Tag: David Kinnaman

Trying to Make Sense of Making Sense: Christians, Cognitive Consistency, and Colbert

I’m having a cognitive crisis.

Not because I spent three days in marathon grading mode wrapping up the fall semester. Not because of the incongruity of Christmas shopping and the season of Advent preparation.

My crisis arises because I’m an academic. More specifically a social psychologist who studies contemporary American religion. I have long held to a core principle is social psychology: that human beings strive for consistency in their attitudes and behaviors. That lack of consistency or coherence is an uncomfortable situation that motivates people to change in order to alleviate the inconsistency.

I keep running across data that is hard to reconcile with a cognitive consistency approach. It would appear from some of the data that people just aren’t very reflective about the positions they hold. In short, they don’t think deeply about contrasts between Christian theology and support for torture by the American government according a survey by the Washington Post. If they’re aware of the inconsistency, it seems fairly easy to ignore.

Academics and journalists have a much higher commitment to cognitive consistency and strive to uncover the linkages that will explain the responses on the surveys. Perhaps, theologians argue, that belief in the efficacy of torture is naturally congruent with the assumptions of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (the theory that God had to punish the innocent Jesus who was voluntarily taking the punishment for our sins).

Perhaps, a sociologist might argue (disclaimer — it was me Monday on Facebook), people maintain a mythic structure that supports belief in the basic Linus Van Pelt version of Christmas story regardless of their actual Christian commitments in response to this year’s Pew Survey about the Christmas story (I wrote about this last December.)

Or maybe they just aren’t into cognitive consistency. Maybe after twenty-plus years of talking points and litmus tests, we respond in predictable ways as we think we’re supposed to without cognitively reflecting on how these responses align with other positions we hold, especially those that define us as Christians. But the social psychologist in me says that this isn’t normal and needs to be repaired.

That, in summary, is the source of my crisis. Let me now try to expand my struggle.

The Theoretical Perspective

I distinctly remember learning the dominant views of cognitive consistency in my first social psych class. In fact, I decided to share this mini-lecture with my wife on our first date (she still remembers).

Fritz Heider’s Balance Theory attempted to show how we can be placed in a position of inconsistency and feel great pressure to adjust. He used interpersonal relationship as an example. Balance TheoryIn his telling (shown on the right), a Person P has an attitude toward some object X. P also has attitudes toward another person O. If P doesn’t like X and O does, then P should not like O. If P likes O and finds out that they have different ideas toward X, P feels pressure to either change his attitude toward X or find another friend. Heider explains that this is overly simplified. Nobody does this with a single X — but if you imagine large numbers of Os and Xs, you can see how balance is maintained. Fritz would have absolutely loved Facebook and Twitter. It’s his theory in daily practice.

Osgood and Tannenbaum had a slightly more nuanced version of Balance Theory that they called Congruity Theory. It also focused on both attitudes toward people and objects but it added a more refined measure: the salience of the position held. They suggested that some attitudes are stronger than others and therefore more impervious to change. But incongruity is still a difficult condition and must be resolved. But both attitudes affected will shift toward some common position. It’s reminiscent of the old Groucho Marx joke, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me for a member”. CongruityHere’s how it works. Attitudes toward things or people are scaled from negative to positive and from 0 to 3. So +3 and -3 have equivalent salience but in opposite directions. For the sake of example, let’s suppose someone has a mildly negative attitude toward President Obama (-1) and an off-the-charts positive attitude toward A Charlie Brown Christmas (+3).  Then Obama tells everyone that Charlie Brown Christmas is the most important part of the family Christmas celebration. Charlie Brown Christmas can’t be that great anymore because the Obama family likes it. Obama can’t be as awful because he likes Charlie Brown Christmas. Notice that the more weakly held position moves further as congruence is restored.

Then there’s Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. As most people know, when there is a conflict between two attitudes or an attitude and a behavior it creates dissonance that must be resolved by shifting one of the elements. The nice thing about dissonance theory is that it adds the possibility of eliminating the dissonance by adding a new element to the system (the way dissonant chords in music resolve when the right tone is added).

The Crisis

Issues of the last several years — politics, media, religion — seem impervious to cognitive reshuffling. People on all sides hold to their pre-existing positions without any regard to new information. What factors contribute to this?

