Tag: Addie Zierman

“Done” with Church: An Institutional Analysis

Earlier this week I posted a fictional retrospective from December 2015 on what I thought would be the big religious stories of the year. The first of these had to do with the “Rise of the Dones”: those people formerly heavily engaged in church who were now not attending. Over the next three days, my social media feeds seemed to keep sharing stories that affirmed my supposition.

A friend, a Christian college professor like me, shared a Huffington Post piece from late 2013 on “Why Nobody Wants to Go To Church Anymore” (his mother, who’s my age, affirmed the critique). Another friend shared this reflection by Alece Ronzino, which sounds similar themes to Addie Zierman’s book I reviewed here last year. Benjamin Corey wrote an excellent pair of articles explaining why he wasn’t fully at home with Progressive Christianity or with Evangelical Christianity. Yesterday I received an e-mail update from Univeristy of Northern Colorado sociologist Josh Packard, who has been collecting data on Dones. His site introduced me to Thom Schultz, who manages a website on Dones.

Whenever I see this kind of convergence of stories in a short period of time, I have two reactions. First, I affirm that that there is something here worth attending to. Second, I try to use my “sociological imagination” to see if can dig deeper as to what it going on.

In the midst of this barrage of stories, I was reading Andy Crouch’s Playing God. He builds the caPlaying Godse for a Christian, creative, view of power: one that is not zero-sum but ever expanding the flourishing of all impacted. I’ll write a more thorough review of this excellent book in the next couple of days.

In the middle of the book, Andy does some sociology. In fact, he offers one of the cleanest explanations of the sociological notion of “institution” I’ve ever read. His chapter should be excerpted for every Intro to Sociology text.

Using the image of football, Andy argues that institutions have cultural artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles. In other words, there are things (footballs, helmets, pads) which have a mandated use. There are places where the things are used (stadiums, vacant fields). There are rules which govern behavior (and systems for enforcing that expected behavior — football broadcasts now have “rules experts” that they call on to interpret what referees are thinking when evaluating those rules). Within the context of the artifacts, arenas, and rules, we have the actual roles people play (spectator, quarterback, offensive guard, strong safety, line judge). He also argues that institutionalization takes three generations (each generation is roughly 25 years) to establish, doing some nifty work with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Nearly everyone interested in the Dones is looking for a way to see them re-engage in the life of the church. In fact, so do many of the Dones. I want to see church be a meaningful experience where people draw closer to God in the midst of a supportive community. That’s my church at the top of the page and I have a vested interest to see people in that congregation who are free to be who they are as a part of the Body of Christ.

So it seemed natural to attempt to use Andy’s handles for institutions to try to make sense of what’s going on with the Dones. It’s easy to see how arenas have changed: many follow the megachurch model and have flashy sound systems, projection units, auditorium seating. One can see shifts in artifacts as we move from hymnals to choruses and from Bible studies to popular author video series. However, more fundamental are the changes in the rules and roles.

I wanted to be able to do something really cute with Andy’s three generation hypothesis but I can’t quite make the numbers work. I would still argue that the rules started shifting around 1980 and it may have taken a generation and a half for us to begin to recognize that those rule changes were dysfunctional. Let me quickly explore four changes.

The Moral Majority was officially formed in 1979 and operated throughout the 1980s. In its wake we found a sense that real RefereeChristians were those who held the “right” views (in both meanings of the word). This meant that part of the refereeing involved figuring out who was inside and who was out. If you were one who disagreed with the dominant view, it was a tough place to stay.

Willow Creek began meeting in the mid-1970s with a new set of operations: organizing services around reaching the unchurched. This meant changing the arena and the artifacts to reach a whole new group of “spectators” who were otherwise being missed. This is a commendable goal, but as it expanded to other settings, the role of faithful multi-generational member became harder to identify. (The Wikipedia page linked above lists the age based ministries at the church, the oldest of which is college aged.) As the focus on being “seeker sensitive” expanded, it left less room for the long-time churched.

