Tag: Evangelicals

The Pew Religious Landscape Report: Complications and Questions

Last Tuesday, the good folks at the Pew Research Center released their report on America’s Religious Landscape. Predictably, the internet went crazy. Some argued that the growth in the nonaffiliated marked the end of Christianity. Others argued that this was actually good news for evangelicals because they didn’t suffer losses are great as other religious groups. Still others used the data to continue the never-ending saga of “mainline hemorrhage”.

I watched all this from a bit of a remove because it was finals week and I had a pile of grading. But I submitted grades for my last class this morning, which freed me to explore these questions for myself. I don’t have access to the 2014 Pew data (if someone wants to give me access, I’d be thrilled!), so I played around with the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape data to test some assumptions.

What I’ve explored below are the key questions we ought to be asking before writing opinion pieces that simply read a narrative into the data. When I do get access to the 2014 data, I’ll repeat the analysis I did today.

1. The Problem with Pie Charts

Pew Religious Landscape

One of the first things I did was examine various “religious families” across the two survey periods. This comparison has been the basis of many of the blog posts about the 2014 data. The percentage of respondents who are nonaffiliated jumped from 16% to 23% while other groups took small losses. It is true that the mainline took a bigger hit than evangelicals, reflecting an actual loss of population over time.

But this kind of analysis is what happens when we rely on percentages. The pie charts have to add to 100%, so if the percentage of nonaffiliated goes up, other percentages must go down. It’s not religion; it’s just math.

An alternative interpretation that relies less on parsing changes to pie slices would look at the percentage of respondents who represent the four primary Christian families. In 2007, those families made up 75% of the total, which fell to 66% in 2014. However we look at this, dropping from 3 of 4 Christians to 2 of 3 Christians doesn’t mean Christianity is dying by any stretch.

2. The Challenge of Self-Identification

The Pew Survey asks people about their religious group identification (in denominational terms) and then collapses those into the religious families shown above (a variable they call RELTRAD). In doing my analysis today, I only focused on the primary four families: Evangelicals, Mainlines, Black Protestant, and Catholic.

Pew also asked whether respondents claimed to be “born again”. As commenters on the 2014 data have reported, a substantial percentage of respondents identify with the label.

In my analysis of the 2007 data, slightly less than half (46%) are born again. Most of these are Evangelicals. But four in ten of those “born agains” come from the other three families, with 15% of Catholics and 28% of Mainlines agreeing. If over one in four Mainline respondents say they’re born again, the “mainline doesn’t stand for anything” narrative might need to go.

This may suggest that there are certain cultural dynamics related to labels that evangelicals like to claim as their own. This cultural identification may be consistent with those other surveys that show attitudes toward the historicity of the virgin birth. It may simply be that “that’s what we say” in certain situations. What people mean by born again will need much more analysis.

3. The Problem of Attendance

Things get more complicated when we look at attendance patterns. Since the Mainline Hemorrhage thesis depends on a simple cultural identification that now isn’t needed, it’s important to see what’s really happening in congregations. If one needed to go to church in the past to prove you’re a good community member and religious non-affiliation is now more accepted, we’d expect a lot of members on paper but not in real life.

There is some truth to this, but it cuts across religious families. I broke the attendance data into two sets; those who attended once a month or more and those who attended less than once a month (I used the “once a month” cutoff in my dissertation research as the minimum level of engagement in the congregation). Here are the percentages of each by religious family.

Attend Not Attend
Evangelical 75 25
Mainline 57 43
Black 77 22
Catholic 67 33

If the “Cultural Christian” thesis holds then we’d get data like we see for Mainlines. But that narrative fails to account for the fact that nearly 6 in 10 Mainline respondents are active in their congregations. Nor can it explain the 1 in 4 Evangelicals who rarely attend church.

A related story told in commentary involves the aging of the Mainline church. We can call that the “Blue Hair Thesis”. If that were to be supported, we’d see a gradual pattern of an aging population that fails to generate sufficient replacement populations to handle losses through death. Related to this pattern is the differential birthrates by religious family (which limits replacement in some traditions).

