Tag: American Grace

Tectonic Shifts

TectonicI’m here in Idaho for the annual meetings of the Wesleyan Theological Society. Yesterday, Northwest Nazarene hosted a pre-conference event titled “WESLEYTALKS” (using the model of TED Talks). In addition to a number of video presentations and discussions, we had a series of afternoon workshops.

I made back-to-back presentations of the Industry Evangelicalism and Testimony Evangelicalism distinction I’ve been blogging about. I wasn’t sure how it would be received because it was the first time I’d unpacked these ideas when people could actually see me, challenge the presentation, and ask questions.

My presentation was built around a series of geologic metaphors. My overall point was that there is a massive shift going on in evangelicalism. It is a move from Industry Evangelicalism, based on structures both physical and sociological, to Testimony Evangelicalism, based on authenticity and interpersonal engagement. Just as the movement of tectonic plates gives rise to volcanic eruptions and earthquake activity, the shift in evangelicalism’s tectonic plates gives rise to various crises, conflicts, and concerns.

In other words, the visible activity is a result of the underlying movement. To understand the volcanic eruption, we need to understand the underlying geology. To understand the latest evangelical twitter fight, we need to look beneath the surface.

The presentation wove together a number of sources I’ve written on before but never tied together quite as well. I worked through the component parts of Industry Evangelicalism, based on boundaries, structures, charismatic leadership, conformity of followers, and a general combative stance with the broader culture. This is part of what Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace spoke to and is also reflected in much of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason. Putnam and Campbell describe the building of evangelical infrastructure as the first aftershock (another geology reference) to the earthquake that was the 1960s. While Worthen’s timeframe starts earlier than that, her book similarly places the expansion of evangelical visibility in the same era.

But earthquakes and aftershocks create damage. That damage results in instability. And in some cases, the best we can do is to construct complicated scaffolding to protect the institution from further damage. I used the pictures below as an illustration. This shows the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. following the August 2011 earthquake.

Cathedral

Part of the damage done by Industry Evangelicalism is seen in declining percentages of Americans identifying with evangelicalism in national polls and the dramatic rise in religious “nones” among the millennial population.

I suggested that Testimony Evangelicalism is the emerging understanding that subsumes the Industry tectonic plate. Testimony Evangelism, as I’ve written before, is based on story and interpersonal engagement. It affirms contact over boundaries and puts a priority on authentic and ongoing relationship.

Here is the image I’ve adopted to represent Testimony Evangelicalism.

Ned

There’s just something about Ned Flanders. He may be one of the most clearly evangelical characters on television. Sure, he can be kind of nerdy and Homer and Bart enjoy picking on him.

But Ned never goes away. He keeps building that relationship with Homer and the family. He tries to enter into their lives even if they don’t fully understand his. I observed that Ned’s approach is in sharp contrast with Rev. Lovejoy, the other expression of a person of faith (there’s another blog post in here for sure).

When I reviewed the Worthen book, I observed that there were always alternative voices to those building Industry Evangelicalism. Because I was at a Nazarene school, I especially celebrated the role of H. Orton Wiley and Mildred Bangs Wynkoop. They were forerunners of my Testimony approach.

Putnam and Campbell see the rise of the religious nones, especially among the millennials, as a response to the organizational structures of Industry Evangelicalism (watch Jeff Bethke’s “Why I hate religion but love Jesus”). This is consistent with the argument David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons make in You Lost Me.

I suggested that we could begin to see how Testimony Evangelicalism could work if we simply took Kinnaman’s themes describing the estrangement of millennials and reversed them. Instead of being over-protective, it would be known as a place of trust. Instead of focusing on pat answers, it would wrestle with complexity and tolerate ambiguity. Instead of being concerned about science or societal changes, it would give freedom for hard conversations.

In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argues that there have been three dominant styles the evangelical church has used to engage culture. The first is “defensive against”, which sees culture as an enemy bringing siege to the battlements. This is the response of Industry Evangelicalism. The second is “relevant to”, which embraces culture and simply folds it into the church. While it’s easy to pick on historic mainlines, the consumerism of seeker sensitivity and the prosperity gospel both fit this form. The third is “purity from”, which describes the Amish and some Holiness groups. Culture should be avoided to avoid infection. Hunter sets these up to talk of a fourth style: Faithful Presence:

Whether within the community of believers or among those outside the church, we imitate our creator and redeemer; we pursue each other, identify with each other, and direct our lives toward the flourishing of each other through sacrificial love.

This is the style best representing Testimony Evangelicalism.

I had a good crowd in both sessions. Most of those attending were pastors and lay leaders from the region. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

But I was absolutely thrilled by the response both in the discussion period that followed by presentation and conversations I’ve had over the past 24 hours. Church leaders, at least those who opted to spend some time at a theology conference, saw this shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimony Evangelicalism as a sign of hope within their ministries. I was asked what we could do to get denominational leaders to pay attention to the argument, but there was also a recognition that this just might be the old form of the question.

