Tag: Jonathan Fitzgerald

There is No Spoon: Christian Boundary Maintenance

I have been fascinated with the idea of social networks since taking a great course in grad school when social network analysis was just beginning. In some ways, the question of who’s in and who’s out is a connecting thread that runs across my career.

My dissertation was on people who regularly attend church but never join (I saw them as boundary poachers, although the findings proved more complicated than that). I used network analysis to study three congregations and their relationship patterns in the early 90s (but I didn’t pay enough attention to bridging capital — more later).

Perhaps that research is what led me to be so critical of the effort we put into maintaining boundaries. I distinctly remember hearing a Focus on the Family broadcast telling of a group of school children playing at a newly constructed playground. Well-intentioned psychologists, it was argued, believed that they didn’t want to limit the childrens’ sense of adventure and so didn’t put fences around the school yard. The children, not knowing where the edges were, huddled anxiously in a clump being afraid to venture out. The chagrined psychologists had fences put up and then the children played happily in their new playground.

Parenthetically, I once put my university library staff along with the psych department to work to locate the original source. It appears to be apocryphal but is regularly repeated in blogs, sermons, and parenting articles. (A google scholar search just now came up pretty empty.)

trafalgar

Anyway, when I heard the report I knew what was wrong. They were looking in the wrong direction for meaning. It’s not at the edges but it’s in the center. I suggested to a friend (as I have repeated for years) that the solution isn’t to focus on the fences but the build a monolith in the center of the playground and tell the children they can play where ever they want as long as they can see the statue. This picture of Trafalgar square is as close as I’ve come to capturing what I had in mind.

The same ideas apply to Christian identity. If we spend all our time exploring the edges that separate us from others, we’re investing in creating and maintaining boundaries that function to that end. If this boundary weakens, we have to go and repair it right away like a rancher keeping the cattle in.

Instead, we can rest in the New Testament image of the Shepherd who knows the sheep and walks in their midst. They listen for him and move when he moves.

But we keep trying to build fences. I think this is a normal sociological process. We like to be with people like us. So we spend our energies creating points of separation that keep the outsiders out (and the insiders in). It’s an effective form of social control and identity marking, but it is a far cry from the outreach of the Gospel.

Spend just a few days reading Facebook or Twitter and you’ll see this in operation. We find things about which to be offended: how dare you say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? Women can teach Sunday School but not preach (there was a great blog but I lost it). We have church trials surrounding a Methodist minister who officiated at his gay son’s wedding. We separate the Wesleyans from the Calvinists. We separate over science and faith. Don’t get me started on the Christians engaged in political fights on Facebook, calling each other out for not being True Christians.

In my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class Thursday night, we were discussing the role of narrative in the pursuit of justice and the common good. This combined readings from Michael Sandel’s Justice and Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good. Attending to story can bind us together. The real task, paraphrasing Brueggemann, is to reconstruct community is such a way as not not privilege one group over another but validate all stories.

weakties

I was attempting to illustrate this by drawing on the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. In that context, I returned to a classic piece of modern sociology — Mark Grannovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties. Grannovetter argued that tightly bonded groups are good for social support but bad at building connections. For that, we need weak ties — the acquaintanceships that tell us about job prospects or allow information to be tested against reality.

For a quick explanation, check out this link from Information Week (where I got the graphic). The implication of the graph is that the energy in a strong tie group is expended inward. This provides a clear sense of who is in and who is out. The energy of a weak tie group is always expended outward — one never knows which of the surrounding circles is the source of potential contacts or information.

In the context of the class discussion, i was attempting to connect this to my prior work on millennials. One of the reasons they are concerned about the church is because they’ve maintained connections through social media with a diverse group of folks from different spheres of their lives. In short, they live in a weak-tie world.