I was able to examine attendance patterns using the four age cohorts that Pew used in reporting the 2014 data: 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65 plus. It is true that the senior category has a higher attendance percentage than other groups, but what surprised me was the relative stability of the 18-64 groups.

Evangelical Mainline Black Catholic
18-29 75 56 76 58
30-45 73 52 72 60
50-64 74 54 82 61
65+ 77 64 82 74

Again, the data from the 2007 Religious Landscape study raises questions about our preferred narratives. While it’s true that attendance patterns run higher among Evangelicals and Black Protestants, every age cohort within every religious family shows a majority attending church at least once a month.

Working out my logic this morning, I played with a Baylor Religion Survey, also done in 2007 (thanks to the folks at The Association of Religion Data Archives). Attendance may also be a necessary qualifier in making sense of “switching data”. Those questions (which are in Pew) compare childhood religious family with current religious family. But the Baylor survey also asks about attendance at age 12. Nearly 1 in 5 respondents didn’t make the once a month attendance threshold (a pattern with surprisingly little variation by tradition). To treat infrequent attenders as “switchers” seem like a distortion of the data.

In the Pew data, I was able to compare the “born again” data to the attendance data without separating the four religious families. I found 20% claiming to be born again and attending church less than once a month. Not everything is as we so easily suspect.

4. Religion is Important

Another of the popular narratives is that religion is become increasingly irrelevant to modern society. This may be true in the sense of lessened hegemony over cultural dynamics but it doesn’t show up in the data for those who regularly attend church. (And data on the non-affiliates show some curious patterns in reporting religion is important.)

As the earlier data showed, there are differences across the four religious traditions but these differences pale in light of the importance of religion to those who attend.

Attend Not Attend
Very Somewhat Very Somewhat
Important Important Important Important
Evangelical 89 10 54 35
Mainline 74 24 29 46
Black 91 8 66 28
Catholic 73 25 31 47

If we take the “very” and “somewhat” options together, the patterns on religious importance for those who regularly attend range from 98% to 99%. On the other hand, the nonattenders show the cultural dynamic of arguing that religion is very important in spite of their non-attendance. (This isn’t an artifact of seniors who simply can’t get out; it cuts across age categories.)

Sometimes it seems that the sociology of religion moves very slowly. It hasn’t been that long ago that we stopped dividing everything into Will Herberg’s Protestant/Catholic/Jew. We understand that there are larger dynamics of religious tradition in play.

But these patterns are clearly mitigated by attendance. We would do far better in understanding the role of religion in postmodern society if we paid more attention to the legitimate faith of those who regularly attend church instead of perpetuating our favorite version of why our particular tribe is better.

Ralphie is a Millennial Evangelical: Reflections on A CHRISTMAS STORY

Sometimes I let this blog get too ponderous, theoretical, and otherwise academic. I’m trying to enjoy my Christmas break but it takes awhile to break out of normal school rhythms. Last December, I wrote on some well known Christmas classics (Charlie Brown Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street) and tried to mine them for some new insights about sociology, evangelicals, and popular culture.

I’ve been thinking all year that there was probably something to be learned from A Christmas Story (1983) — Jean Shepherd’s reflections on growing up in Hammond, Indiana in the 1940s told in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. I decided to re-watch our copy before TNT started their 24 hour marathon showing tomorrow. I noticed that it really hasn’t aged well. Too many of the vignettes are loosely connected and didn’t manage to convey the humor and pathos I remembered watching it with our kids every year. But it still tells a story that may help us understand the changes going on in the current “millennials and church” conversations.

If somehow you’ve missed the story up to now, it’s all about Ralphie. As he and his family are approaching Christmas, the primary thing on Raphie’s mind is “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle”. It has a compass in the stock and everything. It’s the kind of gift kids dream of. But absolutely everything and everyone stands in his way, constantly telling him “you’ll shoot your eye out”. He has good friends, lives in fear of neighborhood bully Scut Farkas, has a father who swears and wins Major Awards, and a mother who is doing all she can to keep the family happy.

