Category: Young Evangelicals

First Step: This Time It’s Different

Putnam

One reason I’ve followed the whole “millenials leaving the church” discussion is because it’s directly related to a central theme of my book. Many of the responses to the millennial debate have either focused on  personality characteristics or life cycle issues. The former argue that millennials are entitled and narcissistic, so they are unhappy because the church doesn’t meet their unique needs. The latter argue that all young people are estranged from religion but tend to return once they’ve married and had children.

I believe both of these positions have missed the central question surrounding millennials — that they’ve grown up in a remarkably different culture than earlier age cohorts. The confluence of their cultural location with their questions about faith suggest the need for real changes in Christian education.

The third chapter of the book addresses the changes  social scientists have documented in recent years about today’s young adults. The chapter has informed much of what I’ve written in this blog. The first entry attempted to argue why these changes are important to Christian Higher education. I won’t repeat all of the argument here: today’s young adults are marrying later, have a less traditional commitment to institutions, are affected by Moral Therapeutic Deism, and have remained connected with diverse groups of others.

The culture they grew up in is what David Kinnaman calls “Discontinuously Different”. They were eight on Septermber 11th; they heard over and over that the world had changed. They grew up not only seeing gay characters on television, but they have known gay students throughout their schooling. They see science as a significant part of modern life and don’t see it as a threat.

The most important issue is that they’ve grown up in a culture where matters of faith were things that one had to nuance. Not everyone around (except in some Christian high schools) assumed biblical authority or religious orthodoxy as a given. That’s the significance of the chart above from Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace. It shows the percentage of 18-29 year olds who are identify as evangelicals or as religious nones. In a relatively short twenty years, the relative strength of evangelicals gave way to nones. In 1995, evangelicals had a 7% advantage over nones. By 2010, nones were up by 10%.

Millennials with faith commitments are looking for ways of engaging their questions without retreating from the broader culture. This is why the Barna research centers on concerns about science, doubt, homosexuality, cultural acceptance, and power. Our students are struggling to stay engaged with their culture while maintaining their Christian voice.

If Christian universities find the means of adjusting to these students’ concerns, we will play a central role in the culture unlike anything we’ve ever dreamed. If, on the other hand, we ignore these changes we’ll wake up one day irrelevant to the broader cultural dynamics.

Stop the Millennial Bashing!

Maybe I’ve just become highly sensitized to concerns over Millennials. As I wrote in my last post, I’m wrapping up a book project on freshmen entering Christian universities. To do that, I’ve had to get myself into the mindset of those born in the 1990s. So when people attack this generation, I take it personally in spite of my official Boomer status.

It’s so easy to pick on the millennial generation. We’re told that they’re narcissistic, only focused on what’s in it for them while recording their every move with their ever-present smart phones. Even attempts to challenge the narcissistic claim, like this one in Slate, begins with a joke about how millennials “took a break from Googling themselves”.

Unbelievably, Jeff Bethke (source of the “why I love Jesus and hate religion” YouTube sensation), took on millennials in the Washington Post, claiming somehow that millennial Christians are the “new fundamentalists” because they supposedly raise their own interests above scripture (whatever that means). Never mind that his definition of fundamentalism is flat wrong AND that he’s a millennial himself who found “fame” through video self-expression.

Then, of course, there are the never-ending Facebook posts written by my generation about today’s young. Here’s a standard example.

never_spanked_as_kids

I could write another whole piece on the spanking part. Where the idea that spanking built character come from is beyond me. It’s just one of those tropes thrown out like the claims you can’t have Bibles in school.

I really am focused on the “trophies for participating” line. We could throw in Lake Wobegon’s “where all the children are above average” (although Garrison Keillor has been using that line for nearly 40 years, so it can’t be about millennials). What makes me crazy about the cartoon above is that is seems to absolve previous generations as well as the broader culture for the patterns put in place for millennial children.

Our kids were born in the cusp of the millennial transition (1981 and 1985). For whatever reason, they didn’t wind up in tons of organized activities in sports or dance or gymnastics. Probably has something to do with my lack of athletic prowess. But even if they had, I really don’t think they would draw deep meaning from a participation trophy.

Participation trophies aren’t for the kids. They’re for the parents. We’ve made the affirmation of children a measure of our success as parents. If they don’t get to play on the team and get affirmation, parents are hurt.

