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Singing Canaries: Why the Church Needs Millennials

Canaries

The “millennials and church” conversation continues. That’s a good thing. But it’s not an easy matter to work through.

If, somehow,  you haven’t been aware of  this discussion, ten days ago Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece titled “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” on CNN’s Belief Blog. It summarized recent data on religious affiliations (or lack thereof) among today’s under-30 population. While what she summarized wasn’t new (this data has been around for several years), her post seemed to focus attention in new ways. I lost track of the number of people who jumped into the fray from various perspectives. I was one of those and was grateful that a number of people found last week’s post helpful. Thanks to Rachel in particular for sharing the post with her readers.

My argument was that the disaffection of millennials with organized religion will portend how the church interacts with society in the coming decades. The millennials are, I argued, the “canary in the mine” that lets miners know the air is bad and they are in danger.

This weekend, Rachel posted a follow-up on CNN’s page. This one is called “Why Millenials Need the Church” It’s a nice addition to the first piece and points to the ways in which congregational participation, particularly in celebrating the sacraments, can counter some of the angst and excess of the millennial life.

When this weekend’s piece came out, I suggested to Rachel that there was a logical third piece for her to write: Why the church needs millennials. She agreed but said that people might be tired of the topic by then. She may well be right. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I hope she writes her piece. In the meantime, here’s mine.

So my metaphor last week was about the canary in the mine. Kind of a sad story. We need to keep watch and if the canary dies, then we had all run away.

But most of the time canaries don’t live in mines. They live where birds live — in the wild or in a nice cage in someone’s house. And they can be trained to sing. If you don’t know canary song, here’s a handy YouTube video .

If I’m going to think of Millennials as canaries, I have to listen to their song. It’s just possible that what they are “singing” is something that will strengthen the church in the coming decades rather than weaken it. If we listen.

In the midst of all the “what about millennials?” dialogue this week, I got a tweet from Zack Hunt (check his stuff out at http://theamericanjesus.net/ — it’s really good). Zack was announcing that the movie Saved! was now streaming on Netflix. I had watched it years ago, but thought it would be a good time for  a repeat.

SavedThe movie, made in 2004, is set at American Eagle Christian School (love the overlap with patriotism or consumerism, whichever you prefer). The students at this evangelical school are good, well-meaning Christian kids. Most of them, anyway. There’s the jewish girl who attends because she was thrown out of everywhere else and the wheelchair bound slacker who isn’t sure what he believes.

The story revolves around two girls: Hillary Fay and Mary. Hillary Faye is the top-notch girl who overChristianizes everything — it’s Mean Girls in Christian school. Mary is your average kid, part of HF’s band (literally) who gets pregnant (because she was trying to cure her gay boyfriend). The movie revolves around issues of judgmentalism, hypocrisy, mistakes, forgiveness, grace. There’s is a clueless mother,  over-eager principal Skip, and Skip’s son back from his missionary tour in skateboard ministries.

Here’s the surprising thing. The movie never makes fun of Christianity. It does point out Hillary Faye’s control issues (which stem from past trauma) and Skip’s temptations. But those characters are seen as evangelicals who don’t quite get it. They are sympathetic and you hope they learned from their experiences.

Mary doesn’t abandon her faith or her friends and she has a baby at the end of the movie. Everyone seems happy, mostly.

I realized that Saved! is the early version of the Millenials and church story. While the authors of the screenplay are too old, they capture the contrast between issues of a complex world and the controlled environment of AECS. The movie got me thinking more about what millennials bring to church that my generation needs to hear. (There are blogs I’ve read in recent weeks that illustrate all these points, but many are far too personal to simply link to).

1.  Millennials know that family situations are complicated. I’m continually amazed at how commonplace it is to learn that one of my Christian university students is dealing with a parental divorce. Or managing the two-families that resulted from the earlier divorce. Or have dealt with some form of abuse at the hands of loved ones. As much as the church wants to “family-friendly”, we know that the broader culture isn’t. Millenials can help the church learn to deal with the complexity of family life in addition to happy couple study groups.

2. Millennials know people who struggle with tough issues in life: drugs and alcohol abuse, depression, ostracism, homelessness, poverty, suicidal thoughts. Because they are such a digital group, they remain connected to people my generation lost along the way. When we talk about abstractions like substance abuse, they know people’s stories. We need to hear those stories, as painful as they are. It helps our theology.

Because they’ve grown up in an era where all those issues are out in the open rather than talked about in hushed tones (or, like Hillary Faye, under the guise of prayer concerns) they can help us deal with the reality of the situation instead of how we might imagine things to be.

3. They’re culturally aware. I confess that I didn’t see Saved! when it first came out. I assumed it was attacking religion. But today’s generation sees beyond the reactionary elements of popular culture and finds the moral story within. The Christianity Today film reviews by folks like Alissa Wilkinson (this one is a good example) are able to sort through complex stories and find the important messages influencing modern society. Millenials will help us navigate a rapidly changing cultural landscape in which subcultural isolation is unsustainable.

4. They are politically and socially diverse. They see a range of viewpoints on many issues. Some are more narrowly defined (abortion, for example), But others reflect a breadth of perspectives. Embracing that breadth can help the church avoid assuming everyone fits in narrow categories.

