Category: Just Plain Sociology

Why Am I Not the Leadership Journal Guy?

This week’s evangelical crisis comes as Leadership Journal, the Christianity Today publication for ministry leaders, put out a first-person story of a youth minister who used his position to exploit a teenaged girl in his care. That’s not the tone of the story. It’s about how he got “trapped in sin” (with references to King David). In fact, it’s a remarkably narcissistic piece with him at the center of all activity (which as Libby Anne observes, is told in passive voice).

I was aware that LJ posted the piece because my twitter feed was full of concern. Much of this was expressed by female bloggers (here’s an excellent example from Susannah Hartzell Paul that includes links to others). It really bothers me that males (with some notable exceptions like Micah Murray) were much too quiet. The fact that we weren’t all outraged is an indictment on the structures of patriarchy and power that lie at the root of the issue.

Today Karen Swallow Prior tweeted a simple question:

How old were you when an adult authority pursued you sexually? #howoldwereyou

The responses are heartbreaking even though Karen effectively uses twitter to show remarkable compassion to people reflecting on years of pain.

So why not me? What kept me from being the subject of someone’s tweet?:

I was 19 and taking a sociology class at a Christian College

Early in my career, I had a conversation with a colleague about the potential for sexual entanglement with a student. He had said that he always made sure to keep his door open where the administrative assistant could see him because he never knew when some coed might accuse him of inappropriate behavior.

I realized that being wrongfully accused wasn’t the real challenge. The real challenge was being guilty. Knowing that I could be vulnerable put me on edge. It made me pay attention to the dynamics of day to day relationships.

Over the course of my career, there have been several times where a connection with a student or colleague was different than normal. A student who really liked my classes and enjoyed dropping by the office at odd times. The colleague who seemed overly reliant on my emotional support when dealing with difficult colleagues (“no, you really are good”). The student who was clearly codependent to the point where I’d avoid extended contact. The student who flattered me with attention.

None of these situations ran the risk of developing into what the youth minister described. But I was always aware that they could have.

In nearly all of the cases above, I knew the woman well enough to know something of her family life. There were often issues with father estrangement. Even cases of emotional and potentially sexual abuse. There were usually issues with fractured self-esteem (not uncommon for bright young women in a Christian college).

Perhaps I’ve been gifted with a heightened sense of empathy. Or I overthink everything. Or I ponder consequences. Maybe all of these.

But I really think what protected me from predation was the realization that each of these women had been dealing with issues throughout her life. Serious stuff. And I could only see myself as the potential next guy in the long list of guys that had or would take advantage. I couldn’t be concerned about building people up in the Image of Christ while remaining oblivious to how I’d affect the appropriation of that image.

At the end of the day, I am responsible for my behavior and the impact I have on others. We are all part of each other’s stories. I simply cannot allow myself to be “that guy” that the woman would someday tell her friends, pastor, counselor, or spouse about.

Not because I’m perfect. But because I understand what power imbalances do to people, especially when those in power come to believe that we deserve it.

So I wind up outraged at this youth minister for being so arrogant and ignorant. For a church culture that so enables celebrity that no one would believe in wrongdoing until after the crisis is public. For the complacency of fellow evangelical males who don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

I always knew that there was risk and that I was responsible for dealing with it.

Today, my “office” is really a cubicle. I have no door and the thin walls go up six feet. I can hear every conversation on the floor in every other cubicle. But I still know that if I wanted to be irresponsible, I’d find a way.

It is only the love for the other’s journey that provides inoculation.

 

Pluralism in a Post-Christian Culture: A Defense of Bowdoin

BowdoinI’ve been working on this post for two days and find it’s one of the hardest I’ve dealt with. Probably because the risk of being misunderstood is so high and because readers may feel that I’m being insensitive to their beliefs. But since I haven’t been able to let it go, there’s nothing left but to plow ahead.