I have seen this play out over the past ten years with regard to the Helicopter Parents of college students. They call a faculty member or an administrator and want to run interference for their child. In doing so, they deny the child the opportunity to solve problems in complex settings like universities. Why do they do this? I think it’s because they think good parents do that. (I have lots of helicopter parent stories)

The broader culture doesn’t help. The rise in Reality Television (which bears a scary resemblance to “The Family” in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) feeds our narcissistic fascination. Who cares about Kardashians? Why do we watch Jersey Shore? What about almost any show featuring beauty pageants, cooking, models, or having lots of babies? All of them perpetuate a focus on individual entitlement, complete with the single-camera-shot interview where you explain what you were thinking at the time.

Don’t think we’ve glamorized narcissism? Look at the magazine covers in the grocery store check-out lane.

Millennials didn’t make reality shows popular. But they may use them as models for self-expression. If so, who did that?

Social media plays a part. We feel the need to share affirmation of what other people post. We don’t mildly agree, we “like”. And people then add LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to a post. It takes away our perspective.

The grandbaby will be here in a month, so I’ll have to eat these words before long. But not every picture posted on Facebook of the baby or the pet is the cutest thing ever. Not ever profile picture is gorgeous, hot, beautiful. Even my dog isn’t the most adorable dog ever.

Millennials, who are more tech savvy than earlier generations, have adopted these social norms. They have repeated patterns they’ve grown up with.

Millennials, however, are deeper than this. They are asking questions that deserve to be asked. They are not superficial and self-centered. They are exploring options for their place in the world.

Yesterday, I drove to the Epworth Forest Conference Center in Northern Indiana to sit in on an event called IdeaFarm. It’s a gathering of a small number of recent college grads, many from Christian universities. The participants had submitted proposals on an vision-related project they wanted to pursue. For four days, the leadership team is investing in them as individuals to help them turn their passions into action.

IdeaFarm

I got to participate in one of the small group discussion and talked to a number of the participants over lunch. Yes, these young people are tech savvy. Yes, are concerned about acceptance. But are they fundamentalists who think the world revolves around them? Absolutely not.

They see the world as complex and are trying to find their place in that world. They are decidedly NOT trying to accept the conventional, reality-tv version of life. They are looking for authenticity and impact.

I have a couple of hypotheses on what’s behind the millennial bashing. First, we are reacting (correctly) against the artificial version of reality present in the media. If those images represent today’s youth, we may say, then we’re all in trouble. Recognizing the falseness of the images portrayed can go a long way. Second, and more importantly, I think we bash millennials because older generations are unwilling to admit their complicity in the culture millennials inherited. We blame them so we won’t blame ourselves.

But if they are trying to change that culture, isn’t it the right thing to be on their side?

One More Time: It’s Not ABOUT Millennials!

Here’s the problem with the blogosphere: it’s simply too easy to put your ideas out there. If there’s a hot topic under consideration, you can jump in at any point and share your two cents (or less). You don’t have to follow the thread of the previous arguments. It’s easy enough to pick out an isolated phrase from some viral post, contrast it with your own experience, and explain why “that’s just not so”.

In saying all this, I realize I’m engaged in self-incrimination. I’ve tried to stay balanced and focused on the big issues instead of the reactionary posts. Maybe my ideas don’t hold up to scrutiny any more than anyone else’s. But I’ve tried to keep unpacking an important sociological point.

I have spent the last 15 months on a book written to freshmen entering Christian universities. I’m one more major edit from submitting it to the publishers. But the book isn’t just about millennial freshmen. It’s a book about how we go about Christian higher education. The millennials simply make it clear that we can’t continue “business as usual” in a complex, postmodern, world.

stats

When I wrote the Millennial Canaries post last week, I was thrilled to connect with a larger conversation and hopefully offer some balance. I’m grateful for those who linked it in their blogs or shared it on Facebook. I’m overwhelmed by the number of views it received. I won’t take the space here to review the range of discussion since Rachel Held Evans posted her CNN piece 12 days ago.

My point in that post, as in my book, is that we need to pay attention to Millennials not because they’re narcissistic and consumer driven and tech savvy. We pay attention because our ability to relate to them is an indicator of how we relate to a society in which Christianity is “an” option but not “the” option. In other words, the growth of the religiously unaffiliated and the anti-religious creates a context in which the church can’t assume an a priori privilege of voice. We have to learn how to speak to a world that doesn’t presume our presuppositions.