This weekend Zach Hoag filled in on Zack Hunt’s blog (Zack has a cute new baby, but I’m a little biased about smart and beautiful babies since my granddaughter was born). Hoag wrote about the false fronts that are involved in our never-ending search for niceness. We stay away from the real messiness of the world because we’re maintaining face. Erving Goffman was a pioneer in exploring the ways in which we manage cues and props to create and maintain impressions. Boundary maintenance is another outcome of the same process.

One can find people who are less concerned about boundaries. Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber in the Daily Beast that defies membership in a single group (while acknowledging the danger of creating yet another Christian celebrity). In any case, Bolz-Weber fits a weak-ties model of social capital.

When I was talking to my class last week explaining the notion of social networks, I was struck by a new insight.

The notion of inside and outside are fictions. They’re helpful fictions and we find them comfortable. But they are fictions nonetheless.

There_is_no_SpoonI felt compelled to start quoting The Matrix (I’d already done a riff on Life of Brian). I found myself thinking of the boy Neo meets when he visits the Prophet. The boy can bend a spoon with his mind. Then Neo is told “There is no spoon“.

That made me think again about the Weak Ties diagram. The notion that we have all these little circles we’re part of isn’t true. It’s one big circle. And we’re all part of it.

God’s circle is bigger than we imagine and is not bounded by time or space much less by simple distinctions on who gets to preach or who gets to marry or who reads which science books.

What would happen if the evangelical church caught a vision of the bigger circle and the ways in which our stories are being co-written with each of us as influencers in every other story. Yes, I really liked the Day of the Doctors! What if all the energy we expend on separateness was spent building linkages to those different than ourselves?

It’s a great narrative — a storyline that starts at creation and runs throughout history to the restoration of that creation on earth as it is in heaven.

One More Time: It’s Not ABOUT Millennials!

Here’s the problem with the blogosphere: it’s simply too easy to put your ideas out there. If there’s a hot topic under consideration, you can jump in at any point and share your two cents (or less). You don’t have to follow the thread of the previous arguments. It’s easy enough to pick out an isolated phrase from some viral post, contrast it with your own experience, and explain why “that’s just not so”.

In saying all this, I realize I’m engaged in self-incrimination. I’ve tried to stay balanced and focused on the big issues instead of the reactionary posts. Maybe my ideas don’t hold up to scrutiny any more than anyone else’s. But I’ve tried to keep unpacking an important sociological point.

I have spent the last 15 months on a book written to freshmen entering Christian universities. I’m one more major edit from submitting it to the publishers. But the book isn’t just about millennial freshmen. It’s a book about how we go about Christian higher education. The millennials simply make it clear that we can’t continue “business as usual” in a complex, postmodern, world.

stats

When I wrote the Millennial Canaries post last week, I was thrilled to connect with a larger conversation and hopefully offer some balance. I’m grateful for those who linked it in their blogs or shared it on Facebook. I’m overwhelmed by the number of views it received. I won’t take the space here to review the range of discussion since Rachel Held Evans posted her CNN piece 12 days ago.

My point in that post, as in my book, is that we need to pay attention to Millennials not because they’re narcissistic and consumer driven and tech savvy. We pay attention because our ability to relate to them is an indicator of how we relate to a society in which Christianity is “an” option but not “the” option. In other words, the growth of the religiously unaffiliated and the anti-religious creates a context in which the church can’t assume an a priori privilege of voice. We have to learn how to speak to a world that doesn’t presume our presuppositions.

Today, Christianity Today posted this on Her-meneutics. Titled “The Myth of the Perfect Millennial Church” it gives the reactions from three women on the RHE posts. The takeaway for me was 1) some people were estranged from church in their 20s but returned when they had kids (this is a standard sociology of life cycle argument), 2) some people are disillusioned with their church of origin and look for difference, either more liturgical or more evangelical, and 3) church isn’t about meeting our needs but about following God as faithful Christians.

