Category: Evangelicals

“Those who rock the boat will soon find themselves on the rocks.”

The title quote comes from an event early in my career. It was an all-school event celebrating the start of school that was supposed to set a vision for the academic year to come. I don’t know what else the president talked about during that address. All I heard was that one line.

It’s hard to believe, I know, but I was less than compliant as a young professor. Naturally, I took the “rock the boat” line personally. There were certainly others who heard the line as I did and thought the president was talking about them. Still others were absolutely certain that he was talking about me and my friends.

Boats and Rocks

I’ve been reflecting on that line the last few days in light of events in the news. Whether it is John MacArthur’s sermon at The Master’s University and Seminary recently covered in The Chronicle, the horrific Fort Worth Star-Telegram story of sexual abuse and coverup in Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches, or the CBS Religion’s “Deconstructing My Faith” story on #exvangelicals, there is a pattern here about the organizational dynamics of conservative religious institutions.

The Chronicle story appeared the end of November. Audio of a September sermon had become available that was addressing the action taken by WASCUC, the regional accrediting body following a March regular review by a visiting team. When I served as an evaluator for WASC, I saw the care they went to in forming the visiting teams. I went almost exclusively to other faith-based institutions. That was also the case with TMUS’ March review — the five member team has three members from faith based institutions and the principal author (who is a friend of mine) has dedicated her career to institutional quality in Christian institutions.

In spite of this, MacArthur  blamed secular forces and even Satan for the accreditation situation (in spite of the fact that TMUS was out of compliance on two key eligibility requirements — an independent board and a full time CFO). Much of the challenge came as a result of the significant overlap between the church MacArthur serves, the institution, and its governing structure. As I’ve written before, Christian universities aren’t churches and the more they confuse the two the more the latter takes precedence.

The Chronicle summary of the sermon ends with these warnings MacArthur gave to the community:

“I’m gonna be real honest with you,” he said. “You didn’t have any right to find out about anything. That’s not your responsibility.”

In his remarks he referred to a Bible passage from the Book of Proverbs.

“There are things that God hates, right?” MacArthur said. “One of them is the one who stirs up strife,” he said, urging students to keep their complaints within the university and seminary.

“Keep your mouth shut,” he said. “Don’t stir up strife. You don’t know the whole story.”

This combination of authoritarian leadership and dismissal of dissent is also at the heart of the sexual abuse stories arising out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist churches. The story is similar to what we’ve seen for years in the Roman Catholic Church — stories of abuse not being believed, perpetrators being transferred to new locations without disclosure, and placing the priority on the church’s mission and reputation. That the story opens with a review of the abuses by one of the key families in the movement only adds to the horror. This wasn’t some isolated pastor somewhere in a remote location. Key figures in the movement were engaged in abuse or involved in minimizing the impact.

When abuse was acknowledged, it was expected to stay in the church under the authority of the leadership.

“Any issues, even legal issues, go to the pastor first, not the police. Especially about another member of the church,” said Josh Elliott, a former member of Vineyard’s Oklahoma City church. “The person should go to the pastor, and the pastor will talk to the offender. You don’t report to police because the pastor is the ultimate authority, not the government.”

The insularity of a “we know best” philosophy becomes an impossible situation for those who have been victimized. It provides no place for them to remain within the fellowship in good faith. Either they will be seen as suspect or they have to live with a cognitive compartmentalization that is harmful to a healthy Christian life.

The subjects of the CBS program on #exvangelicals showed some of the same patterns. The churches they were part of provided little space for their questions or concerns. At first marginalized, they eventually leave the evangelical church because the pain of staying is too great. Even though they have left for their own well-being, they seem still to be processing considerable harm dealt them by the very group that was central to their upbringing.

When I was at the Evolving Faith conference in October, I heard testimony from speakers and attendees about the levels of pain they had experienced within what was supposed to be “the Family of God.” That sense of lingering pain and betrayal is worth serious examination if we are to understand faith in contemporary America. Maybe my next book.

What happens to those who might “find themselves on the rocks?” We see those implicit threats as real. We recognize that remaining in that environment will bring pain. Of course, so will leaving. By leaving at least we find ourselves able to manage our own situation.