Today, Christianity Today posted this on Her-meneutics. Titled “The Myth of the Perfect Millennial Church” it gives the reactions from three women on the RHE posts. The takeaway for me was 1) some people were estranged from church in their 20s but returned when they had kids (this is a standard sociology of life cycle argument), 2) some people are disillusioned with their church of origin and look for difference, either more liturgical or more evangelical, and 3) church isn’t about meeting our needs but about following God as faithful Christians.

As I was writing this, a tweet sent me to this wonderful piece by Jonathan Fitzgerald. He points out that we’ve come to use personal anecdotes in the place of the Grand Stories, particularly from scripture. My mind quickly went to dozens of anecdotes shared as sermon intros (often anecdotes that happened to an entirely different person). But more often than not, the response to the anecdote is to wonder what it is about that person’s situation that we should listen to. Why is their story important? How is my situation similar to or different from theirs? Does the story hold water?

There are any number of responses that we can make to the changing context of religion in American society. Yes, we need more cross-generational conversation. Yes, we need to pray for the church as it is and not the church we wish we had. Yes, we need to be the church God calls us to be.

But sharing personal story is not what this conversation is about. What the original RHE post shared was a set of data from a variety of sources outlining some significant shifts in the religious landscape. These are things the church (or the Christian university) must deal with.

I have been arguing that we need to begin with millennials in this re-thinking because they are the cutting edge of change. They are also, as I wrote in my last post, the key to figuring out postmodern cultural engagement.

But focusing on millennials isn’t the end of the story. It’s barely the beginning. We need to stay engaged with the seniors who make up such a large segment of our congregations. We need to rethink family ministry so that we don’t idolize young couples and isolate those that don’t fit. We need youth ministries that support the complexity of the postmodern world without creating insular subcultures providing a place of escape without engagement.

It’s NOT ABOUT millennials. It’s about the Kingdom of God in contemporary society. The more we mess around with “that’s not true for me”, the less we’ll be able to respond to the sociological shifts already happening.

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.

Millennial Canaries

Canary

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet this week, you know that the topic of the week (other than Reza Aslan’s new book) is about millenials leaving the church. Rachel Held Evans wrote a nice summary of work by David Kinnaman and others. Combining that research with her own reflections, she attempted to clarify the issues: attitudes toward homosexuals, combativeness, unwilling to address doubt. She summarizes a nice piece that documented how young evangelicals are attracted to liturgical churches. Part of Rachel’s concern was that too many in the religious sphere have responded to millennial concerns as the need for better marketing or hipper bands. Maybe we need more 60 year old pastors preaching in skinny jeans and hipster glasses.

The response has been somewhat surprising. Mainliners said that Rachel’s issues were only true for evangelicals and that what she called for was present in the Methodist church. Other evangelicals responded that millenials needed to listen to their elders and recognize that the church isn’t supposed to deal with a narcissistic group of twenty-somethings who grew up thinking they were special.

Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a clever piece today on how the real question is about involvement. How do millenials find places of connection within the local congregation? The question of involvement raises the questions that Michelle Van Loon has been exploring — that 40-somethings show lower levels of engagement in their local churches than was true a decade ago. Michele summarized her thinking in this podcast.

Here’s what I’m thinking. Millenials are the canary in the coal mine of modern protestantism. As part of the entire RHE flurry, Chris Morton posted this interesting piece about what would characterize a millennial church.  But when I read Chris’ piece, I realized THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH. Last week I read this wonderful piece by Jamie (the Very Worst Missionary) reporting on a church she’d attended in Central America. Called “Doing it Wrong”, Jamie critiques our assumptions about modern American worship services. And again I said, THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH.

What this tells me is that the issues millenials are raising are not about them. They’re about the spectator elements of modern worship: music done FOR you, auditorium seating, anonymity, lack of engagement in questions of faith. I’ve felt this before. Slightly disconnected from a congregation. So what’s different with my generation? Why didn’t we respond like the millenials?

We didn’t do that because it was assumed you’d stay loyal to a local congregation. Maybe this is a holdover from geographically based parish life or ethnically identified denominations. We stuck it out, not because it was okay but because we didn’t want to be deviant.