One possibility is that there isn’t really a problem at all, but the inconsistent/incongruent/dissonant patterns are really methodological artifacts. For example, it’s possible that the evangelical-torture connection isn’t a rational linkage but a spurious correlation with party identification (especially in the south). If people in southern red states are more likely to vote Republican and more likely to hold to evangelical self-identifications, then their support of government policy on enhanced interrogation may have more to do with pro-nationalism related to party than with theological stance. Relatedly, what we’re seeing might be an artifact of the questions asked.  A friend recently examined some data on gun control and showed how the framing of the question creates differential outcomes. It’s quite likely that similar things are happening when Pew asks people if they believe the Christmas story. More nuanced questions might come closer to the mental constructs people actually possess.

Another possibility is that we’ve overplayed the monolithic nature of religion. Perhaps there are such diverse views present among American Christians that their different views cancel each other out. This recent piece by Cathy Grossman of Religion News Service tries to give voice to the diversity of religious thought.  She quotes David Kinnaman from the Barna Group that no more than 7% of Americans are “theologically by-the-book evangelicals”. (I’ve written Kinnaman looking for the source data but haven’t heard back yet.) If this is legitimate, then a lack of congruence between theology and politics is not surprising. In fact, finding congruence or consonance would be the unusual thing.

A third possibility, and the one that troubles me most, is that after decades of talking point arguments in our political and religious spheres, we have come to place less importance on holding complex yet coherent positions. That somehow, it’s important to maintain our univocal positions despite disagreement, to talk in our closed networks on social media, and to see any equivocation as a sign of weakness. Yesterday, Ed Stetzer shared summaries from the Time to Speak conference on racial reconciliation. He included this quotation:

Albert Tate, pastor of Fellowship Monrovia in Monrovia, Calif., also called on Christians to think biblically rather than politically: “Our disciples sound more like the disciples of Fox News and CNN than they do the disciples of Jesus Christ.”

This becomes surprising when we consider how much Worldview language shows up in Christian rhetoric. For example, this week the folks behind YouVersion of the Bible released their most shared verses for the 2014.  This year’s winner is Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”.

But renewing the mind requires work and change. It makes us think and reorganize our mental processes.

Unless we don’t.

Last night marked the end of The Colbert Report, where Stephen Colbert satirized the talking point world by taking it to its natural extremes. In his opening spot last night in his classic segment The Word, he argued that he’d gone nine years without changing.

And while I’ve always reminded you to be afraid, folks, I don’t want you to worry. You see, on my very first show I told you truth doesn’t come from your head, it comes from your gut. And back then, my gut made you a promise. “I know some of you might not trust your gut yet, but with my help, you will.” And you did.

Maybe Colbert come on the scene with an awareness that something had shifted in American society. That we didn’t rely on logic and coherence. The irony is that the devoutly Christian Colbert (the man not the character) probably has the most cognitively consistent view of the world one can find. Hopefully, he will continue to teach us much.

To New Freshmen at Christian Universities

[Adapted from the talk I gave to the incoming Freshmen at Northwest Nazarene University August 27, 2014]

You are in the midst of the second of four major life transitions. As a sociologist, I think about things like transitions and rights of passage. I’m going to look quickly at four such transitions. Today marks the start of the second transition but I’m going to push your focus to the fourth.

Many of you had the first transition at least 13 years ago right about now. If you went to kindergarten, there was a time when your parents explained that you were about to go to this thing called “school”. School is a place where somebody else controls your time, people evaluate your achievement, and someone not your parents has authority to tell you what to do. If you went to pre-school, you got an early introduction to these lessons. If you were homeschooled, you’re jamming the first two transitions into one big change.

You just came through orientation, so I don’t need to spend a lot of time on the second transition. Still, this is a huge transition. You don’t have parents checking up on you, you get to meet folks you’ve never met before, you become responsible for your learning. There is a tremendous tension between your newfound freedom and the discipline necessary to be successful. Remember, everyone else who started with you is on a steep learning curve. If they seem to have it together, they’re just better at pretending.

The third transition is the other bookend to what you are currently going through. For most of you, in three years and nine months, you’ll put on gowns and celebrate your launch into the world beyond college. It’s not “the real world”. This is all real. But it is a matter of moving from a supportive community where you are known and people have your back to a world where you will make your own way. You’ll find a job (the first of many) and begin to sort out what real adulthood looks like (which may take another 6-8 years).

