Tag: separatism

First Step: Peter’s Vision

"Surely not Lord..."
“Surely not Lord…”

When I started teaching in Christian Colleges three decades ago, I was a fan of the Christian Worldview motif. It draws upon a number of scriptural references: “Let this mind be in you…“, “Think on these things“, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and, of course, contrasts between the “foolishness of God” and the “wisdom of men“. I now recognize, as I didn’t in my younger days, that almost none of those verses actually speak to issues of education unless they’re taken out of context. But they fit into a Christian mindset that was focused on separation from The World, an important theme of the founding of many Christian colleges.

Rather than starting with the stark contrast between church and world, the first chapter of my book begins in a very different place. In place of working from theological presuppositions, I begin with what I think is one of the most amazing passages in the book of Acts: Peter’s vision in Acts 10. We aren’t stringing together verses to make a patchwork conception of worldview. We’re trying to understand a very strange life event and its even more remarkable interpretation.

Peter is in Joppa and has an amazing vision. A sheet is unfurled before him containing all kinds of animals and unclean things (when looking at pictures on Google, there are lots of images of giraffes and camels — I honestly never thought about them when the verse says “all four-footed creatures“). A voice tells Peter to kill and eat. He says “Surely not, Lord. Nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth“. Three times the sheet comes down but Peter maintains his purity. Immediately after the third sheet, the Spirit tells Peter that three men were coming to see him and will take him to the Roman centurion Cornelius. He goes with them and baptizes Cornelius and his entire household.

The separatist perspective of Christian worldviews struggles over contrasting issues: faith and science, good and bad literature/movies, relativism and absolute truth. These contrasts and conflicts play out today across Facebook, Twitter, Christian magazines, and popular preaching. They speak fearfully of slippery slope arguments and too often make education something to be feared.

Peter’s vision takes us to a different place. The voice says to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” The message is pretty clear — God is in control and nothing we come in contact with is beyond his scope. Take and eat.

Maybe in education, it should be take and read. Explore that idea. Look at things from another perspective.

Peter is listening to the Spirit and is willing to consider what faithfulness means to him. He is living in obedience to God’s call even though it’s taking him in directions he was initially unwilling to go.

As fascinating as I find Peter’s vision in Acts 10, I’m blown away by what happens in  chapter 11. When he gets back to Jerusalem, the apostles and believers want to know what in the world was going on.

They were probably writing nasty posts on Facebook calling out Peter for his irreligious actions: click “like” if you think the we should stay away from uncircumcised men.

So he tells his story. He explains what he was thinking and what was in the vision. He tells of the leading of the Holy Spirit, both when he goes with the men and again at the baptism.

The other apostles listen to Peter, consider his integrity and testimony, and reach a conclusion: “So then even to the Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” They not only endorse what Peter did, they view it in the larger more theological terms. They learned vicariously through Peter’s vision and obedience.

This is the image I hold in considering how students should engage their new experiences in college. They shouldn’t come in fear, worrying that they’ll come across things that are challenging. They are listening for the Spirit leading them to new and deep understandings. They are sharing those understandings with those around them: other students, faculty, staff, parents, pastors. Those others listen carefully to the students and to the Spirit and help them put their new learning into a larger context. Faith and learning are not opposed to each other but both lead us all to new depths of understandings.

It requires a lot of faith, a lot of patience, and a lot of growth. But in the end, it results in students not constrained by the polarizing topics of prior generations. It results in students able to articulate faith to an increasingly postmodern, religiously unsophisticated culture.

On Drawing Lines in the Sand

[My August submission to the American Evangelicals dialogue at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on Morality.]

We like to draw lines in the sand. It shows that we’re serious. We have expectations. Beside, we argue, didn’t Dean Kelley say that conservative churches grow because they place expectations on their members? Shouldn’t we be avoiding Bonheoffer’s “cheap grace”?

There’s a big problem with sand. It doesn’t stay where you left it.

The wind blows across the dune and leaves no track of your footprints. The waves come into shore and obliterate the nice trench you just dug. Over time, water saturates the sand so that it turns to slush and the sandcastle falls down.

sand

What then do we do with our lines in the sand? One option is to reinforce them. After drawing the line, we can build little Maginot lines to make sure the trench doesn’t collapse. A second option is to build little zones of protection around the line. We won’t actually deal with the moral challenge of the line, but will substitute other moral positions. A third option is to adopt the lines of those around us. Another option is to stop drawing lines altogether. Since they can’t be maintained, why even bother?