5. They are searching for a theology that works. Even if that means dealing with issues we’ve been avoiding (see #1). They aren’t anti-Bible. They want the Bible to inform their lives in the midst of a complicated world. They could help churches reaching out to a religiously ambiguous society find value in God’s story without proof-texting everything to death.

6. They bring a social compassion that is unmatched. They expect to change the world. We need them doing so in our circles, helping us learn about sex trafficking, invisible children, inner-city poverty, violence and hopelessness. That’s not an addition to our Sunday worship — it’s directly connected to Kingdom thinking.

Since getting involved in the whole “what about millennials” discussion, I’ve been aware that there are those voices who say that this is simply a natural sociological trend of 20-somethings breaking from institutional religion until their families get settled. Others have observed that the losses among evangelicals are fairly low (at least so far). I can give my reasons for why I don’t think that’ the case but I won’t do so here. Maybe another day. It may take a decade to know who’s right anyway.

What I do know is that today’s generation has a great deal to offer today’s church. I’m much rather engage them in meaningful ways that simply wait to see if they come back in 2023.

Sharper than a Two-Edged Sword

[Written as my July contribution to the American Evangelicalism project at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on “Evangelicals and the Modern Study of Scripture.“]

My fellow essayists this month have raised some interesting questions. What are the logical limitations of inerrancy? Are these important? What makes many evangelicals skittish about modern biblical scholarship? Are there valuable lessons to learn? What does it mean to “stand under” the text? Why is understanding original language important? How do we recognize the role of culture in biblical text while guarding against the tendency to read scripture only through our own cultural lenses?

This essay will explore the ways in which many evangelicals use scripture as a rhetorical weapon. In short, scripture is too often used as a conversation-ender and not a means of hearing God speak to all listeners. This rhetorical stance is relatively new in Church history and has distorted the meaning of scriptural authority. In the process, the scripture has become a tool to use on behalf of a position rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to deeper understandings.

The title of my post comes from Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (NASB).” This verse, along with others I’ll explore, provides insights into how evangelicals USE the scripture. I have often heard people quote this verse as a declaration of the Bible’s authority. Never mind that commentaries describe the broader Hebrews 4 passage as being about sabbath-keeping as instructed in the Law. The phase “word of God” becomes synonymous with the Bible and any verse is then a tool used to divide soul and spirit or judge hearts.

Yesterday, Christianity Today posted this story announcing that YouVersion had achieved the 100 million mark in downloads of this popular bible-based mobile app. They also released their newest list of the most popular verses sent via text or twitter or posted as a Facebook status. CT expressed concern that John 3:16 didn’t make the list. The most popular verses were Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11.

First of all, the very idea of something called YouVersion is the absolute epitome of the Extreme Individualism which has so colored American Evangelicalism. The scriptures thereby become MY possession, readily available for me to use as necessary. It is just that much easier for my to take these verses and make them about promises TO ME.

Jeremiah 29:11 reads “For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future (NIV).”  In spite of all the gifts we give to high school graduates anticipating college and beyond, this verse is written to the people of Israel collectively. Too often, we take the verse as a stand-alone tool to give comfort in anxiety or to somehow make prosper into a guarantee of riches to those who are obedient.

Biblical scholarship would have us recognize the specific role Jeremiah’s words of comfort played to the exiled Israelites. It’s a promise to God’s people collectively not to me individually. As Andre the Giant says in The Princess Bride, “I do not think that means what you think it means.

The YouVersion list illustrates something very important about evangelicals’ use of scripture. We really don’t know much about the Bible at all. That has been regularly demonstrated in research by Stephen Prothero and many others. Modern biblical scholarship that looks for the context of the biblical narrative isn’t particularly interesting to the folks who’d be attracted to YouVersion.

I’ve often joked that it would be interesting to put together the list of verses most often repeated by evangelicals (so I guess I should thank the YouVersion people). It’s an easy list — Proverbs 3:4-5 (used by Nic Wallenda in walking across the Grand Canyon), Psalm 139:13, Romans 8:28, Romans 5:23, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 5:22, Isaiah 6, Revelation 3:20, and many others including the verses mentioned above. I figure I could publish the Real Evangelical Version is about 22 pages!

So where does this approach to scripture come from? I think it’s based on a misunderstanding of biblical authority combined with a utilitarian view of evangelistic argument.

The latter is a direct expression of enlightenment era rationality. It’s caught up in the phrases”evidence that demands a verdict” and “God said it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me.” In this sense, scripture is a tool to use. Because it’s God’s Word, it automatically trumps any other appeals. A sword is valuable when it is used, either offensively or defensively.

Fundamentalism has reset definitions so that the only view of biblical authority seems to require a belief in inerrancy. This was a point of conflict at one of my colleges when we thought we’d done a good thing by emphasizing the commitment to the authority of scripture as core institutional values. The immediate response from students and other conservative critics was that we ought to immediately fire the non-creationist faculty members because that’s what authority demands.

Justin Barnard’s post makes great use of C. S. Lewis. I was already thinking about how different Lewis’ rhetorical style in Mere Christianity is from the style of modern apologists. How many scriptures are cited in MC? Why doesn’t his argument include the obvious top ten list from YouVersion?

