Tag: Religion News Service

Methodists Wrestle With Diversity Instead of Imposing Uniformity

I have spent nearly half of the past 30 years as a member of the United Methodist Church (the rest of the time I was Nazarene or Church of God — Anderson). I have been in Methodist churches in rural Kansas, urban Oregon, and now Michigan. It is no surprise that these three churches were very different in their temperament, their theology, and their politics. That’s not even getting into the distinctions between the former Evangelical United Brethren churches which maintain a unique culture fifty years after merging into the UMC.

I recently read research outlining that 80% of Methodist congregations are located in the South or Midwest. No doubt those regional dynamics play a role in how people think about what it means to be Methodist. Then there is the urban-rural distinctions. Urban Methodists are different from Rural Methodists and likely to have a very different set of issues that motivate them. Clergy take different positions than do rank and file members.

There’s also a distinction to be made between those people who are multi-generational Methodists and those who happen to find themselves comfortable in a local congregation yet grew up Baptist or Catholic or nothing at all. There are also significant differences between older Methodists and their younger counterparts. The former look back at the days when the congregation was bigger and the church played a significant role in the community. The younger generation wants a vital faith experience that speaks to the world in which they live.

People are part of Methodist churches because they support their community or they want to serve those in need or they want to better understand their Bible or because it’s where their primary social circle is centered. Or sometimes all of these at once.

This diversity I’m exploring is a feature of the United Methodists, not a bug.

That feature is what has brought about a specially called single-purpose general conference in St. Louis over the next few days. Called in response to the 2016 General Conference, it is a way to explore the varied positions that exist within the denomination regarding LGBTQ issues — how the church views sexuality, whether or not to ordain LGBTQ clergy, and whether to permit same-sex marriages to be performed by Methodist clergy or in local congregations. For a great overview, you can’t beat this piece (or any other, for that matter) by Emily McFarlan Miller of the Religion News Service.

As I have considered the various plans that are under consideration this week, I have developed two guiding principles. First, a good solution must protect the diversity that exists within the denomination. Second, nobody should be forced into a position that violates their own sense of integrity.

The first principle would serve to legitimize what we already know. There is a wide range of theological perspectives on LGBTQ questions within the denomination’s membership. We must avoid the temptation to search for winners and losers. We must not villainize those on the other side as unbiblical or homophobic. The delegates in St. Louis should be trying to discern God’s best vision for the future of the UMC. Ideally, that precludes those who want to take a “my way or the highway” approach. There has been far too much talk of schism before the conversations even got underway.

The second principle follows from this. Legitimizing difference means finding ways of resolving conflict that neither force people into positions (i.e., conducting a same-sex wedding, accepting a gay pastor) nor seek to punish those who act out of conscience (suspension without pay, removal of credentials). Any efforts to create uniformity through force, coercion, or sanction are not in the Spirit of the early church.

There are four primary plans under discussion in St. Louis (our local Bishop, Dr. David Bard, did a great explainer video).

The Connectional Plan creates two Methodist churches — one affirming and one traditional. Local congregations would align with one of these two bodies regardless of where they are located. The varied logistical nightmares of assemblies and councils make this solution untenable. While it protects my second principle, it is a shallow version of the first.

The Simple plan removes the Discipline language about homosexuality being inconsistent with Christian teaching as well as any restrictions on ordination or marriages. The Traditional plan retains the language and increases the penalties for violation of existing Discipline rules. Either of these two options falls short of my second principle.

That leaves me with what the Bishops call the One Church plan. This option allows individual conferences and boards of ordained ministry to resolve the question of ordaining LGBT clergy. It allows individual clergy and congregations to resolve the questions regarding same-sex marriage. The One Church plan affirms the diversity of the UMC while providing freedom to local jurisdictions on how they plan to proceed.

What is the likely impact of such a solution in the years to come? It is frankly hard to predict. Yet there is reason to believe that it might not be as fraught as many are predicting. First, since Obergefell the general public has become far more accepting of same-sex marriage. The percentage of local congregants who have family members, friends, or coworkers who are LGBT is likely quite high. Second, the younger generation has already shifted on the same-sex marriage question. According to PRRI, a majority of millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage as of 2017. Resolving, at least in part, the denomination’s stance on LGBTQ issues may help stem some of the generational loss impacting all religious groups.

