Tag: Wesleyan Theological Society

Tectonic Shifts

TectonicI’m here in Idaho for the annual meetings of the Wesleyan Theological Society. Yesterday, Northwest Nazarene hosted a pre-conference event titled “WESLEYTALKS” (using the model of TED Talks). In addition to a number of video presentations and discussions, we had a series of afternoon workshops.

I made back-to-back presentations of the Industry Evangelicalism and Testimony Evangelicalism distinction I’ve been blogging about. I wasn’t sure how it would be received because it was the first time I’d unpacked these ideas when people could actually see me, challenge the presentation, and ask questions.

My presentation was built around a series of geologic metaphors. My overall point was that there is a massive shift going on in evangelicalism. It is a move from Industry Evangelicalism, based on structures both physical and sociological, to Testimony Evangelicalism, based on authenticity and interpersonal engagement. Just as the movement of tectonic plates gives rise to volcanic eruptions and earthquake activity, the shift in evangelicalism’s tectonic plates gives rise to various crises, conflicts, and concerns.

In other words, the visible activity is a result of the underlying movement. To understand the volcanic eruption, we need to understand the underlying geology. To understand the latest evangelical twitter fight, we need to look beneath the surface.

The presentation wove together a number of sources I’ve written on before but never tied together quite as well. I worked through the component parts of Industry Evangelicalism, based on boundaries, structures, charismatic leadership, conformity of followers, and a general combative stance with the broader culture. This is part of what Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace spoke to and is also reflected in much of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason. Putnam and Campbell describe the building of evangelical infrastructure as the first aftershock (another geology reference) to the earthquake that was the 1960s. While Worthen’s timeframe starts earlier than that, her book similarly places the expansion of evangelical visibility in the same era.

But earthquakes and aftershocks create damage. That damage results in instability. And in some cases, the best we can do is to construct complicated scaffolding to protect the institution from further damage. I used the pictures below as an illustration. This shows the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. following the August 2011 earthquake.

Cathedral

Part of the damage done by Industry Evangelicalism is seen in declining percentages of Americans identifying with evangelicalism in national polls and the dramatic rise in religious “nones” among the millennial population.

I suggested that Testimony Evangelicalism is the emerging understanding that subsumes the Industry tectonic plate. Testimony Evangelism, as I’ve written before, is based on story and interpersonal engagement. It affirms contact over boundaries and puts a priority on authentic and ongoing relationship.

Here is the image I’ve adopted to represent Testimony Evangelicalism.

Ned

There’s just something about Ned Flanders. He may be one of the most clearly evangelical characters on television. Sure, he can be kind of nerdy and Homer and Bart enjoy picking on him.

But Ned never goes away. He keeps building that relationship with Homer and the family. He tries to enter into their lives even if they don’t fully understand his. I observed that Ned’s approach is in sharp contrast with Rev. Lovejoy, the other expression of a person of faith (there’s another blog post in here for sure).

When I reviewed the Worthen book, I observed that there were always alternative voices to those building Industry Evangelicalism. Because I was at a Nazarene school, I especially celebrated the role of H. Orton Wiley and Mildred Bangs Wynkoop. They were forerunners of my Testimony approach.

Putnam and Campbell see the rise of the religious nones, especially among the millennials, as a response to the organizational structures of Industry Evangelicalism (watch Jeff Bethke’s “Why I hate religion but love Jesus”). This is consistent with the argument David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons make in You Lost Me.

I suggested that we could begin to see how Testimony Evangelicalism could work if we simply took Kinnaman’s themes describing the estrangement of millennials and reversed them. Instead of being over-protective, it would be known as a place of trust. Instead of focusing on pat answers, it would wrestle with complexity and tolerate ambiguity. Instead of being concerned about science or societal changes, it would give freedom for hard conversations.

In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argues that there have been three dominant styles the evangelical church has used to engage culture. The first is “defensive against”, which sees culture as an enemy bringing siege to the battlements. This is the response of Industry Evangelicalism. The second is “relevant to”, which embraces culture and simply folds it into the church. While it’s easy to pick on historic mainlines, the consumerism of seeker sensitivity and the prosperity gospel both fit this form. The third is “purity from”, which describes the Amish and some Holiness groups. Culture should be avoided to avoid infection. Hunter sets these up to talk of a fourth style: Faithful Presence:

Whether within the community of believers or among those outside the church, we imitate our creator and redeemer; we pursue each other, identify with each other, and direct our lives toward the flourishing of each other through sacrificial love.

This is the style best representing Testimony Evangelicalism.

I had a good crowd in both sessions. Most of those attending were pastors and lay leaders from the region. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

But I was absolutely thrilled by the response both in the discussion period that followed by presentation and conversations I’ve had over the past 24 hours. Church leaders, at least those who opted to spend some time at a theology conference, saw this shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimony Evangelicalism as a sign of hope within their ministries. I was asked what we could do to get denominational leaders to pay attention to the argument, but there was also a recognition that this just might be the old form of the question.

One of the most encouraging moments happened at dinner last night. Bob, a senior pastor in Washington, told his district superintendent pretty much the entire presentation and recommended it as a topic for future meetings. More important, he told me he wished he was just starting his 40 year career today because the opportunities are so bright. It’s what happens when we faithfully give people the opportunity to speak authentically.