There’s a lot more. If you’re interested, it will be on TNT 12 times between 8:00 Christmas Eve and 8:00 Christmas night. Maybe you can catch it then.

Even though the story was written in the 1960s about events in the 1940s, it struck me that Ralphie as we’ve known him is a millennial. He shows up in the early 1980s and his story is full of millennial angst. Since it’s been on cable television every year since 1988, an entire generation has grown up with Ralphie and his quest for the Red Ryder.

RalphieConsider Ralphie. He grows up in this family that thinks it’s cute for him to wear his bunny pajamas he got for Christmas. What he wants is to be the sharpshooter who saves the world from evil. He lives in fear and awe of his father, who can’t see how his frequent profanity has influenced his son to become quiet fluent in cuss words (including THAT one). His father wins A Major Award (the infamous leg lamp) that he places in the front window for all to see. He’s proud of his achievement but is the only one who doesn’t know that the lamp is an embarrassment (which is why the wife “accidentally” breaks it).

Ralphie wants one thing. The one thing that would make him cool and accepted in his own terms. But every authority figure he meets seems bent on crushing his dreams. He tells Santa that what he really wanted was a football until he gets his courage up to tell what he really wants (and then Santa tells him he’ll shoot his eye out).

The neighborhood bully represents the fear of evil. A running bit throughout the movie has Ralphie and friends running from Scut Farkas to avoid the inevitable fight. One of the friends inevitably gets cornered until he cries “Uncle” and the others watch from a distance. Until the day when Ralphie can’t take it anymore. Suddenly he attacks Scut, swearing a blue streak while landing punch after punch.

In short, Ralphie feels trapped by his neighborhood, by his family, by the gap between his expectations and dreams and the conventional expectations. He has dreams but feels like they may never come to pass without something shifting. If they all understood what he’d do to protect the family against Black Bart, they’d all be forever in his debt.

Of course, at the end of the story (spoilers ahead for the two of you who don’t know how it ends) he gets the BB gun. He takes it outside to try it out and manages to have a BB ricochet and nearly hit him in the eye. It was just as they’d all said. Except that his mother keeps his secret and cleans him up. He pursued his dream and it almost went wrong, and yet he found his own way forward. In that moment, he finds his independent voice that isn’t defined by his family, neighborhood, and social structure.

This is where today’s millennial evangelicals find themselves. They’ve gone out into the backyard to try out some approaches that the authorities said were too risky. But they’re doing so with courage and abandon. Sometimes they get it wrong, but they are willing to stretch beyond past limits. Just like Ralphie, they love their family (even when they embarrass them). But they have a commitment to Christian faith to live out and simply pray that their families and churches make room for them.

Truth and Power: Looking at Evangelical Crises

[I just submitted this piece for The Antioch Session, where it should appear next month.)

I’ve started many posts on my blog with a similar phrase: “there was an interesting debate going on in evangelical social media this week.” But lately, this sentiment comes off as trite. It feels like every day we’ve got multiple twitter fights going among evangelical groups: progressives calling folks out for being abusive, conservatives writing on false prophets, people being called heretics over pronoun usage, others confronted over misuse of scripture. Frankly, it’s hard to keep it all straight and figure out where it will all settle out. We cannot continue like this over the long haul. A more robust understanding of the diversity of Christ’s Church is a necessity.

I’ve been trying to explore the factors beneath all this animus. Why are boundaries so important that we’d throw around accusations of heresy? Why isn’t Paul’s body imagery in Corinthians our go-to text and guiding principle? And, to continue the theme of one of the recent twitter fights, what does Jesus tell us in terms of his engagement with diversity?

BrueggemannWhile continuing to ponder these questions, I read Walter Brueggemann’s Truth Speaks to Power (2013). I’ve always loved Brueggemann but this one was special. Probably because it tapped three images important to me: sociological processes, countercultural action, and the invisible kingdom.

As he does in most of his books, Brueggemann unpacks a familiar biblical narrative and then follows with a much more careful reading. The second reading pays attention to shifts in the narrative and the ways in which the text itself illustrates major conceptual shifts going on beneath the surface.