 
Monday’s New York Times had this story titled “Colleges and Evangelicals Clash on Bias Policy“. While part of the story was a rehash of issues arising in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court Decision allowing the Hastings College of Law to go forward with anti-discrimination language. But the trigger event for the story was a change at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. A private school of roughly 1800 students, Bowdoin’s Christian Fellowship will be disbanding because of the school’s expectations of student organizations.

In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

The last paragraph certainly captures the sentiments of InterVarsity, which has promoted the story heavily on social media. They have been sending out a quote from a student at Cal State Chico: “We’re not willing to water down our beliefs in order to be accepted.”

While actions like Bowdoin’s raise serious challenges for groups like InterVarsity and a number of other excellent campus ministries, I think the argument “in the eyes of evangelicals” that this is an attack on Christianity is misguided. There is something more significant at play illustrated by the contrast by the two paragraphs quoted above.

I am not alone in writing that we have entered a Post-Christian (I prefer Post-Constantinian) phase of American Society. This has profound implications for how Christians operate within that context, as David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw pointed out in their book. What we’re seeing is a social context operated according to purely secular principles. It’s easy to dismiss this as “political correctness” but  there’s something far deeper going on.

If you go to the Bowdoin web page and search for the rules for student organizations, you find the following:

Clubs cannot discriminate membership or leadership based on race, religion, age, ethnic or national origin, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, or income; exceptions for the gender requirement and physical ability requirement may be made if in direct alignment with the club’s express purpose and mission (emphasis mine).

I don’t know if this language about club charters has been recently changed or just newly enforced. But it is clear that it’s staking out a position that student organizations are for the benefit of all students. As such, no a priori exclusions in terms of leadership are allowed (that’s really the rub in this case). In other words, you can’t bar people from coming to club or applying for leadership roles based on the defined criteria. It doesn’t say that those people MUST be admitted into leadership but that discrimination is banned.

One of the responses I saw on Facebook asked about someone looking to be president of the math club who doesn’t do math. First, math ability isn’t one of the criteria listed. Second, that person is free to pursue leadership but won’t be selected.

InterVarsity also linked to this story about President Alec Hill’s participation in a forum on pluralism held by The Aspen Institute. Summarized in last years’ report, “Principled Pluralism: Report of the Inclusive America Project“, the project attempted to explore the changing nature of pluralism in American society. If you follow through the material, you’ll see that Hill’s presentation on the panel was something of a dissent from the rest of the presenters. The executive summary of the report, written by Madeleine Albright and David Gergen, concludes with this:

In the future, we risk deeper and potentially disastrous fragmentation if we do not remain true to our heritage as a diverse people united around certain core values—including respect for the rights and dignity of every human being.

That statement prioritizes diversity. The report does a good job of outlining a valuable role for religion (thanks to contributions from Eboo Patel, Richard Mouw, David Campbell, Jim Wallis, and a host of others) but it does so within the context of all participants without priveleging any.

Post-Constantinian society marks the end of a presumed privilege for positions of faith. It doesn’t mean that faith isn’t important. But it does mean that faith participates alongside other value systems, including secular small-d democratic principles like dignity, equality, and freedom for all.

This will likely mean that religious ministries at secular institutions may no longer operate as student organizations. It is why, in spite of George Will’s sentiments about collegiate responses to rape, we are paying more attention to the victimization of women. It’s why one-man-one-woman amendments are being struck down by state courts across the country.

In a post-constantian society, issues aren’t being contested on the basis of “belief” but on the basis of fair play and human dignity. There is a vital role for religious groups to play in the society but they will need to learn how to engage the questions being asked instead of the ones that they are comfortable answering.

 

Community and Conflict: My take on Schism and United Methodists

UMCI’ve been indebted to my Texas friend Richard Heyduck, who is not only reading my book, but periodically sharing bits of it on social media. This week, he pulled a passage out of chapter six which deals with community. The chapter is intended to articulate for students the complexities of building the kind of true community characterized in Paul’s writings. It borrows heavily from Scott Peck’s work (especially The Different Drum from 1987). Peck distinguishes between “Pseudocommunity” and the conflicting stages that lead to developing True Community. Richard shared this passage from the pseudocummunity section:

Surprisingly, a focus on emotionality, warmth, and belonging can actually inhibit the development of community. In a close setting, the primary focus of all members of the group is to smooth over differences by keeping them inside, avoiding conflict, and staying close to those others who already agree. The primary motivation is to maintain politeness.