At about the same period, popular preachers drilled home that being a Christian required absolute discipline (with little instruction on what that meant). I remember sitting in an adult Sunday School class on New Year’s Morning in the mid-80s where the teacher was talking about the discipline shown by football players in bowl games (didn’t talk about their off-field behavior) and challenging us to show that kind of discipline in our faith. All I could think of was that it was New Year’s morning and I was in Sunday School and that wasn’t enough. If the roles defined are beyond normal reach, people will disengage rather than continue to be yelled at. Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill are a bit of an anomaly but may be the exception that proves the rule — if you want to watch a pastor “tell it like it is” as a spectator, that may work for you but many others will leave.

Pee Wee FooballFinally, the over-professionalization of ministry roles has limited the space for “normal people” to be involved. The preaching pastor has his “teachings”. The worship leader manages the praise team to achieve a desired end. The children’s pastor makes sure that kids are entertained and learn valuable lessons. (It’s tempting to spend time on the death of sandlot football and how they have been replaced by Pee Wee youth leagues — same over-professionalization).

The result of these various shifts in institutional culture over the past generation and a half is that the role of congregant has shrunk in both importance and task. If it feels like people are spectators, it’s because that’s what the rules call for. If we want something else, we’ll need to rethink some institutional arrangements.

Maybe we could begin by making some rule changes that create space for creative engagement on the part of everyday followers of Jesus. If the arena was designed to make them the center of cultural activity perhaps the Dones would realize that they have far more to offer to the Body of Christ.

They haven’t given up. They just don’t want to play in the current arena. We should change it for the better.

Identity Evangelicalism: Addie Zierman’s When We Were On Fire

I’ve been away from the blog for a couple of weeks as I was wrapping up my paper for this weekend’s meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis. I’m presenting on the idea I’ve been exploring for the last year: how evangelicalism is changing form from one based on Industry Evangelicalism to one based on Identity Evangelicalism. I’ll try to summarize the paper in another blog post once I see how things go on Friday.

After laying out some of the conceptual arguments I’ve presented here before, I contrast two memoirs. The first, Mark Driscoll’s take on the building of Mars Hill (Reflections of a Reformission Rev), contains many indicators of evangelical structure, separation from others, authority and charisma, and internal control. To say it was hard to read is an understatement. It’s more accurate to say that I suffered through it and felt relief when I was done in the same way one feels when you stop hitting yourself with a hammer (that’s a Driscollish subtle turn of phrase).

On FireThen I got to read Addie Zierman’s When We Were On Fire. I had decided that I wanted to read a memoir from a millennial evangelical as my Identity example and had several to choose from, but honestly felt led to go with Addie’s.

I’m so glad I did.

Addie tells the story of what it was like to grow up immersed in evangelical subculture in the Chicago area in the 1990s and 2000s. There is much that is familiar to other evangelicals: See You At The Pole, What Would Jesus Do, True Love Wait, Missionary Zeal, Rock Music will ruin your soul, Three Minute Testimony, Summer Missions, Controlling Authorities.

In short, she grew up in the world that Mark Driscoll wanted to establish. And yet something wasn’t quite right.

One of my favorite passages has her with her mother right after Amy Grant came out with her crossover hit “Baby, Baby” which ran shivers through the evangelical community of the day.

She shook her head at the silliness of the whole thing, but you stared out the window, silent, thoughtful. You were born to a world within a world, and suddenly you could see the marked boundaries. You could see that there was an in here and there was an out there and between them, there was a yawning chasm. You could see that it was big enough to swallow you whole (20).

There’s so much in that one passage. The world in here and the world out there and the chasm between. The book reflects her search for self that can navigate that contested space. She is surrounded by a subculture that has clear definitions of reality (even when she knows that there are other perspectives) and people who have put a priority on maintaining those definitions (the tightly structure missions trip and those who work for it seem to revel in extreme and draconian stances).