He opens the book with an examination of the Exodus story. Pharaoh has enslaved the people of Israel and has them working in impossible situations that grow worse by the day. Pharaoh is motivated be fear of scarcity in the midst of his abundance. He believes that the only way to protect his position is to maximize his power position. It is an essentially defensive move, although it creates great offense. The people cry out in the midst of their suffering they cry out and God hears, who then calls Moses to act on their behalf. (Brueggemann notes that the text doesn’t say that the people cried out to God, just that he heard their cries.) The balance of the story is the tension between Pharaoh’s dependence on the Power of Empire set against the Truth of pain and suffering. Brueggemann writes:

Power must now acknowledge truth. The truth that meets power here is the combination of attentive divine resolve and the bodily assertion of the slaves who suffer out loud. Pharaoh, the last to catch on, now knows that his exploitative power has no future. (35)

In reading this section, I was struck that some of the evangelical crises fall in the category of concern over scarcity. There is a dominant motif in some quarters that religious monopoly is fracturing. The fear of the potential loss creates a stance where people find it easier to exploit others. It’s what must be done to protect against “the coming cataclysm”.

Brueggemann’s message here is that God is paying attention. In the end, power is defeated because shalom is emerging.

The second section of the book looks at King Solomon. This is a particularly interesting section given the way we’ve adopted the image of the wise King who finds the baby’s mother and writes wise sayings. Mining the biblical narratives, Brueggemann identifies the problems with Solomon’s rise to power. He lists all the ways in which Solomon uses power to gain military might, economic wealth, political alliances, and women. In the heart of the story is the tension between following God and building Empire. In a remarkable passage, Brueggemann observes that passages describing the opulence of Solomon’s temple should be read ironically:

It is more likely, for that reason, that what may appear on the surface to be gloating over Solomon’s success should be taken ironically. Such irony was designed to expose the extravagant self-indulgence of the royal entourage that is quite inappropriate in the midst of peasant realism. Thus the reader may decide if the narrative of accumulation is to be read as congratulations or as ironic exposé. (58)

The Truth of Shalom calls us away from accumulation of power and things. Brueggemann boldly suggests that Jesus’ mention of “the fool” who built barns was a reference to Solomon (“consider the lilies of the field..”)

Here is the lesson for evangelical crises. We have been far too concerned with issues of power and counting folks as being “with us”. We have been tempted to adopt the rhetorical devices of power-maintenance that work in cable news for the truth of being God’s people. When we find ourselves defending turf or, heaven forbid, market dominance it’s a clear sign that we’re following in Solomon’s footsteps.

I’ll treat the third and fourth section of the book together since they pick up some similar themes. The third section is about Elisha, who shows up in the middle of the stories of kings and dynasties. He has no official power but through the mantle he inherits from Elijah he performs miracles and confronts power. Brueggemann suggests that it is the contrast between the Kings and the Prophet that is the heart of the story. The Prophet aligns with a deep truth that is stronger and more lasting than that of the powers that be. His work with children, widows, and foreigners stands in contrast to Empire building. Josiah the King is the exception to the normal King narratives. He finds an ancient scroll that calls him and his people to repentence. He tears his garments, repents, and seems to establish a new form of leadership based on obedience to the scripture. Unfortunately for Israel and Judah, subsequent kings did not follow Josiah’s lead.

Two takeaways from these sections. First, the perspective of truth comes more often from ordinary people called to speak than from leaders defending power. Not that every utterance from every blogger is treated equal, but those that ask honest questions and authentically search for Truth should be acknowledged and not attacked. Second, Josiah is not as much interested in defending scripture in the abstract as in doing what it says. Many others have written about the elevation of scripture as an abstraction to be defended instead of an avenue to discipleship (today’s Missio Alliance post by Mark Moore is a great illustration of this distinction.)

One final thought. The sections of scripture that Brueggemann writes about are not about foreign lands or secular governments. They involve the life of God’s people who are forming a new type of society. It’s become far too easy for today’s evangelicals to apply scriptural passages like 2 Chronicles 7:14 as a judgment on the secular nation-state. But the context of the scripture is really about God’s people who are to “humber themselves and turn from their wicked ways” in search of healing.