Today things are different. The percentage of adults who are non-religious (not affiliating, not attending, not caring) is higher than it’s ever been. Questions about the legitimacy of religion in modern life are regularly raised not just by Dawkins but by folks writing comments on any  webpage that barely mentions religion.

The world is changing. We may not be in a post-Christian society, But it’s clear that we’re entering a period where being Christian is not the default assumption. It’s a time where we will need to engage in far more dialogue and do much less arguing. I’ve been reading Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology. He addresses the implications of postmodernity for today’s church. The same sentiments were raised by Nate Pyle a couple of days ago. Nate nails it: “unless we want a new wineskin, we don’t want something new.”

The conversation begun by David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Christian Smith, Diana Butler Bass, and others dovetails with the changing trends in religious participation in America. We may wish things were the way they used to be, but that’s not coming back.

We need to pay attention to the millennial concerns. Not because they’re spoiled kids who need to grow up. Not because the church needs to be hip. But because they grew up in postmodern culture. Engaging postmodern religion through the lens of the millenials will help the church of 2020 proclaim the Gospel to a complex and confusing world.

The millenials are the canary in the religious mine. We can ignore them and call them spoiled. But if we do that, we lose our ability to engage future generations. These demographic changes aren’ going to change and we need to respond with faith, compassion, intelligence, and authenticity. We need the millenials to insure the future quality of the church. In the end, it’s the church I want to be a part of.

Mainlines and Evangelicals: Developing Hypotheses

Has the institutional church had it? Is it on the way out?

You don’t have to look far to see questions about the health of the institutional church. From the growth of the religious “Nones” among the under 30 population to David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me to Rachel Held Evans post on CNN yesterday, the story seems to be that young people have issues with religion, especially in more rigid evangelical churches. The younger generation’s concerns are important because they fill slots in the church created by normal demographic change (that’s sociologist for “people died”). If there are not enough new people in the church willing to commit, what happens to all these churches?

I took my first sociology of religion class in 1977. At that time, two recent books were shaping religious discussion. One was Jeffrey Hadden’s The Gathering Storm in the Churches.  The other was Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing.

Hadden’s book detailed a study he’d done of mainline churches as they engaged issues of civil rights and social justice. He had found that there were two very different visions of religion between mainline clergy and their laity. The storm that was gathering was a result of conflict over the role of religion. The clergy wanted to push for justice and the laity wanted safe comfortable sermons. The mismatch risked driving people away, presenting survival challenges for mainline churches. The quote above is actually the first two lines of a newpaper story from Spartanburg, SC on Hadden written when the book came out (thanks Google!).

Kelley’s book suggested that conservative churches were growing because they demanded more of their members. Rather than an easy, country-club existence, he suggested that churches with stances against drinking or who expected high levels of participation would grow because the heightened requirements meant that people would draw greater meaning from belonging. It’s based on some decent social psychology as far as it goes. (The Presbyterians just released some interesting findings about growth at the congregational level and strictness, but I’m suspicious about correlates with region and rural location.)

The combination of these books painted a disturbing picture of mainline churches. They would prefer a culturally affirming connection to society and simply enjoyed coffee together. Because they didn’t demand a lot, their young people weren’t involved and the church was a bunch of blue-hairs quickly dying off.

Meanwhile, evangelicalism was the hot new thing. We had a born-again president. Roe v. Wade formed a rallying point for evangelical churches and Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority. The growth of a suburban middle class fueled the rise of family-friendly evangelical congregations. Sociologists set out to explain religious growth and decline (which proved much more complicated than Kelley’s thesis would suggest).

University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright has been exploring various issues about evangelicals. He recently analyzed General Social Survey data to examine how many evangelicals there actually are in America. He compiled this graph:

Wright Evangels-in-USThe blue line estimate the percentage of Americans who fit Wright’s definition of evangelical. From 20% of the population in 1970, the percentage peaks at about 28% in 1990 and starts back down again. Current data puts the percentage of evangelicals about where it was in 1975. What accounts for the decline?

I have three developing hypotheses. I’m hoping some of my religious and sociological readers will push back on these.