I wrote on Twitter yesterday that I was thinking about #GC2019 with an eye toward the Catholic conference going on in Vatican City and while still reeling from the horrific news of the last few months about the Southern Baptist Convention, Harvest Bible Chapel, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists, or Willow Creek. Those examples show us how far our churches need to go to address the critical challenges of our day, especially on issues of sexuality and human dignity.

I’m sure many friends will see the One Church Plan as half a loaf because it still allows UMC churches to be nonaffirming. Other friends will be similarly disappointed because they see any accommodation to broader social changes to be a failure of the church. This diversity is, as I said earlier, one of the great strengths of the UMC. The challenge for us all is to embrace those differences while celebrating the core of what we all have in common.

The people called Methodists have always been a diverse bunch and will continue to be so. That’s not a bad thing because the world is made up of the same kinds of diverse folks.

If the United Methodist Church can acknowledge its internal diversity while maintaining the dignity of its member bodies, we will find the opportunity to stand in witness during these changing time by truly “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World”

The Myth of “Institutional Authority”

Thirty years ago this summer I was finally finishing my dissertation. I had been working for several years considering a little examined phenomenon: the attending non-member.

At the time, most of the research in the sociology of religion was conducted 1) by examining denominational differences present in national surveys or 2) by sampling the official membership lists of a local congregation. I was interested in examining those who regularly attend church (at least once on month), had done so for a substantial period of time (at least six months), and yet who were not members. My hypothesis was that people would feel significant pressure to join or leave, so their transitional status would be worth examining.

Along the way, I struggled with two critical questions that have remained with me for three decades:

Which was more significant to the life of faith, attendance or membership? Several pastors, when asked if they’d participate in my project, wanted to know if I could tell them about people who were on the books but never came. As my post about the Pew Religion Data illustrated, I settled on attendance as being critical.

Why do people feel compelled to abide by organizational expectations? Part of my argument was that attending nonmembers would feel somehow unable to meet the expectations placed upon them and would find a way to negotiate their continuation. But why should they feel compelled at all? What does it mean for a church as a voluntary organization to attempt to maintain uniformity within its membership?

It’s not like the protestant churches I was studying were going to excommunicate those who didn’t fit in. Those folks would leave and find a church where they would feel comfortable. It would be difficult to break ties, especially if friends and family are involved, but it wasn’t impossible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the second question since the weekend. When Ireland’s voters overwhelming approved a constitutional amendment legalizing same-sex marriage, the media and commentariate responded with concern about “the authority of the Catholic Church”. This was suggested in spite of the fact that Ireland remains one of the most Catholic countries on the planet (with attendance patterns to prove it).

A series of articles in Religion News Service illustrates how this argument requires much more nuance. Art Farnsley couches the “lessened power” of the Catholic Church as an example of a particular form of secularization, where the individualism predominant within modernity makes religious institutions more peripheral. Kim Hjelmgaard (in a reprint from USA Today) discusses the vote as a shift in relations between the church and the society. He quotes the Irish archbishop saying that the Catholic Church “needs a reality check”. Father Paul Morrissey (in another USA Today reprint) argued that Ireland made this historic vote because of “their faith in God, which is bigger and deeper than the Catholic Church.” Mark Silk goes farther, arguing that elements of Catholic identity actually set the stage for the vote:

Catholicism, understood as a religious culture rather than as a set of official doctrines, is far more amenable to same-sex marriage than is generally thought. Unlike Protestantism, it never valorized the nuclear family as the church in miniature. Catholics have, by contrast, exercised their analogical imaginations in understanding nuns as married to Jesus and bishops to their dioceses.

When I work through all of these articles, I realize that our previous assumptions about the power of the Catholic Church to guarantee compliance have been wildly overstated. Even in Monty Python’s classic “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” skit, nobody was really afraid of the church’s power. Vatican II and other Councils were really about support of faithful individuals over against the dominance of an institutional church. Look at birth control practices among American Catholics to get a sense of how people can be Catholic and exercise individual discretion. It’s no surprise that the percentage of American Catholics who report being in favor of same-sex marriage is 60%; roughly the level of the yes vote in Ireland.

