Tag: Emily Badger

Random Religion Reflections on a Wednesday

A number of things have caught my attention over the last few days. I’ve been trying to figure out how to tie them together in a nice coherent essay, but I can’t get there. So rather than spend a week crafting this post, I decided it was prudent to write some general reflections:

1. What role can congregations play in mitigating what Bill Bishop called The Big Sort?

One of the principle sociological processes of the 21st century is our tendency to stay in lifestyle enclaves. In suburban rings, these show up as gated communities (whether real or imagined). In inner-cities, they look like ghettos (in the technical and historical sense of the term). This separation has significant consequences for social policy.

This weekend, my friend Scott Emery posted a Washington Post article by Emily Badger (If you care about urban policy at all, follow Emily on twitter at @emilymbadger). Her article, titled “How our cars, our neighborhoods, and our schools are pulling us apart” summarizes work done by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone as well as other works. The byproduct of such separation is a lessening in interaction even with those in our neighborhoods and a general sense of distrust of people in general.

I shared the piece on Facebook with this question: “What would it take for the local congregation to be one place that counters this trend?” What if our churches were the places where people interacted with those different than themselves, shared meals, and actually shared lives?

I was thinking of a research project I conducted in the early 90s. I had hypothesized that congregations played a key role in linking various voluntary associations within a community. I examined the social networks within three congregations as well as their associational memberships. I found limited support for my hypothesis, in part because I focused on bonding capital (friendship) instead of bridging capital (information flow and problem solving). I completely ignored Grannovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties” that I’ve written about.

If we put a priority on both bonding and bridging capital in the local congregation, we’d do a great deal to counter the dynamics we’re seeing in the news. Local churches could be key sources of revitalizing communities while living out the call as the Body of Christ.

Emily Badger wrote another story about how the gentrification of urban areas can be a good thing if it means expanding jobs and services to previously isolated inner cities.  If millennials are disproportionately moving to cities and inner suburbs, their local congregations might be key to transformation. That is, if they don’t all settle for non-church community.

2. Attendance Still Matters

This was a theme I explored a couple of weeks back when I analyzed the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape study. In that post, I argued that you cannot really understand what it happening in evangelical and mainline religion by looking at membership apart from attendance. There are lots of folks who claim religious identification who rarely go to church and they shouldn’t be part of our calculations of what’s changing (or not) in the religious world. For example, the data on “church switchers” needs to take into consideration that 1 in 5 of those claiming a childhood faith rarely if ever went to church.

With the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention happening this week, there was news of a continuing membership decline. The SBC has lost 800,000 members since 2003. Trevin Wax wrote a nice analysis for Religion News Service exploring factors contributing to this change. He identifies four issues: the rise of nondenominationalism, lower birthrates, changes in attendance, and lessened outreach. It’s the third one that got my attention:

Several years ago, Southern Baptists began a conversation on membership and church discipline. After a resolution was passed encouraging pastors to be more accurate in reporting, many churches cleaned up their rolls as a way of moving toward “meaningful membership.”

To put this another way, it’s not just mainline churches who had “cultural Christians” — people who claimed religious identification but didn’t attend. This is significant to the whole “church decline” argument. If what we’re seeing is a shift away from casual membership, this is good for congregations. But it also means that what we used to see as the dominance of religion in society may have been substantially overstated.

3. Belonging is Prior to Believing.

There are many who would argue this the other way around, that right belief is a condition for belonging. But I think that’s bad social psychology. We have a desire to be accepted for who we are and to work through our differences as a condition of remaining in a group. If we are not allowed to be ourselves and to ask legitimate questions we have, there are serious social costs that result which play out in a number of ways. I wonder how many church conflicts, power struggles, gossip sessions, and fights over music style are really about identity more than content.

http://www.nakedpastor.com/2015/06/is-this-your-relationship-to-the-church-and-sale/
http://www.nakedpastor.com/2015/06/is-this-your-relationship-to-the-church-and-sale/

David Hayward shared this cartoon yesterday. He explained that this venn diagram describes his relationship to the church. But I find it has a deeper meaning.