Richard then pondered how this description could be applied to issues facing the United Methodist Church (news reports on potential schism or not are here, here, here, and here). The news stories describe how 80 United Methodist leaders from all five jurisdictions had released a statement saying schism was inevitable. This was followed by a larger group who signed a “Way Forwarddocument. The Book of Discipline makes clear that ministers officiating at same-sex marriages will be brought up on charges. This happened to Rev. Frank Schaeffer when he officiated at his son’s wedding (he was defrocked after a church trial). Following that case, other jurisdictions have announced that they will not bring charges in the future.

I am not a member of the clergy so some of these conflicts offer more sociological than personal interest. I defer to others who are attempting to find a way to handle the serious questions of same sex marriage in ways that take scripture seriously while offering compassion to all who seek after God. Two of my UMC social media friends have attempted to lay out paths forward (see Morgan Guyton and Zach Hoag).

But Richard’s original question has me thinking more carefully about Peck’s community stages. Pseudocommunity breaks in the face of what he calls Chaos. This is the stage where real differences come to light and where entrenched positions become exposed.

It is the most uncomfortable stage of community building. We find ourselves having to travel through the muck as a means of getting to better ground. If we persist, we move to what he calls Emptiness. In the words of Parker Palmer, “no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight.” It is only when we give up trying to control things that Community begins to emerge.

My chapter goes on to explore Bonhoeffer’s ideas in Life Together. Bonhoeffer makes clear that Community is God’s work and not ours. He suggests that building our idealized form of community is doomed to failure because we will force others into our ideal.

It strikes me that Peck’s approach to community, like that of Palmer and Bonhoeffer, is best illustrated by small groups with the possibility for interaction. While Peck does attempt to broaden his approach to large-scale organizations and even nation states in a later book, it becomes much harder to visualize than with small groups.

So how does this work for denominations? What does it mean to be part of an international association of churches organized around particular theological and ecclesiastical priorities?

I still think there is value in Peck’s four stages. But too often denominational groups (as well as churches, but that’s another post) see Chaos as the enemy. They want to find ways of maintaining Order and Control and do so in ways that run counter to Christian community.

German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies wrote that the major shift occurring in modernity was a move from social organization based on community (gemeinschaft)  to that based on contract (gesellschaft). In the former, we knew people in the town and the family and assumed the best of each other. In the latter, we need written agreements to insure proper behavior. The differences are profound. Community presumes that people will stay connected. Contracts are written to explain what happens in the case of breach.

General Assemblies are exercises in Gesellschaft. They stipulate procedures and protocols that are enacted by votes by majorities of representatives. Those become binding across the denomination. They are (relatively) successful in controlling behavior to insure Discipline (it’s the title of the manual, for goodness sake).

How else could denominations and churches proceed? Perhaps we could risk Chaos. Perhaps entering into Chaos allows the Spirit to move upon the waters. Yesterday, Karina Kreminski wrote a wonderful piece on the Missio Alliance blog titled “Taking the Spirit Seriously“. She writes:

Often the Spirit will lead us to places that we don’t want to go, teach us surprising things about God, turn our theology around, and give us experiences that we would perhaps rather not have. Have we domesticated the Spirit to the extent that we do not experience his ‘wild’ character in our lives and in our theology? The Holy Spirit does not bring us discomfort and disorientation for the sake of it, instead he turns us inside out so that we might be more aligned with the mission of God in our world. God knows how addicted humanity is to control and self direction, so the Spirit functions in our lives to bring us into line with God’s good purposes for us.

