Time for new thinking about religion

I defended my dissertation 35 years ago next month. The focus was on what I called Attending NonMembers: people who regularly attended church but never joined. People fit my categorization is they had attended at least once a month for six months or more. Part of the project was simply to quantify the size of this population (somewhere about 10% of a local congregation’s attenders in 1983). As part of the research, I was forced to consider the relative importance of attendance vs. membership. Many pastors I interviewed jokingly said they were interested in how to get members to attend. I concluded that attendance was a more salient variable than membership when it came to understanding religious commitment.

My theoretical framework for the research drew from organizational dynamics and pressures to conform to institutional expectations. I posited that people felt the expectations of congregational life and would therefore live in a place of discomfort when they couldn’t meet expectations of membership. After all, people like Dean Kelley had been arguing that demanding something worthwhile was a key component of commitment and that’s why conservative denominations grew where liberal denominations did not. My research showed that people didn’t actually feel pressure to join, even from the pastor. (This was before the rise of the nondenominational and megachurch movements allowing anonymous presence as spectators to the show of the morning.)

I’ve returned to thoughts about the dissertation in recent weeks. New data from Pew Research released two weeks ago showed that Trump supporters were increasingly likely to define themselves as evangelicals when they didn’t in 2016. As they report,

[a]mong White respondents (including both voters and nonvoters) who did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 and who expressed a warm view of Trump at some point during the timespan of this study, 16% began describing themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020. 

One doesn’t need to join a church to declare oneself “evangelical or born again”. It’s simply an affirmative response to a somewhat vague survey question. But the Pew findings about pro-Trump religious identification suggest that what’s being claimed is more of an identity marker than a statement of religious commitment. While disappointing, this isn’t surprising. A careful review of polling data over the last several years has shown very similar political positions adopted by white self-identified evangelicals and Republicans in general.

In response to the Pew data, Ryan Burge (Twitter’s most prolific data analyst) shared data on the likelihood that Republicans would identify as evangelicals. Not only are Republicans more likely than Independents or Democrats to identify as evangelicals, but this was true regardless of attendance patterns.

This shows that fully half of Republicans who seldom attended church identified as evangelicals. Around a third of Republicans who NEVER attend church claim an evangelical identity.

In another analysis, Ryan explored attendance patterns among self-identified evangelicals. In 2008, 70.8% of evangelicals would have met my once a month threshold that I considered to be a minimum for congregational involvement. By 2020, the comparable figure was just 59.8%.

At the very least, these data points suggest that there is limited value in continuing to break out White Evangelicals as a separate category in public opinion surveys. The data picks up something but the extent to which that reflects religious commitments in fuzzy at best. (We really need survey data that explores theological beliefs beyond a commitment to inerrancy!)

If evangelical status is shifting to some kind of identity marker somewhat separate from congregational life, it raises serious questions about the whole “conservative churches are growing” argument. Kelley’s original argument was looking at membership and what was expected of members of conservative churches. Sociologists like Rodney Stark, William Sims Bainbridge, and Roger Finke picked up this theme, arguing that there is an exchange relationship between deep commitments and organizational vitality.

This argument is still popular. A friend from Michigan shared this recent piece by Tim Keller. It is a recapitulation of Kelley’s position from nearly 50 years ago. Keller summarize the argument:

Kelley argued that conservative churches continued to focus mainly on spiritual needs and supernatural “largest-scale” cosmic meanings—the reality of God, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, the power of the Holy Spirit for inward change, the efficacy of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, the eventual arrival of the kingdom of God.

Again, there is declining evidence that self-identified evangelicals are thinking about cosmic meanings. It is far more likely that they are driven by concerns about the changing demands of the here and now. While Kelley and Keller would accuse the mainline church as being concerned with contemporary culture, it is the conservative church that is fighting culture wars. While I lack data on this, my casual observation is that mainline churches have deepened their theological and ecclesial commitments over recent decades.

This move toward political engagement, culture war advocacy, and Covid denialism has an impact on many within the conservative church. While these numbers aren’t large (according to the Pew report above), it does suggest a missing theoretical perspective in thinking about religious commitment.

There is an idea in social psychology that when attempts at persuasion push so hard as to limit individual freedom, the result is reactance. Not only is there resistance to the persuasive appeal, there is actually a movement in the opposite direction.

Listening to podcasts like Gangster Capitalism’s reporting on Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Christianity Today’s reporting on Mark Driscoll in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill suggest the discomfort that results from that pressure. Following reporting on the Southern Baptist Convention trying to respond (or not) to sexual abuse in their ranks has similar effects. “Being Conservative” is not enough. While some short-term good comes these institutions, the longer-term harm is concerning.

Last week, Scot McKnight wrote a piece in his newsletter titled “Deconstruction’s Three Phases.” It’s well worth the read. But here is the Cliff’s Notes version. The first phase he calls Liminality. This is a period where one feels slightly off kilter in the conservative church. It’s a feeling of not belonging. The second phase is Elimination. In this period, one strips away all the extras attempting to hold on to an authentic faith. In my review of millennial evangelical memoirs three years ago, I saw this pattern clearly play out. The writers distanced from church and prior patterns and clung to Jesus. That provided their way back. Scot’s third phase is Liberation. He says that this is a period in which one’s personality takes the fore and there is an attempt to reconcile faith in a new environment. I’m not sure this is as negative as he suggests, but I agree with his conclusion.

These deconstructors become, in other words, re-constructors. They reconstruct their Christian faith from the foundations up and they slowly, carefully lay one brick on another until they form a Christian faith that they find consistent with Jesus and what the church should and can be (all over again).

All of this leaves me trying to rethink religious paradigms I’ve held for decades. Where should our focus be? Are we concerned with documenting the political orientation of self-identified evangelicals? is there a way to value a variety of religious expressions, avoiding the triumphalism of either conservative or mainline churches? What is the role of theology is shaping attitudes (not just prooftexting a favorite scripture)? Where are the religious institutions that will truly assist individuals in working through McKnight’s deconstruction process to live faithfully in a confusing and conflicted culture?

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