One of the most encouraging moments happened at dinner last night. Bob, a senior pastor in Washington, told his district superintendent pretty much the entire presentation and recommended it as a topic for future meetings. More important, he told me he wished he was just starting his 40 year career today because the opportunities are so bright. It’s what happens when we faithfully give people the opportunity to speak authentically.

As Ned would say, “Hi-dilly-ho, neighborinos!”

Two Modes of Evangelicalism: Industry Evangelicalism

This is a follow-up piece on last week’s post that connected Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to the changing nature of American Evangelicalism. It also builds off of the post I wrote for the Respectful Conversations dialogue on the future of evangelicalism. Finally, it’s informed by my reading of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason on the early years of evangelical establishment.

To be fair, this is still a work in progress (isn’t that what blogs are for?). I’m trying to wrestle with some distinctions that can align with some of what we’re seeing in a number of areas in both the sociology of religion and contemporary evangelicalism. I want to contrast two forms of evangelical expression: Industry Evangelicalism and Testimonial Evangelicalism.

WeberFrom a purely sociological perspective, I’m using what Max Weber called “ideal types”. These are ideal only in the sense that they don’t exist in real life. In fact, the differentiation between the forms may exaggerate characteristics in ways that border on caricature. But that’s still useful from a theoretical standpoint. Weber was able to contrast real-world situations with his ideal types to understand the social dynamics in operation. Two of his most famous analyses based on idea types are his examination of economic systems (the Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and his church-sect typology.

As I’m conceptualizing it, Industry Evangelicalism is concerned with maintaining a following. This requires a media platform, organizational structure, and easily identifiable leadership (with an equally identifiable set of followers and defenders). Its power is dependent upon separation from other organizations, a sense of being persecuted and misunderstood, and a publishing or broadcasting infrastructure.

On the other hand, Testimonial Evangelicalism is based on the authentic sharing of story. It is based on interpersonal relationships. Any power that is involved is the social psychological power of personal story. The story is authentic because it rings true. It avoids pat answers and mischaracterization. It is willing to risk holding contradictory positions and tolerating ambiguity. In short, it is best expressed in John 9:25: when asked how Jesus had healed him, the blind man said “I don’t know: what I do know is that once I was blind and now I see.

What I am suggesting is that we’re seeing a shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimonial Evangelicalism. This is an important distinction. What many see as a decline in Christian commitment within society is not a decline but is a transformation. This is always the way God’s church has remained fresh and vital in the midst of a society prone to the syncretism of combining religious perspectives and affirmation of distinctive cultural values.

I’ll unpack the theoretical implications of Testimonial Evangelicalism in my next post. First, it’s necessary to explore Industry Evangelicalism.

In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell argued that one of the contributing factors for the growth of religious “nones” is the dogmatism and harsh stances of evangelical leaders. Younger generations found public comments and harsh tones to be a bridge too far, essentially saying “if this is what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.” This pattern is replicated in work on millennial questions about evangelicalism. I’d also suggest that the gulf between evangelical churches and mainline churches is as much this matter of tone and dogmatism as it is about theology.

There are a host of examples of Industry Evangelicalism. I’ll ignore the Duck Dynasty controversy here because I’ve already addressed it except to wonder who put out those Facebook pages about “standing with Phil Robertson“. Were these put up by some individual DD viewer? Probably not. It is far more likely that organizations that search for religious conflict put together these Facebook pages and asked Christians to “like” them. If I were really cynical, I’d think that “liking” got you on some mailing list. I’m sure that happens in the political arena and fear that the same models are being used in Industry Evangelicalism.

This week offered some concrete examples of the ideal type. I don’t have all the details behind these examples, which is where Weber’s approach is useful. They offer some indicators even if they aren’t perfect matches to the ideal type.

A group of Baptist college and seminary presidents raised concerns over the role of biblical inerrancy espoused (or not espoused) by their faculty. In the process, they raised concerns about academic freedom as generally understood within the academy. Peter Enns, reflecting on the article today, suggests “There is no hope here of reasoned, learned, discourse. Only circling the wagon and protecting turf.” Circling wagons and protecting the institutional turf reflects the prioritization of “our position” above all else.

Christianity Today had an interesting article this week on changing ties between Christian colleges and their sponsoring denominations. It’s a good piece and reflects the tensions present between attempting to build an inclusive enrollment (the article connects to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity) while the alumni and trustees are denominationally connected. The article observes that denominational giving is down compared to years past. While Union University president David Dockery does a good job of connecting these changes to non-denominationalism, he’s quoted at the end of the article expressing concern that loss of denominational structure “will likely lead to a weakening of the college’s Christian identity.” There is a presumption that it is organizational form and control that protects identity and that a college’s ethos (and the commitment of its faculty) is not strong enough to maintain identity. The impression this gives, while softer than the Baptist presidents above, still privileges institutional form above exploration and authentic dialogue.

Also this week Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and seen on thousands of television screens each week, released advanced information from his new book in which he says that President Obama is setting the stage for the Antichrist. It may be progress that he doesn’t think the president IS the antichrist but it still reflects a conflictual style that takes a legitimate disagreement (same-sex marriage) and puts it in the starkest possible context. It will sell books for sure. More importantly, to be called out in the Huffington Post is exactly what Industry Evangelicalism needs for success. The HP folks will ridicule the position taken by Pastor Jefress and he (and his folks) will take great solace in being disliked and misunderstood by HP. It’s good for the “brand”. (The similarity between this strategy and political structures is particularly disconcerting).