Wherever she goes, whether to a good Christian college or to teach in a mission school, she seems surrounded by people playing along. She finds it difficult to be herself, expressing doubts, asking questions, living life. Where many others just quietly drift away from the evangelical world, Addie tries to find her faith in ways that don’t stifle her identity. It’s not easy and there are some dark periods of the book, but it’s clear that she’s never that far from what she believed “when she was on fire”.

Where Driscoll plays with ridicule and a forced certainty, Addie asks questions. She tells her story even with the dark moments because that’s the reality (while he still claims to be victimized by others).

As I finished Addie’s book, I found myself very hopeful about millennial evangelicals. They aren’t abandoning the faith, they are trying to live it honestly. It’s just that Industry Evangelicalism makes it so hard to do so.

The takeaway question for me, the one that I’ve been wrestling with over the last week or so, isn’t about millennials at all.

It’s about people like me. Why is it that my generation thought so little of prioritizing evangelical cultural expectations over an authentic sense of self? Why did conformity to rules and standards limit the ability to recognize grey areas? Why did we go along with structures that sometimes bordered on the repressive? And what are the lingering obstacles to healthy Christian discipleship that result from all that?

And yet Addie reminds me that I can’t just think of the past. New things are happening and it’s exciting to be part of it. Here’s the closing of her book:

Christ is not static or an end result. You are not suspended in grace above the fray of life. You are looking at God through a kaleidoscope. Your life moves, and the beads shift, and something new emerges. You are defining. Redefining. Figuring it out all over again. You are in motion, in transit, in flux. You will be sad. You will be happy. You will love and doubt and cry and rage, and all of it matters. You are human, and you are beloved, and this is what it is to be Alive (239).

Nothing I can add except a hearty Amen.

Bifocal Vision: Sociology of Religion and the Religious World

SSSRAs the picture suggests, I’m at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion happening this weekend in Boston. As I’ve listened to the first half-day of papers, I’m reminded of the strange but helpful role that sociologists play in understanding the dynamics of religious life.

When I first started teaching, I ran across a book in the college library about how one couldn’t be a Christian and a sociologist at the same time. It would, the author suggested, inevitably lead to a compartmentalization of faith. It bothered me so much that I developed a special rebuttal for the opening of my sociology of religion course.

It’s helpful, I said, to see the church as a sociological entity because we can isolate the dynamics it shares with other institutional forms. While those observations can prove difficult, they are helpful in the long run. The rebuttal ended with a celebration of God’s Invisible Church, the Body of Christ, because there is no good sociological reason that the church has survived two millennia of occasional stupid and wrongheaded actions. In short, the religious forms we see are only the institutionalized representations of this deeper theological idea. None of my students applaud at the end of that speech, but I felt better.

Maintaining such a distinction requires being able to see both the church as sociological structure and the Church as theological reality simultaneously. In other words, we need bifocal lenses. We need to be able to see close-up and far away. To be more accurate, my glasses in the picture are technically “progressive” lenses. That means that there is no sharp distinction between the immediate and the far-off. I see things as a smooth transition from one to the other. So it is with sociology and faith. The distinction is not quite as sharp as we might think.

One of the papers I liked this morning was by Jay Demerath, a significant figure in sociology of religion circles. I loved that he ended his paper with a poem in Dr. Suess fashion that combined sociology, Durkheim, and St. Peter. But more importantly, he suggested that Durkheim’s distinction between Sacred and Profane maybe needed another factor. He said we should be thinking about the Secular, the Ordinary, and the Profane. (Durkheim’s use of profane was the opposite of Sacred and not in reference to Miley Cyrus videos!) Jay was speaking to what I mean in seeing things with progressive lenses (not politically progressive but seeing smooth movement from one to stage to another).