If the left circle is who I am, then a small slice of me is allowed at church. Conversely, much of the work of the church has little impact on how I live my life. I’d label the overlap (which he labels “complicated”) as authentic identity.

Consider the lessons shared in this piece from Leadership Journal yesterday. Oneya Fennel Okuwobi explained the steps involved in building a truly multi-ethnic congregation: 1) Take time to listen; 2) Empathize with Outsiders; and 3) Going beyond a veneer of peace. These aren’t just lessons for dealing with ethnic or racial diversity — they are the steps toward true community.

The desire for community is not simply a millennial preference (although they may be less likely to hang around in its absence). This was the dominant theme in Church Refugees — those Done With Church simply couldn’t find the resources to keep going in the face of such denial of identity.

4. Rethinking Congregational Life

This is the central theme I wanted to weave together but I realized that I really need help from people who are involved in ministry on a week to week basis. But it seems to me that if we wanted our congregations to be places that people invested in, that impacted their communities, and that made belonging central, we’d do some things differently.

Perhaps we need to recognize the small group ministries are an admission that people aren’t at home in the congregation. They go to church and they “do life” in their groups. Why is this? What would it look like for us to do life on Sunday (making Hayward’s overlap a little bigger)?

Two of the schools I’ve worked at have had cohort based degree programs for adults. When you go to commencement and hear people speak of their experience, you find that their loyalty resides with Group 23 and not with the institution. Have we done the same thing in the local church?

I’ve been looking over some recent books by disaffected millennials. In seeing where they struggled with congregational life, we might gain insights into the questions we need to pursue (even if I’m not ready for answers yet). In Erin Lane’s excellent Lessons in Belonging, she shares some concrete ideas.

a. Identify peoples’ gifts (my edit: not in terms of what the church needs done but what gives them fulfillment — it’s called Asset Based Community Development)

b. Create safe space for sharing one’s life, maybe by limiting conversation to just a few minutes without judgment

c. Have everyone wear name tags at church (and make enough time for real conversation and not just a handshake)

d. Have set aside times where people share their faith journey

e. Be genuinely interested in those with views different than our own (including those outside the church).

I’d love to see these ideas blended into the actual worship service and not simply things around the edges. What if the sermon was in two parts — a presentation by the pastor, a reflection from a member, and a response from the pastor? What if people’s journeys were a regular part of conversation? (I have gone to church with people for years and not known what they did for a living before they retired or how many kids they have.)

We could have congregations that filled the void in our communities small and large. But to do so requires us to question our practices for this post-Christian society.

I saw a story today about a speech Nadia Bolz-Weber gave to the UCC in Massachusetts. Here’s an excerpt:

Bolz-Weber said people shouldn’t take the Pew Research Center surveys showing fewer people are attending church to mean that they don’t care about Christianity anymore.

That would be like saying because there are no phone booths, no one cares about talking on the phone anymore, or because there are no more Blockbuster stores, no one cares about being able to watch movies at home, she said.

So what does it mean for local congregations like mine to rethink how we do what we do in the same way cellphones and Netflix have changed their respective dynamics? I don’t have answers worked out but I think I’m headed toward some possible answers.

Why We Can’t Have Serious Conversations About Situations Like Baltimore

http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/wp-content/uploads/Slums-of-Baltimore.jpg
http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/wp-content/uploads/Slums-of-Baltimore.jpg
deltaskymag.delta.com
deltaskymag.delta.com

These two pictures illustrate a couple of the answers to my title question.  In searching for a picture to accompany this post, I went to Google Images and simply typed in “Baltimore”. The first 57 pictures were images like the bottom one — the skyline and the inner harbor. Only then did I get to the picture on top. Not only are these two images of Baltimore both accurate, but it is essential to understand how the two images are related.

