-sex marriage. I respect his position. It’s part of who he is and where his years of study have led him. We agree on a great deal within the broader conversation but we will never completely see things the same way.

And that’s wonderful. I need him. I hope he needs me. Together we are part of Christian Academic Community, listening for the Spirit’s leading as we reflect on our own positions.

This is what has been so troubling to me about the CCCU crisis relating to Goshen and Eastern Mennonite’s policy change on hiring and the response of other Christian Universities like Union University. I struggle to affirm the demand for strident action because my first inclination is to wonder how the faculty and administration at GC and EMU reached their conclusion. I wish I could sit down over lunch and hear their rationale.

This is how faculty members operate. We put our prior assumptions on the table (eventually) and discuss them as brothers and sisters in a community who are invested in each other’s lives. In so doing, we work first toward understanding and then toward the common good.

The CCCU news has been largely about pronouncements of what the CCCU membership criteria should mean. By defining the criteria in certain ways, it has been easy for critics to claim that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite aren’t really Christian Universities at all.

By the way, a group called Christian Universities Online yesterday released this year’s list of The 50 Best Christian Colleges and Universities. Goshen came in at #4 and EMU at #22 (Union was #6 and SAU was #19). I’m not clear on the criteria used, but the timing was interesting to say the least.

Messiah’s Jenell Paris had an interesting post this week (thanks for the heads up, Chris!) on the limits of separation as a religious strategy. She speaks of the values inherent in The Karate Kid that she missed because her church growing up didn’t go to movies. She speaks of “a visceral fear of engaging differences“. She concludes:

There is much I appreciate about my fundamentalist heritage, including a love for the Bible and careful attention to individual moral duty. But the doctrine of separation? I’ve let it go, and have found nothing of the Gospel diminished. In fact, it seems bracingly alive in conversation, life, and conflict with people with whom I disagree, both within my religious group and beyond.

I agree with Jenell. As a faculty member, I have seen that honest engagement enhances the depth of understanding, reveals the Spirit in our midst, and leads us into all truth.

I have known some faculty colleagues over the years who still embrace a separatist ideology. They have seen it as their responsibility to look for litmus test issues among other faculty. It saddens me, because such folks seem cut off from the very Christian Academic Community which is the lifeblood of what we do in our institutions.

Differing views are a given, whether seen within a Christian college faculty or in a loose association of similar Colleges into an umbrella organization. The key is what we do with those differing views.

My experience tell me that engagement is the only sure way forward. In that engagement, we come to discover the reality of Christian Community.

Dis-Union in the CCCU

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 5.55.53 PMIn 1989, I was invited to a conference outside of Philadelphia with about 120 other sociologists from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). We had gathered to discuss the then-new monograph, Sociology Through The Eyes of Faith, written by Tony Campolo and David Frazier of Eastern University. It was remarkable for three reasons.

  1. It was amazing to discover my affinity with other scholars who shared my dual calling to sociology and Christian faith. It’s not that there weren’t Christians elsewhere, but this was a real fraternity. We shared an ethos and to see that fraternity embodied in a conference room was moving. We were from a wide variety of faith traditions and taught at very different kinds of Christian schools but we shared something significant in terms of identity.
  2. It was an exercise in humility. Tony and David had sent advanced copies of the manuscript to each of us and the authors came to us in small groups to hear our feedback. It was a level of collegiality I’ve rarely seen in the academy.
  3. I heard one of the most important speeches I’d ever heard. Given by Ray DeVries (then of Saint Olaf and now of the University of Michigan), it spoke of structural evil. Not in terms of the big issues of poverty and racism but of the small everyday issues in which power is demonstrated in ways that cause real harm. Maybe it was in a classroom. Maybe it was what constituted “appropriate scholarship”. Maybe it was in a faculty meeting. But it was a powerful reminder that has stayed with me ever since.

This meeting has been on my mind this week given the turmoil within the CCCU. Last month, two Mennonite schools (Goshen and Eastern Mennonite) changed their discrimination statements to allow hiring of monogamous same-sex married faculty and staff. This was done after the Mennonite Church adopted a resolution recognizing that their fellowship was divided on the question of same-sex marriage. The resolution, which they called a “forebearance resolution” stated the following (according to a story in The Mennonite):

The proposed forbearance resolution “acknowledges that there is not currently a consensus” on matters related to same-sex covenanted relationships. It “calls those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love and forbearance towards conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters relating to same-sex covenanted unions.”