Yesterday Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle (and subject of lots of questions about the originality of his books) tweeted “If you aren’t a Christian, you’re going to hell. It’s not unkind to say that. It’s unkind not to say that.” I’m not really trying to explore the theology of universalism. I was really trying to figure out what prompted the tweet in the first place. Driscoll’s followers wouldn’t be surprised at the tweet. His detractors would be outraged. Was he hoping for push back on what he saw as unquestionably Christian orthodoxy? Or, as my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wondered, is it about the need to present a simply constructed worldview where answers are easy and uncomplicated?  Again, I’d argue that the tweet operates to keep the organizational position consistent in the face of complexity.

A consistent theme in Apostles of Reason is the development of evangelical infrastructures against supposed critics and pitfalls from outside. While there are major stories of accommodation to cultural changes (I just finished the chapter about Christian colleges pursing secular accreditation), those are always seen as pragmatic moves that must be watched closely to protect the institution from outside interference.

In short, then, I’d offer three keys to knowing if we’re dealing with Industry Evangelicalism: 1) is maintaining the status quo necessary to protect institutional power; 2) is there money to be made or followers to be developed through the immediate controversy; and 3) do the players hyperbolize their position and exaggerate their victimhood?

As I’ll argue in my next post, Testimonial Evangelicalism offers an entirely different set of characteristics that are more reflective of life in a complex, postmodern, messy, diverse culture. It’s not less Christian. It’s a different expression of the Truth of the Gospel.

The Optimism of Careful Conversation

Tomorrow’s sociological theory class is about Jurgen Habermas.

How’s that for a conversation starter? Actually, reading up on Habermas helped me make some connections with practices we need in the church, our colleges, and our politics. It came at a good time when I was dealing with high degrees of frustration about communication.

Yesterday former ambassador, presidential candidate, and conservative pundit Alan Keyes spoke on Spring Arbor’s campus. I didn’t go to the lunch (it cost money) but I did attend the open discussion in the afternoon. We had a couple of interactions that I’ve written about on Facebook. I want to be clear — I have no objection to having conservative speakers on our campus. Both Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo did chapel this spring and were well received.

What troubled me about Ambassador Keyes was the way he made his arguments. Not just loud and ideologically driven, they actually made it hard to follow the argument due to the sheer number of loosely connected ideas. On many occasions, I felt that it would be good to hit the “pause and rewind” button to review the logical connection that was being made. Because many in the crowd liked his conclusions, it seemed the way he got there was less important.

The same thing happens to some liberal pundits. They are so intent on making their derisive points about conservatives that they don’t make good argument.

It happens in churches. Thanks to a tweet from Rachel Held Evans today, I learned of this story of Tim Keller’s speech at the Gospel Coalition. According to the author (and commenters who were there), Keller suggested that one of the major obstacles to true revival was related to young people having premarital sex. I’m not advocating for premarital sex, but the issues of today’s culture cannot be handled in such a reductionistic fashion. There are a host of issues related to the authentic questions young evangelicals are asking. Sex is a minor one. As Jamie the Very Worst Missionary wrote, sex is a big deal but not the biggest deal. I’m reminded of the argument Putnam and Campbell made in American Grace: that the rise of evangelicalism was in part a push back against sexual freedom of the 1960s. It proved not to be enough of an argument over the long run.

Politicians’ “discourse” seems intent on stating their preferred positions (especially those favored by the gerrymandered constituency). Politicians and pundits caricature the other side, distort their positions, and make speeches in front of empty house chambers in order to cut YouTube videos.

Which brings me back to Habermas. His project in the latter part of the last century involved the connections between quality communication and civil society. He makes some remarkable claims. First, he suggests that there is a form of Objective Truth and that we can attend to a reality not dependent upon our personal opinions. Second, he affirms the possibility of intersubjectivity — that we can understand another’s position even if we disagree with it. Third, our conversation must avoid both coercion and ideology. Finally, by practicing careful conversation that attends to the other and respects the value of their position, we begin to weave together a civil society.

I’m reminded of a book I read long ago by defense attorney Jerry Spence. It was called How to Argue and Win Every Time. It was a little slight of hand: he really suggested that if you made your argument so carefully that the other fully understood, that constituted a win. I still find it helpful.

I don’t know if Spence read Habermas, but I like the continuity. We must learn to speak in ways that carefully engage the other’s legitimate position, examine complexity in place of shibboleths, and think about how our argument will be heard. These are important liberal arts skills directly related to critical thinking.

Our colleges do best when we figure out how to handle diverse positions. Our politics do best when they are addressing the complexity required to pursue the common welfare. Our churches do best when we can affirm God’s Story without minimizing the complexity of His work in the contemporary world.

I needed to hear Habermas today. He will keep my optimism alive for at least another week.

On Building Bridges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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