Tag: Evangelicals

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.

Millennial Canaries

Canary

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet this week, you know that the topic of the week (other than Reza Aslan’s new book) is about millenials leaving the church. Rachel Held Evans wrote a nice summary of work by David Kinnaman and others. Combining that research with her own reflections, she attempted to clarify the issues: attitudes toward homosexuals, combativeness, unwilling to address doubt. She summarizes a nice piece that documented how young evangelicals are attracted to liturgical churches. Part of Rachel’s concern was that too many in the religious sphere have responded to millennial concerns as the need for better marketing or hipper bands. Maybe we need more 60 year old pastors preaching in skinny jeans and hipster glasses.

The response has been somewhat surprising. Mainliners said that Rachel’s issues were only true for evangelicals and that what she called for was present in the Methodist church. Other evangelicals responded that millenials needed to listen to their elders and recognize that the church isn’t supposed to deal with a narcissistic group of twenty-somethings who grew up thinking they were special.

Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a clever piece today on how the real question is about involvement. How do millenials find places of connection within the local congregation? The question of involvement raises the questions that Michelle Van Loon has been exploring — that 40-somethings show lower levels of engagement in their local churches than was true a decade ago. Michele summarized her thinking in this podcast.

Here’s what I’m thinking. Millenials are the canary in the coal mine of modern protestantism. As part of the entire RHE flurry, Chris Morton posted this interesting piece about what would characterize a millennial church.  But when I read Chris’ piece, I realized THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH. Last week I read this wonderful piece by Jamie (the Very Worst Missionary) reporting on a church she’d attended in Central America. Called “Doing it Wrong”, Jamie critiques our assumptions about modern American worship services. And again I said, THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH.

What this tells me is that the issues millenials are raising are not about them. They’re about the spectator elements of modern worship: music done FOR you, auditorium seating, anonymity, lack of engagement in questions of faith. I’ve felt this before. Slightly disconnected from a congregation. So what’s different with my generation? Why didn’t we respond like the millenials?

We didn’t do that because it was assumed you’d stay loyal to a local congregation. Maybe this is a holdover from geographically based parish life or ethnically identified denominations. We stuck it out, not because it was okay but because we didn’t want to be deviant.

Today things are different. The percentage of adults who are non-religious (not affiliating, not attending, not caring) is higher than it’s ever been. Questions about the legitimacy of religion in modern life are regularly raised not just by Dawkins but by folks writing comments on any  webpage that barely mentions religion.

The world is changing. We may not be in a post-Christian society, But it’s clear that we’re entering a period where being Christian is not the default assumption. It’s a time where we will need to engage in far more dialogue and do much less arguing. I’ve been reading Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology. He addresses the implications of postmodernity for today’s church. The same sentiments were raised by Nate Pyle a couple of days ago. Nate nails it: “unless we want a new wineskin, we don’t want something new.”

The conversation begun by David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Christian Smith, Diana Butler Bass, and others dovetails with the changing trends in religious participation in America. We may wish things were the way they used to be, but that’s not coming back.

We need to pay attention to the millennial concerns. Not because they’re spoiled kids who need to grow up. Not because the church needs to be hip. But because they grew up in postmodern culture. Engaging postmodern religion through the lens of the millenials will help the church of 2020 proclaim the Gospel to a complex and confusing world.

The millenials are the canary in the religious mine. We can ignore them and call them spoiled. But if we do that, we lose our ability to engage future generations. These demographic changes aren’ going to change and we need to respond with faith, compassion, intelligence, and authenticity. We need the millenials to insure the future quality of the church. In the end, it’s the church I want to be a part of.

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.

I Found It … And You Didn’t

[Written as my June contribution to the American Evangelicalism project at www.respectfulconversation.net)

In 1976, bumper stickers and billboards appeared across America that said simply “I Found It!” Organized by Campus Crusade (now known simply as CRU) and disseminated through local congregations, the idea was that strangers would ask what had been found and you’d answer “Jesus” as an opportunity to share testimony or four spiritual laws. According to CRU’s material, 85% of all Americans were exposed to the campaign.

The following year I took my first sociology of religion course, one that redirected my career in wonderful ways.  It was in that class that I learned that religious organizations operate on some definable sociological principles even as they maintain deep concerns about personal and social transformation. I have been blessed and cursed with that duality for over 35 years.