When the voices of dissent are silenced, whether through threat or departure, the institution itself suffers. It becomes less able to deal with the critical issues confronting it. It can choose to continue as it has for decades, assuming that by holding to the prior visions of authority and mission it is being successful. In reality, if finds people less interested in volunteering to be a part of such an environment.

Avoiding the rocks requires leaders to acknowledge that the rocks actually exist. Those who “rock the boat” aren’t just playing around. They are acknowledging the boulders in the stream and trying to find the path through the rapids.

 

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USC’s “Varieties of American Evangelicalism”

Last week the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California put out a provocative typology attempting to distinguish between varieties of American evangelicals in contemporary culture. Currently this typology, developed through dialogue with the Center’s researchers, is not based on any specific measurement strategies. Nevertheless, it makes some important distinctions that could help us better understand evangelicalism today.

 

Varieties of Evangelicalism

They identify five groups: Trump-vangelicals, NeoFundamentalist Evangelicals, iVangelicals, Kingdom Christians, and Peace and Justice Evangelicals. The identity of each group is captured well in the five images above.

Trump-vangelicals are most likely to reflect some form of Christian Nationalism. They see Trump as “God’s man” for the moment. Comments about a modern-day Cyrus and celebration of a president who “tells it like is” while projecting strength is key to this group. Yesterday, my twitter feed started showing a billboard outside St. Louis showing a picture of Trump with the caption “The Word Became Flesh” and a note that said “Make the Gospel Great Again” (I didn’t include it because I didn’t want that to be my cover image for this post.)

NeoFundamentalist Evangelicals see a strong separation of church and society (notice how the cross sits in contrast to the city in the second image). They are concerned about moral decline and right living. So they support Trump in an instrumental fashion — expressing their concern over Roe in the Supreme Court, religious liberty, and same-sex marriage. Their commitment to separation makes diversity of viewpoint a challenge. Their primary concern is to maintain their right to their own positions.

iVangelicals are the megachurch crowd. As the USC folks explain in their summary, this reflects an accommodation of religious culture to the dominant strains of individualism and consumerism in our society. While there are exceptions, they would be less likely to engage in direct political action, preferring their worship experience to be about warm feelings and a vital worship experience.

Kingdom Christians are likely to focus on issues of service. I’d imagine that Anabaptist groups would excel at this. They want to work in areas of need to provide the support of the Gospel to those who struggle. They want to serve as Jesus did (notice the image). They don’t soft-sell their Gospel commitments but they work them out in external locales. The church becomes a sending place.

Peace and Justice Evangelicals are also committed to seeing society change. They are as committed to diversity and service as the Kingdom Christians but layer on an awareness of structural dynamics that create certain living conditions. You will find this group much more likely to address issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, and the exercise of power. They envision a society that looks like the coming Kingdom. Their commitments to Jesus compel them to address these difficult issues that some would rather they left alone.

As the USC typology has been shared on social media, a number of people have raised legitimate questions. Why is this necessary? Isn’t this divisive? Can’t people be in multiple categories? Does this describe my congregation?

Why create a typology at all? Because too many in the public sphere focus on how 81% of self-identified evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Based on their limited inside knowledge of evangelicals, they still are struck with the contrast between evangelical stands on morality and the president’s history and demeanor. As I’ve written frequently on these pages, this misperception of evangelicals risks long term damage to how churches are perceived by those they try to reach.

Why separate evangelicals? Because we actually vary quite a bit in our methods of understanding scripture, of how we should engage our surrounding culture, and how that translates into personal decision making on key issues like voting. This is a problem inside evangelicalism as well. There are many in the first two groups that regularly call out the last two groups, suggesting they aren’t “real Christians”, much less evangelicals. Especially as we consider the generational changes underway in evangelicalism, seeing the variety might help us hold on to those who would somehow drift into becoming “nones”.

Can people be in multiple categories? Perhaps there are interesting shadings between adjacent groups. The line between the first two groups or the last two groups might be fuzzy. But it’s very difficult to imagine a Trump-vangelical who is also a Peace-and Justice Evangelical. These five categories are what sociologists call “ideal types” — Max Weber’s idea that we identify theoretical categories first and then test those categories empirically. Without this preliminary work we simply have polling data without an interpretive frame.

