Last week I turned in my grades, drove us to Kansas City for the meeting of the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers (ANSR) where I received a lifetime recognition award and presented a paper on the sabbatical project, and then drove to Denver so we can spend a couple of weeks with the granddaughter and her parents.
So this week, my sabbatical actually began.
The project is an examination of the changes in evangelicalism, characterized by but not limited to millennials. If you’ve followed this blog over time, you know that I’ve been exploring this shift for the past four years under different labels. My current labels distinguish between Bounded Evangelicalism and Permeable Evangelicalism.
My original plan was to examine the points of conflict between the frames: John Piper vs Rob Bell, the Christian Establishment vs Jen Hatmaker or Rachel Held Evans. But I have recently realized that this is the wrong story.
It reminds me of a conversation with my major professor about dissertation topics. I told him I wanted to explore the social networks of denominational leaders to see if whom they went to school with, whom they married, or where they had served made a difference in how they gain positions of authority. Ray responded, “of course that’s true” and we quickly moved on to better topics.
The better story is how the Permeable Evangelicals are redefining their approach to culture without abandoning what we would consider as orthodox Christian doctrine. I’m excited because the story becomes about the future dynamics of religious expression in a pluralistic culture rather than a micro-version of culture war arguments.
The paper at ANSR was well received by both sociologists and denominational leaders. They confirmed that the Permeable group is active and valuable. My research suggests that they make up nearly 40% of Nazarene clergy surveyed.
As it stands, I plan to review the sociological treatment of evangelicalism as a way to begin. The two frames represent the move from Christian Smith’s 1998 American Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving to the Faithful Presence of James Davison Hunter’s 2010 To Change the World.
Two other components of the book project involve exploring the thought processes and faith development of those in the Permeable Frame. Looking at a series of millennial evangelical memoirs, I’ll explore common themes across their stories of faith, deconstruction, and reintegration. In October, I’m attending the Evolving Faith conference in Montreat, NC (sorry, sold out) where they will be about 400 attendees exploring similar themes.
Conflict will still be treated in the book, but it takes a lesser role. I have planned chapters on issues of sexuality, politics, and epistemology to track how the two frames approach these critical topics and why resolution between the frames is so challenging.
Finally, I will make some assertions about where things might be headed. It is unclear if the Permeable Frame will ever be comfortable with the Evangelical label, especially as it’s bee seen over the last 15 years.
And yet, a recognition that people can differ in terms of strategies of cultural engagement while remaining Jesus followers who want to see others come to Him and his Kingdom come to earth is an important story to tell.
I’m pretty excited to tell it.
(If you’re interested in either the ANSR paper or my chapter summary document, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.)