The Twentysomething Soul #2 – Mainline Protestants

This is the second installment of thoughts on the book, The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, (Oxford, 2019).  See the previous post if you’d like to  see the start. I now consider what the authors have found regarding Mainline Protestant young people.  The researchers, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley, define “Mainline Protestant” as:

[reflecting] the early twentieth-century divide between those Protestants who hold to traditional Christian teachings–namely Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Pentecostals–and those Protestants who, to varying degrees, accommodate their theology to cultural norms (p. 84).

Keep in mind that the label “Mainline Protestant” does not refer strictly to denominational membership.  Rather, it has to do with a set of orienting values and identities.  By this book’s analysis, some United Methodist Twentysomethings are Mainline Protestant and some are Evangelical Protestant, which is a distinction important to keep in mind.

1 in 7 American twentysomethings (14%) identify as “Mainline Protestant,” numbering 6 million souls.  35% of that 6 million attend worship 2-3 times per month, around 2,100,000 persons (p. 85). 30% (180,000) “consider religion to be very or extremely important in their daily lives” (pp. 96).

Those numbers, which may seem encouraging at the outset, turn out, in my view, to be not so comforting.  The researchers sub-divide Mainline Protestants into three categories: (1) Actives (e.g. attending worship regularly), (2) Nominals (e.g. attending worship rarely, maybe once or twice a year), and (3) Estranged (no attendance and no involvement with the church at all).  Get this: some young people think of themselves as Mainline Protestant who nonetheless do not participate at all.

19% of Mainline Protestants are Actives.  This is roughly 1,140,000 young people.  64% of Mainliners fall into the “Nominal” category, 3,840,000 souls.  They attend worship rarely and don’t pray very often.  The third category of Mainline Protestants – 17%  or 1, 020,000, are Estranged.

For comparison’s sake, keep in mind that 35% of all Twentysomethings who identify as Christian (Catholic, Mainline Protestant, or Evangelical Protestant), attend worship weekly (p. 96).  Again, for comparison’s sake, around 60% of Evangelical Protestants, attend worship regularly, compared to the 19% of Mainline Protestants.

Another statistical wrinkle worth pondering is that even though estranged Mainliners identified themselves in a way as to put them in the “Mainline” category, “only half of Estranged Mainliners think of themselves ‘as a part of a particular religion, denomination, or church'” (p. 102).  Of the 1,020,000 Estranged Mainliners, 510,000 of them seem headed in the direction of the “nones.”  Keep in mind, they are not (yet?) “nones.”  The researchers have a separate chapter for this now well-known percentage of young people.

What do Mainliner Actives tell us about their reasons for being active?  They give community as the top one (p. 89).  Community to them means a shared vision and shared values sincerely pursued in their congregations, welcoming all persons, not making people feel judged, and strongly valuing diversity and inclusiveness.

Along with common values, they also exhibit a decidedly casual attitude about a denomination’s particular doctrines.  Significantly, regarding this question, it does not matter if one is Active, Nominal, or Estranged:

[All three sub-categories of Mainline Protestants] equally and overwhelmingly agree ‘that it is OK to pick and choose [one’s] religious beliefs without having to accept the teachings of their religious faith as a whole.’  Similarly, 2 out of 5 Mainliners, regardless of type, indicate that they view God as a spiritual force and not personal; this demonstrates Mainliners’ comfort with holding beliefs outside the orthodox box. (p. 100)

Escaping the orthodox box only means that another box has become a Mainliner’s doctrinal home.  That 40% of Mainliners think of God as an impersonal force shows that they have picked up doctrine, to be sure.  It’s just not Christian doctrine, even if they have learned this view of God while participating in a church.  I am always struck by this irony.

In truth, the beliefs and values that Mainline Protestant Twentysomethings hold sound very much like the spirituality found permeating American popular culture.  It’s the new American religion, precisely the kind promoted in many colleges and universities and it presages the drift of young people toward no religious affiliation.  As other sources show, the lion’s share of nones come from Mainline Protestants.

