Tag: Willow Creek

Linking Sociology of Religion and Religion Journalism

I have followed religion writers on Twitter for years. I find their stories wonderful illustrations for classes and significant building blocks for my own research. Being on sabbatical this fall, and finding that the Religion News Association Conference was in fairly close Columbus, Ohio, I asked my friend Bob Smietana if it would be worth my time and money to join RNA and go to the conference. Bob was enthusiastic in his encouragement, so I took the plunge.

Religion News Association I’m very glad that I went. It was wonderful to interact in person with people I had only interacted with 280 characters at a time. They were remarkably welcoming in spite of my lack of journalistic bona fides. I told people how my parents met on the Butler University newspaper staff, so there’s that.

The conference sessions themselves dealt with a variety of important topics. Religious establishment and religious freedom, responses to gun violence, immigration and sanctuary, #MeToo in the church, religious nones, religion in science fiction, and others topics were seriously engaged. Most of these were plenary sessions, which gave people the common points of conversation that are often lacking in my normal conferences.

Sitting through the presentations, it became clear to me how sociology asks slightly different questions than a straight journalistic treatment would allow. When dealing with the trauma of gun violence and how churches might respond, I had questions about the distribution of gun violence in schools and churches and the challenge of preparing for such remarkably rare events. In hearing Vonda Dyer tell the story of her abuse by Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels (as covered first by Manya Brachear Pashman in the Chicago Tribune), I talked with her about the secondary abuse generated by a congregation’s show of support for the accused leader (standing ovations given in support of mild statements of regret). In hearing from the two dominant religion research sources (Pew and PRRI), I had questions the went deep below the top-line summaries.

The journalists’ views were on telling deep and true stories. The sanctuary presentation involved a pastor of a church that has allowed a woman to live in his church for nearly a year, a local immigration activist, and a national religion immigration activist. Centering the story on the mother and the church was a needed view that stands in contrast to national discussions of numbers and policy and court decisions. When Bryan Alexander read from his book Glass House (see my blog post on it here) about Lancaster Ohio, a rich story of how the financial changes of the last three decades impacted real people in a real town became clear.

The religion journalists — even though operating across the country, many as the only religion reporter in their workplace — build solidarity at conferences like this. Maybe even more than we have in sociology because everyone regardless of beat shares a common view that religion stories are important and worth telling. We had networking breaks five times a day and open seating at the sponsored lunches. Meeting new people and having follow-ups on earlier conversations was really wonderful.

One of the reasons I went to Columbus was to talk to religion journalists about my book project on the shifting nature of evangelicalism. I did so with some serious trepidation as I might get the dreeaded “already done that” response. But I was pleased that nearly everyone I talked to not only thought that the thesis has value but that they would look forward to reading the book whenever it comes out.

I also got to talk to people about issues in Christian Higher Education, the linkages between evangelicalism and partisanship, and balancing religious freedom claims with LGBTQ non-discrimination. I realized that one of the hidden values of teaching at a liberal arts institution is that it requires me to be a generalist knowing a little bit about a number of broad trends.

Saturday night was the RNA awards banquet. Because religion reporting also requires some generalization, the audience seemed to know everyone else’s work. Recognition was given to honorary mention, third, second, and first place winners in a variety of categories. Recipients were able to reflect on their honor and their craft to enthusiastic response from their peers. While I only knew a few of those stories given my twitter habits, I had my share of “I loved that piece” moments.

While sociologists of religion and religion journalists have somewhat different approaches and questions, there is still a tremendous affinity. While I haven’t been to a lot of family reunions in my life (we have small families), Columbus felt like hanging out with a bunch of cousins that sort of know you but you only get to connect with occasionally. Even though I was from that “other branch of the family”, they made me feel welcome.

I’ll probably do RNA again, especially after the book comes out. These are good people who care about the stories they tell and it was wonderful to hang out for a few days.

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“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.