Tag: Barna Group

The End of the Evangelical Project?

Regular readers of this blog are aware that I’ve spent much of the last decade exploring an idea that there are new trends within White Evangelicalism that could potentially reframe our future understanding of this subset of the religious world. Specifically, I’ve argued that many younger evangelicals (and some older ones) have abandoned the separatist structures of their youth and replaced them with a new level of cultural engagement.

Over the last two years I have been working on a book project laying out the argument. Since retiring I’ve been able to devote some more time to the project, restructuring the introduction, reordering the chapters, and thinking about next steps in the research.

However, during that time I have been reading four remarkably important books that have upended the entire project. As a result, I’m not exactly sure where my research should go and have put things on “pause” while I try to figure out if a solution is feasible. That is the specific meaning of the title of this post. There is a general meaning I’ll come back to in a bit.

I’ve approached these four books as if we were peeling back layers of an onion. Yes, I’d argue, that is a problem within white evangelicalism as commonly understood. But what if we pulled away that layer and stayed with what was left?

I started with Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God. Andrew and Sam demonstrate that Christian Nationalism isn’t just an issue for white evangelicals but cuts across religious groupings. Believers in Christian Nationalism want a “Christian America” and are uncomfortable with other groups. Those who score high on their Christian Nationalism scale disproportionately support more conservative policies and were much more likely to have supported Trump from 2016 to today. The four categories of CN in their scale are Ambassadors, Accommodators, Resisters, and Rejectors. I was able to run their data (table 1.2) backwards to estimate the percentage of white evangelicals in each category: 39%, 38%, 17%, and 6%. There is some solace in the fact that just under a quarter of white evangelicals in the Baylor Religion Survey did not support Christian Nationalism. Peeling back the Christian Nationalism layer of the onion helps but not much.

The next layer I peeled off addressed issues of Patriarchy, Authoritarianism, and Toxic Masculinity (with some celebrity worship thrown in). Kristin Kobes DuMez’s much anticipated Jesus and John Wayne explores white evangelicalism from a cultural history perspective. Evangelicalism in many ways adopted primary elements of America culture — cowboys, warriors, strong men all — and incorporated them into religious understandings. These in turn sacralized certain definitions of the nation, marriage, the family, and politics. While Kristin would be the first to acknowledge that these patterns don’t describe all evangelicals, they have been a significant factor in both the public’s understandings of evangelicals as well as default markers within the evangelical cultural sphere. So what happens if we peel James Dobson, Oliver North, Mark Driscoll, John Eldridge, and the like away from modern evangelicalism? It’s really hard to say. Those images remain dominant in too many quarters. Just last week a leading figure in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) pretty much channeled Kristin’s entire book in advocating what good evangelical men are to do and be.

The next book release to show up in my mailbox was Robert Jones’ White Too Long. A remarkable combination of history, autobiography, and data analysis, Jones’ book paints a dire picture of the ways in which white supremacy has been imbedded in American theology, not just in the evangelical south but throughout the country. In the data chapter, he contrasts various views of race across major religions traditions (white evangelicals, white mainlines, white Catholics). None of these groups come off well. While white evangelicals score higher on his racism scale (and on individual items that make it up) than do mainlines and Catholics, he says it is more a difference of degree rather than kind. The real contrast on these racial issues is between the religiously affiliated and the nonaffiliated. This pattern holds among those who attend church frequently and across regions. This was underscored by research this week from the Barna group showing that “practicing Christians” were less concerned about issues of race in 2020 than they had been in 2019, even though it’s been a key issue in the public eye since June. In other words, pulling away the layer of racial attitudes as represented in religious groups doesn’t leave us with much.

The fourth book in this cycle was Sarah Posner’s Unholy. A journalistic account of the rise of the Religious Right and its alignment with the policies of Donald Trump, it runs parallel to the arguments in the other three books. She highlights the role of religious television, especially among charismatic evangelists in contributing to a unique view of the world with dark forces at work. Another of the themes that Posner keeps returning to is the linkage between the conservative political establishment and the major evangelical figures over the last fifty years. One of the figures that is just beneath the surface in the rise of the Religious Right is Paul Weyrich, who created the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This frequent interplay and cross-fertilization between conservative politics and white evangelical organizations in unavoidable. Along with the other three books, it shows the ways in which imaging white evangelicalism without nationalism, conservatism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism becomes nearly impossible. One more layer of the onion peeled away.

But maybe there’s something still at the center of the onion, something that can give hope for the future as we look for a new plant to emerge. Many people have responded to critiques like the one I’m making by saying that this doesn’t describe their local fellowship, where people worship together and form community. There is clearly some truth to that but there are challenging signs even within local congregations.

Last month, Katelyn Beaty wrote a persuasive article in Religion News Service (subsequently expanded in an in-depth NPR interview) examining the ways in which the QAnon conspiracies have made inroads into evangelical churches. Pastors find themselves hard pressed to speak against the claims of deep forces controlling the world with Trump as savior. Recent social media posts have suggested pastors may find their positions at risk for attempting to correct these ideas. So even people who regularly attend church and enjoy worship with their friends may be trafficking in ideas very different from the Gospel when it comes to their Facebook feed.