The fourth transition is one that we don’t talk a lot about because it doesn’t have the same defining markers as the others. There is no special recognition and no ceremony. You won’t put pictures on whatever social media is by then. But it is the point where you have fully grasped your sense of calling and purpose. This may not come until you are between 35 and 50. But it is the point when you’re contribution to the larger world is established. Frederick Buechner calls it “the place where your great gladness meets the world’s deepest need.”

The Christian University Journey is aimed at the fourth transition. This is the heart of Christian liberal arts education. We are concerned with not just what you can do but with who you are when doing it. We want you not just to know how to do a job but how to process what to do when the rules of the game change. We want you not just to tell people you love Jesus but to see your understanding of what it means to be a Disciple to be the plumb line that gives you stability in a changing world.

It is tempting to focus on what needs to happen to meet graduation requirements. We in Higher Education worry far too much about checklists and majors and requirements. If there’s a bad guy in my book, this is it. To blindly follow the checklists, make sure you check the right boxes, but not to take away important lessons from the experiences you have is to waste a lot of time and a bunch of money. If you focus on checking off the boxes, it means that you only need to get C grades and do minimums. If you are really committed to what college offers you and stay in communication with others, you’ll cover the checklists along the way.

Over the last decade in Christian Higher Education, we’ve had many more conversation about jobs. This is something your parents were concerned about. They certainly don’t want you to spend all this money for college and then move home to live in their basement and play video games. Actually, that image of you in the basement is highly offensive and doesn’t do justice to either you or your school. The stories of unemployed college graduates are largely overblown and based on anecdote. It may not be the career job, but people in your generation are willing to be patient while looking for the “right” position. The actual data shows that you not only will find work but that you will make over $800,000 more than someone who didn’t go to college. Some of that is because the economy has tanked for those with only a HS diploma. But it’s also because you develop valuable skills and orientations. The job canard is just like the degree one. Focus your attention on your own growth and learn how to explain that to others and jobs will follow.

Instead, take an active stance toward your learning. Let me give you a hint about laptops and cell phones. Your professors know when you are taking notes and when you aren’t. Classes have a natural rhythm and points are evenly spaced. When you are looking at your screen and clicking away out of rhythm, it’s clear that you’re on the internet. But the more general issue is to bring all of your attention to class. Seriously try to do the reading before class. Even if you didn’t get all of it, familiarize yourself. Ask yourself questions. Make mental connections to other things you’ve read. Talk to your faculty member after class. In short, invest your time in your classes and it will pay dividends. Even classes you aren’t crazy about will be the source of connections you’ll use later in other classes or papers.

When you look at your educational experience as something that’s preparing you for the long term, you take a different approach. You may not keep all of your textbooks (they are expensive, after all). But the ones that were especially meaningful should be part of your ongoing library. You’ll find yourself returning to them in future years. Think about what you learn in each of your classes that you want to hang on to. Connect the dots as if you had strands of yarn that show the significant linkages discovered along the way. If you can practice describing those linkages and what they meant to you, graduation and jobs are a natural byproduct.

You are key to the future of Christian Colleges. The world is changing and your generation is key to what’s going on. So while you are on a journey, so is the rest of Christian Higher Education. If you follow the news and check on the internet, you know that we’ve entered a Post-Christian period. No longer are we in a culture that presumes Christian guideposts as the default position.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, has said that your generation is “discontinuously different” from earlier generations. There are many sources in sociology that confirm his data. Your generation is constantly connected, keeps friends from diverse backgrounds, has grown up with values of tolerance, and is frustrated with business as usual. You have remarkably potent hypocrisy detectors.

You look for authenticity and community while struggling with your own personal identity questions. You’ve grown up in a world very different than the one I grew up in. These are hard questions for your grandparents and maybe your parents. But much less hard for you.

In spite of all the challenges of the economy, jobs, government, the church, and culture, your generation is remarkably optimistic. Far more so than earlier generations. You see the culture as improving and opportunities as expanding .

All of that gives you insights into what is going on that your Christian University needs to hear. As I’ve written before, you are the canaries in the coal mine of our culture. You represent modes of thinking that will be dominant over the next twenty years. Christian colleges need to hear from you but recognize that they will change far slower than you might want. Resist the temptation to disengage. Have honest conversations with school leaders recognizing that change can be hard for everyone. It’s critically important.

We are all part of the tapestry of God’s Kingdom. So what does it mean for all of us, students and professors alike, to be pursuing God’s leading in our lives academically, socially, and spiritually? It means that we aren’t alone. We impact each other. That’s why settling for box-checking or job-hunting is so disappointing. It’s not just you that get’s shortchanged. It’s all of us.