First, we failed to understand the resilience of the mainline church. While there are some overly culturally-affirming segments of the church, there are many more that are attempting to engage an intelligent, theologically grounded, critique of culture. These are not, as one critic suggested in this piece on the Christian left by  Jonathan Merritt, “deader than Henry VIII”. Mainline religion may still be managing the demographic transition of a generation unhappy with Hadden’s pastors. But they are being replaced with a very different kind of young adult. While the numbers of members continue to decline, the strength of the mainline church may be better than ever.

We need more careful examination of these trends. My experience with mainline churches finds them populated by people of faith who are mortified that they’ll sound like religious zealots. You have to listen harder to hear their faith perspective, but it may be deeper than you’d first think. Roger Olson had some interesting reflections this week on the mainline (which he’d rather call “old-line”). While I think some of his prescriptions (e.g., worship teams) miss the mark, his call for living spiritual experiences is what I’m seeing within the leading edge of mainline leadership.

Here’s the second hypothesis. I’m thinking that the rise in evangelical popularity in the 80s and 90s is an aberration and not a trend. It’s not that people are turning away from evangelical faith but that there was a temporary surge in popularity. Some of this is suburbanization and media narrative. Some may be reaction against the stereotypes about mainline religion happening at the time.

Sociologists and Religion Writers may make too much of distinctions between evangelicals and mainlines. According to my summary of data from the National Council of Churches Yearbook, there were just under 22.5 million members of evangelical denominations (70% of those are Southern Baptists) and  18.4 million members of mainline denominations. Both groups are showing signs of numerical decline (with some outliers) and are losing ground relative to population growth.

If the decline in mainline churches historically was due to demographic issues, it would make sense that we’d see large demographic differences between religious traditions. But the differences are fairly small. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion provide breakdowns by age groups:

Pew ForumThe percentage of mainline churches over 65 and under 29 differ slightly from the evangelical churches but neither of those percentages are that far off the total across religious traditions (the contrast with the unaffiliated is striking). This suggests that if evangelical churches find more difficulty in holding on to the young, their demographic issues are serious indeed.

The third hypothesis is that Hadden’s analysis of Mainline churches in the late 60s has an analog in Evangelical churches 40 years later. Just as activist voices on the left found separation between mainline pastors and laity, so activist voices on the right may be doing the same in evangelical churches. This is part of Putnam and Campbell’s argument in American Grace and it’s hard to dispute it. This is what prompts so many young evangelical leaders to find alternative ways of engaging “faithful presence”, to use James Hunter’s phrase.

As Young Evangelicals are looking for authenticity, they’re being careful about where they look for it. They don’t see a separation between evangelical and mainline churches as impermeable. That’s why posts like this one by Rebecca VanDoodewaard resonate with so many.

Hadden’s question about the future of the institutional church is an important one. But no one group has a monopoly on where the answer will be found. More attention to those churches which combine theological grounding with authentic community and service to others will lead us all to better conversations.

Investing in A Decade or What’s Wrong with “Friends”

Today I came across a wonderful TED talk video (thanks, Tom Oord!). Psychologist Meg Jay reflects on misconceptions about emerging adults. She points out that too much of popular culture, media figures, and even educators have viewed “30 as the new 20“. In other words, because of later ages of marriage, childbirth, career launch, and so on, that the decades of the 20s is a period of marking time until real adulthood starts.

Personally, I blame “Friends” for glamorizing a bunch of 20-somethings (at least originally) trying to find direction in their lives.

friends

Meg Jay says that rather than seeing the 20s as this great period of uncertainty and role exploration it should be the time of personal work building toward the future. Specifically, she calls for twenty-somethings to 1) build identity capital, 2) develop weak ties in addition to strong ones, and 3) begin picking prospective family.

Sociologist Christian Smith used the National Survey of Youth and Religion to point out the problematic nature of an undirected twenties decade in Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Smith and colleagues report on the high degrees of binge drinking, problems of substance abuse, impermanent sexual relationships, and high degrees of directionless-ness. This data follows closely on what Jeffrey Arnett’s work suggests in terms of emerging adults.

So what can we do to help our students avoid the melodramatic lessons of Chandler, Monica, Ross, Rachel, Joey, and Phoebe? How can we use what Meg Jay has learned in her clinical work to make the twenties not a period of open exploration but a period of stage-setting? I think her three challenges have direct implications for Christian educators.