If you worry that I have skewed the picture by cherry-picking the data in The Twentysomething Soul, I invite you to have a look yourself.  The next time we’ll look at Evangelical Protestants.


The Twenty-something Soul (#1)

Recently, I have been mulling over a new book by Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley, The Twenty-something Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults (Oxford U. Press, 2019).  I’ve read some of Clydesdale’s other work (The First Year OutThe Purposeful Graduate) and have had brief opportunities to hear and interact with him.  He is one of my go-to sociologists when it comes to young adults.

I have long worried that church leaders hop on research data of the sort these sociologists offer and frantically try to ride the trend.  Think of the alarmist responses over “nones,” for example (the subject of a separate post).  The desire to do something about the problem is laudable.  The tactics are usually tragically inadequate.  We in old-line Protestantism know that we’re not doing very well reaching young people, but we don’t have a clear, consistent, widespread, effective strategy.  Books like The Twenty-something Soul, read carefully, provide critical perspective.

I’ll make a couple of initial observations about the book’s findings (stay tuned for related posts), but for now let’s keep a couple of important points in mind.  First, the authors are sociologists.  They use empirical methods.  Their findings are descriptive.  They do not offer theological analysis or proposals, although it is clear that they care deeply that young people flourish and that church leaders understand them adequately.  These scholars have provided resources to church leaders and served as consultants, but church leaders need to the theological work using sociologists’ findings.  Sociology tells us what is.  We have to discern what ought to be and set our strategies accordingly.

Second, Clydesdale and Garces-Foley are critical of the disparaging stereotypes about young adults.  The notion that twenty-somethings are over-indulged post-adolescents who seek to put off adult responsibility makes them bristle.  I share that irritation.  Most young people are responsibly trying to figure out adult life in the face of dramatically different economic and social conditions than 50 years ago.  The economy is much different nowadays and companies are generally less loyal to their employees than in an earlier generation.  Everybody is responding to the vagaries of a global economy.  So, yes, young adults have more options and freedom to choose, but they also undertake more risk than their elders did at the same age.  It’s not that emerging adults refuse to grow up.  It’s that growing up is much more challenging, with a wider range of “social scripts” from which to choose and with much less predictable outcomes.

Again, Christians working with young adults need to do the theological reflection on changing social conditions.  We too often skip this desperately important task.

With those cautions in mind, let’s tackle a couple of sets of statistics.  First, almost 43 million twenty-something adults populate the United States.  91% fall into one of the four following categories:

30% are Evangelical Protestant

18% are Roman Catholic

14% are Mainline Protestant

30% are “Nones”

(9% are “other”)

(I’m using rounded percentages, rendering more than 100%.)

Right away we need to make one important qualification.  The researchers did not ask about denominational affiliation, but, rather, certain responses to specific questions (e.g. “only one religion is true” vs. “many religions are true” – agree or disagree).  They then classified certain responses from Protestants as “Evangelical” (more “conservative”) or “Mainline” (more “liberal”or “progressive”). It is highly likely, then, that we find United Methodists in both categories.  The same goes for congregations.  Some United Methodist congregations would be considered “Mainline Protestant” and others “Evangelical Protestant.”

Slightly less than 40% of Mainline Protestant young people attend worship at least 2-3 times per month.  Slightly more than 60% of Evangelical Protestant young people attend at that rate.  Putting numbers to these percentages, we see that around 2.4 million young people attend Mainline Protestant services.  About 7.9 million attend Evangelical Protestant congregations.

Not only do Mainline Protestant (remember that key distinction) young adults attend worship less often than Evangelical Protestants, they also care less about the church’s doctrines.  They tend to care about social service efforts, ethical values, and community, apart from formal dogma.  Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, are quite concerned about doctrine while also being strongly interested in social service ministries.

In a future post, we’ll explore some other implications of these differences, but for now, some questions.  What do we do with these numbers?  Since we have both types of young adults in our churches, how do we respond to their differing preferences?  One option is a kind of market response.  We have different churches for different types and we let young people sort themselves accordingly.  From a market perspective this makes sense, but theologically, how does it work?