Another illustration of institutional power is seen in recent reactions to a situation at The Village Church, where Matt Chandler is the pastor. You can read more in these posts by Ed Cyzewski, Matthew Paul Turner, and John Pavlovitz. The short version is that the church leadership refused to annul a marriage in which the husband was regularly viewing child pornography. The wife, understandably, was looking for a way to get out of the broken relationship. But the church holds a very high view of institutional authority, relying on “covenant agreements” that feel more like ironclad contracts that protect their views of church and family.

I’m sure I could find people who will defend Chandler and TVC. There are some in the Acts 29 network who see this strong power approach to leadership as being institutionally sound. But the visceral reaction to a situation where the church requires a woman to stay with her husband in order to maintain the institution illustrates what happens with the institutional authority myth is shown to be the fiction that it is.

One of the lasting concepts in my sociological theory class this year was Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. The students regularly returned to this idea throughout the semester. Mechanical solidarity is a form of social organization based on sameness and control of any deviation from expected values. It operates on what Durkheim labeled repressive law. Organic solidarity finds it basis for organization in diversity and interdependence. It’s why he cared about the Division on Labor; if we are interdependent we must find ways of keeping relationships vital. It operates on restitutive law: where the purpose is to restore broken ties.

Last week, Fox debuted their new drama Wayward Pines. I won’t give too much plot away, but it’s enough to say Wayward Pinesthat this is an Idaho town with some strange goings-on. The hero, a Secret Service agent played by Matt Dillon, has come to find out what happened to two colleagues. Everyone in the town is very much aware of a set of rules by which they must live. Violation of these rules is not only not tolerated, but will result in the dramatic intervention of the local sheriff (played by Terrance Howard, pictured at right looking like a good old boy eating his ever present ice cream cone).

We watch shows like Wayward Pines to root for the Matt Dillon character. We want him to solve the mystery, outwit the power structures, and find a life of freedom with his wife and son. We fear a society where mysterious powers are at work (which is why folks are sure Obama caused Texas flooding to ease the move to martial law).

So it’s curious that in the religious realm we want to celebrate strong institutions that are supposed to control an individual’s every behavior. It’s not just that such images of institutional authority run counter to modernist sensibilities. It’s that somehow we know intuitively that this is not how spirit-filled Christians are supposed to live.

The disciples were certainly a rag-tag bunch who weren’t good at conformity. Yet, when Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, Jesus tells him “upon this rock I will build my church”. There is no reference to Peter whipping everyone into shape to protect the witness of the church. Affirmation seems to be the key not conformity to covenant agreements.

Jesus goes on to say that the gates of Hell will not prevail against such a church. I don’t think there were asterisks in that verse exempting Christians who ask tough questions. I don’t think Jesus said “the gates of Hell won’t prevail but if Ireland approves same-sex marriage all bets are off”.

Maybe if Christians relied more on trusting the Holy Spirit and being the Body of Christ, we wouldn’t need to make claims of institutional authority and the church would be the prophetic voice is was called to be.

Conservative Protestants, Divorce, and Culture: Durkheim would be proud

Red State MarriageSociologists made the news this week. Mostly we just do our research and our teaching, wondering if anybody notices. Then word comes out that a study will appear in this month’s American Journal of Sociology that raises questions about the connections between religious affiliation and divorce. The article, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates” by Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak, examines patterns in county divorce rates as they were correlated with other factors.

Religion news outlets got on the story. The Religion News Service story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey did a very good job. The Huffington Post summarized the story, while seeming to gloat a little on red-state problems or support of abstinence programs. One of the clearest summaries is in a press release from the Council on Contemporary Families (operated by Stephanie Coontz, one of the best marriage experts in the country).

There was some spirited dialogue about the study on Facebook and Twitter and I shared what I could. But I realized that it was hard to evaluate the argument without seeing the actual article, which isn’t out yet. But the intrepid Director of the White Library at Spring Arbor, Robbie Bolton, found me a copy of a conference paper Glass and Levchak had done three years ago that looks to be a similar argument and is likely the initial version of what became the AJS paper.

It’s a very interesting paper (if you like ordinary least squares regression). It does a very nice review of the literature, looking at the dynamics impacting divorce decisions, conservative protestantism, early marriage, attitudes toward cohabitation, and so on.