Not to make C.S. Lewis the model for evangelical rhetoric. Many others have observed his own limitations. But it’s striking that we use that sword as a tool that makes folks in Game of Thrones seem passive.

John’s gospel recounts how Peter responded at the point of Jesus’s arrest. Peter draws a sword and attacks the guard. Jesus rebukes Peter and restores the ear. Shortly thereafter, as he is being interrogated by Pilate, Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place (John 1:36 NIV).

As Amos Young observes, maybe attentiveness to the Spirit can lead to a new rhetorical style, one that seeks to engage the other rather than winning argument. I’m reminded of the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus. They knew their scriptures and had a means of understanding them leading them to believe their side was winning. Now Jesus was dead and their understanding was shattered. When they encounter Jesus on the road, they stop worrying about what they thought. He leads them to understand all of scripture in a new way. Not only are they restored, but they reverse course and return to the scary place that was Jerusalem.

As they follow the Spirit’s lead, the wind up not needing a sword after all. Because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, they don’t have a need to fight. Modern biblical scholarship, in this view, is not a threat but another means through which the Holy Spirit bears witness.

Emile Durkheim Likes “Man of Steel”

Fourth of July we went to see Man of Steel with our son and daughter-in-law. Overall, a good retelling of the the Superman legend with some interesting twists. I particularly liked the flashback scenes where young Clark learns the power of his special gifts and struggles with not-fitting-in; an awful thing for a teen, even if you are a superhero. And I didn’t hate Kevin Costner!


Crowe

I was a bit leery to see the movie because the previews had made a great deal of the Messiah references. Every time Russel Crowe speaks as Jor-El, you learn that Clark was supposed to be the model who would tell humans how to live. He came from another place and had powers that nobody understood. His family crest means Hope. And he came to earth but they didn’t understand him.

The backstory of Krypton was particularly telling. The planet had not cared for its environment and had so overused their natural resources the planet was destroyed from the inside out.

A critical point of the story is the presence of the Codex. All babies born on Krypton were genetically developed to fulfill specific roles: soldier, scientist, politician, etc. It’s a remarkably rigid class structure. There was no individual choice as General Zod observed — all he knew was to be a soldier for that’s what he was created to be.

Superman (Kal-El) was different. He was born in freedom because his birth was unlike anyone else’s (miraculous?) — apparently his parents made a baby the old fashioned way that no one had successfully done in hundreds of years. Somehow the entire Codex was merged into Kal-el’s genes so that he individually represented all aspects of Krypton society. It survives in him even though the planet doesn’t survive.

I won’t give away the rest — although Lois Lane is there,  Superman doesn’t die, and the military is inept. (One surprise is that something made Larry Fishburne really heavy unless I was supposed to be watching in HD!)

The contrast between Superman and General Zod made me think of Emile Durkheim and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Using Marcel Mauss’ data on Australian Aboriginals, Durkheim observed the overlap of community (clan) values with those reproduced through religious ritual. Through some detailed analysis, he comes to his conclusion that “Religion is Society Worshipping Itself.”

I’ve always explained to my students that while I don’t hold to Durkheim’s analysis with regard to Christianity, we must be vigilant against the elevation of cultural values to sacred realms.

It’s interesting, then, that the backstory of Krypton is between class immobility and the freedom to be fully human. When we create a Messiah-type of Superman, the language we use in describing him is about hope and freedom, individual achievement, overcoming obstacles, and being able to use your gifts for good. That’s set against the no-choice, bull-headed, selfish, brutal Zod (not his fault — he was created that way and can’t be anything else).

The Messiah imagery breaks down at several points. Russel Crowe isn’t a creator per se. The love interest is well done (interesting that Amy Adams is way smarter and braver than Margot Kidder in the original). And there is a key point where Superman tells a minister that he’s the guy they’re all looking for (after Zod gives his “Surrender Dorothy” message to the world) and there are huge stained glass images of Jesus.

But the Messiah imagery DOES work as a Durkheimian Civil Religious symbol. Superman is the expression of American ideals set against a totalitarian vision. His shows us what it means to be free and the pursue individuality even at the expense of all the innocent victims in the streets and in the buildings that were destroyed.

There were a number of media reports about the religious connection. Tom Krattenmaker did this interview on how the movie was promoted to evangelical churches. But it strikes me that more insidious than the direct Christ-parallel story is the substitution of American individualism, which is then somehow morphed into a Christ figure. The implication is that Christ would celebrate the individualism represented in Russel Crowe’s vision. As Durkheim would suggest, we’ve made our religious figures endorsers of our values — thereby worshipping ourselves.

And I still thought the movie was pretty good. Miles better than The Lone Ranger, which had too many holes to analyze.

Worship Is Aligning With Those in Need

(This is my second post for The Despised Ones synchroblog. This month’s topic is about solidarity — what does it mean to truly identify with others? Check out all of the blogs on this Facebook Page)

I’ve never been a follower of Christian Worship Music. I can’t tell you who the best new voices are. I don’t even listen to the Christian Radio station my university sponsors. My knowledge is limited to the praise choruses sung in my local congregation.