The title of this post comes from a series of things I posted on Facebook earlier this week. Far too many stories came across my social media feed which seemed to inhibit dialogue rather than invite it. This morning I receive a message from a Spring Arbor graduate who is interning with IJM in Asia and had been in my race and ethnic class. Watching all of this from afar, she wrote:

I’ve been recently becoming more and more frustrated by humanity’s apparent inability to have conversations about things like this. People seem to prefer choosing sides and having a screaming match instead of trying to come to a reasonable conclusion. Judging from your Facebook posts (and your class discussions) this is something that frustrates you as well.

Here are my answers to her very good question.

1. We Don’t Know How to Think about Structural Inequality

As I’ve written, last month I finished The Long Shadow, a book by Johns Hopkins sociologists examining two decades of life in Baltimore. It reports on a panel study that followed children starting public school through age 28. I shared their findings in our social stratification class yesterday (I summarized their mobility data in the post last month.) I gave the students this chart.

Long Shadow

I wrote in that other post that this is a Chi-Square test.For those who don’t know Chi-Square, it’s a test of independence. The “expected count” shows what you’d have if there was no relationship between the variables. While we can never “prove” a relationship, we wind up determining that the relationship is statistically significant (meaning the odds of this being a chance pattern are very small).There are four degrees of freedom in a three by three table and the Chi-Square value for a 1% chance of error is 13.27. For yesterday’s class I tested the probability of finding this result. The Chi-Square value for the table above came in at 126. When I plugged that figure into a Chi-Square calculator, I learned that the odds of finding this pattern rests at 1 out of 100,000.

What this chart tells us, as does Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, is that there is much more to intergenerational inheritance than we’ve been willing to admit. Advantage begets advantage. Disadvantage limits mobility. Of course it is true that individuals can rise about their circumstances through discipline and hard work. It is true that children of advantage can lose ground. But as the chart shows, these are the anomaly not the general pattern. Without something shifting trajectory, the likely outcome is class replacement.

Our focus on mobility and the American Dream blinds us to this basic sociological reality. To admit that some people seem trapped by their circumstances somehow runs the risk of determinism. So we try to generalize from the exception rather than looking at the common patterns.

2. We fail to understand the implications of past public policy decisions

As tempting as it is for some critics to simply blame Baltimore Uprising on partisan politics or racial insensitivity, the actual picture is more complicated. Emily Badger wrote a fascinating account in Wednesday’s Washington Post detailing the public policy history of Baltimore. It’s a harsh history. This passage summarizes things very well.

And the really terrible irony — which brings us back to Baltimore today — is that each of these shocks further diminished the capacity of low-income urban black communities to recover from the one that came next. It’s an irony, a fundamental urban inequality, created over the years by active decisions and government policies that have undermined the same people and sapped them of their ability to rebuild, that have again and again dismantled the same communities, each time making them socially, economically, and politically weaker.

Suburbanization led to White Flight. White Flight led to a declining city tax base. Urban redevelopment displaced powerless populations so that we could gentrify the neighborhoods to revitalize the downtown. Rundown areas became havens for crime. Crime-ridden neighborhoods required a regular police presence. Those who could flee the inner city did, leaving behind those with few other options.

I’d like to believe that these were all unintended consequences of misguided public policy. But I fear that there were those who manipulated these policies as economic incentives. Those who targeted West Baltimore for subprime mortgages didn’t do that by accident.

I could write an entire post on the ways in which our short-sighted policy decisions have contributed to the realities we face today. But until we recognize that this isn’t about welfare dependency or drug trafficking but is about a national policy that favored economic interests and upper-middle class enclaves, we can’t have a real conversation about why there are two Baltimores.

3. We are unable to take the role of the other

It’s easy to blame this on the media — they make it so easy. Jon Stewart did a great video montage this week of Wolf Blitzer claiming that he “couldn’t believe these things happen in America”. First, Wolf needs to get out more and talk way less. But more importantly, it reflected a blindness to the ongoing situations on the ground. Many people rightly observe that media coverage of the Baltimore protests was minimal and sporadic until the CVS store was burned. Suddenly, we denounce the looters and decry the sad state of our culture.

