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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.

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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.