While it may be surprising that the recognition of difference led the schools to take a more “progressive” choice of allowing same-sex marriage, it is consistent with some New Testament passages where the early Church was navigating differences.

Following the change in policy from the two schools, questions arose as to whether these two schools should be allowed to remain within the CCCU. Stories in Christian media seemed to set the stage that expulsion was the only reasonable course. The CCCU has been studying the issue and is expected to make a determination by the end of this month.

But the central rationale for CCCU membership is that faculty members have to be practicing Christians. This has been true since the founding of the pre-cursor of the current organization. This, as David McKenna pointed out in a history two years ago, was a means of distinguishing “Christ-Centered” colleges from the merely “church affiliated”. It overcame denominational distinctions because it set the center on the right thing–the place former CCCU president Paul Corts called “keeping the main thing the main thing”.

The crisis came to a head this week when Union University suddenly announced that they were not waiting for the Board review but were leaving the CCCU effective immediately. The tweet from Christianity Today claimed (a self-fulfilling prophecy if I ever heard one) that “Union University was the first school to bolt the CCCU.” Others are now talking about leaving if Goshen and Eastern Mennonite are allowed to remain.

I don’t think I know faculty members personally at Goshen and Eastern Mennonite, although I’ve had colleagues who’ve been in both and Howard Zehr at EMU is the world’s expert on restorative justice. And yet those faculty members are my colleagues. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. The faculty at Goshen and EMU are my fellow-laborers, working alongside Christian young people striving to be what God designed them to be. For that matter, faculty members at Union are my colleagues and fellow-laborers as well.

To suggest that they aren’t “real Christians” because their school has made a policy decision is the kind of exclusion Ray DeVries was describing all those years ago. We haven’t excluded people for their school’s stance on the ordination of women, on the inerrancy of scripture (we all affirm authority), or on the nature of creation.

Some may suggest that we aren’t making such determinations but that schools like Union are simply holding the line on Christian Orthodoxy. But they are clearly stating that they do not believe that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite are “Christian” institutions. In truth, they are Christian schools as long as they’ve put Christ first in their classroom interactions and have “kept the main thing the main thing”.

One of these days, we will need to acknowledge that there are people of deep Christian faith who have come to believe that affirming same-sex marriage is consistent with their faith. According to nearly all the polls, many of those people are the undergraduates coming to our classes.

The CCCU is a key place where faithful Christians will find the space to work through the social changes that surround us. The diversity in the CCCU is its greatest strength and needs to be protected.

The Patrick Option

As a sociologist, I’ve been as interested in the dramatic shifts in religious life and American Culture as the next social observer. The data is compelling.

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation (the Nones), the collapse of Cultural Christianity (which was not a bad thing), major demographic shifts in the mainline churches, and new pressures on traditional evangelical churches. Attitudes toward same-sex marriage have shown massive change in a remarkably short period of time. Religious freedom claims are being made by those from non-Christian religions (or from no religion at all).

It’s all a little overwhelming. It’s no surprise that many in the Christian world worry about persecution (in spite of a near absence of it in the American context). Certainly the landscape is shifting and we’re trying to figure out where we fit.

Many people are attracted to Rod Dreher’s suggestion of The Benedict Option. Drawing upon the collapse of Rome around the turn of the sixth century, he argues:

Around the year 500, a generation after barbarians deposed the last Roman emperor, a young Umbrian man known to history only as Benedict was sent to Rome by his wealthy parents to complete his education. Disgusted by the city’s decadence, Benedict fled to the forest to pray as a hermit.

Benedict gained a reputation for holiness and gathered other monks around him. Before dying circa 547, he personally founded a dozen monastic communities, and wrote his famous Rule, the guidebook for scores of monasteries that spread across Europe in the tumultuous centuries to follow.

Rome’s collapse meant staggering loss. People forgot how to read, how to farm, how to govern themselves, how to build houses, how to trade, and even what it had once meant to be a human being. Behind monastery walls, though, in their chapels, scriptoriums, and refectories, Benedict’s monks built lives of peace, order, and learning and spread their network throughout Western Europe.

They did not keep the fruits of their labors to themselves. Benedictines taught the peasants who gathered around their monasteries the Christian faith, as well as practical skills, like farming. Because monks of the order took a vow of “stability,” meaning they were sworn to stay in that place until they died, Benedictine monasteries emerged as islands of sanity and serenity. These were the bases from which European civilization gradually re-emerged.