Two things needs to be said. First, I heard a long-term law enforcement officer on NPR this week (I can’t find the link) comment that Monday’s riot was nothing compared to what happened to Baltimore in 1968. Today we have 24 hour news channels and roving reporters demanding to know why rioting is happening. Second, the media coverage follows a pattern of finding the most egregious example and using that as the key talking point.

This story by Lonnae O’Neal does an excellent job of trying to walk in the shoes of those who actually experience West Baltimore. Perhaps if we had more sociological imagination we could begin to know what that’s like.

In a strange way, comments by law enforcement officials following the indictment of the six officers for the death of Freddie Gray provide a starting point for empathy. NPR had a story yesterday about fears those in law enforcement that included the following:

“The specter of criminal charges being filed against police officers I believe is going to send reverberations across the nation,” says Sue Rahr, a former sheriff who now runs the police academy in Washington state.

Rahr is reform-minded, having served on President Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing. But she’s also worried that public opinion is becoming too slanted against police.

“What gets played in the media is the most extreme cases — the cases that represent an anomaly,” she says. “Because those are played over and over again, people get the perception that that’s happening all the time and that’s the norm.”

It almost sounds like she’s concerned that police would be blindly assumed of wrongdoing. What would be next? Randomly stopping innocent police officers and demanding that they explain their presence in the neighborhood? That they could be harassed just because of their physical appearance?

Yet that kind of cross-over of viewpoint is necessary if we are to break out of our echo chambers. Otherwise, we keep talking to people who already agree with us about how bad THEY are.

4. We won’t abandon chicken-and-egg issues about culture and structure

It’s amazing how much is written about issues of culture versus issues of structural inequality. Yesterday, David Brooks wrote an essay about The Nature of Poverty. He says that we have spent great sums of money on programs and yet don’t seem to make a difference (to his credit, he doesn’t begrudge those attempts). He concludes his piece as follows:

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

As a social psychologist, this is frustrating. The relationship between belief and behavior is a reflexive phenomenon. Our beliefs influence our behaviors and our experiences modify our beliefs. As I told the stratification class yesterday, it may be that not caring in school is a remarkable rational response to lack of opportunity or the difficulty of overcoming a brush with the law.

The only viable policy response is for us to consider how to support students who care about school while simultaneously addressing issues that make it worth their while to care. It is to consider how our drug policies have impacted family dynamics while we find ways of strengthening family and extra-family bonds (and be willing to support even those that don’t involve marriage).

As long as we simply pick a side and say that nothing can happen until we resolve this issue (joblessness or criminality), nothing will happen.

5. We lack a theology that confronts inequality

I just finished an excellent little book on Wesleyan Political Theology. It is Greg Coates Master’s thesis from Duke and explores how Free Methodist founder B.T. Roberts built on John Wesley’s theology to engage political and economic conditions in 19th century America. Deeply embedded in American populism and the pursuit of the Imago Dei, Roberts worked vociferously for social change. Not as an addendum to his theological commitments but as a direct expression of them. Coates contrasts Wesley’s views of the monarchy and the government in England with Roberts’ views of economic exploitation and structural inequality in America. He concludes that Roberts grasps an underdeveloped component of Wesleyan theology; that individual AND structures are being redeemed.

Yet a Wesleyan approach to politics is rooted in the primary truth that all people are created in the image of God and that all of creation is intended to reflect the community of the holy Triune God, with whom we will one day be united after having been sanctified through the power of the Spirit. This means that first and foremost our political theology must be people-centric, not issue-centric.

Because Roberts wasn’t interested in premillennialism, he didn’t see the world as something to be abandoned. He recognized that somehow we are co-participants in God’s Kingdom and responsible to and for all those who live in it.

Maybe if we could take this last point seriously, the other issues would begin to be addressed.