First, she argues that young people need to build identity capital: “Do something that’s an investment in who you might want to be next.” It’s not that the student needs to have things mapped out. But a vague sense of general direction can be useful. Our task is to help students pay attention to what they’re learning about their own strengths,  weaknesses, interests, passions, and causes. They aren’t taking a bunch of required classes for some job but are sifting through a range of options. It’s okay for that to be unfinished — the process of narrowing pays dividends down the road.

Second, twenty-somethings need networks. Not just the roommates and those across the hall or who hang out at Central Perk. They need to connect with others: “New things come from what are called our weak ties, our friends of friends of friends.” With that shout-out to Mark Granovetter’s classic sociology piece about the “strength of weak ties”, Meg observes that twenty-somethings need diverse, cross-generational contacts. This can be a challenge for a Christian college. Frankly, the homogeneity is just too high. Faculty members become important contacts, not for potential letters of recommendation, but because we provide someone outside of family and friendship networks who can be honest with students and use our own contacts to help introduce options.

Third, Meg says that rather than seeing relationships as transient in the twenties, it’s better to see them as exploring the kinds of relationships that are affirming: “Picking your family is about consciously choosing who and what you want rather than just making it work…“. In the Christian university context, this means focusing on quality relationships while avoiding pushing couples into premature commitments. Engagement ceremonies have their place but we must stay clear of “ring by spring” expectations or old tropes about MRS degrees. The real work is in being with others, understanding how the student relates to them and why. In our Christian environments, we should be cautious about “this is the person God meant for me”. Far better to say, “God created me to flourish with this type of person”.

Twenty-somethings who take Meg’s advice seriously will exhibit a common orientation: they will be thoughtful and reflective about the situations in which they find themselves. Their classes can provide clues about passion and direction, if they are looking for them as opposed to simply meeting requirements. Their networks can stretch them with new dreams if they are aware of what possibilities are in front of them and think of strategies to pursue them. Their relationships become means of learning about oneself and not about solving some life puzzle.

All of this puts special pressures on faculty members and student life personnel in the Christian college or university. I must be open with my students about the challenges they will confront. I must be in sufficient relationship with them to ask good clarifying questions as they’re considering options. I must see that my investment in them runs long after they leave my class and the university.

But if I do these things, it means that they are well on the road to the life they dreamed of. The returns on those investments are absolutely immeasurable.

New Ways of Thinking — Part One

I’m working on a book chapter summarizing literature on social psychology and learning as it relates to students attending Christian universities. Today I worked my way through Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and James Fowler’s stages of faith.  It helped me think about three things: 1) the transitions described by Piaget and Fowler may be particularly difficult for evangelical young people to navigate, 2) Christian colleges are especially significant as that navigation is taking place, and 3) the transitions of thought process or the lack thereof is at the center of many of our issues in the evangelical church.

Stage theories have their limits, which I’ll speak to shortly. But there’s something significant about exploring shifts in cognitive processes. They suggest that students aren’t simply involved in learning new stuff — they’re developing entirely new ways of thinking.  Those new ways have their own risks and challenges.

Piaget identifies four stages:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage: infants respond to environmental stimuli
  2. Preoperational Stage: pre-school children acquire language and learn to take the perspective of others.
  3. Concrete Operational Stage: roughly equivalent to school years. Children adopt rigid categories and classifications. Imagining situations other than the current is very difficult.
  4. Formal Operational Stage: begins in the teen years. Child is able to use formal processes to consider hypotheticals, alternatives, and contrasts between situations.

Fowler, adopting ideas of Piaget and Kolberg, identifies six stages of faith development:

  1. Intuitive Projective Faith: young children have an imagined sense of things, clinging to stories but operating in a free-form sense
  2. Mythic-Literal Faith: school children see faith as connected to right and wrong and have a tendency to take metaphors literally
  3. Synthetic-Conventional Faith: teens are balancing a high commitment to conform to religious authority with simultaneously working through issues of personal identity
  4. Individuative-Reflective Faith: young adults begin to take responsibilities for their own personal views but struggle with difference from their past patterns
  5. Conjunctive Faith: associated with mid-life periods, faith is able to handle paradox, conflict, and abiguity. Certainty is not as highly valued.
  6. Universalizing Faith: for a limited number of individuals, faith becomes generalized rather than particular with an openness to justice for all people.

