Tag: Religious Dones

“Done” with Church: An Institutional Analysis

Earlier this week I posted a fictional retrospective from December 2015 on what I thought would be the big religious stories of the year. The first of these had to do with the “Rise of the Dones”: those people formerly heavily engaged in church who were now not attending. Over the next three days, my social media feeds seemed to keep sharing stories that affirmed my supposition.

A friend, a Christian college professor like me, shared a Huffington Post piece from late 2013 on “Why Nobody Wants to Go To Church Anymore” (his mother, who’s my age, affirmed the critique). Another friend shared this reflection by Alece Ronzino, which sounds similar themes to Addie Zierman’s book I reviewed here last year. Benjamin Corey wrote an excellent pair of articles explaining why he wasn’t fully at home with Progressive Christianity or with Evangelical Christianity. Yesterday I received an e-mail update from Univeristy of Northern Colorado sociologist Josh Packard, who has been collecting data on Dones. His site introduced me to Thom Schultz, who manages a website on Dones.

Whenever I see this kind of convergence of stories in a short period of time, I have two reactions. First, I affirm that that there is something here worth attending to. Second, I try to use my “sociological imagination” to see if can dig deeper as to what it going on.

In the midst of this barrage of stories, I was reading Andy Crouch’s Playing God. He builds the caPlaying Godse for a Christian, creative, view of power: one that is not zero-sum but ever expanding the flourishing of all impacted. I’ll write a more thorough review of this excellent book in the next couple of days.

In the middle of the book, Andy does some sociology. In fact, he offers one of the cleanest explanations of the sociological notion of “institution” I’ve ever read. His chapter should be excerpted for every Intro to Sociology text.

Using the image of football, Andy argues that institutions have cultural artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles. In other words, there are things (footballs, helmets, pads) which have a mandated use. There are places where the things are used (stadiums, vacant fields). There are rules which govern behavior (and systems for enforcing that expected behavior — football broadcasts now have “rules experts” that they call on to interpret what referees are thinking when evaluating those rules). Within the context of the artifacts, arenas, and rules, we have the actual roles people play (spectator, quarterback, offensive guard, strong safety, line judge). He also argues that institutionalization takes three generations (each generation is roughly 25 years) to establish, doing some nifty work with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Nearly everyone interested in the Dones is looking for a way to see them re-engage in the life of the church. In fact, so do many of the Dones. I want to see church be a meaningful experience where people draw closer to God in the midst of a supportive community. That’s my church at the top of the page and I have a vested interest to see people in that congregation who are free to be who they are as a part of the Body of Christ.

So it seemed natural to attempt to use Andy’s handles for institutions to try to make sense of what’s going on with the Dones. It’s easy to see how arenas have changed: many follow the megachurch model and have flashy sound systems, projection units, auditorium seating. One can see shifts in artifacts as we move from hymnals to choruses and from Bible studies to popular author video series. However, more fundamental are the changes in the rules and roles.

I wanted to be able to do something really cute with Andy’s three generation hypothesis but I can’t quite make the numbers work. I would still argue that the rules started shifting around 1980 and it may have taken a generation and a half for us to begin to recognize that those rule changes were dysfunctional. Let me quickly explore four changes.

The Moral Majority was officially formed in 1979 and operated throughout the 1980s. In its wake we found a sense that real RefereeChristians were those who held the “right” views (in both meanings of the word). This meant that part of the refereeing involved figuring out who was inside and who was out. If you were one who disagreed with the dominant view, it was a tough place to stay.

Willow Creek began meeting in the mid-1970s with a new set of operations: organizing services around reaching the unchurched. This meant changing the arena and the artifacts to reach a whole new group of “spectators” who were otherwise being missed. This is a commendable goal, but as it expanded to other settings, the role of faithful multi-generational member became harder to identify. (The Wikipedia page linked above lists the age based ministries at the church, the oldest of which is college aged.) As the focus on being “seeker sensitive” expanded, it left less room for the long-time churched.

At about the same period, popular preachers drilled home that being a Christian required absolute discipline (with little instruction on what that meant). I remember sitting in an adult Sunday School class on New Year’s Morning in the mid-80s where the teacher was talking about the discipline shown by football players in bowl games (didn’t talk about their off-field behavior) and challenging us to show that kind of discipline in our faith. All I could think of was that it was New Year’s morning and I was in Sunday School and that wasn’t enough. If the roles defined are beyond normal reach, people will disengage rather than continue to be yelled at. Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill are a bit of an anomaly but may be the exception that proves the rule — if you want to watch a pastor “tell it like it is” as a spectator, that may work for you but many others will leave.

Pee Wee FooballFinally, the over-professionalization of ministry roles has limited the space for “normal people” to be involved. The preaching pastor has his “teachings”. The worship leader manages the praise team to achieve a desired end. The children’s pastor makes sure that kids are entertained and learn valuable lessons. (It’s tempting to spend time on the death of sandlot football and how they have been replaced by Pee Wee youth leagues — same over-professionalization).

The result of these various shifts in institutional culture over the past generation and a half is that the role of congregant has shrunk in both importance and task. If it feels like people are spectators, it’s because that’s what the rules call for. If we want something else, we’ll need to rethink some institutional arrangements.