Exploring the questions of morality within evangelical culture is difficult because there are a host of prior questions that are unexplored. In the early 1980s, I presented data on Christian college students’ behaviors in areas like alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex (and other stuff as well). The first question was “Why are these the important measures? What about poverty, race, the arms race?” I really didn’t have a good answer beyond “That’s not what the sponsors asked about”. What I should have said was, “Much of evangelical discussion on morality is individual and pietistic. We may not like it, but there it is.”

It’s hard to draw lines in the sand in meaningful ways. In its early days, my denomination couched its moral stands (alcohol, circuses, and the like) as “Guides and Helps for Holy Living.” Twenty years later, the same section of the denominational standards was called “General and Special Rules”, the violation of which constituted “peril to your soul and the witness of the church.”

Here is a sociological question I’ve pondered throughout my career: How does a voluntary association like a religious organization pursue conformity to moral expectations?

If the organization is voluntary, then one has little risk of being forced out. Not so the situation of a state church with a monopoly on access to the means of grace, where failure to adhere meant denial of religious participation.

If one is ruled “out of compliance” in a local congregation, what is the penalty? Leaving this congregation for another than doesn’t hold out the same requirements? Giving up on religious practice in favor of a privatized spirituality?

It is with these lenses that I come to the question of evangelical morality. I suggest that there are some modern moral questions around which the evangelical church has built Maginot lines: abortion, homosexuality, creation (becomes a moral issue because “evolutionists” are seen as denying all morality). We are unable to examine these questions because we have built an infrastructure around the line in the sand. We can’t even get close to the real line.

There are other modern questions of morality that take the second form I suggested: creating demilitarized zones around the line, so we never run the risk of crossing over. Here I’m thinking of attitudes toward premarital sex. We’ve created entire subcultures about purity pledges and modesty norms to keep us far away from the real question. There are some remarkable things being written by young evangelicals right now about the damage created by these demilitarized zones. Purity pledges and modesty norms put great pressure on young women to keep their menfolk away from the line in the sand.

The third image I had of the sand involved outside forces (like the surf) crashing over the line. This relates to the primacy of individual morality over social morality. We can’t talk about broad issues like inequality, racism, the environment, immigration, the common good – moral questions all. The broader cultural and political dynamics have overrun our biblical and spiritual sensibilities. This is how “social justice” gets a bad name in political discourse.

Finally, the line just gets absorbed into the surrounding sand. For too long, evangelical morality had an identity component: “we’re not like them”. So dancing was out, as was social drinking, divorce, premarital sex, pornography, and so on. But the supposed separatism quickly gave way to an understanding of diverse social patterns. We met people who drank socially. We found that those folks in second marriages were pretty cool. The identity separation was overrun. That’s why Ron Sider can write such a scathing book in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, documenting that the gaps between evangelical Christian behavior and that of the rest of society is distressingly small.

So, to use a phrase evangelicals have liked a lot over the years, “How Should We Then Live?” What is the basis for Christian morality in this diverse, busy, loud, postmodern age?

First, what it is not: it is not about identity politics from any perspective. It is not about being forced to hold a certain position of morality because that’s what our folks believe. It is certainly not about “liking” some random picture on Facebook.

We need morality framed in the discipleship of Christian community. We struggle together with questions in their complexity. We have to talk about sexual abstinence as a goal for young people while still recognizing the power of biology. We need to talk about the appropriate role of alcohol (that goes beyond the requirement of beer companies to tag “drink responsibly” at the end of the wild party commercial). We need to talk about the complexities of same-sex relationships. We need to consider what Justice looks like in a world of such inequality.

The scriptures provide us with guidance of general principle here but not specific answers. They suggest that the answer is “somewhere in that general direction” without drawing the line in the sand. We listen to the leading of the Spirit as we honestly strive together to engage in Holy Living.

The internet has been ringing this week with echoes of Rachel Held Evans CNN piece on millenials and faith (it’s getting almost as much play as Reza Aslan’s Fox Interview!). But millenials recognize that we live in a complex world. One in which simple answers that sell books in Christian bookstores won’t address.

I believe the evangelical church has much to offer the broader culture in terms of a human morality that is based in community and looking for the greater good. Doing so will require us to engage those different than ourselves in honesty and humility. It will call us to listen more than speak. It will mean that we have to tolerate ambiguity in a complex world. It will mean leaning toward shades of gray and not seeing things as black and white. It will mean being Christlike.

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.