As I was writing this, a tweet sent me to this wonderful piece by Jonathan Fitzgerald. He points out that we’ve come to use personal anecdotes in the place of the Grand Stories, particularly from scripture. My mind quickly went to dozens of anecdotes shared as sermon intros (often anecdotes that happened to an entirely different person). But more often than not, the response to the anecdote is to wonder what it is about that person’s situation that we should listen to. Why is their story important? How is my situation similar to or different from theirs? Does the story hold water?

There are any number of responses that we can make to the changing context of religion in American society. Yes, we need more cross-generational conversation. Yes, we need to pray for the church as it is and not the church we wish we had. Yes, we need to be the church God calls us to be.

But sharing personal story is not what this conversation is about. What the original RHE post shared was a set of data from a variety of sources outlining some significant shifts in the religious landscape. These are things the church (or the Christian university) must deal with.

I have been arguing that we need to begin with millennials in this re-thinking because they are the cutting edge of change. They are also, as I wrote in my last post, the key to figuring out postmodern cultural engagement.

But focusing on millennials isn’t the end of the story. It’s barely the beginning. We need to stay engaged with the seniors who make up such a large segment of our congregations. We need to rethink family ministry so that we don’t idolize young couples and isolate those that don’t fit. We need youth ministries that support the complexity of the postmodern world without creating insular subcultures providing a place of escape without engagement.

It’s NOT ABOUT millennials. It’s about the Kingdom of God in contemporary society. The more we mess around with “that’s not true for me”, the less we’ll be able to respond to the sociological shifts already happening.

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.

Listening to my Youngers

Over the past six months, I’ve been reading a steady diet of Young Evangelical blogs and books. I have the sense that they’re all either side of 30, which puts them behind me by over a quarter century. Some I found on Facebook. Others I found through reading other people’s blogs and seeing who they cite. I read folks my age as well, but that’s the subject for another post.

I’m reluctant to start listing people because 1) I know I’ll leave people out and 2) I’m finding new people every day. But let me mention some anyway: Rachel Held Evans, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, Jenny Rae Armstrong, Lana, Morgan Guyton, Jonathan Fitzgerald and Carson T. Clark (no blog at the moment but good FB stuff). You should take a serious look. They are asking important questions and thinking of faith in vital and significant ways. Many have reflected deeply on an upbringing that focused on knowing answers without really pondering questions. Now that they are in their 30s, they are finding the means of exploring the questions and testing whether the answers work.

My reading has taught me a few things. First, they have a high view of scripture as the Word of God. That view is high enough that they aren’t afraid of asking difficult questions in its presence. They trust God with their questions and confidently believe that God will show them Truth.

Second, they have a high degree of compassion for those outside the evangelical fold. This is why they write on topics like gay rights or religious nones. They have made it a point to interact with those from different backgrounds and commitments and attempted to write with those individuals in mind.

Third, they are essentially hopeful about God’s work in contemporary society. There’s not a slippery-slope argument in the bunch. No looking back wistfully at Mayberry (maybe Common Perks on Friends, but that’s a different thing). They see change in society as something to be engaged — not blindly embraced but not attacked either.

In a word, they are believers in Grace. The see God extending it all around us and are smart enough to extend it to others as well. Even those older bloggers who dismiss them or call them names.

One of the great things about surrounding yourself with college students all the time is that their optimism is contagious. I see what they hope for their future and how they engage the world. And I’m confident that in another decade they’ll be impressing me with their writing as well. When I listen to them, I learn stuff. And I find that the world is a better place. Far better than grasping a sour vision of a world in despair.

I read folks my age as well. They do great work. I’ll give them a shout-out in a future post. I’m probably way more selective in the older list. Too many of today’s leaders make me mad. But enough of them open windows to the soul to let me know that we older folks can learn a lot by listening to our youngers.

Framing a Positive Vision for Evangelicals and Higher Education

Last weekend I drove from Michigan to Massachusetts to attend the North Shore Writers Retreat sponsored by Eastern Nazarene College. It was a great time, with presentations by Karl Giberson, Peter Enns, Alissa Wilkinson, Jonathan Merritt, Lil Copan, John Wilson, and hosted by Jonathan Fitzgerald. Some of these people I’ve followed over the years. Others were Facebook friends I’d never met in person.