Brandon Robertson raised similar issues in his Revangelical blog. His piece is titled “Loving our (Theological) Enemies” and speaks to the difficulty of managing disagreements. In my terms, he’s writing about being willing to risk Chaos. His words echo Karina’s:

Because when we chose to love, fear is dispelled. When we chose to love, our hurts can be healed. When we chose to love, we humanize the “other” and see them as who they truly are- image bearers of God who are earnestly seeking to follow Him and proclaim truth. And when you begin to see your theological other like that, everything changes. If all of us chose to follow the Spirits calling and love our theological enemies, can you imagine the power? After all, if we believe that we do have the right perspective, then the way to make a convert certainly isn’t through condemnation. It’s to love.

Bonhoeffer argues that the very basis for community arises not from our politics and plans, our book of Discipline, or even our Orthodoxy. It comes, he says, from Jesus Christ:

We belong to him because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ. But if, before we could know and wish it, we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Jesus Christ, then we also belong to him in eternity with one another. He who looks upon his brother [sister] should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ. Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ.

So the challenge of avoiding schism doesn’t come from some accommodation or power moves or allowing regional variation. It comes from attending to the Spirit who is leading us to become that which Christ has called us to be. It’s hard, of course, but that’s what Jesus told the disciples the way forward looks like.

Twitter, Democracy, and UFOs

Manuel Castells, receiving the Balzan Prize (the sociological Nobel) in 2013
Manuel Castells, receiving the Balzan Prize (the sociological Nobel) in 2013

Another figure from my sociological theory class that influences my thinking is Manuel Castells (pictured). He is a professor of sociology and communications at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. His theoretical focus is on the nature of modern communication with special focus on the impact of technology. In short, he argues that access to communication avenues (namely internet driven) are disruptive to previous power structures. It’s unclear, he says, how this new democratic process will play out over time. But the role of technology (twitter, Facebook, etc) have clearly played a critical role in protest movements across the globe.

Castells has been on my mind frequently since I covered him in class last month. The implications of his thought echo every day when I try to follow the twitter “conversations” on my feed. The air quotes are there because it’s not clear if the intent is engagement or the repetition of a specific comment designed to score points. I was caught up in one of those interactions for a good part of yesterday afternoon and by the end of it had a hard time understanding where individual tweets fit into the conversation.

The other day I went to Castells’ web page at USC to look over his work. One article available for download caught my attention. Titled “Communication, Power, and Counter-Power in the Network Society“, it appeared in the International Journal of Communications in 2007. It’s an interesting piece (trust me) that says much about modern cable media and internet communication. I’ll quote some pieces from the article and then try to draw out implications.

I will also analyze the process of formation of counter-power, which I understand to be the capacity of a social actor to resist and challenge power relations that are institutionalized. Indeed, power relations are by nature conflictive, as societies are diverse and contradictory. Therefore, the relationship between technology, communication, and power reflects opposing values and interests, and engages a plurality of social actors in conflict. (239)

Two things are significant in this paragraph. First, there is a tension between institutionalized power and non-institutionalized power. Technology becomes essentially disruptive to the dominance (the technical term is hegemony) of the institutional authorities. Second, where in the past we’ve had two party conflict (think classic Marxian thought of owners and workers) now we have multifaceted sources of conflict. This multiplicity of voices can often get mistakenly read in dualistic terms when something far more interesting is going on. Modern technological conversation may be more like classic New England town meetings that the bimodal world of cable news programs.

The communication system of the industrial society was centered around the mass media, characterized by the mass distribution of a one-way message from one to many. The communication foundation of the network society is the global web of horizontal communication networks that include the multimodal exchange of interactive messages from many to many both synchronous and asynchronous. (246)

The key words in this passage are “horizontal” and “multimodal”. Communication streams are occurring rapidly with multiple conversations occurring at the same time or with conversations resurfacing into new dialogue. I just saw someone retweet a comment from April. That tweet is re-introduced into a new dialogue to make a point or restart an earlier dialogue. The horizontal is important because it speaks to the equalizing force of modern media. You may be a power-broker in institutional life but I have my 140 characters and my tweet gets out there regardless.