Does this describe my congregation? First, in creating the typology the USC researchers have focused on certain leaders within the broader evangelical movement. That’s an important first step. But there is a difference between the factors that influence a national leader and a local pastor, much less the people who attend the church. Second, there is likely more diversity in your church than you realize. I once did a study of congregational networks and found that there were conservatives, moderates, and liberals in all three of my study congregations. Their relative size shifted depending upon the theology of the church but they were all present. The reality is that we aren’t very good and discussing these distinctions within local congregations, allowing us to believe there is uniformity when there isn’t.

As I reflect on the work that the Center for Religion and Civic Culture has done, I have a couple of lingering thoughts. First, I would love to know more about how each of the five groups work with scripture. My hypothesis is that they all are looking for ways of being faithful in their hermeneutic, but they would disagree greatly on which hermeneutic to use. Furthermore, I’d love to know which passages are their go-to scriptures. My hypothesis here is that the Trump-vangelicals are more comfortable in the Old Testament while the latter two groups work from the synoptic Gospels.

My final concern is the one that has driven most of my work on evangelicals. When these five different groups approach policy and politics, is their view mediated by any kind of theological understanding? Or is their perspective simply shaped by their group identity (which I have described elsewhere as similar to team jerseys)?

Sociologist Richard Flory (senior researcher at the CRCC) he told me in an e-mail exchange that this work is just beginning. From here they will be looking for ways to operationalize these five groups. I’m eager to explore possibilities for teasing out these differences in existing survey data from Pew or the General Social Survey. My current book project is focused on people who are pretty much in the Peace and Justice camp and I’m excited to still be able to think about them as evangelicals.

Evangelical Simulacra

Scholars continue to wrestle with the important question of “who is an evangelical?”. Some look at historical pedigree, looking for continuity of belief, behavior, and lifestyle (see Thomas Kidd, for example). Others have observed the cultural and political dynamics as a defining characteristic. Yet others have focused on developing the apologetic Biblical worldview that would protect evangelicals against the onslaught of secularism.

None of these approaches are able to adequately define contemporary evangelicalism.

Why? Because evangelicalism has taken on the form that Jean Baudriillard called simulacra. He argues that symbols take on particular meanings within a community. Eventually, the symbols become independent of the reality they are supposed to convey and become hyperreality — operating in the performed life space while no longer conveying specialized meaning.

Famous

This occurs as media culture creates a context in which identifiers are exchanged and language allows the maintenance of shared perspective. I took the above picture today on a walk in suburban Denver. The first thing that got my attention was the idea of “making Jesus famous“. I’m not sure what help Jesus needs or what theological principle is involved therein. The second thing I noticed was the word “Champions“. Not servants, not believers: winners.

This is an illustration of evangelical simulaca. I was violating the terms of identity by trying to plumb the various intended meanings. I wanted to know what the phrases meant. But they do not function to communicate meaning. The operate to communicate identity in a visceral, unreflective manner.

This week, my friend Kristen DuMez posted in The Anxious Bench about a family trip to Hobby Lobby. Walking through this Christian craft store (that of the “closely held religious beliefs” of SCOTUS fame) and taking remarkable photos allowed Kristen and her daughters to explore the impact of symbolic expressions of the nature of gender, true Americans, and religious identity.

By this point it had become clear to me that Hobby Lobby wasn’t just a Christian company because its owners were Christians, because they contributed a large chunk of their profits to evangelistic charities, or because they had emerged as heavyweight champions in the latest round of the culture wars. But Hobby Lobby also reflects (and, by selling Christian material culture, reinforces and shapes) a distinctive white evangelical cultural identity.

What does it mean to put wall plaques up in your house adorned with Bible verses? What is the purpose of bumper stickers that share stock Christian phrases or vanity plates that read GOD 1ST?

One might assume that this is an evangelistic tool, designed to coax people into asking questions after which the owner would share the Gospel. But survey data regularly report that people are almost as uncomfortable talking about religion as they are to hear about it.

Baudrillard would have us recognize that the essence of the simulacra is performance. One acts as an evangelical, embracing the signs and symbols evangelicals are expected to embrace. It is a statement of anticipatory identity — say it and it becomes true.

This process explains why 12% of self-identified evangelicals, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, seldom or never go to church. They perform evangelicalism in other ways through the manipulation of symbols. Going to church simply may not be necessary to maintain the identity.