Maybe this is the tactic the evangelical church should try next.

A Way Forward (Part Two): Looking for Confluence

Convergence

This is my second in my three-part series thinking about the future of evangelicalism, especially in light of our current struggles with who owns the label (more next time) and what it means. My last post (or posts) was about separating the broad cultural assumptions surrounding religion from religious practice. My argument is that if we focus on actual religious behavior instead of the dividing lines we throw up we can learn something important about the nature of Christ’s Church in this complex, diverse, postmodern world.

Last month I described why Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw was so important to our thinking about a society that no longer fits our past cognitive structures. As they argued, we are now in some form of post-Christendom society.

Not that Christianity isn’t relevant. To the contrary, it is more important than ever. But what changed is the notion that we can’t simply assume everyone shares our values or language. This is why the cultural baggage post had to happen first. We have to figure out how to talk about Christian faith in ways that will be heard within the contemporary culture.

David and Geoff unpack a number of ways in which the faith can communicate in what they call “the far country”. By following the metaphor of the Incarnation, they offer serious vistas on how the Gospel comes to cultures that are not initially accepting. As their subtitle states, they offer “10 signposts into the missional frontier”: Post-Christendom, Missio Dei, Incarnation, Witness, Scripture, Gospel, Church, Prodigal Relationships, Prodigal Justice, and Prodigal Openness.

I’ve recently finished Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us. I’m actually two books behind on her scholarship and her more recent work is focused on the nature of spirituality in America. Frankly, I read this particular book because it was on the shelf in the SAU library. But I was thrilled to read it because it opened my eyes to certain assumptions I was making about the nature of the religious landscape.

The book is the result of a three-year study, the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, funded by the Lilly Endowment. In the face of common statements about the accommodation of mainline congregations expressed in press, pulpits, and sociological scholarship, the project set out to examine “vital congregations”.

These congregations were different. Not because they had adopted conservative evangelical style or rhetorical schemes. Not because the pastors preached in jeans and layered shirts or wore hipster glasses. Not because the music was contemporary with lyrics projected up on the screen.

These were mainline congregations that embraced their mainline heritage and yet looked for authentic faith. They did it in ways that may differ quite a bit from the average megachurch and yet it had the same approach to being serious about Christianity.

Over the year or so I’ve been writing about the changing nature of evangelicalism, I periodically get comments claiming that my position is no different from mainline accommodationism. They are consistent with authors who have decried mainline religion as empty, embracing humanistic values in a desire to be accepted by the larger society. I’ve been troubled by these comments because they seemed so unaware of what real people in real churches were trying to do. The arguments seemed based on stereotypes of some mainline ministers from forty years ago.

I was thrilled when Diana’s first chapter offers a critique of an accommodationist congregation, one she knew as a girl. This, she said, was not the kind of congregation she was trying to understand. Instead, she examined ten congregations in depth (there were 50 involved in a survey instrument but the richest part of the book comes from these congregations). These churches were from Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ denominations. And still, the faith present in these congregations was a far cry from the “anything goes” critique so often tossed toward mainline religion.

The individual chapters explore some common themes the contributed to the vital faith evident in these congregations. Shockingly, she also uses “10 signposts”: Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, Contemplation, Testimony, Diversity, Justice, Worship, Reflection, and Beauty.

Two sets of “10 signposts” — both books deal with Hospitality, Scripture, Testimony, Justice, Diversity, Beauty, Healing, and Reflection. They may use slightly different words but their messages are the same. There is a vital faith present in Christianity that not defined by culture war arguments nor by blind accommodationism.  It is characterized by authentic faith that is tolerant of multiple views and trusts in the Holy Spirit to assist understanding.

One book written to the evangelical community on what it means to live as people of faith in the postmodern world. One book written to the mainline community on what it means to live as people of faith in the postmodern world. Both finding similar metaphors to describe the elements of that faithful life.

It was a wonderful discovery for me. It speaks to the vibrancy of God’s work in our midst. But I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. I realize that I read a number of people who are clearly evangelicals and serve in Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran congregations. They certainly aren’t accommodating to the larger culture.