A quick Google search found other choices. One could opt for the Dominican Option or the Jeremiah Option and I’m sure that more research would find many other Options.

I understand the appeal of the Benedict Option. It’s provides a focus on maintaining what we know in a changing world. It offers the hope of re-engaging the culture in some hoped-for future when things are more amenable to Christian thinking.

But there is another way. It’s a way that relies upon heightened engagement in place of exile.

I’m calling it The Patrick Option.

St PatrickI’ve been exploring this idea for the 20 years since Thomas Cahill wrote his compelling book, How the Irish Saved Western Civilization. But my thinking was greatly expanded by the work of George Hunter from Asbury Seminary. I heard him give a presentation in the early 2000s on The Celtic Way of Evangelization and immediately bought the book of the same title upon which it was based. At the center of the story is Patrick — the young man who was taken by an Irish band as a slave, who escaped to study in Rome and become a Bishop, and who then felt a Macedonian-like call to return to the very island of his captivity.

I’ve spent the last few days reading some new Patrick material. One book is Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Way of Saint Patrick by Jamie Arpin-Ricci. This book focused on Patrick’s willingness to put himself at risk, to engage in chaos, and to build true community. Jamie’s book also draws heavily on Scott Peck’s work on community (which I use in my own book) and lessons from 12-step movements. The other book is a second edition of George Hunter’s book, largely rewritten after a decade since the first book.

When Patrick got to Ireland, he used a very different strategy than his counterparts in the Roman Church. Where they were focused on the importance of believing the right things as a prerequisite for belonging, Patrick engaged the barbarian kings in Ireland and built relationships. As Hunter observes, for him and other Celtic missionaries, the strategy was to build relationship and invite people into the Christian community for conversation, so that people would come to belief.

The Roman Church knew how to extend Christianity alongside the colonization of the Roman Empire. In religious matters just as in political matters, all eyes turned to Rome. Not so with Patrick and his colleagues. He was engaging a non-Christian culture and participating in enough community building so that indigenous practices were retranslated into Christian ones (Hunter’s book is full of examples).

It’s no understatement to observe that Patrick’s work was not looked upon favorably by the Roman Leadership (some called him a Pelagian). He even got the date of Easter wrong!

But as Arpin-Ricci’s book illustrates, Patrick was willing to be open in his faith — to put himself at risk, even the risk of being thought wrong. He didn’t just see himself as missionary to the Irish — he thought himself one of them. He identified with those he was trying to reach.

Hunter explains it like this:

What was the difference between Eastern monasteries and Celtic monastic communities? Briefly, the Eastern monasteries organized to protest, and escape from, the materialism of the Roman world and the corruption of the Church; the Celtic monasteries organized to penetrate the pagan world and to extend the Church. The Eastern monks often withdrew from the world into monasteries to save and cultivate their own souls; Celtic leaders often organized monastic communities to save other people’s souls.

Patrick opened himself up to truly engage the barbarians around him and in so doing modeled the God that was preveniently reaching out to them. They weren’t actually treated as barbarians but engaged as potential friends created in the Image of Almighty God.

Both Vulnerable Faith and Celtic Way are essentially optimistic visions of God’s work in the World. We go forth and engage others. We hear their stories and we share ours. We look for common ground upon which we can build.

That means that we need to spend more time with those Nones and Dones in our midst. We need to understand why one-third of churchgoing millennials are supportive of same-sex marriage. We need to know more about how individuals are navigating this confusing thing we call family. We need to hear the formerly religious talk of their disaffection with faith and institutional church. In hearing their stories and engaging them in authentic Christian community, we have the possibility of communicating the Gospel in new and fresh ways that can connect to their lived experience.

Taking such vulnerable journeys into “hostile territory” is daunting. But Patrick didn’t think he was doing ministry in his own strength and certainty but rather in obedience to the Holy Spirt who was leading him (and others) through those meaningful conversations.

I’ll close by sharing George Hunter’s final paragraph:

The supreme key to reaching the West again is the key that Patrick discovered— involuntarily but providentially. The gulf between church people and unchurched people is vast, but if we pay the price to understand the unchurched, we will usually know what to say and what to do. If they know and feel we understand them, by the tens of millions they will risk opening their hearts to the God who understands them.