And it is self-generated in content, self-directed in emission, and self-selected in reception by many that communicate with many. We are indeed in a new communication realm, and ultimately in a new medium, whose backbone is made of computer networks, whose language is digital, and whose senders are globally distributed and globally interactive.

Castells uses the prefix “self” three times in that sentence. The essence of this new form of communication is personal expression (earlier he calls it “electronic autism”). This is where attempts to label other participants as heretics, hypocrites, or heathen becomes problematic. People writing on the internet are attempting to communicate their thought processes (often while still in flux). But we tend to treat the written word as fixed text, not the exploration of ideas.

The emergence of mass self-communication offers an extraordinary medium for social movements and rebellious individuals to build their autonomy and confront the institutions of society in their own terms and around their own projects. Naturally, social movements are not originated by technology, they use technology. But technology is not simply a tool, it is a medium, it is a social construction, with its own implications. Furthermore, the development of the technology of self- communication is also the product of our culture, a culture that emphasizes individual autonomy, and the self-construction of the project of the social actor. (249)

There are clearly individuals who use social media to critique established institutions. There are others who simply ask their questions they don’t feel free to ask within the institutional context. Still others use social media like defensemen in a hockey game (it’s on in the background as I’m writing), assisting the institutional powers and putting the metaphorical puck back in play. What Castells catches, however, is that the democratizing impact of the medium allows for shifting definitions. There is a process of social construction operating through which people attempt to find collective understanding.

This is where the UFOs from the title come in. One of my favorite articles in the sociology of religion was written in the 1970s about a UFO cult then operating in Oregon (sadly, it turned out to be the Heaven’s Gate group who committed suicide in San Diego following the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet). The sociologists (Balch and Taylor) interviewed adherents who said they felt supported by the group and its leaders but didn’t buy the UFO stuff. They then said that the researchers couldn’t tell anyone that they had doubts. Many adherents repeated the same warning.

One of the dynamics of modern internet communication is that individuals are free to share what they think outside the dynamics of institutional sanctions. This is consistent with the central argument I’ve been making about testimony vs industry evangelicalism. The dynamic of self-expression is important to identity while it is simultaneously destabilizing institutional power.

Therefore, not only public space becomes largely defined in the space of communication, but this space is an increasingly contested terrain, as it expresses the new historical stage in which a new form of society is being given birth, as all previous societies, through conflict, struggle, pain, and often violence. New institutions will eventually develop, creating a new form of public space, still unknown to us, but they are not there yet. (258)

Here’s where all this leaves me. Twitter and Facebook have no mediating mechanisms. There are no referees who say “that was out of line” or “you’ve missed her point“. There are no structures to bring people together for dialogue (although I loved that someone suggested we start a kickstarted campaign to fund dinner for four for two competing twitter figures and their spouses!). Castells’ last sentence is timely. We need new forms of public space that allow the positive attributes of democratic, multi-vocal, authentic forms of communication without resort to power moves.

Until those forms develop, we’ll need to show the discipline to offer Grace one to another.

The Sociology of Institutional Repentance

This idea has been kicking around in my head for about half a year. I first raised the question of institutional or structural apologies in a post last October I called Sorry About That . I wrote:

This got me wondering if our inability to apologize for past institutional action is related to a number of problems in contemporary society. Is it possible that the disaffection of millennials from the established church is, at least in part, because they are longing for the church to take responsibility for her past insensitivity and judgmentalism? Is the anger of the Tea Party due, at least in part, to an inability of the Congress over the last 30 years to take responsibility for its lack of long-range thinking? Is our economic crisis in part a reaction to the inability of the mortgage lenders to own up to the fact that they gamed the system and almost destroyed the economy?

I’ve raised the issue of institutional confession and repentance with several theology or biblical studies colleagues. In general, people have said that it’s an interesting question that needs exploration. I look forward to hearing from those who can help me work through the question.