I also see a number of millennial evangelicals finding meaning and satisfaction in more liturgical, more diverse, more complex settings of faith found in some mainline congregations. To see them as abandoning faith is unfair to both them and the churches that attract them.

I have a friend in Portland who once wrote some wonderful stuff on “confluence”. His metaphor is based on what happens with the Willamette and the Columbia come together. It’s not just that they are flowing the same way. It’s that their waters intermingle and at some point you can no longer tell which water came from which source. The current, however, is still strong.

This is where the future of evangelicalism will be found. It the midst of the stream, following God’s leading into that future he has been building all along.

Evangelicalism’s “Come to Jesus” Moment

Jesus and ChildrenI really didn’t think it was time to write this post. I’ve been working toward constructing my take on the future of evangelicalism in a postmodern society and am still reading material that frame those ideas. But after last week’s WorldVision announcement, conflict, and retraction set off  a raft of “end of evangelicalism” posts, I decided it was time to run with what I have and refine it later. As I was telling a friend today via e-mail, blogs aren’t good at nuance because they reflect one’s best thinking to date and there are space limitations. So we’ll consider this another run at the concept. I’ll keep unpacking in future posts, I’m sure.

For more background, I recommend this piece I wrote to summarize my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho four weeks ago. My basic argument is that evangelicalism, between 1990 and 2010, has been focused on boundary maintenance, the protection of position and power, and orthodoxy. That stance has created a backlash among the millennial generation that has caused many to question if they want anything to do with evangelicalism at all, if evangelicalism relates to anyone outside the church, and if we need new models from which to express religious life.

Much of the reasonable response from these millennial bloggers has been somewhat reactionary. They worry about guilt by association with many who pride themselves in the kinds of posturing they grew up with. It reminds me of a conversation I had about my Christian faith when I started graduate school. My fellow students weren’t troubled by my identity as a Christian sociologist. They just wanted an assurance that I wasn’t going to be like “that guy” who chased people around the drink table at parties telling them that they were sinners. In short, “if that’s what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.”

I’ve heard various versions of the “that guy” argument over the years. It happens in Sunday School where someone wants to articulate theological grounding but doesn’t want to sound like their dogmatic cousin. It happens in churches where leaders demand adherence to their positions as a condition of continued affiliation.  It’s not just the young who are having these identification issues.

But I’m not prepared to let the bad behavior of individuals or groups give them control over  the evangelical label. I think it has a unique meaning (albeit one that’s broader than conservative groups or the media seem to allow).

I consider evangelicals as people committed to God’s Story (read N.T. Wright’s When God Became King for an elaboration), who hold to the full expression of Jesus the Christ (incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, kingdom-builder, and Lord), and who believe that the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sinful ways, calls us to turn toward the Kingdom around us, and instructs us how to participate in the unfolding of that now-and-not-yet Kingdom.

But living as evangelicals in a complex, diverse, postmodern world calls for a very different stance that we’ve used in past decades. We’ve been enamored with Empire when we should be focused on simply sharing our stories. We have been focused on abstractions and arguments when we should pay attention to the people who cross our paths.

This is why testimony is important. We allow the story of our walk with God, however messy, to intersect with the story of another. This is why the harder stories like those in Jonathan Merritt’s recent book excerpt are so important. They don’t hide behind platitudes but show God at work in the real issues of life. This shouldn’t be news to us. The disciples on the road to Emmaus shared their pain and met Jesus. Philip shares his story with the Ethiopian Eunuch once he’s led by the spirit to one considered unclean. Peter tells the story of his vision and the apostles celebrate Cornelius as a full member of God’s family.

My title today has two meanings. First, it suggests that there are some things that evangelicalism needs to give up, to get straight, to reorient. I’ll make some general suggestions of these and unpack them in future posts. Second, it suggests that we should come as little children when we follow Jesus. Not just in simple faith when believing but in the trust and collaboration that characterizes healthy children at play.