Toy StoryThink about the Toy Story movies, for example. Woody and Buzz may look like the stars, but they are all influence by each other. And that influence means that they are all responsible for what happens to each one. That’s the heart of Christian Liberal Arts education. While working on your own stuff, you are bringing others along. You are figuratively holding hands, just like at the end of Toy Story 3.

That means that God’s Kingdom is built by people being obedient to the Holy Spirit’s leading as we engage each other’s stories in order to help them become what God has implanted. Together we are working on God’s behalf, not only to pursue our own goals and dreams, but to advance his Kingdom wherever we find it.

Welcome to the first step in this exciting journey we call Christian Liberal Arts. You’re in for a wonderful ride!

 

 

 

“Millennial Deniers”

NextAmerica_3d_260x260I have been focused on millennials for several years now. In part, it’s an outgrowth of what I do for a living. Teaching Christian college students over three decades, I’ve been aware of how their interests and positions have shifted over time.

As I’ve examined these shifts sociologically, I’ve been struck by how a number of different sources seem to converge in telling separate aspects of a larger story. There is the perspective of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who sees the 20s as a period of Emerging Adulthood. This correlates with changing attitudes toward sexuality and later ages of marriage. It corresponds with a remarkable increase among millennials in likely to report no religious affiliation and a decline in traditional religious commitment. It shows up in the polling from Gallup and Pew that shows a truly remarkable shift in millennial attitudes toward same-sex marriage even over a two year time span. It shows up in David Kinnaman’s work on the previously religious who see the church as overly judgmental, anti-science, anti-gay, and anti-doubt. It shows up in a generation whose economic prospects look very different from early generations, who may live at home for a season, but who seem more optimistic about future. It shows up in a generation that is more digitally adept than any before it, sifting information from a variety of sites and testing claims (even fact-checking sermons!).

As David Kinnaman puts it, this generation is “discontinuously different“. That difference deserves to be taken seriously.

So it baffles me when I read articles from leading religious figures arguing that there really isn’t anything to these differences. Or, if there are differences, it’s because the church has not been sufficiently firm on key issues. I saw a tweet today from Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention saying “the myth of the Liberal Evangelical Millennial is exactly that.” Others have pointed out that this depends upon what the meaning of liberal is (or, what the meaning of Evangelical is).

I grant that evangelical millennials don’t exactly mirror their general millennial peers in the issues I summarized above. By and large, they will skew somewhat more traditionally. But they are responding to the same social patterns, internet presence, and general anti-institutionalism the entire generation is responding to.

Here’s another example. Earlier this month, Rob Swartzwalder wrote a piece called “Why Younger Evangelicals Are Leaving the Church: Some Arguments Against the Conventional Wisdom“. To his credit, he recognizes that there has been some backlash among millennials against overreaching statements by conservative leaders. He also observes (quoting Bradley Wright) that we’ve seen younger people leave institutions before. He responds to a straw argument in a piece Carol Howard Merritt wrote four years ago about the impacts of sexism, intolerance, and conservatism. But he centers in on other reasons why evangelical youth might be leaving the church.

1. Evangelical churches try so hard to be palatable and relevant that we become distasteful and irrelevant.

2. Evangelical leaders too often don’t preach/teach on the essential doctrines of Scripture because of their lack of confidence in the power of God’s Word to transform and because they don’t want to offend.

3. Evangelicalism has failed to articulate and advance the biblical view of human sexuality.

4. Our youth have been raised in an era in which personal autonomy is seen as the greatest good and in which revealed truth is seen as malleable.

In short, the solution to preparing today’s evangelical millennials to be faithful Christians is to go back to old separatist patterns of rhetoric.

I just finished Paul Taylor’s The Next America (pictured). Taylor, president of the Pew Research Center, summarizes a vast array of data on the generational differences separating the four living generations in America: Silents, Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. One of the subtexts of the book is the inherent competition between Boomers and Millennials, especially in terms of economics, jobs, and social security.

He distinguishes, as do many excellent sociologists, between three different factors shaping generational differences: Life Cycle Effects, Period Effects, and Cohort Effects. For example, the first looks at how all 18 year olds of any era handle transition from parental structures. The second, looks at pivotal events that affected all generations (e.g., JFK assassination, Moon landing, 9/11). The third, which is his primary focus, examines how the social milieu surrounding a generation coming of age differs from those that came before.

