Souls in Transition: Historical Perspectives and some Sociology

One of my favorite classes when I was a student at Penn State was Sociology of Religion with Roger Finke. He was a knowledgeable and likeable professor who taught with a passion. I enjoyed the class and Dr. Finke so much that I ended up asking him to write one of my recommendations for seminary! Our textbook was called Acts of Faith, cowritten by Dr. Finke and Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion who has written dozens of books.

We learned in the class about how sects, defined as religious groups in high tension with the surrounding culture, transform into churches, religious groups at lower tension with surrounding culture.  This process can be seen throughout history.  A religious group will hold to beliefs and actions that are very different, in great tension, with the culture around them. Such sects will experience growth. Over time though, as the sect grows, it inevitably comes more into line with the culture around it, growth slows down and the movement becomes stagnant. Eventually a small group of people in this group (church) will yearn for a return to the original beliefs and actions and form a splinter group. This splinter group, a new sect, is once again in high tension with surrounding culture, starting the whole process over again. I have seen this process explained in other books by Stark, most recently What Americans Really Believe.

All of this came to mind as I read the second chapter of Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s Souls in Transition. The purpose of this chapter was to put the religion of emerging adults (ages 18-23) into a historical perspective. They limited their research to four groups: mainline (liberal) Protestants, black Protestants, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics.

What they found was that, when viewed as a single group, emerging adults have not really changed in their religious beliefs since 1972. They are neither much less religious nor much more secular. But when the single group is separated out into the four smaller groups Smith and Snell found that evangelical Protestants and black Protestants have much higher levels of religious commitment than mainline Protestants and Catholics. There are other nuances in the chapter, but what strikes me is how this is in line with other such surveys I have read, such as the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 (ARIS). What these studies all find is that:

  • Mainline denominations (Lutheran, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal) are shrinking. According to the ARIS this group was 18.7% of the population in 1990 but only 12.9% in 2008.
  • Those who identify as “non-religious” or “no religion” are growing (ARIS had them at 8.2% in 1990 and at 15% in 2008). They are not all becoming atheists, in fact most consider themselves spiritual and believe in something, they just are not part of church communities.
  • The Christian churches that are growing identify as “evangelical”, “non-denominational” or something along those lines (in all of this, group boundaries are slippery and hard-to-define).

What has caused this shift? Smith and Snell suggest that the difference lies in how different generations view religion. Emerging adults in the 1970s were “fully ideologically modern” which meant they were extremely skeptical of religion, truth was found alone in reason and science, and there was much social pressure not to take religion seriously. By the 1990s and 2000s this ideology has been challenged, and at least partly displaced, by a “postmodern culture” (speaking of slippery, hard-to-define words) that stresses relativity over universals and subjectivity over rationality. In other words, with a general skepticism to all ultimate truth claims whether from religion or elsewhere, religion is on a level playing field with all truth claims.  There is less social pressure to reject religion and instead a subjectivity that says, “if it works for you...”

Along with that, I believe another reason for this shift is the one I learned way back in that sociology of religion class. Mainline denominations are the more culturally accepted churches whose form of Christianity is in less tension with the surrounding culture when compared to the evangelical churches. You are more likely to find teaching in a mainline church (by no means all, or even most, of them of course) that Jesus is simply one of many ways to God or that there is no final separation from God (hell).  Along with this comes a de-emphasis on evangelism.  If there are many legitimate paths to God and no final judgment then why bother sharing your faith with others or even being deeply committed yourself? There is much benefit in joining a high tension church though, for you are assured that you have found the true path and you become greatly motivated to invite others to find it also.

“All of this suggests that high-tension groups succeed simply because they provide a better ‘product’. Members are more committed to the group and eager to show up on Sunday. Choirs are vibrant and engaged. Shared meals and get-togethers are frequent. Bonds of trust are built between members such that attendance on Sunday is a meeting between friends” (Stark, What Americans Really Believe, 34).

So what does all of this mean for ministering to college students specifically and emerging adults in general?

On one hand, we need to beware of making our message so “relevant” that it becomes watered-down to something not even worth being a part of. The message of Jesus is and always has been counter-cultural. It is always going to fly in the face of some cultural norms. Ironically though, this may be one of the things that makes it most attractive. So let us not be quick to jettison parts of the Gospel that our culture finds offensive because soon we may end up in a place where we have nothing worthwhile to say to the culture.

On the other hand, we should not go the other direction so far that we are teaching things in opposition to culture just for the sake of being in opposition to culture. Jesus came to humanity in the incarnation, entering a specific culture. Ever since then Christians have put this message into practice by translating the message. To be a Christian you do not have to learn a new language or culture, instead the message is brought to you.  Further, Christian belief is that every culture has things of value in them to be affirmed and thus no culture is all bad.

So really it is a two-sided endeavor: bring the message into the culture in a way the culture understands which requires some change but do not change so much so that there is no difference any longer between your message and the culture.

PS: Two of my favorite authors that certainly inform my thinking on this are Lamin Sanneh and Leslie Newbigin

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