The media and politicians become adept at manipulating these symbols: religious freedom, protect the unborn, stop secularists, MAGA. One doesn’t have to agree with the religious sentiments underlying these positions, as Jonathan Merritt observed today. You just need to know how to perform the rituals that are present in the hyperreality.

This makes the study of “real” evangelicals remarkably difficult. It is true that many operate in the realm of church attendance, orthodox beliefs, and Bebbington’s quadrilateral. But all of that is conflated with the performative aspects of American Evangelicalism, which results in us never knowing exactly whom we are talking about.

 

Is There Evidence of Douthat’s Cultural Tribalism Among Evangelicals?

Like many people, I found things to like and dislike in Ross Douthat’s piece over the weekend. Reflecting on issues related to the Alabama Senate race, he suggested that we may be approaching an “evangelical crisis” (which he sees as not altogether bad). It’s possible, he writes, that what we’re seeing is White Christian Tribalism.

When I shared his article on Facebook and raised a number of questions about how little we know about “rank and file” evangelicals, as opposed to national and social media thought leaders, it prompted a wonderful dialogue among my friends. I suggested that perhaps what Douthat was getting at was the tremendous overlap between region of the country, rural culture, Republicanism, and Evangelicalism. I represented that idea through the following Venn Diagram (created very inartfully via PowerPoint).

Ven Diagram

While I don’t swear by the specific location of the circles, it did convey what I was pondering. Baylor’s Elesha Coffman pointed me to county level religious data that was done by the Association of Statisticians of America’s Religious Bodies. Looking closer, I found that the data had been gathered by a friend of mine, Rich Houseal, who serves as lead researcher for the Church of the Nazarene. I further realized that the actual data was available through the Association of Religious Data Archives (a marvelous site).

Naturally, I downloaded the data. Then I found 2010 Census data and matched the Counties so that I could measure the percentage rural within each county. Finally, I located 2008 presidential election results and determined the percentage of each county that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama. Using around 3,000 counties, this would allow a rough analysis of my Venn Diagram. If i was right, there would be correlations between the rate of evangelical membership in the county per 1,000 population, the percent rural, and the percent voting Republican. Furthermore, I expected to find the pattern stronger in the south.

It turns out that the percent rural pretty much washed out in every analysis I did. But the relationship between the evangelicals and voting McCain showed itself to be at least mildly correlated at a rate of .37 (.60 is strong, 1.00 is perfect).

Controlling for region showed some different patterns. Using what the Census department calls East South Central (AL, KY, MS, TN) didn’t change the correlation at all. So I started playing around by looking at the correlations within individual states. The relationship completely disappears in the Mountain region (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NV, NM, UT, WY).

When I did just Alabama, the correlation jumps to .72. That means that counties with high rates of evangelical adherents were more likely to vote for McCain, even in a strong red state. The quarter of Alabama’s 67 counties that had the highest Evangelical rate (over 520 per 1,000) voted Republican at a rate 15% higher than those below 520 (72% compared to 57%).

This is some very preliminary analysis, but it’s yet another instance where i’ve tried to find other rationales for the linkage between evangelicals and being Republican but it’s just really tough to debunk. As Myriam Renaud observed at the time of Trump’s inauguration, this is not new.

The cultural tribalism, at least in some areas seems pretty vibrant. The generational shifts may result in fewer people identifying as evangelicals, as data has regularly shown. But in the short term, that will only increase the homogeneity of the population that continues to identify as evangelical.

 

 

Engaging the Evangelical Mind

Just under thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote a prescient little book titled The Struggle for America’s Soul. The book documented the separation between the religious right concerned about massive social change and the educated elite who championed it. I remember that he ended the book with an optimistic hope: that scholars at faith-based institutions might play a unique role in bridging that chasm because they understood both groups. They could play something like the role of translator explaining each group to the other side. This would be done, he suggested, by conducting and reporting research in their role as evangelical scholars.

I found myself thinking of Wuthnow’s book last week when attending a gathering on “The State of the Evangelical Mind” in Indianapolis. The gathering focused on a book written five years after Wuthnow’s: Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Scandal

In part a retrospective on Noll’s book and in part a recognition of the service John Wilson performed as editor of the journal Books and Culture, it involved a series of papers reflecting on issues both deeply related to the conference question and some slightly more tangential (yet still interesting).