Another market response would be to recognize that the far larger percentage of young people are Evangelical Protestant and aim our ministries more in their direction.  This tactic, of course, is completely unacceptable, but maybe it illustrates the problem of relying on market-oriented responses.

How would we go about developing theologically sound strategies?  We could start by ferreting out the theological assumptions hiding behind market strategies.  This would open up an enormously fruitful, though fraught, set of engagements.  We would discover implicit doctrines of God and of human nature.  We would begin to see hidden views of human flourishing and what counts as salvation.  Might we be quite surprised at what we tacitly believe?

How do the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, the General Rules, and John Wesley’s Standard Sermons, apply?  What, finally, does being United Methodist, actually mean?

Young adults, in their own ways, are demanding that we honestly, openly, and straightforwardly answer such questions.



What to Make of Recent UM School Hires?

Two United Methodist-related schools have gotten some attention lately because they have hired non-Christian chaplains.  Emory University’s new Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, Gregory McGonigle, is a Unitarian.  Shenandoah University in Virginia has added Hanaa Unus as Chaplain and Muslim Community Coordinator to their staff, which is headed by the Dean of Spiritual Life, the Rev. Dr. Justin Allen. The university’s announcement notes that she is the first non-Christian clergy person hired in Shenandoah’s almost 150 year history.  These actions at two UM-related schools  have caused some consternation in UM circles.  Since I serve in a similar position at another UM-related school (Southern Methodist University), maybe a few thoughts from my end will serve a useful purpose.

Every UM-related college or university with which I am familiar, to one degree or another has a religiously diverse student body.  Research universities or substantial liberal arts schools certainly do.  Long gone are the days when Christian colleges had only Christian students.  They come from all over the world and from many different backgrounds to study with us.  Right now there are more than a half million international students attending US schools, the vast majority, not surprisingly, from China and India.  Exceedingly few are Christians.

Not all religiously diverse students are international, not by a long shot.  Although the USA is demographically still predominantly Christian (a fact that UM-related schools should not forget), the religious landscape is shifting.  This means that religiously diverse, native-born American students are also coming to our UM-related schools.  For example, my office provides institutional support for the Muslim Student Association.  A good number of their members are of Pakistani descent born and raised in Texas.  Think about that.  I am not from Texas.  Who belongs here?

How does a school affiliated with a Christian denomination respond to these demographic facts? To answer that question requires thinking theologically, which, unfortunately, does not happen as much as it should.  The key question is: from which theological viewpoint do we do this thinking?  Note: I used the singular, “viewpoint.”  Some people prefer the plural, “viewpoints,” but it is impossible for a school to operate in its institutional mission from a plurality of commitments.  A singular viewpoint inevitably dominates.  More to say on this point later.

Thinking theologically about these demographic facts, we can start with simple Christian hospitality.  More than hospitality is needed, of course, but we can start there.  If you have ever lived abroad, you were fortunate if you had local folk who welcomed you and helped you navigate the cultural particularities of their country.  At a very basic level, then, hospitality is key.  This is especially so for Christians.  College leaders, knowing that bright, young students come to our campuses trusting us to provide good support and resources, are responsible to think about what these students need to thrive while with us.  Most are away from home for the first time.  It’s a crucial developmental season.

To think “Christianly” about the kinds of students coming to our church-related college campuses is a crucial theological task.  When Christian faith-related schools provide appropriate support and resources for non-Christian students, they are providing basic hospitality in making sure that students can practice their faith.  Schools in the Christian tradition should do so enthusiastically as an expression of the love of Christ for all people.

But the responsibility does not stop at hospitality.  More importantly, schools are places of learning.  This point, too, should be rooted in sound Christian theology at a church-related institution, if we want to make sure we know what we are doing.  For students (and faculty and staff) of various religious perspectives to live and work together and engage their faiths honestly with one another is a powerful learning opportunity.  Christian students talking with non-Christian students will have their faith challenged, yes.  Time and again, I have had Christian students tell me that those challenges, which unsteadied them temporarily, ultimately strengthened their faith and sparked spiritual growth.