For now, I’ll simply use some sociological tools to explore why the idea of institutional repentance is so important. This week has provided four critical examples where institutional repentance is the only feasible response: Ta-Neisi Coates’ Atlantic article, the unfolding saga at Sovereign Grace Ministries (#IStandwithSGMVictims), new revelations about “normal life” at Mars Hill in Seattle, and the aftermath of the UCSB mass shooting (#YesAllWomen).

GiddensSir Anthony Giddens is one of my favorite sociological theorists. I was struck by his insights the first time I heard him in 1983. Shortly thereafter, he wrote The Constitution of Society, the first overarching explication of his theoretical perspective. The theory revolves around a remarkable idea — social structures and personal action form a duality. Each reproduces the other.

The structures that we live within impact the way we think and how we talk about our options. When we discuss potential actions and motivations, we react to the structural arrangements in which we’re located. But our actions also create fractures in the structures. The choices we make and the explanations we use can shape the structures for the future. But that depends upon a critical sociological and political variable: Power.

One of the ways power is exercised is in the definition of appropriate behavior and, by contrast, inappropriate behavior. As the “powers that be” define behavior, they can reshape understandings away from structural power toward individual choice.

This is the primary takeaway from Ta-Neisi Coates’ excellent article. While it is titled “The Case for Reparations“, it really makes the argument that structural arrangements favored an array of economic and political relationships that defined African Americans as not only having limited choices, but as feeling trapped by those choices. The legitimate structural arrangements of society shaped outcomes for individuals. Those same structural arrangements prefer a cultural argument to explain the presence of economic inequality. Coates argues, using both historic and modern examples, that the myriad ways in which African American outcomes are shaped is a direct result from the structural dynamics of the society. After a detailed description of confiscatory practices of redlining, predatory contract practices, and subprime mortgages, he suggests that there was a conscious attempt to deny African Americans of the assets associated with home ownership. And the pattern continues:

In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Too many commentators simultaneously do two things that perpetuate these outcomes. First, the decry claims of racism by assuming that “the race card” is an accusation of personal bigotry to which they take great offense. Then, they claim that we shouldn’t pay attention to race (as recent Supreme Court decisions attest). So there is no particular means to address the existing structural inequality.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King talks of being given a check marked “insufficient funds“. The reference is fascinating: the promises made in the Declaration of Independence were not fulfilled. There are echoes of reparations in that very speech. For us to focus only on the visionary closing of the speech is to perpetuate the structural inequality. Where were the people who would say, “that’s right, we did that“. Who calls out intentional practices of segregation? (Incidentally, Randall Balmer had a fascinating piece in Politico today about the relationship between segregation and rise of the religious right.)

Somewhere, we need to acknowledge the sinfulness of the structural arrangements. We need to find ways of structurally repenting. This may not be reparations, but it must be something. At the very least, it is to tell the truth about wrongs (dare I say sins?).

It’s hard for us to think about collective repentance. It’s so ingrained in religious culture to focus on personal responsibility, individual appropriation of Christ’s sacrifice, and personal reordering of priorities. But since reading the Brueggemann book I referenced in my last post, I’ve been focused more on the history of Ancient Israel. I have come to realize that the instructions given to the people from the prophets or from The Lord are societal instructions. Repentance isn’t just a matter of a collection of individuals who turn from bad practices. It’s the fabric of society  — not that they were very good at it, which is actually part of my point.

What’s disturbing about the Sovereign Grace story is the idea that we would protect religious leaders from accusation and demonize accusers. What is problematic about Mars Hill is the elevation of loyalty above conscience. What’s upsetting about the UCSB shootings is the twin assumptions of male acquisition and female vulnerability within the broader society.

These patterns are not simply the poor choices of bad actors. They reflect the systems of expectations, rewards, power maintenance, and ideologies that are woven into our institutional patterns. We can isolate the bad actor but that doesn’t bring about institutional repentance.

Institutional Repentance will require us to name our practices, to turn from our past patterns (especially if we feel individually blameless), and to imagine new forms that allow us to “go and sin no more“.

“Millennial Deniers”

NextAmerica_3d_260x260I have been focused on millennials for several years now. In part, it’s an outgrowth of what I do for a living. Teaching Christian college students over three decades, I’ve been aware of how their interests and positions have shifted over time.