It’s not that I’m stuck on traditional hymns. It’s true that I’m 58 and remember many great hymns of the church. But I also remember some that weren’t very good and a few that were terrible.

A variety of things have gotten me thinking a lot about the assumptions involved in Contemporary Christian Worship. I’m hopeful that readers who know the history and theological foundations of the movement can help fill in gaps in my understanding.

So these are nothing more than some reflections from an evangelical sociologist of religion. But I think they point out the challenges we have achieving a sense of solidarity with those outside the church.

1. It’s curious to me that Worship has become bounded by a particular set of rituals, time commitments, and performances. This is a relatively new phenomenon (dating to the late 60s) and become normative in modern evangelicalism. We have a “time” for Worship, which is set apart from the preaching of the Word.

2. There’s a curious connection between the excessive self-focus on American society and the Worship choruses. Many of them contain phrases encouraging the people in the congregation to set themselves aside and bracket the experiences of life in order to focus exclusively on worshipping God. But the critical work is done by ME being aware that I’m giving everything up to worship.

3. In the same way, the choruses reflect an unusual tendency to focus on singular pronouns. It’s rare that a chorus is sung AS the church but as a collection of INDIVIDUALS who happen to be singing next to one another. As a result, we miss the opportunity for solidarity with fellow congregants as the exercise calls us to focus inward. This is especially annoying when the praise song is based upon a scripture verse that was written to the People of Israel or the Church in Philippi.

4. Our worship is necessarily a vertical expression of Love for God but rarely is that matched with the command Jesus said was like it, to love the neighbor as oneself. The horizontal dimension is almost never expressed.

5. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is a sense in which the subtext of our singing borders on a celebration of the fact that we have the secret decoder ring that others don’t know they’re missing. Too many of the worship songs have a tad too much triumphalism and self-reference for me to be comfortable.

6. The sermon yesterday made reference to “building a mission at the Gates of Hell”, which I have to admit came from a Christian musician years ago. As I bounced this off the first five points, it made me wonder where God’s interest was. Does God celebrate our devotional focus if it comes at the neglect of those around us?

7. I guess what I’m calling for is for worship expressions built around care for the orphan, widow, and stranger. What if our singing was about how God is redeeming all of creation and that we are mysteriously partners in that endeavor? Has anyone ever written a praise chorus around Matthew 25?

I know that many good Christians take great solace in their praise songs. It’s helped a number of folks deepen their devotional life. And as I said above, there are lots and lots of hymns and gospel songs that run afoul of my above points.

But I still wonder what would happen if our worship to God was seen as an expression of love for those at the Gates of Hell.

“I believe that children are our future…”

So sang Whitney Houston in 1986. The song, “The Greatest Love of All” is actually about self-actualization: Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

But I want to stay with the opening refrain. Not just that it is tautological — children will be future adults and the absence of any children means that the race has no future. But that we jump through hoops in social policy to ask “But what about the children?

Or sometimes we ask. About some children.

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision on the unconstitutionality of DOMA, many critics have suggested that we are no longer caring for the children. They point out that “research” shows that children are healthier when raised in homes with two parents: the biological mother and father.

There is good social science literature that supports such claims. A quick Google search led me to a nice summary article written last year. But that article, like most of the research on two-parent families, has nothing to do with same-sex marriage or adoption by gay couples or single adults. It contrasts intact families — that is, still in the initial marriage — with single parents, reconstituted families, or cohabiting parents. When we make that comparison, the two parent families provide better support.

There are economic factors in play here, of course. Not all two-parent intact families are equal. Some struggle financially, live in bad neighborhoods, and have limited opportunities for advancement. It stands to reason that families in those circumstances might not be as beneficial as a reconstituted family with more monetary resources.

There are historical factors in play here as well. Children in the first part of the 20th century were an important part of the labor force. Women were treated as an appendage of the husband (read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) and were legally property. Men were distant and followed the prevailing thought that showing emotion wasn’t manly. The first time I saw Rachel Held Evans was a video of a presentation she’d made a Fuller Seminary as her Year of Biblical Womanhood was coming out. It was clear that the “Biblical version of family” had far more to do with June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson — Father Knows Best — than timeless traditions. (These also reinforced the economic lessons — the Cleavers and Andersons were homes of professionals that quickly became normative within society).

There are also psychological limitations. I’ve been reading the late Brennan Manning’s memoir. It wasn’t a happy home. His mother was impossible to please and his father was distant. In other families, you could have a father who was overly controlling (or, heaven forbid, abusive) and withheld love to maintain the control over the household. I’ve had far too many conversations with  young evangelicals to know that there are a lot of stories out there just like what I’ve suggested.

So here’s what I think we’re really saying. It’s best for children to grow up in middle-class, emotionally stable, affirming homes with parents who are loving and psychologically healthy. Start switching out those variables and you get different outcomes.

What does this have to do with children growing up in same-sex households? First, it’s too soon to tell. Recent research, even the controversial stuff that came out last year, doesn’t disentangle the same-sex relationship from any social stigma that might have attached. Furthermore, we’d really need to be able to disentangle the various dynamics described above.