Thus, Christians can reasonably conclude that a church-related school that hires non-Christian chaplains is working to offer welcome and hospitality.  They thereby serve their school’s educational mission in a profoundly important way.  Providing this support does not automatically signal that a school is moving away from its founding faith or endorsing another faith.

Or does it?  This leads to a second concern.  When does theological commitment to religious pluralism overtake the demographic facts of religious diversity?  It takes some careful thinking to discern the difference.  This point is especially important, but does not get adequate attention.

The higher education environment has been undergoing changes regarding the role of faith on campus.  Secularism no longer dominates.  Although there is still plenty of influential secularist thinking around, the attitude toward religion has gotten – shall we say – friendlier, in certain respects.  Many educators recognize the positive role that religious faith plays and the need to treat faith respectfully.  Many have realized that the secularist belief that religion would eventually disappear as people gained knowledge simply is not happening.  A number of related books and articles have appeared, of late, such as Douglas and Rhonda Jacobsen’s No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education.

The preferred alternative to secularism on college campuses, though, is pluralism and right here the picture gets dodgy.  That word – pluralism – gets used in two divergent ways, sometimes without proper awareness.  It often refers to the demographic fact, as I have mentioned.  But the other way, subtly tied to the first, is ideological in nature.  It is to think of religions as nothing but limited expressions of the human quest for transcendence and meaning.  In this way, whereas we can purportedly respect all religions equally (the fairest attitude to take) we can also regard religious expression – and here I include “spirituality” –  in all its variety as having the same human starting point, with humans ultimately “making” the meaning they find in their respective faith tradition.  Thus, religion is finally a human construction with, again, lots of variety and competing but ultimately untestable claims.  So, faith.  Not knowledge.

Religion understood this way certainly has an important but limited role to play on campus, mainly in terms of developing students’ personal values.  The specific dogmatic beliefs of each such community has nothing to do with a school’s educational mission.

We need to recognize that this viewpoint is based in a kind of background way on theological beliefs: that “God” (however understood) is ultimately unknowable and that all theological claims – including Christian ones – are therefore limited human constructions.  They might, as such, provide brilliant insight into reality, but in the same way that any great myth illuminates our experience of reality.  Among the great world religions, so this view goes, it would be arrogant presumption to privilege one faith over another in the public domain.

This is the largely unrecognized but nonetheless theological assumption dominant in higher education and influential in church-related higher education.  In practical terms the theology of religious pluralism marginalizes the specific doctrines of particular religions.  In a school affiliated with the Christian faith, this dogmatic assumption can functionally, if not conceptually, replace the school’s theological moorings with alien beliefs.

Earlier I said that some singular vision will take pre-eminence in a school’s ethos.  If a United Methodist-affiliated school hires non-Christian chaplains to provide hospitality and support to its non-Christian students, they are doing the right thing.  If they recognize the educational benefit to Christian students and indeed, to all students, of rubbing shoulders with people who think and act differently, while warmly embracing the truth values in the religious particularity of their church affiliation, they keep faith with that tradition.  I am convinced that this admittedly fine balance between openness in the educational mission coupled with firm theological integrity of a school’s religious affiliation is the best kind of education.

If, however, the UM-related school has adopted the dogmatic assumption of religious pluralism as its reason for hiring non-Christian chaplains, then those chaplains represent the new faith that the school is promoting and its affiliation with the church has no real meaning.  Every school should know what it’s doing.  And the church should, too.


The Next Methodism Needs Bishops

With the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference’s proposal to disaffiliate from one part of The United Methodist Church and join with another part in a different geographical area, we have more evidence that the denomination as we know it is kaput.  It is but one of several such indications.  Many in our denomination are talking about what’s next.  I have run across the opinion several times, recently, that future Methodism must rid itself of bishops.  I disagree.  Here are some initial thoughts.  I welcome your feedback.