When I consider the students I deal with on a daily basis, they’re generally in transition between Piaget’s concrete operational and formal operational stages. In terms of Fowler, they’re moving from Synthetic-Conventional to Individuative-Reflective. A central component of the educational experience is to provide the context in which these new ways of thinking are explored.

There are many problems with stage theories but I’ll mention three. First, people move through the stages at their own pace. Not everybody who enters college is ready for formal operational thinking. (I’ve known some professors who are more comfortable with synthetic-conventional faith!) Second, the movement between stages is really more of a sense of back and forth. Some days are conjunctive and others are individuative-reflective. Some topics are concrete operational while others are formal operational. Third, these transitions are not easy. When students start to individuate their faith, they often feel like what they “have known” (that is, adopted from their parents) is crumbling. They need solid support as they’re exploring transitions.

I’ve written before about the young evangelicals I’ve been reading. As I said in that post, these are characteristically people of deep faith who are trying to think in new ways (individuative-Reflective). In my first post on this blog, I wrote of Rachel Held Evans’ story from Evolving in Monkey Town. Hers is a classic story of moving from concrete operational to formal operational thinking. The more she works out her questions in public forums, the faster she’s moving toward Fowler’s Conjunctive Faith.

There are some more sociological implications of these developmental stages. There are subcultures that inhabit a particular stage and place normative pressures on their members to think accordingly — not just to agree with conclusions but to process information in a particular way. They take pride in holding to a concrete, conventional faith. (I worry that some really desire the mythic-literal faith of elementary aged children.) If folks in the membership start thinking otherwise, they’ll feel great pressure to get back in line or leave. Pete Enns’ post yesterday gives voice to what it’s like to be in that pressure-filled situation.

I have other friends who valiantly attempt to engage concrete/conventional thinkers in dialogue on Facebook (looking at you, James McGrath and Karl Giberson). I’m always impressed by their efforts to confront those who claim evolution is of Satan or that Obama is destroying the world. They want their dialogue partners to engage in a level of thought Piaget would admire but it never seems to happen.

These notions of how people think are related to the general patterns we’re seeing in the evangelical world. The more today’s youth embrace the open postmodernism of cultural diversity, the harder it is for them to manage synthetic-conventional faith. The more they cling to mythic-literal faith, the hard it is to navigate the society. Kinnaman’s work on disaffected youth is consistent with such a pattern. Even if they aren’t lost to Christianity (as one Christianity Today headline worried) they are thinking about that faith differently.

Another very interesting pattern is occurring later in the age cycle. The Barna group found that church involvement for those over 40 has dropped significantly over the last decade. Michelle Van Loon has been conducting some informal online surveys (reported here) to unpack that result and we’ve been exploring ideas about what factors contribute to the change. It may be a family-focus that doesn’t speak to empty nesters. It may be burnout or care for aging parents. It may have something to do with our focus on seeker-sensitive services. I wondered today if it might not be that some of the 40+ crowd are moving into Fowler’s Conjunctive Faith while their congregations are barely making out of Synthetic-Conventional.

In short, how we organize our thinking appears to matter a lot. It speaks to how information is (or isn’t) processed and the kinds of conclusions that are open for consideration.

My next post will look at some of the same issues from the perspective of mental schemas, heuristics, and other patterns of meaning-making.

Listening to my Youngers

Over the past six months, I’ve been reading a steady diet of Young Evangelical blogs and books. I have the sense that they’re all either side of 30, which puts them behind me by over a quarter century. Some I found on Facebook. Others I found through reading other people’s blogs and seeing who they cite. I read folks my age as well, but that’s the subject for another post.

I’m reluctant to start listing people because 1) I know I’ll leave people out and 2) I’m finding new people every day. But let me mention some anyway: Rachel Held Evans, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, Jenny Rae Armstrong, Lana, Morgan Guyton, Jonathan Fitzgerald and Carson T. Clark (no blog at the moment but good FB stuff). You should take a serious look. They are asking important questions and thinking of faith in vital and significant ways. Many have reflected deeply on an upbringing that focused on knowing answers without really pondering questions. Now that they are in their 30s, they are finding the means of exploring the questions and testing whether the answers work.

My reading has taught me a few things. First, they have a high view of scripture as the Word of God. That view is high enough that they aren’t afraid of asking difficult questions in its presence. They trust God with their questions and confidently believe that God will show them Truth.