The evening began with a paper from Noll himself (at the last minute he wasn’t able to attend so his paper was read but he did participate via speakerphone in the q&a session). Noll reflected on the book and highlighted four successes that demonstrated an advancement in the evangelical mind: The Reformed Journal, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism, the Pew Scholars Network, and Books and Culture.

I was struck that, like in Wuthnow’s book, the evangelical minds being developed were those of academics. There is real value in seeing the evangelical perspective engaging broader scholarship, but unfortunately too much of it happens in isolation from everyday evangelicals.

John Fea offered a wonderful reflection on the challenges of the evangelical mind within the context of a Christian college (Messiah). His two history colleagues shared somewhat more optimistic visions than John’s but his perspective stuck with me through the whole meeting.

Friday opened up with former Wesleyan General Superintendent Joanne Lyon reflecting on her role in seeing the development of the evangelical infrastructure. Part of her personal story involved being in the vanguard of a complex evangelical group that was engaging the larger world. She saw evangelical leadership move away from those options toward the goals of the Moral Majority and similar groups in the late 1970s. And yet Joanne remained hopeful, arguing that “love, mercy, and justice set evangelicalism apart from civil religion.”

My colleagues Jack Baker and Jeff Bilbro shared insights from their recent book, pointing out that much of evangelical subculture has generated a parallel structure to secular society (illustrating with stories about Christian bookstores and the market-orientation of Christian liberal arts institutions). They offered insights from Wendell Berry as an important alternative.

The keynote address (which sort of wrapped up the meeting) was given by Jamie Smith from Calvin College. He returned to the problem of the gap between academics and the evangelical subculture. His evidence: compare attendance at Bible Prophecy conferences with the attendance at academic-filled conferences. The way forward, he argued, was for academics and their institutions to embrace the role of evangelical public intellectual. For all of us bloggers, it was an encouraging challenge.

I came away recognizing three primary challenges in pursuing an engagement with the evangelical mind. First, I was stuck on John Fea’s earlier point about our Christian colleges. Even though I’m a tenured full professor with 36 years of experience and have served as a senior administrator, I wonder how the culture of Christian higher education can advance the call to address the evangelical mind. If I expand my public advocacy in addressing the complexity of contemporary issues that evangelicals need to engage, how will my students, their parents, my administration, and the trustees respond? Would they prefer that I keep these thoughts to my narrow blog audience? Would they see engagement as a legitimate role? Is there ever a possibility that such activity would take the place of one of my classes?

The second challenge I notice even in how I have written this reflection. I want the evangelical church to think more deeply about sociological and political issues. But I can’t simply show up to explain where they’ve been wrong on a host of issues. As Jamie challenged us, we have to use our role as educators to illumine where we’ve all fallen short. Hubris will kill any attempt at engagement.

The third challenge was present in Jack and Jeff’s analysis. It strikes me that the evangelical communication infrastructure is so balkanized that I don’t know how academic voices can even gain access. There are so many websites, magazines, blogs, videos, and celebrity books serving up a particularized version of the evangelical mind. This is what feeds the feeling among evangelicals that they are being actively discriminated against in modern society. Given the evangelical  infrastructure’s rhetoric about liberal bias and faith challenge endemic to higher education (even Christian higher education), we need real strategies to “seed the clouds” so that our message is receptive.

And yet I return to Joanne Lyon’s optimistic perspective. She pointed out our special role as academics to address the key issues in society. Advocacy, she challenged us, is part of discipleship.

I don’t have a clear path on how to better engage the evangelical mind. But I recognize that I have a responsibility to stay with it anyway.

A Political Sociology of Evangelicals

While I’ve been in the midst of two major projects, I’ve been following some fascinating online conversations about evangelicals and politics. The overlaps and distinctions between these positions speaks directly to themes I’ve been raising on this blog since it began.

The larger backdrop, as has been the case since the presidential campaign began, is about the 81% of white evangelicals who supported Trump in November and who largely continue to do so. I argued just over a year ago that these patterns made sense if we consider covariants, demographic shifts, and subcultural influences within evangelicalism. This past April, I presented an analysis at Calvin College arguing that evangelicals act like Republicans when culture war issues aren’t particularly salient.