I’ll frame my task by reference to the classic marks of the church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.  I know that a variety of emphases may be given to these terms, so I’ll clarify how I understand them and then move to a few particulars.

  1. “One” entails a unity of belief and practice summarized in the classic creeds.  It requires visible, concrete communities of shared doctrine and practice, who recognize other communities as fellow travelers, joint heirs.  It does not require institutional unity.
  2. “Holy” refers to both the mission undertaken to proclaim Christ as Lord and King and to embody, by his grace, his character.  External focus plus internal integration in light of Christ’s holiness.  “Holiness of heart and life” to use a Wesleyan phrase, goes with “set apart for mission” to serve the oikonomian of God under Christ’s rule and authority (a la Ephesians 1).
  3.  “Catholic” refers to the whole church.  A Wesleyan/Methodist expression must consciously pursue catholicity, recognizing and joining with other Christian communions in common witness, even if we are not part of the same ecclesial organization.  The church catholic stretches around the world and through time and across many denominational expressions.
  4. “Apostolic” means rooted in and bearing witness to the message of the Apostles and, by extension, the whole Gospel as found in Holy Scripture.

This summary is inadequate, but I move on.  The point is that, assuming these marks as a framework, as well as scriptural grounding in the function of ecclesial oversight, bishops are critical to a new Methodist instantiation. Why?

To answer, let me point you to the first chapter of Kevin Madigan’s (Harvard Divinity School) book, Medieval Christianity: A New History.  It gives a very helpful summary of the earliest centuries before getting to the book’s main interest, which deals with the church after 600 and up through the 1400s.  One section of the opening chapter is called “Normative Christianity: Creed, Council, Clergy.”

“Normative Christianity” sounds troubling to some.  I commend the chapter to you.  It gives a sense of why “normative” is inevitable and, speaking practically, necessary.  In this context, bishops played a pivotal role.  The church was dealing with a major challenge from – using an umbrella term for several movements – Gnosticism.  One of the major Gnostic beliefs was that Jesus had revealed secret knowledge to his apostles that only the select, initiated few could have and that this knowledge was the source of salvation.  Here’s what Madigan says, “Arguing against the Gnostic idea that revelation was secret knowledge passed down by charismatic teachers, the proto-orthodox argued that, to the contrary, it had been transmitted by the apostles to their successors, duly-appointed bishops” (p. 14).

I’m convinced, therefore, that, for two major categorical reasons, the next Methodism needs bishops.  One is practical and one is, for lack of a better term, “spiritual.”

Practical – As the Madigan quote shows, there has to be someone ultimately responsible for guarding the faith.  Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (died a martyr in 107 CE) argued that the ministry of oversight needs finally to reside in one person, a mono-episcopate.  This view goes against our democratic sensibilities, but let’s face it.  In every group of leaders, one with noticeable authority and wisdom emerges as the go-to person in a dispute.  If you don’t have a recognized leader of this sort, then disagreements become interminable and corrosive to the body.  We need a “buck stops here” leader.  The bishop fills the bill…

…as long as this other quality is firmly in place.

“Spiritual” – I put quotation marks around “spiritual” to gesture away from conventional notions and point to something much deeper.  For help I turn to Claudia Rapp’s book, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity.  She discerns three types of authority embodied, not just in the office, but in the person of bishop and in persons who became bishops.  They were exemplary Christians.  Many of them were monks and had practiced the highly disciplined life of the monk.  Though like any human being they had quirks and infirmities (and some apostatized under extreme imperial pressures), they were holy, godly people, and the wider public knew them as such.  They literally embodied the Gospel and holy living.  They had the wisdom of experience in dealing with challenges, including demonic attack.  They had the character, the gifts, and the wisdom, to lead.

These bishops could stand up to worldly powers.  They commanded the respect of the people.  They led with their lives.

We need godly leaders, both clergy and lay.  We also need “buck stops here” leaders who have the spiritual chops to lead.  They know God.  They are filled with the Spirit and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit as well as the requisite spiritual gifts.  They know and can effectively convey the faith once delivered to the saints.  They firmly uphold ecclesial life according to the marks of the church.  Along with other leaders, they guard and defend the faith and keep the church aimed at apostolic mission.  As leaders, they serve.

