Tag: Roger Olson

Religion is more complicated than our reporting suggests

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece reflecting on the question of how religious people were characterized in the recent election. Michael Wear had an intriguing interview with Emma Green in the Atlantic. Right before that, Ruth Graham had written on how white evangelicals didn’t support Clinton. In my piece, I pointed out the role that an evangelical infrastructure played in creating that context. Recent reporting has me exploring that observation more closely.

The PRRI group released data this week in anticipation of President Obama’s Farewell speech (which was an outstanding statement on the nature of civic democracy!). They summarized the data in the following chart.

pew-obama

Just 24% of white evangelical protestants had a favorable view of Obama, 1% more than those identifying as conservatives. I somewhat facetiously suggested on social media that maybe it was time to stop thinking of these as two distinct groups. Data has shown that white evangelical protestants are the most republican religious group, most nostalgic, and most opposed to a variety of social issues like same-sex marriage.

I’ve been arguing throughout this election cycle that it’s quite possible that this close relationship between white evangelical protestants and conservatives is really a spurious relationship. It may be that region, attitudes toward abortion, non-urban, and socioeconomic status may be driving both evangelical commitment and political conservatism.

The above mentioned infrastructure makes it more likely that the white evangelical protestant group is seen as THE religious group in America. They have the publications, the conferences, and the spokespeople who use broadcast and social media to advance their agenda and make it clear that they are the largest religious block in America.

That statistical claim is true, barely. Self-identified evangelicals make up a larger share of the population than other groups. The 2014 Pew Landscape survey  shows 25.4% white evangelicals, 22.8% unaffiliated, 20.8% Catholic, 14.7% mainline protestant, and 6.5% Black protestant.

Not only is that evangelical infrastructure focused on defining what “religious voters” care about but it also focuses on the maintenance of the definition of who is Really Christian. This has created a context in which the focus of politicians and press has been on a specific subset of the white evangelical grouping.

On Monday, the Religion News Service reported this story titled “Christian groups express ‘grave concerns’ about Trump agenda, appointments“. It reports how the National Council of Churches (among others) had released a report strongly criticizing the new administration’s positions as backward thinking, discriminatory, and counter to scripture.

I was struck by the title of the article because I realized that many in the white evangelical protestant infrastructure believe that the NCC and its members aren’t “real Christians” but only adopting cultural trappings of religion in their political pursuits. Has the NCC every been invited to speak at the Values Voters Summit?

As the RNS story explains, the NCC membership includes “6 of the 10 largest denominations in the United States.” They are mainline churches but are still a vital part of the story of religion and civic life.

Another story in RNS documented President Obama‘s positions on faith over the course of his presidency. It’s a remarkable story, especially when contrasted with the dismissive views of many on the right (that’s even ignoring all the “secret Muslim” claims). Contrast this story with the 24% approval rating and you have to scratch you head. Part of the answer there may be that President Obama takes a big tent approach to faith where white evangelicals may be using a much narrower screen.

Last week there was a story in the Washington Post reporting on mainline churches and what their pastors believed. Written by one of the researchers of a Canadian study, it explains how there is a correlation between conservative theology (especially that of the pastor) and church growth. The research  involves 22 mainline congregations in Ontario. Of these, 13 were declining and 9 were growing. The research shows a correlation between the theological orthodoxy of the pastor/congregation and the likelihood that the church is growing. Demographics play a part but orthodoxy appears to be key.

Given the state of reporting on mainline religion, I’d expect people might be a little surprised to see that 41% of a sample of mainline congregations is growing or that overwhelming majorities of all congregants say they’ve committed their lives to Christ. (I do need to observe that the majority of US mainline protestants have an unfavorable view of Obama and voted for Trump — my point is that we don’t tend to talk about them at all).

I recently watched a remarkable presentation by Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina black pastor of a Disciples of Christ church who has been the leader of the Moral Mondays movement. He has a classical civil rights blend of a prophetic religious voice and a political engagement like we saw in MLK. In the same fashion, I realized that the politicians and the press have not seen those perspectives as representing religion in the public square.

In a rapidly changing society, it is important that religion continues to a vital part of our public engagement. Democrats and media figures do need to be more versed in how that religion is expressed as an important part of modern life. But its also important that we understand religion in its complexity and not limiting that view to one segment. It’s also important that the religious groups model the diversity that actually exists.

In closing, I commend two articles making similar points. This piece by Roger Olson raises concerns about the “The ‘Disappearing Middle’ in American Political and Religious Life“. This piece by Philip Yancey looks for ways of “Bridging the Gap”. He closes his piece with this reflection on Francis Shaeffer:

Toward the end of his life, as he saw the word evangelical become synonymous with political lobbying, Schaeffer sometimes wondered what he had helped set loose.  He based The Mark of the Christian on some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Schaeffer added, “Love—and the unity it attests to—is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world.  Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.…It is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”  I see that as the biggest challenge facing committed Christians in the new year.

 

Mainlines and Evangelicals: Developing Hypotheses

Has the institutional church had it? Is it on the way out?

You don’t have to look far to see questions about the health of the institutional church. From the growth of the religious “Nones” among the under 30 population to David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me to Rachel Held Evans post on CNN yesterday, the story seems to be that young people have issues with religion, especially in more rigid evangelical churches. The younger generation’s concerns are important because they fill slots in the church created by normal demographic change (that’s sociologist for “people died”). If there are not enough new people in the church willing to commit, what happens to all these churches?