“Coming to Jesus” will require some significant changes to evangelicalism as we’ve known it if it is to ever be true to its potential. We will need to begin with assumptions of diversity instead of unanimity.  I wrote in my last post that faithful religious groups can see things in different ways. We need an evangelicalism that affirms this reality, whether we’re talking to evangelical Episcopalians who have affirmed a gay bishop or talking to a writer who celebrates complementarity. We will have to live with the discomfort of knowing that we differ from our sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus said that’s what the world would be looking at. We will need to affirm the questions that arise from the lived experience of everyday Christians instead of making our faith about which big pastor-author we follow. That may mean the end of “influential evangelical” lists which would a blessing. We will come to value the voice of an individual blogger as a personal search for authentic faith without looking for litmus tests that are the equivalent of Steven Colbert’s “dead to me” board.  We will need to be looking forward to the Kingdom Jesus is unfolding in our very midst and not looking backward at some glory day when we could assume everyone agreed with our position. I’m convinced that this look backward is really a type of Christian Civil Religion, where we simply assume people have faith because of where they grew up (I’ll unpack this on another day, but it speaks to the issues I raised in this post.) As David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw point out in Prodigal Christianity, we must begin by outlining our own position. We will need to practice sacrifice, beginning with our demand that we be proven right. This is a central issue of faith. Rather than demanding our way or the validation of our viewpoint, we will need to put ourselves in the place of the other. This will call us to a position of compassion for others, especially those we think are unlikely. As Matthew 25 reminds us, they might just be Jesus.

In short, we need to come to Jesus as children. Trusting, open, engaging, happy to play well with others. There is a reason that Jesus celebrates their faith. He was trying to teach the disciples an important lesson. They were fighting with themselves about issues of power and dominance (“who will be the greatest?”). Amazingly, one of the key instances of this happens right after they say the transfiguration! They’re believing correctly in terms of who Jesus was didn’t keep them from the power games that were essentially self-serving.

15 And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”

Notice that Jesus isn’t rebuking the pharisees here. It’s not the religious and political leaders who needed a “come to Jesus” moment. It was Christ’s followers. It took a long time for them to get it. But the Holy Spirit led them to deeper understandings so that they lived and died as representatives of Christ. By having the faith of a child.

 

 

Lessons from Apostles (of Reason)

Apostles of ReasonAs I mentioned in the last several posts, I’ve been reading Molly Worthen’s wonderful history of the modern evangelical movement, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

A number of colleagues have been commenting chapter by chapter, but I was drawn to some broad themes that cut across her history. These themes remain very timely when it comes to thinking about what evangelicalism will look like over the next twenty years.

As I worked through the book, there were five threads I kept running across: 1) the convergence of American exceptionalism and evangelical thought, 2) the diversity of thought sitting right underneath an apparent consensus, 3) the importance of infrastructure, 4) the simultaneous pull of legitimacy and separatism,  and 5) the effectiveness of simple arguments over complex ones.

1. Battling for national identity: From the outset, the movement we know as modern evangelicalism (expressed as the NAE) was tied up in protecting an American way of life as it had been known. Worthen writes:

Without a firm defense of biblical inerrancy, [NAE president Harold] Ockenga predicted, America would fall to enemies within and without, as had imperial Rome. Western civilization was sick with secularism and socialism, the spores that had overrun their hosts in the Soviet Union (26).

The linkage of a “biblical worldview” that leads to conservative political stances is somewhat hard to figure. While one might argue that inerrancy could hold sway in moral discussions, such a straight endorsement of the nation-state is surprising. What struck me was that the conservative political leaning of neo-evangelicals was not a result of the Moral Majority or the political maneuvering of Karl Rove. It seems to be a natural affinity between a particular view of a threatening outside world and a desire for protection against that threat. The Christian Reconstructionist movement that originated in the late 1960s seemed to draw form John Birchers and defeated Goldwater supporters. A new view of faith was needed to struggle against LBJ’s Great Society. The same sentiment gives rise to a pragmatic partnership with Catholics over social issues like abortion and homosexuality. The countervailing tendency seems to occur as missionaries learn about cultural embeddedness and Global Christians in the late 20th century express syncretistic approaches to religion (it’s always easier to see culture conflated with religion in somebody else’s culture!).