For practical and spiritual reasons, we need bishops.  May God meet this need in the new Methodism that, by God’s grace, will emerge.


A Church’s Lost Integrity

I recently tweeted that American United Methodism no longer has integrity.  This observation came from reading a number of public statements by various United Methodist leaders and groups after General Conference 2019.  (If you are trying to keep track of who is saying what, for my money the best and most up-to-date source is “UM Fallout: A Compendium,” at Chris Ritter’s blog, People Need Jesus.)  A person asked me to flesh out my comment about lost integrity.

First, a definition: Look at a dictionary and you’ll see that “integrity” has two or maybe three meanings.  One says something about moral uprightness and honesty, treating the word in relation to individual character.  The other refers to organization or structure. “Integrity” in this sense refers to the quality or state of being sound or whole or undivided.  It is this latter sense that I intended.

A building has integrity or does not.  If the foundation is solid, if the frame is adequately squared and plumbed and the joints are solid, if the roof doesn’t leak, then one would judge that the house has integrity.  A ship deemed seaworthy has integrity.  A healthy body has integrity.  In these cases, having integrity means functioning properly according to intended purpose.

By this definition, The United Methodist Church does not have integrity.  Numerous bishops, annual conferences, agency executives, pastors, and lay people have publicly stated that they will effectively ignore the recent decisions of General Conference.  By these reactions they indicate that the body that speaks for United Methodism no longer speaks for United Methodism.  We are therefore split, not whole.  The framework is not sound.  No integrity.

Here’s a paradox: in order to keep their integrity as ministers, the signers of declarations, resolutions and open letters believe they must defy the church’s decision. And for just this reason, they demonstrate the fact that The United Methodist Church no longer has integrity.

Other even more grievous ramifications have surfaced.  Opponents no longer trust each other (save, perhaps, members of the Commission on a Way Forward who have said repeatedly how opponents became friends even though they remained opponents; I wonder what they’re thinking now).  All talk of goodwill and respectful disagreement has vanished.  Things have gotten personal.  Friendships have been deeply damaged.  And I’m not only talking about relationships among voting delegates.  Plenty of us have opinions and identify with one of the opposing groups.  It is by no means necessary for one to have been a voting delegate to feel the sting of damning judgments.

If you don’t agree with my assessment, try putting the shoe on the other foot.  Let’s say that you supported the One Church Plan and that it passed by a slimmer majority than the Traditional Plan, by a 51% majority.  Would you conclude that the church had spoken?  Take the exact same reactions we’re witnessing now from centrist and progressive United Methodists and put them on the lips and emails and tweets of traditionalists.  How would you feel about the accusation that some small bloc of politically powerful delegates managed to steal the vote by nefarious means?  How would you be feeling right now if you were reading some of the same things being said about your side?  How does the organization recover?

The moral outrage embedded in the language of public statements announcing refusal to comply is often laced with thinly-veiled contempt for people who think about marriage in traditional ways.  By the criteria used by centrists and progressives to characterize statements by traditionalists as hateful, their own statements qualify.  Which makes me wonder: how is it that people who voice such feelings for traditional-minded folk expect traditionalists to be willing to stay in the same church?  Again, reverse the roles.  How would it feel to be on the receiving end of such disdain?

Imagine General Conference 2020.  Unless by some stroke of divine providence that makes the way forward crystal clear, the vote is likely to be close enough that the “losing” side will be able to claim foul, dismiss the whole proceeding as illegitimate, and move to act independently of the decision.  We now have the force of precedent.

Whatever you think of the outcome of GC 2019, public reactions following it show that, from an organizational point of view, The United Methodist Church has lost integrity.  Denouncing the GC  decision and refusing to follow it are tantamount to pulling the house down on top of us.  Again, short of direct divine action, coupled with confession, repentance, and forgiveness, it may be time to recognize that the property has been condemned and move on.

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