Tag: Dean Kelley

On Drawing Lines in the Sand

[My August submission to the American Evangelicals dialogue at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on Morality.]

We like to draw lines in the sand. It shows that we’re serious. We have expectations. Beside, we argue, didn’t Dean Kelley say that conservative churches grow because they place expectations on their members? Shouldn’t we be avoiding Bonheoffer’s “cheap grace”?

There’s a big problem with sand. It doesn’t stay where you left it.

The wind blows across the dune and leaves no track of your footprints. The waves come into shore and obliterate the nice trench you just dug. Over time, water saturates the sand so that it turns to slush and the sandcastle falls down.

sand

What then do we do with our lines in the sand? One option is to reinforce them. After drawing the line, we can build little Maginot lines to make sure the trench doesn’t collapse. A second option is to build little zones of protection around the line. We won’t actually deal with the moral challenge of the line, but will substitute other moral positions. A third option is to adopt the lines of those around us. Another option is to stop drawing lines altogether. Since they can’t be maintained, why even bother?

Exploring the questions of morality within evangelical culture is difficult because there are a host of prior questions that are unexplored. In the early 1980s, I presented data on Christian college students’ behaviors in areas like alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex (and other stuff as well). The first question was “Why are these the important measures? What about poverty, race, the arms race?” I really didn’t have a good answer beyond “That’s not what the sponsors asked about”. What I should have said was, “Much of evangelical discussion on morality is individual and pietistic. We may not like it, but there it is.”

It’s hard to draw lines in the sand in meaningful ways. In its early days, my denomination couched its moral stands (alcohol, circuses, and the like) as “Guides and Helps for Holy Living.” Twenty years later, the same section of the denominational standards was called “General and Special Rules”, the violation of which constituted “peril to your soul and the witness of the church.”

Here is a sociological question I’ve pondered throughout my career: How does a voluntary association like a religious organization pursue conformity to moral expectations?

If the organization is voluntary, then one has little risk of being forced out. Not so the situation of a state church with a monopoly on access to the means of grace, where failure to adhere meant denial of religious participation.

If one is ruled “out of compliance” in a local congregation, what is the penalty? Leaving this congregation for another than doesn’t hold out the same requirements? Giving up on religious practice in favor of a privatized spirituality?

It is with these lenses that I come to the question of evangelical morality. I suggest that there are some modern moral questions around which the evangelical church has built Maginot lines: abortion, homosexuality, creation (becomes a moral issue because “evolutionists” are seen as denying all morality). We are unable to examine these questions because we have built an infrastructure around the line in the sand. We can’t even get close to the real line.

There are other modern questions of morality that take the second form I suggested: creating demilitarized zones around the line, so we never run the risk of crossing over. Here I’m thinking of attitudes toward premarital sex. We’ve created entire subcultures about purity pledges and modesty norms to keep us far away from the real question. There are some remarkable things being written by young evangelicals right now about the damage created by these demilitarized zones. Purity pledges and modesty norms put great pressure on young women to keep their menfolk away from the line in the sand.

The third image I had of the sand involved outside forces (like the surf) crashing over the line. This relates to the primacy of individual morality over social morality. We can’t talk about broad issues like inequality, racism, the environment, immigration, the common good – moral questions all. The broader cultural and political dynamics have overrun our biblical and spiritual sensibilities. This is how “social justice” gets a bad name in political discourse.

Finally, the line just gets absorbed into the surrounding sand. For too long, evangelical morality had an identity component: “we’re not like them”. So dancing was out, as was social drinking, divorce, premarital sex, pornography, and so on. But the supposed separatism quickly gave way to an understanding of diverse social patterns. We met people who drank socially. We found that those folks in second marriages were pretty cool. The identity separation was overrun. That’s why Ron Sider can write such a scathing book in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, documenting that the gaps between evangelical Christian behavior and that of the rest of society is distressingly small.

So, to use a phrase evangelicals have liked a lot over the years, “How Should We Then Live?” What is the basis for Christian morality in this diverse, busy, loud, postmodern age?

First, what it is not: it is not about identity politics from any perspective. It is not about being forced to hold a certain position of morality because that’s what our folks believe. It is certainly not about “liking” some random picture on Facebook.

We need morality framed in the discipleship of Christian community. We struggle together with questions in their complexity. We have to talk about sexual abstinence as a goal for young people while still recognizing the power of biology. We need to talk about the appropriate role of alcohol (that goes beyond the requirement of beer companies to tag “drink responsibly” at the end of the wild party commercial). We need to talk about the complexities of same-sex relationships. We need to consider what Justice looks like in a world of such inequality.

The scriptures provide us with guidance of general principle here but not specific answers. They suggest that the answer is “somewhere in that general direction” without drawing the line in the sand. We listen to the leading of the Spirit as we honestly strive together to engage in Holy Living.

The internet has been ringing this week with echoes of Rachel Held Evans CNN piece on millenials and faith (it’s getting almost as much play as Reza Aslan’s Fox Interview!). But millenials recognize that we live in a complex world. One in which simple answers that sell books in Christian bookstores won’t address.

I believe the evangelical church has much to offer the broader culture in terms of a human morality that is based in community and looking for the greater good. Doing so will require us to engage those different than ourselves in honesty and humility. It will call us to listen more than speak. It will mean that we have to tolerate ambiguity in a complex world. It will mean leaning toward shades of gray and not seeing things as black and white. It will mean being Christlike.

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.