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.


New Ways of Thinking — Part Two

I finished drafting the chapter I wrote about last week (on schedule!). The second half of the chapter explores a couple of ideas from social psychology. While my intent is to help students remain open to learning new things, there are broader implications for the evangelical community.

I began with the concept of schemas. Social psychologists see these as mental structures we use to organize information. I conceptualize them as similar to the file folders in my computer. There is a particular structure that we have learned and we try to fit any new information into the existing structure. Most of the time this works well. But sometimes it fails. The situation that we thought was just the same as some previous encounter proves to be nothing like that at all. There is a balance drawn between our prior knowledge and the new information being processed.

For a college student recently moved from home, the abundance of new information can be challenging and result in a higher error rate than will be true later on. Some things will be misinterpreted and others will just be missed.

Occasionally, the new information is nearly impossible to incorporate into existing schemas. This is one of the important functions of a Christian university: helping students navigate the re-ordering of their schemas. We expect that to happen and have constructed mechanisms and support groups to aid in the hard work of restructuring.

Heuristics are related to schemas. Think of them as master categories that shape what we attend to. Much of our contemporary political discussions are heuristics. We begin with a paradigm and fit information into that. We need mechanisms for sorting out new information and heuristics give us rules for evaluating our schemas.

Finally, I discussed the work of Sharon Daloz Parks as it relates to meaning-making. Like other developmental approaches I explored in the first of these posts, she sees the  transition away from authority based meaning as critically important for young people. Following a brief period of relativism, she says that individuals move through probing commitments through tested commitments to convictional commitment. The period associated with college and emerging adulthood is best matched with probing commitment. Parks argues that questioning is essential to personal growth.

Just as I did last time, I see these mental processes operating in most of our discussions about evangelicals, fundamentalists, and the larger culture. There are many examples I can pick from, but let me focus on a couple.

First, I’d argue that the challenges evangelicalism faces when dealing with social change comes from an overly rigid schematic structure. Because the mental structures are tightly constructed, there is no room for new information. Scientific advances become problematic so even more elaborate alternative structures must be constructed (see intelligent design). Social change is denounced because the mental structures get confounded with a number of non-scriptural assumptions (see Rachel Held Evans’ Year of Biblical Womanhood). Political shifts are seen as evidences of slippery slopes (see same-sex marriage, demographic change, or religious pluralism). A more flexible approach to information would allow more faith in God’s leading and an openness to new paths of outreach. I’ve consistently written on how young evangelicals are particularly pushed away by this cognitive rigidity.

Second, heuristics are big in the religious world. The biggest of all is “what the Bible clearly teaches”. Any number of writers have pointed out the challenges of exaggerating the role of scripture. My “respectful conversation” colleague Vincent Bacotte pointed out the problem when “sola scriptura” is exalted above other considerations. Zack Hunt had this excellent piece last week. Scott McKnight has a number of excellent pieces but this one from yesterday was particularly good.

Third, Parks’ approach to meaning making demonstrates the importance of process in our testimony. If she’s right, and I’m persuaded she is, then the shift from authority-based meaning to relativism isn’t some dichotomy, but simply one step in the journey. It seems that conservative protestantism could benefit from a good dose of probing commitments. We may prefer for people to engage from convictional commitments but without working through that meaning process carefully as Christian disciples, we adopt positions we think we’re supposed to take. Because these aren’t well grounded in our mental structures, they come off as forced pat answers.

This morning Jamie Smith tweeted the following question: “How would a Christian account of pluralism look different if we assumed that Christian proclamation could actually be persuasive?” I think it’s an excellent question. The more we have worked through informed processes of mental structures and meaning-making, the better Christians will be able to engage a changing world.

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.

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.

What is a Christian Liberal Arts Institution Anyway?

Finally got grades done for the semester on Monday. The last thing I graded was an assignment I use in our senior capstone class. The class is called “The Christian in the Contemporary World” and serves as the bridge class from college to the world beyond. It relies heavily upon exploration of the Spring Arbor Concept: Spring Arbor University is a community of learners, distinguished by our lifelong involvement in the study and application of the liberal arts, total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning, and critical participation in the contemporary world.

Their final paper is to explore the Concept in their own words, using it as a lens to look backwards at their college years and forward into their projected future. Of the four components of the Concept (community of learners, liberal arts, Jesus Christ as perspective, critical participation), it was the liberal arts piece that proved most problematic for them. To many, liberal arts is a description for the general education classes we tell them make people well-rounded. To some, it was a major distraction from the important classes in the major. At best, they had a vague sense of benefit from the experience of college but couldn’t exactly articulate why.

I’ve been puzzling over this all week. How often do we use the phrase “Christian Liberal Arts Institution”? It seems to be central to the mission of Christian Higher Education. Why don’t we do a better job of explaining it?

My pondering has led me to three working hypotheses. First, the students are right that we’ve confounded general education requirements with the notion of liberal arts. We describe the importance of a range of subjects (because it’s “good for them”). Liberal Arts, in this sense, is contrasted with that university education that focuses on specialization. It’s why many research universities moved to completely distributive requirements and added all kinds of cute course titles.

My second thought is that most of our Christian universities were birthed as Bible Colleges. They had a focus on ministerial training and Biblical apologetics. As institutions began to pursue regional accreditation, they called themselves Christian Liberal Arts institutions. But the Bible School ethos, while no longer dominant, is still a foil. We can  find schools that maintain the central focus on ministry, while adding other programs to fill out enrollment options.