While followers of John Fea know that he’s been talking about Court Evangelicals for a few months, his argument hit the big time this week when he wrote a piece in The Washington Post. As John explained on his blog, the Court Evangelicals wanted to be near to Trump and made much of his comments on religions freedom, including the curious focus on the Johnson Amendment. (I wrote about this last July as well.) Emily Miller reported in Religion News Service that the new House budget contains language the keeps the IRS from taking action to enforce the Johnson Amendment, even though evidence is scarce that it has ever been enforced. Yet this largely symbolic step is seen as a win for Court Evangelicals.

Having visited Versailles twice during my recent France trip, the image of Court Evangelicals has taken on a particular meaning for me. One of my favorite parts of the tour of the “hunting lodge” is the dining room. At one end is the table where Louis XIV ate with his family. At the other end one finds a series of divans where the courtiers sat to observe and comment on how well the King was proceeding on his meal. The recent Oval Office prayer meeting has echoes of Versailles.

Trump Evangelicals

These Court Evangelicals have built a rhetorical frame that allows them to see Trump as a Cyrus figure whom God rose up “for such a time as this.” However, while they are important in providing the President with the ability to say “I won the evangelicals”, it’s less clear how their influence may be influencing rank and file evangelicals (although Robert Jeffress’ MAGA celebration July 4th weekend was pretty unnerving.)

On Tuesday, Neil Young (not that one!) argued in Religion and Politics that “Evangelical is not a political term”. Reacting to Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals, Young suggests that she makes too much of the alignment between evangelical strength and the rise of the religious right, spending nearly half of her tome on the rise of Moral Majority and Culture Warriors. (I’m only up to 1918 in my read of Fitzgerald but I get his critique.)

It is not at all clear how much of rank-and-file evangelicals are influenced by the political positionings of Court Evangelicals and Culture Warriors. Lydia Bean’s excellent The Politics of Evangelical Identity (summarized in the first link above) finds that church people weren’t directly influenced by the Religious Right or even pastoral jeremiads. Rather, the link between evangelical identity and Republicanism was framed in the informal interactions of folks in church. In her US churches (as opposed to her Canadian churches) people assumed that society had changed for the worse and this was due to direct actions by liberals (no prayer in school, abortion, LGBT rights). The nature outgrowth of such belief is to oppose Democrats. If one doesn’t hold those views, it’s real work to remain in fellowship. It might be much easier to find a nice Methodist church.

Shortly before Young’s piece appeared, Tim Gloege wrote in The Anxious Bench reflecting on Heath Carter and Laura Rominger Porter’s Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism. Gloege argues that there is much to explore in terms of additional social and political dynamics that shape the development and self-presentation of evangelicalism.

Self-identification leads to confusion because it meant something fundamentally different to the nineteenth century Protestants who used the term (which nearly all did). “Evangelical” was a political term, not an analytic category. And because it was political—because it held social, cultural, and even economic power—it was contested. As far as I can tell, there was no coherent, agreed-upon, set of beliefs and practices associated with the word; rather its meaning approximated a vague combination of “respectable” and “orthodox.” (emphasis in original)

I think Gloege is exactly right. Understanding evangelicalism at any point in time in dependent upon understanding which forces are involved in the contest. Are there tensions between Protestants and Catholics? Mainline churches and Fundamentalist churches? Arminians and Calvinists? Working class and Middle class? Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics? Those in the South and Midwest or those in the Northeast and Northwest? Suburban or Rural?

These contestations will work out differently for different subgroups at different points in time. They will differ in terms of which issues have salience (for example, RFRA issues are remarkably geographically bounded). They will differ on how the relate to various national issues as sides are determined in ways that Bean describes.

The difference between Young’s and Gloege’s arguments is important even though each have a part of the political reality. Chris Gehrz closed his blog post yesterday with a nice framing of the question:

Do you buy the argument that Protestants are basically “apolitical” (as Ryrie means it), or at least that politics is not nearly as important to (white, American, present-day) evangelicals as horrified anti-Trump Christians like me tend to assume?

If we use Young’s definitions, the answer comes closer to Ryrie’s. If we use Gloege’s, politics runs through evangelical identity. Not just in the narrow terms of partisan elections but in the broad context of definition and representation.