Second, they have a high degree of compassion for those outside the evangelical fold. This is why they write on topics like gay rights or religious nones. They have made it a point to interact with those from different backgrounds and commitments and attempted to write with those individuals in mind.

Third, they are essentially hopeful about God’s work in contemporary society. There’s not a slippery-slope argument in the bunch. No looking back wistfully at Mayberry (maybe Common Perks on Friends, but that’s a different thing). They see change in society as something to be engaged — not blindly embraced but not attacked either.

In a word, they are believers in Grace. The see God extending it all around us and are smart enough to extend it to others as well. Even those older bloggers who dismiss them or call them names.

One of the great things about surrounding yourself with college students all the time is that their optimism is contagious. I see what they hope for their future and how they engage the world. And I’m confident that in another decade they’ll be impressing me with their writing as well. When I listen to them, I learn stuff. And I find that the world is a better place. Far better than grasping a sour vision of a world in despair.

I read folks my age as well. They do great work. I’ll give them a shout-out in a future post. I’m probably way more selective in the older list. Too many of today’s leaders make me mad. But enough of them open windows to the soul to let me know that we older folks can learn a lot by listening to our youngers.

On Building Bridges

I’m taking a break from my usual focus on Christian Universities, at least directly. This weekend I finished a paper I’m presenting Friday at the annual meeting of the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers (ANSR) in Kansas City. I’ve been part of this organization on and off for over 30 years. The paper is a continuation of what I’ve been exploring in my book and here on the blog and builds on the conference’s diversity theme.

Specifically, I’m exploring the dynamics of the under-30 generation as they relate to life in the local church and the denomination. As I’ve argued before, I believe that this is the first postmodern generation and that raises issues for those leaders of more modern sensibilities.

The paper summarizes Putnam and Campbell’s findings from American Grace, especially the rise in Religious Nones. It then draws data from the National Survey of Youth and Religion, conducted by Christian Smith and friends. Thirdly, it links challenges raised by David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, exploring issues young evangelicals are having with the local church. (Northwest Nazarene is doing a panel presentation on You Lost Me Thursday night — watch for the coming video).

I’m playing with connecting these themes to the dominant forms of social capital sociologists like Putnam have raised over the years: the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. The former speaks of how we build groups based on similarity while the latter crosses interest group boundaries. I’ve been thinking that our focus on youth ministry and life-cycle based small groups in the church reflect an over-reliance on bonding to the neglect of bridging. I conclude by exploring some personal ideas on what bridging might look like for the contemporary church interested in relating authentically to young evangelicals. I’m still playing with these ideas, so I’ll share them here as written. I appreciate any reactions.

Here’s a list of concrete things I’ve thought we can do to balance our bonding capital and our bridging capital. The list isn’t exhaustive and you may not like all of the ideas. Some are easier to pull off than others. But I really don’t want to write another ANSR paper that analyzes a situation without beginning some programmatic “so what” ideas. I figure making myself vulnerable is a first step in what the young evangelicals are looking for.

First, move from generation specific small groups to age diverse groups. This is not an opportunity for mentoring but a focus on open exchange relationships. Second, add curricula to your study groups on the Spiritual But Not Religious Phenomenon. We have to understand the perceived irrelevance of the church if we’re to address the concerns. Third, have your church board and district leadership begin a steady diet of young evangelical blogs: I’ve just begun trying to keep up – it’s an astounding bunch of faithful Christians. Fourth, Christian colleges should develop materials on how evangelicals can operate in a world without a presumed religious preference. This means moving from apologetics to engagement. Fifth, church leaders need to go with young evangelicals to the places where they go. What kinds of movies, events, concerts, and so forth are shaping their perspectives? Sixth, denominational leaders need to publicly express what they may well know privately – the world is a complicated place. There is no room for pretend certainty in the twenty-first century. Seventh, preachers and theologians must engage the reality of God’s story as it engages the culture of today. That means challenging Moral Therapeutic Deism with Kingdom of God understandings, calling out the dangerous of overdeveloped individualism, and recognizing the priorities of the prophets as opposed to those of modern religious celebrities. 

My list could go on. But engaging only a small part of my list will help younger people move beyond a dichotomous view of faith and culture and allow older people to engage a postmodern world without fear. The result of such engagement is a stronger witness of the church – a Faithful Presence in the world as it is and not simply an idealistic hope for the world as we wish it was.