Taylor’s book is very good. While we won’t have a great war over social security (because relationships trump policy for millennials), there are intractable changes afoot. And like social security, this will pit Boomer priorities against Millennial priorities.

If we keep characterizing this as a zero-sum game, there will be no winners. Instead we’ll see increasing populations shifting into the “religious none” category (which has lost its social opprobrium).

Why would religious leaders be so interested in denying the reality of millennial change? I’d suggest a couple of reasons.

First,  having denied the ways in which the church has responded to culture in the past, they hold an exaggerated view of constancy. I’d argue that the entire “seeker-sensitive” movement was a direct response to the suburbanization of baby boomers who weren’t affiliated with evangelical churches. To legitimize millennial culture change is threatening to worldview arguments. It confuses life cycle effects with the other factors.

Second, their view of orthodoxy is maintained by stereotyping the younger generation rather than engaging it. I don’t know exactly what Moore meant by Liberal Evangelicals. With such a fuzzy label, he may be speaking of some group other than the evangelical millennials I know on the internet and in real life. But rhetorically, he’s able to say “they aren’t all like that” without responding to the very real shifts that are going on.

Third, as I’ve been writing for some time, the millennial generation privileges relationship over abstract principle. This embrace of diversity is disruptive to systematic approaches to apologetics. Hence, the retreat to slippery slope arguments. This is the key to the cohort effect.

I’m the first to admit that millennials are a diverse bunch. “They really aren’t all like that.” But their understanding of and commitment to diversity is the secret to their strength. It is in the messiness of that variability that God is moving.

To my colleagues who are concerned about excesses of the millennial generation, I beg you to engage the dialogue in open ways and leave behind the stereotyping and demagoguery for authentic engagement. I hear some of my evangelical millennial colleagues calling for that kind of open dialogue that leaves behind labeling and name-calling. This is a very encouraging sign and provides us with an opportunity to be the church at work.

 

First Step: This Time It’s Different

Putnam

One reason I’ve followed the whole “millenials leaving the church” discussion is because it’s directly related to a central theme of my book. Many of the responses to the millennial debate have either focused on  personality characteristics or life cycle issues. The former argue that millennials are entitled and narcissistic, so they are unhappy because the church doesn’t meet their unique needs. The latter argue that all young people are estranged from religion but tend to return once they’ve married and had children.

I believe both of these positions have missed the central question surrounding millennials — that they’ve grown up in a remarkably different culture than earlier age cohorts. The confluence of their cultural location with their questions about faith suggest the need for real changes in Christian education.

The third chapter of the book addresses the changes  social scientists have documented in recent years about today’s young adults. The chapter has informed much of what I’ve written in this blog. The first entry attempted to argue why these changes are important to Christian Higher education. I won’t repeat all of the argument here: today’s young adults are marrying later, have a less traditional commitment to institutions, are affected by Moral Therapeutic Deism, and have remained connected with diverse groups of others.

The culture they grew up in is what David Kinnaman calls “Discontinuously Different”. They were eight on Septermber 11th; they heard over and over that the world had changed. They grew up not only seeing gay characters on television, but they have known gay students throughout their schooling. They see science as a significant part of modern life and don’t see it as a threat.

The most important issue is that they’ve grown up in a culture where matters of faith were things that one had to nuance. Not everyone around (except in some Christian high schools) assumed biblical authority or religious orthodoxy as a given. That’s the significance of the chart above from Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace. It shows the percentage of 18-29 year olds who are identify as evangelicals or as religious nones. In a relatively short twenty years, the relative strength of evangelicals gave way to nones. In 1995, evangelicals had a 7% advantage over nones. By 2010, nones were up by 10%.

Millennials with faith commitments are looking for ways of engaging their questions without retreating from the broader culture. This is why the Barna research centers on concerns about science, doubt, homosexuality, cultural acceptance, and power. Our students are struggling to stay engaged with their culture while maintaining their Christian voice.

If Christian universities find the means of adjusting to these students’ concerns, we will play a central role in the culture unlike anything we’ve ever dreamed. If, on the other hand, we ignore these changes we’ll wake up one day irrelevant to the broader cultural dynamics.

Mainlines and Evangelicals: Developing Hypotheses

Has the institutional church had it? Is it on the way out?