There’s reason to suspect that Modern Family’s Cameron and Mitchell provide at least the same level of support as the Cleavers. On the other hand, Jay Pritchard’s first show, Married with Children was as dysfunctional as they come (which was the joke). Roseanne and Dan Conner fell somewhere in the middle.

One more thing. Children are resilient. While the advantages of “growing up Cleaver” are many, there are also millions of stories of children growing up in homes without those advantages. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, LeBron James. And those are just some famous examples.

The number of children growing up in poverty line single-parent households continues to grow. That is a real concern and we need to find ways of guaranteeing those children a future as well.

But simply wishing they were all like the Cleavers isn’t the point. And suggesting that because we aren’t celebrating the Cleavers that society is doomed is not just short-sighted — it’s sociological cherry-picking.

Looking for Post-Constantinian Christianity

I’m writing this as my initial contribution to a blog collective called The Despised Ones. Why are we Despised? Because we are each in our own ways attempting to explore the Kenosis stance Christ modeled in the incarnation as expressed in Philippians 2, “who being of very nature God, emptied himself…”. The critically important stance for evangelicals, then, becomes one of voluntary powerlessness.

The evangelical church has a difficult time with power. We want it when we shouldn’t. We try to get it through political means. We lord it over others. And we argue that we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ without separation.

Rather than focusing on gaining, maintaining, and exercising power, we need to focus on powerlessness. This is difficult to maintain. It’s too easy to be tempted to claim privilege in my powerlessness. “See what a good Christian I’m being? I’m siding with those who don’t have voice. Doesn’t that make you want to imitate my approach?” Then there is the temptation to say that my personal struggles give me a unique perspective on the contemporary world. “You don’t know what it means to suffer, but I’ve had to deal with [….] which gives me a vantage point to which people should listen.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the evangelical church has been dependent upon separation from the broader world. Many of the others writing their blogs here have been raised in fundamentalist homes and schooling and find themselves pushing back against those prior images.

More than a simple critique, what is needed is a program for what a new model of engagement might look like. I’ve labeled this model post-Constantinian Christianity. Many have written on the problems created for the Christian church when the Emperor Constantine legitimated Christianity as the official belief of the realm. In that moment, being a believer became a means of social status, of privilege, of power. As tempting as it is to suggest that we need to capture the spirit of the first century Christians, the world today is much too complex and pluralistic to allow a proper appropriation of those images. We can’t go back. We must go forward.

So here is a modest proposal for how my post-Constantinian Christianity shapes up.

First, we affirm that Christians aren’t supposed to prevail. Moreover, we shouldn’t care about winning or losing. That’s not our call. In cultural dialogue on issues like same-sex marriage, we don’t simply defend our cherished positions. Rather, we are to be obedient in being Christ to those we engage.

Second, we renounce all claims to privilege. It may be a historical reality that America’s Founding Fathers were at least nominal Christians. That’s hardly surprising given the monochromatic culture of the day. But that fact doesn’t mean that a Christian has a unique place in American history or politics. I don’t care how someone addressed me at Christmas or if they celebrate Christmas at all. It’s simply not my problem. We are to be obedient to Christ to those we engage.

Third, concerns over power must be about “the least of these”. The only kenotic approach is to look for ways of dismantling the advantage that comes as a result of the ascriptive status that comes from birth. Even here, the cautions of HR Niebuhr ring clear: I must be careful not to assume I can control outcomes, even legitimate ones, or I give over to pride and arrogance. I’m not fixing the least of these. We are being obedient to Christ to those we engage.

Fourth, pluralism demands faithful engagement. Evangelical Christians are daily rubbing shoulders with neo-atheists, Buddhists,  Muslims, religious “nones”, and so on. Our role is to be present to those other voices. We must listen, find commonality, express humanity, and be willing to be empty vessels through whom God can work His will. We are being obedient to Christ to those we engage.

Finally, we must be patient. Even a Wesleyan like me affirms a sovereign God who is working his will in restoring all creation to himself. It is His timing and his means of gauging results. I’m not about obtaining outcomes. We are simply being obedient to Christ to those we engage.

I don’t know why that sovereignty led us to such a conflation of the Gospel with state power, personal acquisitiveness, and military force. But I am convinced that setting aside all of those things in the spirit of a servant and a slave provides the prophetic witness needed by both the church and the world. In that act, the church and the world will see the Christ whom we’re following.

I Found It … And You Didn’t

[Written as my June contribution to the American Evangelicalism project at www.respectfulconversation.net)

In 1976, bumper stickers and billboards appeared across America that said simply “I Found It!” Organized by Campus Crusade (now known simply as CRU) and disseminated through local congregations, the idea was that strangers would ask what had been found and you’d answer “Jesus” as an opportunity to share testimony or four spiritual laws. According to CRU’s material, 85% of all Americans were exposed to the campaign.

The following year I took my first sociology of religion course, one that redirected my career in wonderful ways.  It was in that class that I learned that religious organizations operate on some definable sociological principles even as they maintain deep concerns about personal and social transformation. I have been blessed and cursed with that duality for over 35 years.