Today I look back at the “I Found It!” campaign with a different set of lenses that I used as a young adult in my Nazarene church in Indiana. When I look today, I see a dynamic that is central to understanding evangelicalism in America: the importance of separation between insiders and outsiders.

In To Change the World (2010), James Davison Hunter characterizes this stance as “Defensive Against” culture. He describes the strategy of the defensive approach to cultural engagement as twofold: “first to evangelize unbelievers, calling for the nation to repent and come back to the faith; second, to launch a direct and frontal attack against the enemies of the Christian faith and worldview (214-5).”

In this essay, I’ll refer to the first part of the defensive strategy as evangelism and the second as militancy. And here is my thesis: the maintenance of the story of evangelism and militancy is more important to evangelicalism than actual results. And the corollary is this: for a variety of reasons, the separatist storyline will be harder to maintain in coming decades.

Let me begin with the evangelism story. The “I Found It!” campaign was important because it was a significant step to reach The Lost. The same is true of beach evangelism, itinerant evangelists on secular campuses, and asking strangers “If you were to die tonight…” I need to tread lightly here. I’m as excited as the next person when someone who knows nothing of faith comes to terms with the Gospel. But we have to ask the question about impact.

For years in churches, I’ve heard reference to Barna data that “85% of people come to faith through friends and family”. Sociologically, I’ve always thought it important to separate friends from family. How many of each? Isn’t the process of growing up in a religious family different than being “won” by a neighbor (to say nothing of a stranger).

It’s not an idle question. Around the same time the “I Found It!” campaign was going on, Ronald Wimberly and colleagues were conducting research on Billy Graham crusades (Wimberley, 1975).  Their results indicated that most conversions were really recommitments by church members and that the highly ritualized nature of a Graham altar call gave a friendly atmosphere for going forward. There were conversions of “the lost” but those were the distinct minority.

Another sociological study that shook my understanding of evangelism was Bibby and Brinkerhoff’s “circulation of the saints”. Looking at conservative congregations in Canada in the early 1970s, they found that conservative churches were growing, but were doing so for reasons that didn’t solely depend on evangelism. Rather, the growth in conservative churches was due to movement of other evangelicals into the congregation and sustaining levels of youth engagement above mainline levels. In a more recent overview of the thirty years of the research, presented at the Pacific Sociological Association, Bibby (2003) reported that 70% of new members came from other churches, 20% had been children of members, and 10% had been true converts. He does observe that this 10% isn’t problematic if the congregation is of sufficient size. But it demonstrates that evangelical concern about outreach may not be as central as one might think.

Stories are important. And occasional dramatic conversion accounts allow us to feel that our group is okay (because “we found it”). But those stories are no more the norm in evangelical culture than they are in missionary meetings (but those stories are more fabulous).

So what about Militancy? The connection between militancy and evangelical identity became evident when I moved to Oregon 18 years ago. I knew I was arriving in the Great Unchurched corner of America. But the evangelical churches there seemed to thrive on being oppressed.

There’s good sociological background for this as well. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, in A Theory of Religion (1996) applied rational choice theory to explain sect formation in market terms within the religious marketplace. Sect groups are innovative movements coming out of more established religious groupings. Because they claim a monopoly on truth, they can make high demands on their members. What Talcott Parsons called “boundary maintenance” is an essential part of keeping the group thriving. The “natural” progression is as follows: increased accommodation to society leads to better acceptance, which normalizes the organization, which then plants the seed for a new sectarian group to be pursuing the “real truth”.

Many of last month’s posts recognized the connection between contemporary evangelicalism and the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th century. I have argued that a failure to make a clear methodological demarcation between fundamentalists and evangelicals is one source of lingering confusion about religious identity in America.

Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace (2010) documents the rise of evangelicalism up through the 1990s and its subsequent decline (as measured by percentage of the population). They attribute the decline to two factors: increasing religious diversity within the society and political overreach by evangelical leaders.

Put in the context of the rise of the religious “nones”, heightened awareness of other religions and secular groups around the globe, tweets from evangelical leaders that dominate the blogosphere for days on end, and the largely partisan political activism of some evangelical groups, it’s difficult to maintain the Stark-Bainbridge monopoly on truth. In a postmodern age, separatism is hard to pull off at least at a large scale.

What remains, then, is the story of militancy. More than actual engagement in changing the culture, there is posturing and a search for opportunities to find offense (War on Christmas?). Evangelicals are involved in a paradoxical search for cultural acceptance AND the sense that they are victimized by the broader culture. (Frank Schaeffer had this excellent post (2013) recently on the history of this victimization and why it’s problematic.) The former loses the monopoly while the later inflates the costs of belonging.