You don’t have to look far to see questions about the health of the institutional church. From the growth of the religious “Nones” among the under 30 population to David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me to Rachel Held Evans post on CNN yesterday, the story seems to be that young people have issues with religion, especially in more rigid evangelical churches. The younger generation’s concerns are important because they fill slots in the church created by normal demographic change (that’s sociologist for “people died”). If there are not enough new people in the church willing to commit, what happens to all these churches?

I took my first sociology of religion class in 1977. At that time, two recent books were shaping religious discussion. One was Jeffrey Hadden’s The Gathering Storm in the Churches.  The other was Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing.

Hadden’s book detailed a study he’d done of mainline churches as they engaged issues of civil rights and social justice. He had found that there were two very different visions of religion between mainline clergy and their laity. The storm that was gathering was a result of conflict over the role of religion. The clergy wanted to push for justice and the laity wanted safe comfortable sermons. The mismatch risked driving people away, presenting survival challenges for mainline churches. The quote above is actually the first two lines of a newpaper story from Spartanburg, SC on Hadden written when the book came out (thanks Google!).

Kelley’s book suggested that conservative churches were growing because they demanded more of their members. Rather than an easy, country-club existence, he suggested that churches with stances against drinking or who expected high levels of participation would grow because the heightened requirements meant that people would draw greater meaning from belonging. It’s based on some decent social psychology as far as it goes. (The Presbyterians just released some interesting findings about growth at the congregational level and strictness, but I’m suspicious about correlates with region and rural location.)

The combination of these books painted a disturbing picture of mainline churches. They would prefer a culturally affirming connection to society and simply enjoyed coffee together. Because they didn’t demand a lot, their young people weren’t involved and the church was a bunch of blue-hairs quickly dying off.

Meanwhile, evangelicalism was the hot new thing. We had a born-again president. Roe v. Wade formed a rallying point for evangelical churches and Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority. The growth of a suburban middle class fueled the rise of family-friendly evangelical congregations. Sociologists set out to explain religious growth and decline (which proved much more complicated than Kelley’s thesis would suggest).

University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright has been exploring various issues about evangelicals. He recently analyzed General Social Survey data to examine how many evangelicals there actually are in America. He compiled this graph:

Wright Evangels-in-USThe blue line estimate the percentage of Americans who fit Wright’s definition of evangelical. From 20% of the population in 1970, the percentage peaks at about 28% in 1990 and starts back down again. Current data puts the percentage of evangelicals about where it was in 1975. What accounts for the decline?

I have three developing hypotheses. I’m hoping some of my religious and sociological readers will push back on these.

First, we failed to understand the resilience of the mainline church. While there are some overly culturally-affirming segments of the church, there are many more that are attempting to engage an intelligent, theologically grounded, critique of culture. These are not, as one critic suggested in this piece on the Christian left by  Jonathan Merritt, “deader than Henry VIII”. Mainline religion may still be managing the demographic transition of a generation unhappy with Hadden’s pastors. But they are being replaced with a very different kind of young adult. While the numbers of members continue to decline, the strength of the mainline church may be better than ever.

We need more careful examination of these trends. My experience with mainline churches finds them populated by people of faith who are mortified that they’ll sound like religious zealots. You have to listen harder to hear their faith perspective, but it may be deeper than you’d first think. Roger Olson had some interesting reflections this week on the mainline (which he’d rather call “old-line”). While I think some of his prescriptions (e.g., worship teams) miss the mark, his call for living spiritual experiences is what I’m seeing within the leading edge of mainline leadership.

Here’s the second hypothesis. I’m thinking that the rise in evangelical popularity in the 80s and 90s is an aberration and not a trend. It’s not that people are turning away from evangelical faith but that there was a temporary surge in popularity. Some of this is suburbanization and media narrative. Some may be reaction against the stereotypes about mainline religion happening at the time.

Sociologists and Religion Writers may make too much of distinctions between evangelicals and mainlines. According to my summary of data from the National Council of Churches Yearbook, there were just under 22.5 million members of evangelical denominations (70% of those are Southern Baptists) and  18.4 million members of mainline denominations. Both groups are showing signs of numerical decline (with some outliers) and are losing ground relative to population growth.

If the decline in mainline churches historically was due to demographic issues, it would make sense that we’d see large demographic differences between religious traditions. But the differences are fairly small. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion provide breakdowns by age groups:

Pew ForumThe percentage of mainline churches over 65 and under 29 differ slightly from the evangelical churches but neither of those percentages are that far off the total across religious traditions (the contrast with the unaffiliated is striking). This suggests that if evangelical churches find more difficulty in holding on to the young, their demographic issues are serious indeed.