This is not the time for Christians to fret about declining influence. This is the time for us to engage as we did 1500 years ago.

The Future of Evangelicalism: A Follow Up

It’s been a little over a week since my post at Patheos on The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism. I appreciate the questions and comments. This week, Patheos added The Future of Progressive Christianity. While the new responses were as varied as last week’s, there is some fascinating synergy here worth watching.

Updates on My Post

First, some reflections on my own piece. Some have suggested that I was arguing that evangelicalism was more fragmented than at any point in the past. I don’t think I ever said that but I can understand the implication.

Let me clarify a few things. First, as a sociologist, my time frame was limited to the past 75 years — the period from the foundation of the National Association of Evangelicals to the present. That is why I referenced Molly Worthen’s history of what I call Industry Evangelicalism — the organizational dynamics that defined what we think of as “evangelical” in the popular realm. As Molly points out, there was significant variability among religious groups in the broad Evangelical umbrella, but there was a “mainstream evangelicalism” (a term often evoked to demonstrate someone is outside that stream). Those focused on defining mainstream are the ones that Putnam and Campbell identified as the source of their “second aftershock” of millennials becoming disillusioned with institutional faith (a pattern David Kinnaman has documented well).

Second, the fragmentation today is taking place in a remarkably different social context than any past fragmentation. This is well documented in the Pew Religious Landscape Report. We have seen a remarkable decline in Cultural Christianity because the social sanctions for not being religious have basically disappeared. Business owners no longer suffer in their local environments for not being members in good standing of the local Presbyterian Church. Furthermore, as a variety of institutional figures have found themselves on the wrong side of social media, abuse claims, or authoritarian personalities, it has coincided with a general anti-institutionalism within the society. In an age of social media, there is a democratization of viewpoints that would not have been present in the past. These changes in the social context, along with others, exacerbate the fragmentation that is present and makes consensus building much more difficult.

Finally, my call for an embrace of big-tent Bebbington definitions isn’t an “anything-goes” invitation. It’s a recognition that even evangelicals who disagree on social issues or come from different generational perspectives are all holding the scripture in high authority. They may not use the scripture in the same way in their positions, but they are trying to ascertain the meaning of the Word of God as best they can. The same can be said of the importance of Jesus Christ as the means to salvation and the desire to spread the Gospel to all who will hear. Their methodology may differ but their commitment is the same. If we can find ways of acknowledging the legitimacy of those commitments, even if we disagree with the interpretations arising from them, we can find some very solid ground for the future.

The Future of Progressive Christianity

When the next phase of the Patheos series came out this week, I was struck by a post by Kyle Roberts. Titled Will Progressive Christians Become More Evangelical?, it explores the same Pew data and makes use of the Putnam and Campbell book. Kyle suggests that as some evangelicals have found their way to mainline churches, the mainlines need to adapt. This raises the possibility for some healthy convergence. As I’ve written before, when you compare regularly attending mainliners and evangelicals, the differences are not as stark as our standard portrayals would assume. And Kyle finds a hopeful synthesis very close to what I was suggesting in my Bebbington paragraph:

We’re are seeing more experiments of faith, which might involve not only ecumenical Christian communities and initiatives, but inter-religious ones as well. And we’ll see more progressive evangelicals and former evangelicals (post-evangelicals)  joining up with mainline Protestants, progressive/liberal Catholics, and people of other faiths (or no particular institutional faith at all) in bringing a little more hope, peace, and gospel to their neighborhoods.  These progressive/post evangelicals are bringing with them a heart for the gospel, a deep respect for the Bible, and a “missionary” (or better: missional) view of the vocation of the Christian.

Today, Zach Hoag wrote a post aligning my fragmentation post with one from University of Washington sociologist Jim Wellman. Jim had argued that progressive Christianity lacks the infrastructure to be able to survive. As Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope documented in Church Refugees, those “done” with Church will find other institutional means of pursuing social justice concerns. Because too many progressive leaders are more likely to be isolates rather than part of broad networks, they run the risk of simply fading from sight over time.

Zach encourages us to explore the “messy middle lane”. He calls us to “rethinking and reforming” our religious institutions.

I think this is absolutely right. We need to find ways that the institutional church is an expression of the Body of Christ, is a place where people find authentic purpose in relationship with God and others (see this by Roger Olson), and is capable of speaking in Kingdom language to a post-Christendom culture.

More on what this might look like in my next post.