Maybe we could begin by making some rule changes that create space for creative engagement on the part of everyday followers of Jesus. If the arena was designed to make them the center of cultural activity perhaps the Dones would realize that they have far more to offer to the Body of Christ.

They haven’t given up. They just don’t want to play in the current arena. We should change it for the better.

Looking Back: Religion in 2015

December 2015

I spent some time looking over what I’d posted on this blog over the past 12 months in anticipation of one of those “best of” posts everyone is doing. I did learn how much the three themes of evangelicalism, higher education, and sociological theory showed up on the blog and how some of each were among my most viewed posts.

Then I thought about doing one of those “most important stories of 2014” especially after reading this post from Christianity Today. It asked four figures to list their pick for “best news” of 2014 that would shape evangelical life. Their responses were relations between evangelicals and Catholics (Geoff Tunnicliffe), WorldVision abandoning their same-sex marriage policy (Eric Teetsel), Ebola doctors and We are N awareness (Sarah Pulliam Bailey), and persecution breaking the reins of prosperity gospel (Russell Moore).

While I don’t have major quibbles with most of these (I have a hard time with the WorldVision thing), I immediately wondered what else was missing. What would others have responded? How would they articulate their choice? What sort of factors played into their perspective of what constituted “best news”?

Rather than adding my retrospective on what was important, which has the kind of safety found in Newsroom scripts retelling events long past, I thought I’d stick my neck out and write next year’s retrospective a year early. So, following in the tradition of Edward Bellamy, I pretended it was December 2015 and I could reflect on the major change stories in religion (especially American religion as it’s what I know best).

In no particular order, here’s my list:

1. The Rise of the Dones: While much of the focus in recent years has been on why millennials have fallen away from church in somewhat large numbers, this was the year when the evangelical church really woke up to those previously faithful members who just stopped participating. This was captured in research by Josh Packard and colleagues. These are individuals who are theologically orthodox and would show up as highly religious on a number of survey questions, but simply don’t attend church much anymore. They’ve heard it before and are pursuing other avenues for spiritual fulfillment. This group helps explain the significant gap between religious identification and church attendance in America as well as the increasing financial challenges for local congregations.

2. Pope Francis make life more difficult for Evangelicals:  His Holiness continued the housecleaning begun late in 2014, shaking up the internal organization of the Vatican and calling those in leadership not to see themselves as better than others in their flocks. This included some extremely strong words about the embrace of materialism and what sociologists call “conspicuous consumption”. Suddenly, the evangelical pastor asking for heightened levels of loyalty, a huge staff, lots of speaking opportunities, and large houses wound up in stark contrast to public images of what it means to be truly Christian. In addition, the pope’s openness to dialogue on the role of women, treatment of those outside the faith, and embrace of science made it increasingly difficult to take hard-line stances on social issues (even where simply quoting scripture worked in the past) unless one was willing to denounce an immensely popular spiritual leader as being an accommodationist.

3. Concerns over Race in America bridged theological barriers: As 2014 ended with sharp divisions on issues of race, it was religious figures from across the theological spectrum who began to seriously address the key questions. Prior separations between Calvinists and Arminians, between millennial bloggers and evangelical figureheads, between mainliners and evangelicals began to break down, at least for a time. There was a strong sentiment from African-American conservatives and young white progressives that one’s station in society shouldn’t be dictated by race and class. There was a dramatic increase in the number of voices willing to admit that something was wrong and that we needed intense theological and sociological conversations. This change put the evangelical church in the center of significant social change based not simply on secular values but imbued with a strong vision of God’s Kingdom at work.

4. Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage allowed real dialogue within denominations on marriage: With more states taking steps to institutionalize same-sex marriage on purely secular grounds, it created the situation where denominational groups could no longer treat the topic as an abstract proposition. Increasingly, people within local congregations were in same-sex marriages recognized by the state (and their employers). Churches held fast to self-determination on marriages within the church and there remain stark differences on the role of married, sexually active, gay clergy. But the societal shifts allow for real dialogue within major denominational groupings. While the year ended without any particular working consensus, earlier concerns about schism seemed to be avoided. One of the interesting positive outcomes of the shift was a real discussion about the role of family, commitment, fidelity, and affirmation of the image of God in all that had been sorely missed in “traditional family” discussions.

5. The splintering of the Evangelical voting block: As the pre-primary campaigns began to take shape in mid-2015 in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election, the old value-voters block of conservative evangelicals didn’t materialize to the extent that it had in the previous three presidential cycles. This was a result of three factors: more millennials involved in the political process, the inability of leading presidential candidates to speak to evangelical theological concerns, and shifts in major political issues from social concerns to economic concerns. Issues of abortion and treatment of the elderly were still highly valued, but other issues of immigration, family policy, minimum wage, and the social contract showed significant diversity of thought even among evangelicals. Candidates could no longer simply depend upon Christian voters guides carrying the day.

*********

Some of this may be simply pie-in-the-sky thinking on my part. On the other hand, all five of my scenarios are based on a reasonable sociological reading of things already in play in late 2014. I invite you to tag this and come back to it in twelve months — I’m sure I will.