As I’ve examined these shifts sociologically, I’ve been struck by how a number of different sources seem to converge in telling separate aspects of a larger story. There is the perspective of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who sees the 20s as a period of Emerging Adulthood. This correlates with changing attitudes toward sexuality and later ages of marriage. It corresponds with a remarkable increase among millennials in likely to report no religious affiliation and a decline in traditional religious commitment. It shows up in the polling from Gallup and Pew that shows a truly remarkable shift in millennial attitudes toward same-sex marriage even over a two year time span. It shows up in David Kinnaman’s work on the previously religious who see the church as overly judgmental, anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-doubt. It shows up in a generation whose economic prospects look very different from early generations, who may live at home for a season, but who seem more optimistic about future. It shows up in a generation that is more digitally adept than any before it, sifting information from a variety of sites and testing claims (even fact-checking sermons!).

As David Kinnaman puts it, this generation is “discontinuously different“. That difference deserves to be taken seriously.

So it baffles me when I read articles from leading religious figures arguing that there really isn’t anything to these differences. Or, if there are differences, it’s because the church has not been sufficiently firm on key issues. I saw a tweet today from Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention saying “the myth of the Liberal Evangelical Millennial is exactly that.” Others have pointed out that this depends upon what the meaning of liberal is (or, what the meaning of Evangelical is).

I grant that evangelical millennials don’t exactly mirror their general millennial peers in the issues I summarized above. By and large, they will skew somewhat more traditionally. But they are responding to the same social patterns, internet presence, and general anti-institutionalism the entire generation is responding to.

Here’s another example. Earlier this month, Rob Swartzwalder wrote a piece called “Why Younger Evangelicals Are Leaving the Church: Some Arguments Against the Conventional Wisdom“. To his credit, he recognizes that there has been some backlash among millennials against overreaching statements by conservative leaders. He also observes (quoting Bradley Wright) that we’ve seen younger people leave institutions before. He responds to a straw argument in a piece Carol Howard Merritt wrote four years ago about the impacts of sexism, intolerance, and conservatism. But he centers in on other reasons why evangelical youth might be leaving the church.

1. Evangelical churches try so hard to be palatable and relevant that we become distasteful and irrelevant.

2. Evangelical leaders too often don’t preach/teach on the essential doctrines of Scripture because of their lack of confidence in the power of God’s Word to transform and because they don’t want to offend.

3. Evangelicalism has failed to articulate and advance the biblical view of human sexuality.

4. Our youth have been raised in an era in which personal autonomy is seen as the greatest good and in which revealed truth is seen as malleable.

In short, the solution to preparing today’s evangelical millennials to be faithful Christians is to go back to old separatist patterns of rhetoric.

I just finished Paul Taylor’s The Next America (pictured). Taylor, president of the Pew Research Center, summarizes a vast array of data on the generational differences separating the four living generations in America: Silents, Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. One of the subtexts of the book is the inherent competition between Boomers and Millennials, especially in terms of economics, jobs, and social security.

He distinguishes, as do many excellent sociologists, between three different factors shaping generational differences: Life Cycle Effects, Period Effects, and Cohort Effects. For example, the first looks at how all 18 year olds of any era handle transition from parental structures. The second, looks at pivotal events that affected all generations (e.g., JFK assassination, Moon landing, 9/11). The third, which is his primary focus, examines how the social milieu surrounding a generation coming of age differs from those that came before.

Taylor’s book is very good. While we won’t have a great war over social security (because relationships trump policy for millennials), there are intractable changes afoot. And like social security, this will pit Boomer priorities against Millennial priorities.

If we keep characterizing this as a zero-sum game, there will be no winners. Instead we’ll see increasing populations shifting into the “religious none” category (which has lost its social opprobrium).

Why would religious leaders be so interested in denying the reality of millennial change? I’d suggest a couple of reasons.