Consider the triumphalism some evangelicals expressed when the 2014 Pew Landscape survey showed that evangelicals held their own between 2007 and 2014 while Mainlines lost ground. I read far too many critiques about “cultural Christians” who believe but don’t act. (Actually working through the Pew data shows two problems with this: a large number of evangelicals don’t attend church and a large number of evangelicals belong to mainline churches.) That’s a political argument about how “we’re winning” which is then often used to justify our view as “the Christian view”.

One key point of contestation involves demographic changes. Robert Jones The End of White Christian America demonstrates how the share of the society fitting those characteristics is shrinking significantly. This is why he argued that evangelical support for Trump was made up on “nostalgia voters.” John Fea picked up this argument this morning suggesting that the 2016 election bore a resemblance to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It was a last gasp effort to turn the tide against overwhelming odds.

All of these discussions have been valuable as I’ve been refining the argument I’ve been making for several years: that millennial evangelicals are approaching the political question in Gloege’s framing while older evangelicals my age have tended to approach the political question in Fitzgerald’s framing. In other words, Millennials are attempting to move from their lived experience to their understanding of Christian faith while Boomers are more likely to move from Christian Positions to lived experience. Millennials may have a higher sensitivity to authentic and holistic expression where Boomers may be more likely to tolerate dissonance between institutional expectations and lived experience.

Why is that that the case? Pew research from early last year provides a clue. Between 2010 and 2015, loyalty toward institutional religion increased for all generations except millennials. Where 59% of Boomers saw churches and religious organizations as positive in 2010, they increased to 62% in 2016. This is in remarkably sharp contrast to millennials whose support for institutional religion fell from 73% (which seems artificially high to me) in 2010 to only 55% in 2016. This actually reflects a lessening of millennial institutional loyalty in a variety of contexts.

The Court Evangelicals, with some exceptions, are my age or older. They reflect the efforts of a pro-institutional identity attempting to take advantage of political opportunity. But there is not a general mobilization of millennials to join that bandwagon.

All of this takes me back to Lydia Bean. If the church is not a place where one can express disagreement on issues of either definitional politics or partisan politics, the costs of staying may simply be too great.

Robbie Jones makes an interesting argument in The End of White Christian America. He observes that social attitudes usually moderate among groups as younger generations take on a larger share of the demographic mix. Yet on some issues (like same-sex marriage) he didn’t see that happening. He hypothesized that those younger generations who disagreed with institutional positions were simply leaving the evangelical fold. The result is an increased homogeneity among the population that says behind.

It seems that those tension are playing out on a weekly basis on my twitter feed. The most recent example was the did-he-or-didn’t-he coverage of Eugene Peterson’s views on same-sex marriage. These are political questions revolving around demographic shifts, lived experience, region of country, educational level, and yes, political party.

I certainly appreciate all of the historical analysis of evangelicalism and how it got where it is. To understand where it may be going we’re going to need new political definitions.

 

“Done” with Church: An Institutional Analysis

Earlier this week I posted a fictional retrospective from December 2015 on what I thought would be the big religious stories of the year. The first of these had to do with the “Rise of the Dones”: those people formerly heavily engaged in church who were now not attending. Over the next three days, my social media feeds seemed to keep sharing stories that affirmed my supposition.

A friend, a Christian college professor like me, shared a Huffington Post piece from late 2013 on “Why Nobody Wants to Go To Church Anymore” (his mother, who’s my age, affirmed the critique). Another friend shared this reflection by Alece Ronzino, which sounds similar themes to Addie Zierman’s book I reviewed here last year. Benjamin Corey wrote an excellent pair of articles explaining why he wasn’t fully at home with Progressive Christianity or with Evangelical Christianity. Yesterday I received an e-mail update from Univeristy of Northern Colorado sociologist Josh Packard, who has been collecting data on Dones. His site introduced me to Thom Schultz, who manages a website on Dones.

Whenever I see this kind of convergence of stories in a short period of time, I have two reactions. First, I affirm that that there is something here worth attending to. Second, I try to use my “sociological imagination” to see if can dig deeper as to what it going on.