Last week Christianity Today reported on LifeWay research regarding “the state of theology”. Using the standard screen for evangelicals drawn from the Bebbington Quadrilateral, the examined a number of different beliefs. A distrubing finding was that 30% of those categorized as evangelicals did not agree that Jesus was God but that he was simply “a good teacher”.

When I combine the racial, political, and gender ideologies shaping today’s evangelicalism with QAnon conspiracies and theological heresies, I’m not sure that I can argue that there is any core left to the onion. Given that, it is not surprising that Evangelicals for Social Action changed their name to Christians for Social Action.

The implication for my book is clear — I need to rethink my direction and focus less on evangelicals. The broader question about whether evangelicalism survives in any meaningful form remains an open question. I’ll explore more of that in my next post.

Christian Higher Ed: Thoughts on a Friday Afternoon

Sometimes it’s useful to have a blog to connect the dots on things I’ve been reading or seeing all week. Late Friday afternoon seems like a good time to stop and ponder stuff.

FridayIt was encouraging to read this piece yesterday from Thomas Albert Howard, professor at Gordon College, about the unique value of religious institutions. Dr. Howard summarizes the history of faith-based institutions. He observes that our schools have had a bias toward cultural separation and were fans of in-loco-parentis (or at least the parents and trustees were fans). He contrasts the Gordon experience with Tom Wolfe’s hypothetical (and hyperbolic) I Am Charlotte Simmons.

To Howard, the real heart of institutions like Gordon depends upon the value of personal mentoring; investing in the lives of students as they make sense of their vocational call. This, he says, is not something done in large lecture halls, or MOOCs, or online chats. He concludes:

But as outliers in the current scene, they harbor much promise. Generally, they evince more political diversity among their faculty than elite schools; they see that a life given to Mammon alone is a hollow one; they recognize the claims of community and tradition; they cherish the eros of learning; they are repositories of moral seriousness in a culture of ironic incredulity.

He observes that other colleges may pursue similar goals. Sure enough, the same day that Howard’s piece appeared in Inside Higher Ed, a piece appeared in the Chronicle written by A.W. Barnes, dean of liberal arts at the Pratt Institute in New York. Barnes similarly dismisses MOOCs and large-scale efficiencies. Instead, he advocates for a form of education analogized from the farm to table movement. Eschewing mass production and genetically modified gimmicks, he wants a “farm to brain” approach to education. This would be heavily dependent upon interaction, mentoring, and joint exploration.

Barnes concludes by addressing the question of costs. While he sees the locavare approach to education as superior, he rightly worries about how accessible it would be for students of average means, the very students who most need that investment of time and personal resources. In fact, the commenters on Howard’s piece (at least one of whom has commented here) raise the question of the cost of private religious education.

The concerns about costs are real and should make us all refocus our energies on the distinctiveness of institutional mission. I was struck by this argument in the Chronicle by Henry Riggs, president emeritus at Harvey Mudd in California. Riggs suggests that our focus on competing for the best and brightest may be fueling the tuition discount wars and possible tuition escalation. Maybe we would be better to focus our energies in a triage manner — invest in those students who will be most changed by their time in a smaller, faith-based institution.

Of course, doing so runs the great risk of not being recognized by the mighty U.S. News and other college rating surveys. Since so much of their calculation goes to reward schools that are highly selective, pay large salaries, and have significant endowments refocusing our attention to real mentoring and life-shaping would seem to hurt institutional reputation. Perhaps Christian universities especially should prioritize service to others over recognition by the educational establishment.

I’ve written quite a bit on the whole millennials and faith question. But yesterday I received an update from the Barna group about their ongoing millennial project. They identify five components necessary for millennials stay connected to church. Here are the five: 1) meaningful relationships, 2) practicing cultural discernment, 3) focus on “reverse mentoring” (where the millennial is valued as a person of dignity), 4) importance of vocational discipleship, and 5) facilitate connection with Jesus. It doesn’t take much imagination to connect Barna’s five components with what Howard and Barnes are advocating about good education.

I’ve had a couple of student Facebook friends knowingly share  a cute article, “22 Signs You Went to a Small Liberal Arts College in the Middle of Nowhere“. I liked it a lot (especially #13). And yet there is something that happens in that environment that is potentially revolutionary. I’ve argued in my book that the Christian university aspires to be an outpost of the Kingdom of God. It’s a place where the last are first and were we lay down our lives for others.

It’s been a good week. Lots of good class discussions about privilege, justice, the limits of utilitarianism and measures of central tendency. A quick decision to take the justice class to watch a drama colleague do a wonderful one-woman show on Flannery O’Connor. An opportunity to hear a theologian discuss the connections between ecology and faith with a commitment to seeing God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. All that surrounded by too many good conversations with students to count.

I think I’ll do this all again next week.

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.