First,  having denied the ways in which the church has responded to culture in the past, they hold an exaggerated view of constancy. I’d argue that the entire “seeker-sensitive” movement was a direct response to the suburbanization of baby boomers who weren’t affiliated with evangelical churches. To legitimize millennial culture change is threatening to worldview arguments. It confuses life cycle effects with the other factors.

Second, their view of orthodoxy is maintained by stereotyping the younger generation rather than engaging it. I don’t know exactly what Moore meant by Liberal Evangelicals. With such a fuzzy label, he may be speaking of some group other than the evangelical millennials I know on the internet and in real life. But rhetorically, he’s able to say “they aren’t all like that” without responding to the very real shifts that are going on.

Third, as I’ve been writing for some time, the millennial generation privileges relationship over abstract principle. This embrace of diversity is disruptive to systematic approaches to apologetics. Hence, the retreat to slippery slope arguments. This is the key to the cohort effect.

I’m the first to admit that millennials are a diverse bunch. “They really aren’t all like that.” But their understanding of and commitment to diversity is the secret to their strength. It is in the messiness of that variability that God is moving.

To my colleagues who are concerned about excesses of the millennial generation, I beg you to engage the dialogue in open ways and leave behind the stereotyping and demagoguery for authentic engagement. I hear some of my evangelical millennial colleagues calling for that kind of open dialogue that leaves behind labeling and name-calling. This is a very encouraging sign and provides us with an opportunity to be the church at work.

 

A Follow-up to Yesterday’s Civil Religion Post

There was something about yesterday’s post that felt unfinished. It’s bugged me ever since I hit the “publish” button. So I thought it was worth exploring a little more about what I’m thinking (besides, I have papers to grade and this is more fun).

There were two concepts in the post that I used and didn’t quite do justice to either. I began talking about civil religion in the way that Robert Bellah used it in the 1960s and others have used it since. It specifically deals with quasi-religious beliefs about the nation. There are ideas that God is on our side, that there’s some kind of divine destiny for the country, and so on. This is part of our nationalist celebrations at baseball games — “God Bless America/Land that I Love/Stand Beside Her and Guide Her/Thru the Night with the Light From Above” (written by the Christian Patriot, Irving Berlin!). It’s a vague sense of Exceptionalism with religious overtones.

I think some of the nostalgia imbedded in today’s political and religious rhetoric is an attempt to harken back to a time when Irving Berlin’s words were shared by all in the society. But that time never existed. Besides I have no idea what the lyric is supposed to mean! Does God Stand Beside America in ways different than he stands beside Canada? (Erik Parker, that was for you!)

So what I’m picking up with the slightly-incorrect usage of civil religion is the way in which our social assumptions about the world get “sacralized”. They take on religious tones and let us believe that we are acting for God because he would certainly support our values. This is Emile Durkheim’s take on religion in modern form.

It’s also what’s happening when we overlay religious imagery on top of existing social patterns. That’s the definition of my other concept: syncretism. Syncretism is well known to church historians and missionaries. We celebrate certain holidays when we do because the early church repurposed pagan holidays. Some aspects of Christianity in non-Western lands intermingle Christian faith with indigenous traditions.

This is what happens when we assume America is a Christian nation. We take existing patterns of behavior and bless them with the light from above. It brings me back to the polling data I mentioned. For decades, large majorities of the American public have reported a belief in God. But that belief is very diffuse, even more than Christian Smith’s Moral Therapeutic Deism. I’d argue that it’s much closer to the Alcoholics Anonymous 2nd step (“believing in a higher power however you define it”).

Whether we’re talking about church as a central community institution or fighting about the latest Christian outrage on Facebook, we’re dealing with one of these two concepts. We are either celebrating free-floating definitions of what it means to be Christian or we’re Christianizing secular patterns.

The Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom of God requires that we get much better at distinguishing between God’s Story and the revisions we keep writing. Our version may make us far more comfortable and provide justification in light of changing social conditions, but it’s an exercise in either civil religion or syncretism. We have to do better if we are going to be the witnesses we are called to be.