In the midst of this barrage of stories, I was reading Andy Crouch’s Playing God. He builds the caPlaying Godse for a Christian, creative, view of power: one that is not zero-sum but ever expanding the flourishing of all impacted. I’ll write a more thorough review of this excellent book in the next couple of days.

In the middle of the book, Andy does some sociology. In fact, he offers one of the cleanest explanations of the sociological notion of “institution” I’ve ever read. His chapter should be excerpted for every Intro to Sociology text.

Using the image of football, Andy argues that institutions have cultural artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles. In other words, there are things (footballs, helmets, pads) which have a mandated use. There are places where the things are used (stadiums, vacant fields). There are rules which govern behavior (and systems for enforcing that expected behavior — football broadcasts now have “rules experts” that they call on to interpret what referees are thinking when evaluating those rules). Within the context of the artifacts, arenas, and rules, we have the actual roles people play (spectator, quarterback, offensive guard, strong safety, line judge). He also argues that institutionalization takes three generations (each generation is roughly 25 years) to establish, doing some nifty work with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Nearly everyone interested in the Dones is looking for a way to see them re-engage in the life of the church. In fact, so do many of the Dones. I want to see church be a meaningful experience where people draw closer to God in the midst of a supportive community. That’s my church at the top of the page and I have a vested interest to see people in that congregation who are free to be who they are as a part of the Body of Christ.

So it seemed natural to attempt to use Andy’s handles for institutions to try to make sense of what’s going on with the Dones. It’s easy to see how arenas have changed: many follow the megachurch model and have flashy sound systems, projection units, auditorium seating. One can see shifts in artifacts as we move from hymnals to choruses and from Bible studies to popular author video series. However, more fundamental are the changes in the rules and roles.

I wanted to be able to do something really cute with Andy’s three generation hypothesis but I can’t quite make the numbers work. I would still argue that the rules started shifting around 1980 and it may have taken a generation and a half for us to begin to recognize that those rule changes were dysfunctional. Let me quickly explore four changes.

The Moral Majority was officially formed in 1979 and operated throughout the 1980s. In its wake we found a sense that real RefereeChristians were those who held the “right” views (in both meanings of the word). This meant that part of the refereeing involved figuring out who was inside and who was out. If you were one who disagreed with the dominant view, it was a tough place to stay.

Willow Creek began meeting in the mid-1970s with a new set of operations: organizing services around reaching the unchurched. This meant changing the arena and the artifacts to reach a whole new group of “spectators” who were otherwise being missed. This is a commendable goal, but as it expanded to other settings, the role of faithful multi-generational member became harder to identify. (The Wikipedia page linked above lists the age based ministries at the church, the oldest of which is college aged.) As the focus on being “seeker sensitive” expanded, it left less room for the long-time churched.

At about the same period, popular preachers drilled home that being a Christian required absolute discipline (with little instruction on what that meant). I remember sitting in an adult Sunday School class on New Year’s Morning in the mid-80s where the teacher was talking about the discipline shown by football players in bowl games (didn’t talk about their off-field behavior) and challenging us to show that kind of discipline in our faith. All I could think of was that it was New Year’s morning and I was in Sunday School and that wasn’t enough. If the roles defined are beyond normal reach, people will disengage rather than continue to be yelled at. Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill are a bit of an anomaly but may be the exception that proves the rule — if you want to watch a pastor “tell it like it is” as a spectator, that may work for you but many others will leave.

Pee Wee FooballFinally, the over-professionalization of ministry roles has limited the space for “normal people” to be involved. The preaching pastor has his “teachings”. The worship leader manages the praise team to achieve a desired end. The children’s pastor makes sure that kids are entertained and learn valuable lessons. (It’s tempting to spend time on the death of sandlot football and how they have been replaced by Pee Wee youth leagues — same over-professionalization).

The result of these various shifts in institutional culture over the past generation and a half is that the role of congregant has shrunk in both importance and task. If it feels like people are spectators, it’s because that’s what the rules call for. If we want something else, we’ll need to rethink some institutional arrangements.

Maybe we could begin by making some rule changes that create space for creative engagement on the part of everyday followers of Jesus. If the arena was designed to make them the center of cultural activity perhaps the Dones would realize that they have far more to offer to the Body of Christ.

They haven’t given up. They just don’t want to play in the current arena. We should change it for the better.