Today I look back at the “I Found It!” campaign with a different set of lenses that I used as a young adult in my Nazarene church in Indiana. When I look today, I see a dynamic that is central to understanding evangelicalism in America: the importance of separation between insiders and outsiders.

In To Change the World (2010), James Davison Hunter characterizes this stance as “Defensive Against” culture. He describes the strategy of the defensive approach to cultural engagement as twofold: “first to evangelize unbelievers, calling for the nation to repent and come back to the faith; second, to launch a direct and frontal attack against the enemies of the Christian faith and worldview (214-5).”

In this essay, I’ll refer to the first part of the defensive strategy as evangelism and the second as militancy. And here is my thesis: the maintenance of the story of evangelism and militancy is more important to evangelicalism than actual results. And the corollary is this: for a variety of reasons, the separatist storyline will be harder to maintain in coming decades.

Let me begin with the evangelism story. The “I Found It!” campaign was important because it was a significant step to reach The Lost. The same is true of beach evangelism, itinerant evangelists on secular campuses, and asking strangers “If you were to die tonight…” I need to tread lightly here. I’m as excited as the next person when someone who knows nothing of faith comes to terms with the Gospel. But we have to ask the question about impact.

For years in churches, I’ve heard reference to Barna data that “85% of people come to faith through friends and family”. Sociologically, I’ve always thought it important to separate friends from family. How many of each? Isn’t the process of growing up in a religious family different than being “won” by a neighbor (to say nothing of a stranger).

It’s not an idle question. Around the same time the “I Found It!” campaign was going on, Ronald Wimberly and colleagues were conducting research on Billy Graham crusades (Wimberley, 1975).  Their results indicated that most conversions were really recommitments by church members and that the highly ritualized nature of a Graham altar call gave a friendly atmosphere for going forward. There were conversions of “the lost” but those were the distinct minority.

Another sociological study that shook my understanding of evangelism was Bibby and Brinkerhoff’s “circulation of the saints”. Looking at conservative congregations in Canada in the early 1970s, they found that conservative churches were growing, but were doing so for reasons that didn’t solely depend on evangelism. Rather, the growth in conservative churches was due to movement of other evangelicals into the congregation and sustaining levels of youth engagement above mainline levels. In a more recent overview of the thirty years of the research, presented at the Pacific Sociological Association, Bibby (2003) reported that 70% of new members came from other churches, 20% had been children of members, and 10% had been true converts. He does observe that this 10% isn’t problematic if the congregation is of sufficient size. But it demonstrates that evangelical concern about outreach may not be as central as one might think.

Stories are important. And occasional dramatic conversion accounts allow us to feel that our group is okay (because “we found it”). But those stories are no more the norm in evangelical culture than they are in missionary meetings (but those stories are more fabulous).

So what about Militancy? The connection between militancy and evangelical identity became evident when I moved to Oregon 18 years ago. I knew I was arriving in the Great Unchurched corner of America. But the evangelical churches there seemed to thrive on being oppressed.

There’s good sociological background for this as well. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, in A Theory of Religion (1996) applied rational choice theory to explain sect formation in market terms within the religious marketplace. Sect groups are innovative movements coming out of more established religious groupings. Because they claim a monopoly on truth, they can make high demands on their members. What Talcott Parsons called “boundary maintenance” is an essential part of keeping the group thriving. The “natural” progression is as follows: increased accommodation to society leads to better acceptance, which normalizes the organization, which then plants the seed for a new sectarian group to be pursuing the “real truth”.

Many of last month’s posts recognized the connection between contemporary evangelicalism and the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th century. I have argued that a failure to make a clear methodological demarcation between fundamentalists and evangelicals is one source of lingering confusion about religious identity in America.

Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace (2010) documents the rise of evangelicalism up through the 1990s and its subsequent decline (as measured by percentage of the population). They attribute the decline to two factors: increasing religious diversity within the society and political overreach by evangelical leaders.

Put in the context of the rise of the religious “nones”, heightened awareness of other religions and secular groups around the globe, tweets from evangelical leaders that dominate the blogosphere for days on end, and the largely partisan political activism of some evangelical groups, it’s difficult to maintain the Stark-Bainbridge monopoly on truth. In a postmodern age, separatism is hard to pull off at least at a large scale.

What remains, then, is the story of militancy. More than actual engagement in changing the culture, there is posturing and a search for opportunities to find offense (War on Christmas?). Evangelicals are involved in a paradoxical search for cultural acceptance AND the sense that they are victimized by the broader culture. (Frank Schaeffer had this excellent post (2013) recently on the history of this victimization and why it’s problematic.) The former loses the monopoly while the later inflates the costs of belonging.

If my analysis is even partially tenable, and evangelicalism is only dependent upon telling stories as its source of identity, the coming decades would appear to be very difficult for evangelicals. In short, evangelicalism will need to discover new stories and methodologies that work in a pluralistic society and avoid the dualistic thinking that has been part of the movement throughout much of its history.