2. We’re not all like that: This was one of the real surprises for me. When I was at Point Loma Nazarene University, I became enamored with H. Orton Wiley who was president twice. He wrote a definitive theology for the Church of the Nazarene and served as editor the denominational magazine for several years. Wiley gets great praise in Worthen’s book as an intellectual voice that did not follow the script of the neo-evangelical worldview and inerrancy arguments. So do Nazarenes Timothy Smith and Mildred Wynkoop. In addition to their voices, we can add the voices of the Anabaptists (primarily in John Howard Yoder) and the Restorationist churches. Underneath what looks like a monolithic movement of evangelicals, there were and are many voices saying, “Wait a minute. Let’s look at this differently.” That critique continues in a number of quarters, Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, the 1970s Young Evangelicals, the rise of Pentecostalism, and others. It seems to me that most of these alternative voices were speaking within their own communities ABOUT neo-evangelicals but not contesting the position in a larger debate. Perhaps they ceded the label “evangelical” to others (I had such a debate when I celebrated the Nazarenes joining the NAE and was told that “we were Holiness people”). Some of the same ceding is happening today (“if that’s what it means, I don’t want it”). But if we focus on the multiple strands of voicing, we find that evangelicalism is far more complex and more robust than one might otherwise think.

3. The Organization: From the outset, control over institutions was important. The story of Fuller Seminary is particularly interesting as it began as staunchly conservative but shifted its position over the course of the book. But construction of publications (like Christianity Today) and ministries and educational institutions was crucial. There were certain institutions deemed “right” and the network of mentors, mentees, and fellow-students aligns with the best social network analysis. In the 1960s and 1970s, new organizations are created. The 1980s sees conservatives take over Southern Baptist organizations and the rise of publishing empires. Celebrity voices use radio, television, and mass publication to create an impression of dominance in the public eye. These become the focal point for secular media coverage. It was particularly striking to read of the moderates during the Baptist fights. They really didn’t pay attention to issues of political power. I might even say that they thought too highly of the motivations of their opponents. Moderates don’t organize well. We want to hear others’ voices. We recognize complexity (more below) and seem to like nuance. Instead, those conservative organizations focus on maintaining consistent message and leveraging the power of public acclamation. The current crop of moderate writers/bloggers may have great conferences but don’t yet have the strength of infrastructure present among the conservatives. There’s work to do on that front.

4. You Like Me, You Really Like Me: This trend can also been seen at many points along the evangelicals’ journey. On the one hand, the focus on presuppositionalism and worldview means that there is a continual attempt to separate from the secular, socialist, modernist, views of the popular culture. “Our ways are different from their ways.” At the same time, there is a desire for legitimacy through having schools accredited, having scholars recognized, having evidence tested by modernist strategies. Throughout the book, Worthen returns to this tendency of evangelicals to use enlightenment rhetorical strategies in ways that their biblicism won’t quite allow. This theme connects back to the linkage to politics as evangelicals (especially in the Iowa caucuses) desire to shape elections while fighting culture wars.

5. It’s Simple, Really: This theme is especially evident in the chapter on folks like Francis Shaeffer, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, James Dobson, and others. Arguments are made that oversimplify the case, that caricature alternative views, that hyperbolize isolated situations, that lack context, or that don’t hold up to informed critique (maybe that’s why many evangelicals like Fox News). This rhetorical style, while effective, isn’t informative and may do harm in the long run. I’m reminded of some research from social psychology about attitude change: strong source characteristics trump weak message until doubt sets in; then there’s nothing the source can do to regain influence. This is what Putnam and Campbell called the second aftershock, where the overreach of evangelical celebrities pushed people away. I think this is also consistent with the negative views millennials have toward contemporary evangelicalism. They know that they live in a complex world and expect their organizations and leaders to speak accordingly.

I highly recommend this book. For anyone trying to understand how evangelicalism got where it is today, or more importantly, what its future holds, it’s full of clear and helpful insights. I know I’ll return to these themes as I continue my own work. Well done, Molly!

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.