As Ned would say, “Hi-dilly-ho, neighborinos!”

My Wesleyan Perspective on Christian Higher Education

What follows is the concluding section of a paper I’m presenting next week at the Wesleyan Theological Society meetings at Seattle Pacific titled Wesleyan Implications for Christian Higher Education. I’m glad to be participating but still feeling a little out of my element as a sociologist presenting to theologians. There are some references to people and arguments from earlier sections, but I think you’ll catch my drift. I eagerly covet any feedback (constructive or not).

So then, we are formed as Christians through understanding the broad strokes of scripture, through reflection on our experiences, through lovingly sorting through our past traditions, and through using our brains as enlivened by the Spirit’s leading. That means that the total of the Christian university experience is part of the whole of faith development. Sure, it’s easier to see that in chapel or in Old Testament class. But it’s also operating when students at Denny’s at 2:00 in the morning, are doing calculus homework, or are playing video games with friends.

I want to follow the pattern Richard Hughes set to suggest some educational implications of what we’ve seen in Wesley so far. First, Wesley suggests that the Spirit can enlighten our human frailties. Our task is to be responsive to the light we’re shown, whether that happens in chapel or in French class. Part of the discovery of one’s self in the learning process, of finding new avenues of exploration, or making connections others haven’t seen can be conceptualized as spiritual senses come alive.

Second, God is continually creating; new information, challenging reading, difficult conversations are the avenues through which this can happen. God is still in sovereign control and we need not feel like he must be protected from challenging subjects or situations. This is especially true in the tensions between Tradition and Experience mediated by Reason. Traditionalists may not like having certain questions of doctrine or textual criticism raised within Christian universities, but to deny such questions a community forum seems out of synch with our belief that God is leading.

Third, we must be attentive to the means of grace – not simply the expected “religious” ones like chapel or accountability groups, but to recognize the importance of the daily patterns of our life. Even issues like going to sociology class or doing accounting homework or sitting in on one more assessment committee meeting can operate like ordinary sacraments. That is, if we are looking with open eyes. Such regular patterns of practice can lead to the development of virtues, habits, and spiritual formation as James K. A. Smith observes in Desiring the Kingdom (2009).

Finally, Wesley’s “method” was thoughtful yet messy. There would appear to be a lot of space in the midst of the interplay between the factors. That interplay calls for a sense of tentativeness on the part of scholars and students. We explore what seem to be the best connections at the moment. Because we do so in community, the hearing of new ideas in tension with tradition is good for the entire group. The messiness is the means for common understanding and not the place where one draws lines in the sand (neither silencing dissent nor abandoning tradition should be a first step). One comes up with tentative conclusions and then must hold them loosely while testing them against the method of others.

In short, when we embracing Wesleyan perspectives as the framework for Christian Higher Education, we can come out at a very different place from most of the schools in the CCCU. I haven’t been a fan of all of James Davison Hunter’s books, but I recently came across a contrast in his work that underscores my thoughts.

I really liked his first book, American Evangelicalism (Hunter, 1983), and the most recent, To Change the World (Hunter, 2010). While I could quibble with certain arguments, there is story told over the intervening quarter-century worth attending to. The story is told in the subtitles of the two books: the first talks of “the quandary of modernity” while the latter refers to “Christianity in the late modern world”.

The evangelicalism Hunter describes in the first book is struggling with cultural identity against a backdrop of Weberian rationality. In it’s heyday, evangelicalism was attempting to set boundaries against the broader culture. This showed up in a focus on behavioral pietism, strong positions on particular social issues, and celebrity voices that could articulate THE evangelical worldview.

To Change the World speaks to the challenges of pursuing those efforts at boundary management. Hunter writes:

The irony is this: the idealism expressed in the worldview approach is, in fact, one manifestation of the very dualism its proponents are trying to challenge (27).

Hunter describes our past approaches to cultural engagement in three paradigms: Defensive Against, Relevance To, and Purity From.  Evangelical denominations like ours may have focused more on the first and third (although Hunter sees “seeker sensitive” movements as illustrative of the second). He says, however, it’s time for a paradigm of Faithful Presence:

A theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us. It is a theology of commitment, a theology of promise. It is disarmingly simple in concept yet in its implications provides a challenge, at points, to all of the dominant paradigms of cultural engagement in the church (243).

I think that Faithful Presence is found in Wesley’s theology. We recognize that the Creator God in the beginning is creating now and will continue to do so in preparation for the Coming Kingdom. When we engage others in Christian dialogue while listening for the leading of the Spirit, we are practicing the principles of that Kingdom that Jesus said was at hand (Mark 1:15). Howard Snyder concludes The Radical Wesley as follows:

What does all this mean of the life and experience of the church today? Primarily that we must determine our understanding of the Kingdom of God and of the church’s agency in the Kingdom of God on the basis of the biblical revelation. The body of Christ is to be an eschatological and messianic community of the Kingdom in a more fundamentally important sense that Wesley understood (p. 103).

The task of the Christian university is no more and no less than this. It’s true that we’re in the middle of learning and teaching and living. But that’s just what we’re doing. It may be a type of means of grace, but it’s really the place where we experience the current and coming Kingdom of God. Such a place values individuals, quests for new articulations of truth, and engages this postmodern world from a place of strength and not fear.