People Like Me

I finished drafting another chapter for the book today. The chapter has the title of this post: People Like Me. I use that to explore the tension between two competing forces in our search for community: affirmation of individual identity and community built through recognition of others.

I describe the first idea by reading the title as People Like ME. Remember back when Al Franken was a comedian instead of a United States Senator? Does the name Stuart Smalley sound familiar?

Admittedly, Stuart tries too hard. Yet the sentiment of wanting to be known is common to us all. Set against that are the demands put on us when in groups. We want to fit in. I think of that by reading the title as PEOPLE LIKE me.

Pursuing both of these simultaneously requires Grace. Much of the chapter explores the stages of community building outlined by M. Scott Peck. His four stages are pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and then community.

Pseudocommunity is where we live most of the time. The dominant ethos is one of politeness. We don’t want to make waves. We want to fit in. Doing so comes at the price of the very affirmation we were looking for. If I tell people what I really feel, others in the group would be uncomfortable. There could be a scene. I might even be ostracized, thereby losing the sense of belonging.

Too many churches and too many Christian universities are characterized by pseudocommunity. It’s why we advertise them as “friendly, family oriented” places. In other words, nothing will happen here that will make you uncomfortable.

Sometimes, however, we’ve got enough safety to let a bit of our true selves out. We start sharing uncomfortable opinions. Some people won’t like what’s been said. There will be bad feelings all around. This is what Peck calls “chaos”. That’s probably a little melodramatic but it does characterize a lack of control and the introduction of uncertainty. You know then you’re there because suddenly a number of others try to squelch the discontent and restore the politeness norm.

Peck says that we can press on to “emptiness”. That’s another label that may be more Buddhist than intended, but it means to go along with the uncertainty. Parker Palmer says it requires adhering to a rule of “no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight.” In other words, it means to live with the uncertainty without attempting to resolve the situation.

Then, and only then, do we get to community. Like the stage theories I explored a couple of posts back, these aren’t fixed in time. We slide back into earlier patterns and must repeat the process as we go along.

It’s helpful here to remember that Bonheoffer’s wonderful little book Life Together underscores that we don’t make community happen. Community, he says, is a gift of God’s Grace. It comes because all of us in the group stand in common relationship to Christ as the basis of our connections. It comes because we are together pursuing obedience to Christ.

I was wrapping up this chapter when the news broke that Exodus International was shutting down and president Alan Chambers issued a statement of apology. I haven’t been impacted by EI in any way, so my reactions to the apology and the end of the ministry probably don’t count as much as others. But as I look at his statements and those of others on Facebook and Twitter, glance at comment sections, and generally pay attention, it strikes me that Chambers’ statements certainly begin to push the edges of pseudocommunity. When you read reactions of those deeply scarred by E-I’s work over the years, we begin to approach chaos. When we add in the reactions of those who wouldn’t be happy with any apology, we’re getting really close to it.

Looking at community in this way suggests that the evangelical world can move back into pseudocommunity or forward through chaos. If the former, we’ll isolate into interest groups of like-minded folks where our identity can be affirmed without threat. Our groups can then comment about the wrongness of those on “the other side”.

Or we can venture on through chaos. We could choose to live with the uncertainties of those who are trying to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation on the one hand while others are tying to reconcile hospitality and scriptural authority. The truth is that the way forward is messy.

But if Bonhoeffer is right, and I’m sure he is, we aren’t making that journey alone. It takes courage to build community that isn’t based on safety, that affirms the identity of the other. It’s a courage well beyond our own capacities. But not beyond God’s.

P.S. As I was finishing this, Andrew Marin of the Marin Foundation posted this response to the Exodus story which illustrates what I tried to say here at the end better than I did.

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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.

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.