I took my first sociology of religion class in 1977. At that time, two recent books were shaping religious discussion. One was Jeffrey Hadden’s The Gathering Storm in the Churches.  The other was Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing.

Hadden’s book detailed a study he’d done of mainline churches as they engaged issues of civil rights and social justice. He had found that there were two very different visions of religion between mainline clergy and their laity. The storm that was gathering was a result of conflict over the role of religion. The clergy wanted to push for justice and the laity wanted safe comfortable sermons. The mismatch risked driving people away, presenting survival challenges for mainline churches. The quote above is actually the first two lines of a newpaper story from Spartanburg, SC on Hadden written when the book came out (thanks Google!).

Kelley’s book suggested that conservative churches were growing because they demanded more of their members. Rather than an easy, country-club existence, he suggested that churches with stances against drinking or who expected high levels of participation would grow because the heightened requirements meant that people would draw greater meaning from belonging. It’s based on some decent social psychology as far as it goes. (The Presbyterians just released some interesting findings about growth at the congregational level and strictness, but I’m suspicious about correlates with region and rural location.)

The combination of these books painted a disturbing picture of mainline churches. They would prefer a culturally affirming connection to society and simply enjoyed coffee together. Because they didn’t demand a lot, their young people weren’t involved and the church was a bunch of blue-hairs quickly dying off.

Meanwhile, evangelicalism was the hot new thing. We had a born-again president. Roe v. Wade formed a rallying point for evangelical churches and Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority. The growth of a suburban middle class fueled the rise of family-friendly evangelical congregations. Sociologists set out to explain religious growth and decline (which proved much more complicated than Kelley’s thesis would suggest).

University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright has been exploring various issues about evangelicals. He recently analyzed General Social Survey data to examine how many evangelicals there actually are in America. He compiled this graph:

Wright Evangels-in-USThe blue line estimate the percentage of Americans who fit Wright’s definition of evangelical. From 20% of the population in 1970, the percentage peaks at about 28% in 1990 and starts back down again. Current data puts the percentage of evangelicals about where it was in 1975. What accounts for the decline?

I have three developing hypotheses. I’m hoping some of my religious and sociological readers will push back on these.

First, we failed to understand the resilience of the mainline church. While there are some overly culturally-affirming segments of the church, there are many more that are attempting to engage an intelligent, theologically grounded, critique of culture. These are not, as one critic suggested in this piece on the Christian left by  Jonathan Merritt, “deader than Henry VIII”. Mainline religion may still be managing the demographic transition of a generation unhappy with Hadden’s pastors. But they are being replaced with a very different kind of young adult. While the numbers of members continue to decline, the strength of the mainline church may be better than ever.

We need more careful examination of these trends. My experience with mainline churches finds them populated by people of faith who are mortified that they’ll sound like religious zealots. You have to listen harder to hear their faith perspective, but it may be deeper than you’d first think. Roger Olson had some interesting reflections this week on the mainline (which he’d rather call “old-line”). While I think some of his prescriptions (e.g., worship teams) miss the mark, his call for living spiritual experiences is what I’m seeing within the leading edge of mainline leadership.

Here’s the second hypothesis. I’m thinking that the rise in evangelical popularity in the 80s and 90s is an aberration and not a trend. It’s not that people are turning away from evangelical faith but that there was a temporary surge in popularity. Some of this is suburbanization and media narrative. Some may be reaction against the stereotypes about mainline religion happening at the time.

Sociologists and Religion Writers may make too much of distinctions between evangelicals and mainlines. According to my summary of data from the National Council of Churches Yearbook, there were just under 22.5 million members of evangelical denominations (70% of those are Southern Baptists) and  18.4 million members of mainline denominations. Both groups are showing signs of numerical decline (with some outliers) and are losing ground relative to population growth.

If the decline in mainline churches historically was due to demographic issues, it would make sense that we’d see large demographic differences between religious traditions. But the differences are fairly small. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion provide breakdowns by age groups:

Pew ForumThe percentage of mainline churches over 65 and under 29 differ slightly from the evangelical churches but neither of those percentages are that far off the total across religious traditions (the contrast with the unaffiliated is striking). This suggests that if evangelical churches find more difficulty in holding on to the young, their demographic issues are serious indeed.

The third hypothesis is that Hadden’s analysis of Mainline churches in the late 60s has an analog in Evangelical churches 40 years later. Just as activist voices on the left found separation between mainline pastors and laity, so activist voices on the right may be doing the same in evangelical churches. This is part of Putnam and Campbell’s argument in American Grace and it’s hard to dispute it. This is what prompts so many young evangelical leaders to find alternative ways of engaging “faithful presence”, to use James Hunter’s phrase.

As Young Evangelicals are looking for authenticity, they’re being careful about where they look for it. They don’t see a separation between evangelical and mainline churches as impermeable. That’s why posts like this one by Rebecca VanDoodewaard resonate with so many.

Hadden’s question about the future of the institutional church is an important one. But no one group has a monopoly on where the answer will be found. More attention to those churches which combine theological grounding with authentic community and service to others will lead us all to better conversations.