Bibby, R. W. (2003). The Circulation of the Saints: One Final Look at How Conservative Churches Grow  Retrieved 5/30, 2013, from http://reginaldbibby.com/images/circofsaints03.pdf

Hunter, J. D. (2010). To change the world : the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2010). American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Schaeffer, F. (2013). The Lie of Religious ‘Victimhood” at the Root of Culure War  Retrieved 5/30, 2013, from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankschaeffer/2013/05/the-lie-of-religious-victimhood-at-the-root-of-culture-war/

Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. (1996). A Theory of Religion. Brunswick NJ: Rugers University Press.

Wimberley, R. C. e. a. (1975). Conversion in a Billy Graham Crusade: Spontaneous Event or Ritual Performance? Sociological Quarterly, 18(2), 172-170.

The End of Separatism?

I’ve written before about the work of David Kinnaman and the Barna Group’s research on young adults who attended church as teens who aren’t any longer part of a congregation. His book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith, reports that “59 percent of young people with a Christian background report that they had or have ‘dropped out of attending church after attending regularly’.” So when I learned that they were doing a workshop on the book in Indianapolis on Tuesday, I figured that I needed to free my schedule and make a one-day road trip.

YouLostMeLive.Indianapolis was held at a large evangelical church northwest of town. From what I could tell, the vast majority of those in attendance were pastors or youth ministers with some parents thrown in. Granted, I’ve been following the argument longer than they have, but I was struck by some comments that they were looking for tools to get the millenials to accept The Truth.

But Kinnaman and colleagues did some great stuff. He kept referring to millenials as living in a digital Babylon —  connected to the broader culture in all its dynamics while still holding to their faith, even if in nontraditional ways. He made some wonderful points about the nature of exile, drawing on the book of Daniel. Daniel and the fiery furnace boys maintained commitment to their traditions (purity) while still participating in leadership (proximity) in the dominators’ government (he highlighted the interesting fact that the leaders refer to the Israelites by Babylonian deity names). The millenial generation doesn’t live entirely in online community — they have real live friends. But they aren’t looking to the local congregation as the source of that social connection. Millenials live in a “two screen” world where the television is accompanied by a laptop, phone, or ipad.

Sitting in this nice church building with its projection screens, music stage, and high tech production values, I suddenly realized that I was literally right in the middle of a great contradiction. There was almost nothing about the way the church was structured that responded to the needs of millenials (the church’s two-screen world meant the one on the left side of the stage and the one on the right).

Here’s what’s at the heart of the contradiction — the evangelical church has organized itself around being separate from “the world” while millenials are characterized by cultural engagement. While the evangelical church created alternate prom events and harvest parties and jazzercise, millenials are navigating the real world. Sometimes they get it wrong, but they’re engaged.

Today I was teaching about Jean Baudrillard in theory class. It’s a bunch of postmodern stuff but it has to do with the separation between a sign and what it symbolizes. Eventually, we get to the point of hyperreality where experience becomes an end in itself. We talked about the hyper-structure of evangelical church services as an example. This stands in stark contrast to a millenial search for authenticity, honesty, and “being real”.

My Monday night class was dealing with the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr. I played audio of two sermons. The first was when MLK was completing his degree at BU and trying out for a church in Detroit. The second was delivered at the National Cathedral five days before he was shot.

That sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, opens with reflections on the story of Rip Van Winkle. When Rip went to sleep, the Inn had a picture of George III on the wall. When he awoke 20 years later, the picture was of George Washington. Rip Van Winkle, he said, had slept through the whole revolution.

In the next two weeks, I start participating in a collaborative writing project on the Future of Evangelicalism (watch for entries here starting May 1). This week has me wondering about the future of separatism and how evangelicalism works in a postmodern age. I have a deep fear that the church will sleep through its own revolution if we can’t adjust to the contemporary culture.

At the end of Tuesday’s workshop, Kinnamon listed five ways that the evangelical church could respond to the 59%. They were good suggestions (not unlike what I wrote here) that could make a real difference. But he ended with a somber challenge: “Do we love our traditions more than we love our children?” It’s a question the church desperately needs to answer and do so quickly.

Thinking About Pharisees

I’ve been rolling the idea for this post around in my brain for over a month but couldn’t quite get it to jell into something solid. I don’t think it’s quite there but it’s enough to at least begin a reflection.

In my earlier posts I’ve been calling for the evangelical church to wake up and recognize the changes going on in the culture, especially in light of what’s happening in the thinking of today’s generation of young people. Often I have come way too close to thinking about those unwilling to change as modern Pharisees resisting the movement of the Spirit. I’ve read similar frames in other blogs I follow or in the words of their commenters.

Two weeks ago, Jenny Rae Armstrong posted this piece about the importance of the language we use in making arguments. Her reminder that communication on important issues must be done with care was something that I needed to hear. I’ve waited until now to try to unpack my thinking.

While I feel strongly that the church needs to be willing to address the kinds of issues David Kinnaman writes about in You Lost Me (fear of science, lack of honest doubt, judgmentalism, overprotectionism), I need to be careful not to label those not moving as fast as I want. As I’ve written before, they may be afraid of the changes. But that doesn’t make them modern Pharisees.

Today is Good Friday. Not a high point on the Pharisee’s Facebook Timeline (their Easter status updates would have been interesting).  I decided to do a quick examination of some of the synoptic passages related to the Pharisees. This is decidedly amateur work and my new testament scholar friends can help me overcome my oversimplification.