If my analysis is even partially tenable, and evangelicalism is only dependent upon telling stories as its source of identity, the coming decades would appear to be very difficult for evangelicals. In short, evangelicalism will need to discover new stories and methodologies that work in a pluralistic society and avoid the dualistic thinking that has been part of the movement throughout much of its history.

Bibby, R. W. (2003). The Circulation of the Saints: One Final Look at How Conservative Churches Grow  Retrieved 5/30, 2013, from http://reginaldbibby.com/images/circofsaints03.pdf

Hunter, J. D. (2010). To change the world : the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2010). American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Schaeffer, F. (2013). The Lie of Religious ‘Victimhood” at the Root of Culure War  Retrieved 5/30, 2013, from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankschaeffer/2013/05/the-lie-of-religious-victimhood-at-the-root-of-culture-war/

Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. (1996). A Theory of Religion. Brunswick NJ: Rugers University Press.

Wimberley, R. C. e. a. (1975). Conversion in a Billy Graham Crusade: Spontaneous Event or Ritual Performance? Sociological Quarterly, 18(2), 172-170.

Thinking About Pharisees

I’ve been rolling the idea for this post around in my brain for over a month but couldn’t quite get it to jell into something solid. I don’t think it’s quite there but it’s enough to at least begin a reflection.

In my earlier posts I’ve been calling for the evangelical church to wake up and recognize the changes going on in the culture, especially in light of what’s happening in the thinking of today’s generation of young people. Often I have come way too close to thinking about those unwilling to change as modern Pharisees resisting the movement of the Spirit. I’ve read similar frames in other blogs I follow or in the words of their commenters.

Two weeks ago, Jenny Rae Armstrong posted this piece about the importance of the language we use in making arguments. Her reminder that communication on important issues must be done with care was something that I needed to hear. I’ve waited until now to try to unpack my thinking.

While I feel strongly that the church needs to be willing to address the kinds of issues David Kinnaman writes about in You Lost Me (fear of science, lack of honest doubt, judgmentalism, overprotectionism), I need to be careful not to label those not moving as fast as I want. As I’ve written before, they may be afraid of the changes. But that doesn’t make them modern Pharisees.

Today is Good Friday. Not a high point on the Pharisee’s Facebook Timeline (their Easter status updates would have been interesting).  I decided to do a quick examination of some of the synoptic passages related to the Pharisees. This is decidedly amateur work and my new testament scholar friends can help me overcome my oversimplification.

Just looking at the books of Matthew and Mark, there seem to be multiple approaches within the group called the Pharisees. One approach is asking questions about the meaning of the law (why do you eat with sinners?, the meaning of divorce). A second approach is accusatory in their stance (you’re in league with the devil, what you say is blasphemy). A third approach is political (questions designed to trap Jesus, a plan to kill Jesus beginning as early as Mark 3). Clearly, these three approaches could be used by the same groups of people but I prefer to think of them as subsets of the larger religious response.

I need to make sure that I’m not confounding these approaches when I think about those who protect the current evangelical status quo. I can’t think of them as Pharisaical if they’re following the questioning approach. I’m a little more concerned when the folks on the blogosphere attempt to categorize someone as heretical before their book has come out, who distort positions, who ridicule assertions, who cherry-pick data. This accusatory stance is not properly representative of the Good News or the image of the Body of Christ. The third approach that sets out to use power to ruin people’s reputation, get them fired, or have them blackballed from events comes closest to the modern Pharisees.

Nevertheless, future productive dialogue requires us to be cautious in our use of labels. For a period of time, many arguments against Obama’s policies on Facebook were predicated on the “that’s what Hitler did” meme. But we all know — that’s not ALL Hitler did! Applying the parallel is disingenuous and conversation stopping most of the time.  It’s important that we leave Hitler in the grave.

So also with Pharisees. To label a position as Pharisaical (as I have done) is not to advocate for constructive change but to diminish and demagogue. The Pharisees didn’t post Facebook statuses celebrating Chick-Fil-A. They conspired with others to arrange for Jesus’ arrest, conviction, and crucifixion. That’s a difference those of us promoting change must keep in mind.

At the end of it all, Easter comes and the Kingdom bursts forth. Indeed.