Here’s another fact about my glasses (actually my eyes). I was born with wandering eye, so sometimes my eyes would cross. Basically, my right eye just did whatever it wanted. So when I was three, we went to the hospital and the doctors cut a muscle in my right eye. There are some lingering effects, but the key one is that I don’t see stereoscopically. In other words, Magic Eye puzzles and 3-D movies are wasted on me. My eyes don’t work together. While my left eye is dominant (and I’m aware I’m using it), I can easily switch to my right. If you’re following my analogy, it means that I can see the purely sociological AND the deeply spiritual depending on how i decide to look. I’ve been blessed and cursed with being aware of both simultaneously.

I went to the Durkheim session today because he’s been on my mind lately. I’m not really a Durkheimian but I find his thought helpful, especially when ferreting out some complex phenomenon. In Division of Labor in Society, he distinguished between structures based on Mechanical Solidarity and those based on Organic Solidarity.

In the former, the primary dynamic is sameness. Everyone shares values and norms. Violation of those norms results in serious sanctions, including expulsion or death, because to tolerate a breach in the barriers that separate those “in here” from those “out there” is deeply threatening to the entire social group. Group members believe in the validity of their positions by internalizing what he called “collective conscience”. While this is an oversimplification, the primary dynamic of a group based on mechanical solidarity is maintaining the cognitive, symbolic, and behavioral boundaries that give the group identity.

Organic solidarity, on the other hand, is based on interdependence. In a diverse society, characterized by lots of different perspectives and values, what binds a group together is their division of labor. It is because they need each other to flourish that they must overcome the differences. Perceived violation of norms results in actions taken to restore relationship. You can’t send people out of the group because you need them.

As I wrote last week, I’ve been thinking about the dynamics of evangelicalism in a pluralistic world. We have to find ways of maintaining a faithful witness even if the world around us is increasingly diverse. But we cannot do so by trying to manage the boundaries between in-groups and out-groups. Instead we must see other groups as connected to us, even if we don’t fully understand.

That’s part of the ongoing millennial response against rigidity in the church (see this piece that Addie Zierman had today in The Washington Post as an example). They just want to figure out how to be faithful Christians without separating from their social circles.

Religion was the topic for ethnic relations Tuesday night. I did a quick overview of Durkheim on religion and then showed two news reports on relationships between Christian Churches and Islamic Centers (I was setting up next week’s look at Muslim Americans). One report was from Murfreesboro, TN. The other was from Cordova, TN.

I’m suggesting that the Murfreesboro folks were responding in a way consistent with mechanical solidarity while the Cordova church was based on organic solidarity (there’s even the added piece of interconnection between the pastor and the cardiologist).

I told my class that whenever the church is focused on boundary maintenance instead of faithful witness, we’re getting it wrong. They didn’t applaud, but they made me repeat and unpack what I’d said. They didn’t get the whole mechanical/organic lecture but what I was saying did seem to speak deeply to my class of millennial evangelicals.

Another helpful paper today was by Purdue sociologist of religion Fengang Yang. He spoke on the relationship between Religious Pluralism and Religious Freedom. He had a helpful contrast between pluralism at an individual level and pluralism at a social level. This distinction allowed him to argue that even if individuals believe that their approach to religion is right and true as opposed to others, they still have an interest in protecting the role of the others because that’s necessary to sustain the individual’s own religious freedom. The structural religious freedom allows for the conversation about the individual differences. Fengang didn’t talk about Durkheim at all in his talk, but I saw his analysis as a wonderful illustration of organic solidarity.

I’m certainly not trying to use my glasses to disrupt the faith. The sociology is only one of the lenses. The other lens, the Christian lens, still sees God operating to build his Kingdom through His church. Seeing clearly depends on keeping both in balance (which those of you who like 3-D movies can do far better than I).

I’m not abandoning commitments to right and wrong. I’m saying that using bifocal lenses lets us see how others see us and the complexities of culture. It’s important that we begin with the recognition that we’re all in this together and then begin the hard work of figuring out what that means. Doing so will require clear vision from all of us.