Just looking at the books of Matthew and Mark, there seem to be multiple approaches within the group called the Pharisees. One approach is asking questions about the meaning of the law (why do you eat with sinners?, the meaning of divorce). A second approach is accusatory in their stance (you’re in league with the devil, what you say is blasphemy). A third approach is political (questions designed to trap Jesus, a plan to kill Jesus beginning as early as Mark 3). Clearly, these three approaches could be used by the same groups of people but I prefer to think of them as subsets of the larger religious response.

I need to make sure that I’m not confounding these approaches when I think about those who protect the current evangelical status quo. I can’t think of them as Pharisaical if they’re following the questioning approach. I’m a little more concerned when the folks on the blogosphere attempt to categorize someone as heretical before their book has come out, who distort positions, who ridicule assertions, who cherry-pick data. This accusatory stance is not properly representative of the Good News or the image of the Body of Christ. The third approach that sets out to use power to ruin people’s reputation, get them fired, or have them blackballed from events comes closest to the modern Pharisees.

Nevertheless, future productive dialogue requires us to be cautious in our use of labels. For a period of time, many arguments against Obama’s policies on Facebook were predicated on the “that’s what Hitler did” meme. But we all know — that’s not ALL Hitler did! Applying the parallel is disingenuous and conversation stopping most of the time.  It’s important that we leave Hitler in the grave.

So also with Pharisees. To label a position as Pharisaical (as I have done) is not to advocate for constructive change but to diminish and demagogue. The Pharisees didn’t post Facebook statuses celebrating Chick-Fil-A. They conspired with others to arrange for Jesus’ arrest, conviction, and crucifixion. That’s a difference those of us promoting change must keep in mind.

At the end of it all, Easter comes and the Kingdom bursts forth. Indeed.

The Joy of Professing

Last month I wrote that we needed to articulate an affirmative reason for Christian Higher Education instead of a defensive, separatist stance. Such an effort requires retraining our thinking from a number of perspectives. It calls for us to stand somewhat apart from the expectations of the academic disciplines. It requires us to stand in some prophetic space with regard to denominations. That’s the challenge Robert Wuthnow presented to evangelical faculty 25 years ago. He said that we have the ability to be bilingual: translating new cultural dynamics of academe to others while honoring the theological commitments and worries of the church.

I’m beginning my thinking about affirmation on what I know best: teaching. In a recent edition of Inside Higher Ed, George Fox English professor Melanie Springer Mock reflected on the joys of teaching. She titled her piece “Don’t Sweat the 4/4” and discussed how her career focus was directed towards the kind of institution that shaped her. She doesn’t talk about the unique role of Christian higher ed in explicitly evangelical terms but she does celebrate what it means to be part of a true college: a place where community can appear (even if one has to make small talk with that one guy who drives you nuts).

I shared Melanie’s piece with our administration and with a number of faculty. Why did I do that? Wouldn’t this just allow “them” to see if they could push the 4/4 to a 4/5 or a 5/5? Wouldn’t new technology, blended courses, and MOOC’s allow us to do more with less? And, some say, if we faculty are known to do this because we love it, won’t we lose all leverage?

As much as I appreciate Melanie’s piece, I think it misses the boat just a bit. It’s not about teaching loads, advising loads, credit hours generated, or returns on investments. If those are the important metrics, state universities and for-profits have long ago put us in a negative competitive position.

The real issue is impact. The reason I teach four classes a semester is because I have students multiple times over the course of their studies. I get to see their growth. I know when they’re slacking. We actually have conversations that go beyond “will this be on the exam?”

Students at universities like mine will say that they like the small size where they don’t feel like a number and people know their name. But that misses the boat, too. The strength of the Christian liberal arts institution is that they know me. Some have met Elton when he came along to pick me up after my night class. Others know of my travails at different institutions over the course of my career. We can talk about stuff. Last night I wound up in a great post-class dialogue over environmental economics with a business major in my general education capstone class. Yesterday I filled out a recommendation for one of our majors that asked me “how many times I’d met with the student outside of class“. I realized that I couldn’t answer because our interactions are too frequent.

Friday night we were blessed to have Ambassador Andrew Young on campus. It would have impressive if he’d just been with MLK or just been mayor of Atlanta or just been in Congress or just been UN Ambassador. To hear him talk of all of those was amazing. But toward the end of his Q&A, he reflected on the role faith-based institutions had played in the lives of his parents, of Young himself, and of King.

It reminded me that what we’re doing isn’t just about teaching four classes a semester. It’s about the mentoring/apprenticeship relationship with our students that someday lead to accomplishments on a par with Andrew Young’s. I dare the best MOOC class delivered to a couple of thousand students or the most innovative competency based program to pull that off!

One of the faculty members who got my Melanie Springer Mock e-mail was a new professor at SAU, Jeff Bilbro. While Jeff is as concerned as the next faculty member about teaching load, finding time to write, low pay, and being under-appreciated, he had a different read of Mock’s essay. Jeff had been Melanie’s student and considers her both mentor and friend. If Jeff is any indication of what Melanie does at Fox, it’s good stuff. It’s the only good reason to do what we do.