Curiously, it seems that much of the push-back on the internet comes from observations in the lit review. At least one article states, “as the authors wrote in the paper“, which while technically true isn’t the point of their analysis. They site what Mark Regnerus calls the “evangelical anomaly”, in which conservative attitudes against premarital sex don’t impact sexual behavior, resulting in higher than average rates of both teen pregnancy and early marriage. They summarize research that posits a Southern Culture. They discuss the relationships between educational level, economic structure, and divorce. All of these are in their paper but the real focus in on how county patterns co-vary.

This is important sociologically — we must pay attention to units of analysis. You can’t use county level data to explain individual divorces or attitudes of local conservative protestant congregations. Anyone who has done either is using the study in ways that aren’t appropriate.

What Glass and Levchak are doing has a sociological history running back to Durkheim. In his classic study Suicide (1897), he examined how suicide rates vary by region in ways that co-varied with characteristics within the region (protestant vs catholic provinces in the classic example). Obviously, individual suicides don’t vary in the same way (he was quite dismissive of theories of abnormality to explain collective behavior). He suggested that what happens is that there is a general “social current” within a culture that intersects with individuals considering suicide. The result is a tremendous stability in suicide rates over time (not for individuals, of course, they don’t have an “over time”!).

It’s in this context that the Red State-Divorce connection should be read. Their results suggest that counties with higher percentages of the population affiliated with conservative protestant churches contrasted with mainline churches have higher rates of divorce than those counties with lower percentages of the same. (When unaffiliated percentages are compared to mainline, the impact on divorce is three times as high). They then control for standard variables like race, social class, and age of first marriage to see if the initial relationship was an artifact of something else. It persists throughout the analysis.

They had already demonstrated in the literature review that attendance in an evangelical church appears to operate as inoculation against divorce. This maybe be due to the social supports provided by the congregation and/or the social opprobrium against divorce. So they aren’t really arguing that conservative protestants are contributing to divorce. Their argument is more subtle than that.

The data seems to suggest that increased rates of divorce in the counties with higher percentages in conservative churches is due to the behaviors of the non-attending crowd. Theoretically, this would suggest that the churches were helping to shape the norms and values of the local culture (as they might have hoped). However, for those without social supports, the result of premarital sex and cohabitation is to push people into early marriage and early childbirth and avoiding higher education. This, in turn, contributes to one parent working at lower wage jobs. That, finally, contributes to marital dissolution.

Durkheim would love this on both counts — the congregation provides value reinforcement and the social currents impact individual behaviors, regardless of religious preference. The result of these social patterns is a divorce rate that is consistently different from those counties that have a lower percentage of adherents to evangelical religious groups.

But therein is a cautionary tale for the evangelical church. For all our desire to impact the broader culture so that Biblical values are represented, there is a probability that those attitudes will impact that culture in unanticipated ways. They may provide rationales for beliefs or behaviors that actually run counter to what we were trying to promote. As the values espoused become a part of the social currents, they impact behavior but with little theological content whatsoever. Perversely, the religious values get subsumed into the general civil religion of the society (Durkheim saw that one coming as well).

There’s also a cautionary tale for Christian universities here. While on the one hand, we’ve (thankfully) moved well beyond the old jokes about getting one’s MRS degree, the culture of a Christian university celebrates relationship. We teach courses in marriage and family, in relationship building, and have lots of social activities to bring people together. Of course the 60-40 gender split means that a significant number of individuals won’t be in relationship. For those that are, the lessons about abstinence are taken to heart but run up against lots of close interaction, plenty of free time, and freedom from supervision. It’s been a long-term fear of mine that we encourage young people to pair up and plan weddings long before they are ready. Better to marry than burn. Better to stay together than explain to everybody what went wrong. As emerging adults continue to delay marriage in general, our lessons on premarital sex may have more troubling consequences down the road.

We need to be aware of how our values are experienced by individuals. When we don’t provide the social support involving honest communication, we can become complicit in broader trends without intending to. In Moral Education (published in 1922 after his death), Durkheim suggested that morality involved discipline, attachment, and autonomy. The first keeps ego in check. The second connects us to the group. The third allows us to make moral choices.

While Glass and Levchak can’t get at these factors from their county-level demographic data, it’s good to keep in mind. All three factors are necessary to shape both individual and collective behavior.