The third hypothesis is that Hadden’s analysis of Mainline churches in the late 60s has an analog in Evangelical churches 40 years later. Just as activist voices on the left found separation between mainline pastors and laity, so activist voices on the right may be doing the same in evangelical churches. This is part of Putnam and Campbell’s argument in American Grace and it’s hard to dispute it. This is what prompts so many young evangelical leaders to find alternative ways of engaging “faithful presence”, to use James Hunter’s phrase.

As Young Evangelicals are looking for authenticity, they’re being careful about where they look for it. They don’t see a separation between evangelical and mainline churches as impermeable. That’s why posts like this one by Rebecca VanDoodewaard resonate with so many.

Hadden’s question about the future of the institutional church is an important one. But no one group has a monopoly on where the answer will be found. More attention to those churches which combine theological grounding with authentic community and service to others will lead us all to better conversations.

Hosea: The Reality Show

Today provided an interesting convergence of stories on the Huffington Post. Tom Krattenmaker wrote this piece which is a summary of folks from his book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know (my Amazon review is here). Tom points out that for all the media coverage given to folks like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, Westboro Baptist, and the like, the real story of influence is about folks like Gabe Lyons, Jim Henderson, and Kevin Palau. They are taking a very different approach to evangelicalism that is just as orthodox but less combative. It’s a positive sign for the next decade. Why don’t we know those names? How can thousands of people gather at Gabe Lyons’ Q LA last spring to explore new understandings of evangelical engagement and receive so little coverage? (I couldn’t find anything on the LA Times website but only did a cursory look.)

Tom tweeted about this HP story by Skye Jethani. Skye, who works at Christianity Today, explored the myth that evangelicals have been too political and that, in the wake of DOMA and Prop-8 decisions, may have learned their lessons. He correctly identifies the negative association that Kinnaman’s You Lost Me picked up. But he goes on to suggest that it’s not evangelicals in general that are encouraging the positions that drive folks away but the vocal minority the media likes to play on (the HP is notoriously guilty of this — they should read Skye’s article that they aggregated).  Skye observes that Meet the Press had Rachel Maddow and Ralph Reed in a DOMA discussion on Sunday — and surprise — they didn’t agree! It makes for conflict TV but misrepresents reality and slows collaboration.

Last month, Sarah Palin returned to her spot on Fox News. That night, John Oliver (filling in for Jon Stewart) fretted for a bit and then concluded “we could all just [expletive] ignore her”. I loved it. It was going to be my new mantra for all of the folks listed above who become divisive evangelical voices. Just Ignore Them. Hard work for sure — but way better for the blood pressure.

But today’s third story got me thinking that ignoring, while satisfying, was inadequate. In that piece, fellow Despised One Zach Hoag wrote about Christian Celebrity. He shares a picture of Joel Osteen praying with the producers of The Bible miniseries. He discusses the connection between Grand-Canyon-Wirewalking Nik Wallenda and Justin Bieber. And he shares an absolutely frightening vido clip advertising a reality series about LA prosperity preachers (scarier than zombie movies!).

I realized that ignoring the celebrity wasn’t enough. So I spent time thinking about how to co-opt the media fascination.

I’ve decided that we need a reality show based on the Old Testament prophet Hosea. We’d take some nice evangelical pastor, freshly out of Christian college and seminary, and have him start a nice little church. Then he’d marry a drug addicted, undereducated, flamboyant, abrasive, streetwalker. I see the concept as a Ryan Gossling type as the pastor and Snookie’s less stable little sister as the wife. Each week we’d tune in to see what would happen. Could he change her ways? No, she’s letting him down again. Having children with another guy. But somehow, our pastor keeps loving. He forgives and shows what it means to stand in as God’s agent for compassion and justice. He’d explain his longsuffering attitude and his commitment to Christ. They wouldn’t have money. Lindsey Lohan wouldn’t drop by. Just neighborhood folks and family members who keep telling him to dump the wife but he remains faithful in taking her back. Viewers would wonder why he keeps letting her come home. We could have them phone in votes on what he should do like American Idol or Do You Think You Can Dance?. But regardless of the vote, he’d take her back. And he’d explain that he’s doing so because that’s what God does with us.  This is the Good News.

Maybe then we’d get to know the evangelicals that Tom, Skye, and Zach want us to pay attention to.

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.