My third hypothesis is that our incessant job focus in recent years has diminished our ability to talk about liberal arts. The more we worry about placement rates, the job market, and loan repayments, the less we can talk about the long-term values liberal arts perspective brings.

Here’s what I want us to talk about: Liberal Arts is a perspective on life. It’s not the range of courses we’re talking about. Those are only the raw materials with which liberal arts works. It is understanding multiple perspectives, yes, but more importantly it’s about the connections across the perspectives. It is about connecting Christian faith with the contemporary world, but not in a fixed form. It’s about the exploration that allows vibrant expression of faith in a changing world. In that regard, Liberal Arts is a means of interrogating options. It is about finding balance. As Morgan Guyton wrote today, it is an expression of Wesleyan methodology (i. e., “the quadrilateral”). It’s about the process of bringing together diverse perspectives, being able to communicate those clearly, and to creatively solve problems. That’s why the American Association of Colleges and Universities has shown the same pattern for years: that employers favor the skills that come from liberal arts education.

Employers aren’t asking for employees that could tell you about art history or english literature or introductory sociology. They want people who can anticipate a world in development. The same thing the church desperately needs. The same thing our students need to “critically participate in the contemporary world“.

Christian Liberal Arts is about seeing a variety of perspectives (faith, science, economics, humanities, etc.) synthesizing those perspectives in creative ways, and following the leading of the Holy Spirit to advance the Kingdom of God. That’s a story that works on all levels and I’ll need to spend more time unpacking it next time I teach the capstone course.

Why We Do What We Do

So I’m in the process of finishing up my grading for this year. Two sets of papers to go plus a couple of stragglers. Commencement is Saturday. This is the end of my second year at Spring Arbor. It means I’ve been here long enough to have significantly invested in the folks who will cross the platform to shake the president’s hand.

I knew something had changed about a month ago. I was at the spring play (starring one of my students) when one student I haven’t had told me he was excited to be taking my sociological theory class next spring. Shortly thereafter, I realized that a number of our majors had taken to calling me “Hawthorne“. Not Dr. or Prof or even John. Just Hawthorne. I realized that it’s what they use as a reference when they talk about me. And now they use it as my appellation. It means I have an identity in their universe.

Last week I was in a meeting with the peer advisors who work with our freshman groups. We were talking about the nature of service. I wound up repeating a line I’d used for years: that the thing that makes a Christian residential liberal arts institution special isn’t that people know students by name — it’s that they know me. Not as the name at the top of the syllabus but as me.

I’ve invested myself in them and they’ve invested themselves in me. It’s what Spring Arbor means when we call ourselves a “community of learners“.  Those that leave us this weekend change that community as we go forward. I’ll feel a sense of loss (even though Facebook lets me stay in touch). And we’ve already begun investing in a new group of freshmen who came to preregistration last weekend.

This interpersonal dynamic is what Pete Enns was describing in this excellent post yesterday on the joys of teaching Bible classes at Eastern University. He wrote: Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college requires transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. It is my job as the professor–especially in teaching some potentially tough topics–to create that culture.

I’d take Pete’s point one step farther. To create that culture, he has to embody transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. As Parker Palmer has written in nearly all his books, that embodiment (incarnation) is game-changing. Students find the ability to dream, to take chances, to push themselves.

One of my students wrote yesterday that she’d always thought the integration of faith and learning was about balancing content. Now she thinks about seeing learning as an expression of her commitment to Christ. She’s still working on what that means for her, but it’s exciting.

Today Christianity Today had this editorial about the future of Christian Higher Ed. It tells the familiar story: rising costs, concerns about debt, ponderings about the role of distance education. The author argues that churches should care about Christian universities because that’s where ministers come from and how parishioners get benefits from Christian faculty in their midst (and who, in turn, keep aware of life in the pew).

Such a narrow vision of the purpose of Christian Higher Education will not serve us into the future. We don’t exist FOR the church by operating as some kind of leadership farm club. We exist AS the church reaching out into the highways and byways. Our graduates can go out and work in community to advance the Kingdom of God because they’ve been practicing faithful Christian living for four years.

We send out missionaries. Some of them go overseas. Some work in insurance companies. Some work at Starbucks while they figure out the right grad program to attend. But they’re all carrying something forth — the notion that a community of learners matters in shaping identity.

This is why MOOCs are not the solution. If having great content delivered by folks like Michael Sandel (and he is good — I use his book in my capstone class) was all that mattered, then the folks at San Jose State and American University need to get with the program.

But it’s not just about content. It’s about personal investment in lives. And that investment is worth more than the tuition we charge. The payoff comes when we see that timid freshman cross the platform four years later as a confident and thoughtful adult. It comes when we hear that the village he serves in the Peace Corps has been dramatically changed because of his investment in the people there. It comes when new ministry forms emerge that keep Young Evangelicals engaged in the local congregation in ways that are authentic and meaningful. It comes when their children show up at the college ready to go through the whole cycle for a new generation.

Saturday my students will cross the platform and I’ll stand and clap for them. I’m looking forward to meeting their families and talk about how much we’ve been through together.

But mostly I’m excited about who they are and where they’re going. The world will be changed by their presence in it. And I’m just humbled to play a part in God’s work in this place.

Christian Higher Education hasn’t lost its mission. We just need to do a better job of reminding ourselves that it’s been right here under our noses the whole time.

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.