There were some very good between-sessions conversations about Christian Higher Ed. We had attended such schools and/or taught at them. We all shared some similar questions about the unique challenges of the Christian university.

I came away from the last session with Jonathan Merritt reflecting on two ideas he shared. First, he said that the postmodern world is drawn to story and operates inductively where the modern world operates deductively through argument. I need to be far more attentive to the stories of my students and my colleagues to really build an image of what Christian higher education can look like in the future. Jonathan’s other point that struck home: It’s not enough to draw attention to a problem; you have to offer the compelling alternative.

On the drive home and in the midst of starting the Spring semester Thursday, I’ve been thinking of my arguments about Christian Higher Ed. What I’ve argued is that the past models aren’t sufficient and if we don’t change we run the risk of alienating a generation. But change to what? What does the non-negative vision look like?

The past few days have had me focused anew of the shortcomings of evangelical culture, and by extension, the universities that exist within that culture. On Thursday, Rachel Held Evans posted this blog titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart. Drawing on language from Mark Noll’s 1995 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, she argues that there’s a real challenge with compassion when “right belief” fosters ambivalence to suffering. Friday, Peter Enns posted a blog also building on Noll’s book. Pete suggests that a problem for evangelical academics is that we can be “free” to pursue ideas as long as they don’t lead to uncomfortable conclusions. Last night I finished  The Great Evangelical Recession by John Dickerson. Dickerson makes some interesting points that have been made elsewhere but ties them together in some useful ways. He draws comparisons between the housing bubble and the exaggerated influence of evangelicalism and suggests a number of structural factors that present great risk (loss of youth, segmentation, financial strain, lack of discipleship, etc.). Today I read Ron Sider’s The Scandal of Evangelical Conscience. Sider effectively documents the statistical similarities between evangelicals and the broader culture on a range of issues like divorce, sexuality, abuse, finance, materialism, and so on.

Taking these pieces as a package, I’m left with a vision of American Evangelicalism which is 1) struggling, 2) culturally uncertain, 3) insufficiently prophetic, 4) interpersonally harsh or condemning, and 5) often very afraid. If these diagnoses are even half on track, this suggests some hard days ahead for traditional evangelical institutions.

So what’s the positive alternative? It’s fine to suggest “don’t be those bad things” but that doesn’t provide us much to go with.  Dickerson calls for a return to biblical authority and a focus on discipling. Sider (like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others) suggests we need a better understanding of how Jesus was initiating a Kingdom and not simply providing a way to get to heaven.

There is something about Kingdom language that can be of value to Christian higher education. I’ll unpack some of these thoughts in future posts. For now, let me suggest that the key is to see the Christian university as a place where the Kingdom is in operation. This doesn’t occur in separation from the larger culture as it did in past times. It occurs because we embrace the theological significance of Jesus’ model of sacrificial love, of challenging pharisaicalism, of reaching out to the powerless, and of building a community that takes Paul’s body metaphors seriously. Toward the end of his book, Sider writes, “Indeed, the church ought to be not just different but far ahead of the rest of society.” That’s something I’m continuing to ponder about the Christian University.

Jonathan Fitzgerald, who did such a fine job organizing the Writer’s Retreat, just published an e-book titled Not Your Mothers Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. I really think his idea of the New Sincerity has power. It’s something for us to consider in Christian higher education. We need to present the world as sufficiently complex, to investigate our past positions without abandoning our faith commitments, and above all to tell the truth.

Spring Arbor’s Concept contains the phrase “total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning“. I’m coming to realize that this phrase is far more complicated than “What Would Jesus Do?”.  It’s not just affirming a Christian identity. It’s really seeing about seeing the Kingdom that Jesus saw. The more we can learn to  do that, the stronger our educational perspective will be.