I spent my spring break driving nearly 2,000 miles so that I could give a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation. It was well worth it.
I drove all that way to attend the 2018 version of the Young Clergy Con sponsored by folks at Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene. The organizers did a great job (as I heard they did at last year’s inaugural event).
Now, I don’t actually qualify as a member. I’m a 63 year old college professor who belongs to a UMC congregation. But this group gave me an opportunity to test the thesis of my book among those who are its subject.
As I’ve written before, my thesis is that the rhetorical frame of evangelicalism is changing. Former views based on boundary maintenance and separation (Industry Evangelicalism) give way to an evangelical approach based on story, listening, diversity, and engagement (Identity Evangelicalism).
There were careful conversations at the conference about engaging LGBTQ populations, of dealing with racial/ethnic diversity, hospitality,and acknowledging singleness. There was worship and fellowship and discussions about “institutional change from within”.
I was particularly glad to be with these innovators in light of my research project I mentioned in my previous post. Back in December, I was able to gather survey data on 470 clergy in the Church of the Nazarene who are under 40. I began unpacking that data over the last month in preparation for OKC.
There were four questions in my survey that allowed an initial test of my thesis. One dealt with how the church should respond to the changing social dynamics of same-sex marriage and transgender rights. There were four responses: a traditional response, a traditional response addressing the complexity of the conversation, a welcoming but not affirming response, and an affirming response. A second question asked if the church should maintain separation from society. A third dealt with discrimination against Christians. The fourth asked if the church should support America. The last three questions were in a strongly-agree to strongly disagree Likert format.
I scored the first question as either 1 traditional or 2 open. For the other three, I scored the questions as 1 SA/A, 2 neutral, and 3 D/SD. That gave me a scale ranging from 4 to 11. I then split the scale into two groups representing my two frames: Industry Evangelicalism (4-8) or Identity Evangelicalism (9-11). Using this scaling, 63% of my sample fell in the Industry category with the remaining 37% in the Identity Frame.
There are significant differences between the frames, The Industry folks see the changes in society over recent decades as more negative the positive while the Identity folks see the opposite. The Identity group felt that their denomination had been too cautious in responding to changes in society while the Industry group was mildly supportive.
Here’s the important point: Both groups are committed to remaining part of their denomination. Over 72% of the Identity group and 82% of the Industry group see it as important or very important to remain inside. This suggests that the changing frame is not a long term challenge to the institutional church.
It was clear from some of the first conversations at YCN that the attendees were disproportionately part of my Identity Frame. I lost track of the number of times “story” came up. There was an openness to engagement that was affirming. During the breakout times, the conversations were about how to assist the denomination move forward even though the attendees were not in positions of power (but there were some power positions in attendance and supportive).
They are not living in some post-evangelical reality. But they are trying all kinds of things to engage the world around them in its complexity in such a way as to keep the hope of the Gospel in front of people.
I got to see some old friends and make a bunch of new ones.
And for the first time in a very long time, I was optimistic about the evangelical voice within the broader society.