Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church - Book Review

Many thanks to Kathleen Hladky at Florida State University (her recent article) who provided a review of my book Hollywood Faith for the H-Pentecostalism thread of Humanities and Social Sciences (H-Net) Reviews Online, a powerful consortium of scholars attempting to provide timely updates of new research.

In the review, she concludes:
Throughout Hollywood Faith, Marti contributes to the study of Pentecostalism and contemporary Christianity by drawing attention to topics too often overlooked by scholars of religion: the relationship between religion and work, multiracial Christian congregations, and the Word of Faith movement.
Overall, her reading of my book shows great sensitivity to the layered themes on religion, economics, and race found there.

You can read the full review here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Smartphone Religion at the Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog

Christmas season is in full gear at the Marti house -- finishing up my classes, the kids homework projects before the end of the year, community activities here in Davidson.

In the midst of it all, I've been able to take Jason Byasee's invitation to again contribute last week to the Faith & Leadership Blog at Duke Divinity.



My latest post on The Wi-Fi Church of the Future (and the Present)
is tagged under Innovation | Liturgy | Technology ):

Worldwide iPhone sales by quarter in an svg fo...Image via Wikipedia

"The past two years have seen a rapid acceleration in the adoption of portable computing by the average person. This will inevitably prompt changes by church leaders."
It's prompted a good online exchange.

I'll encourage you to read the whole post on your own. But more than the post itself are the responses that follow it.

The Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity first describes his "knee jerk" reaction against churches leaning on such technology. Another believes "the app" already exists. And yet another comment brings concern for the poor and their access to wi-fi technology and information.

I appreciate the dialogue. I'm learning all the time, and the comments are helpful.

Overall what this exchange suggests to me is that we've arrived at an interesting moment in the relationship between technology and church.

Assorted smartphones. From left to right, top ...Image via Wikipedia

The American culture has swallowed the use of smartphones almost whole -- after all, analysts can readily predict how many iPhones will be found under the Christmas tree this year.

But church leaders remain nervous about learning new techniques to harness the use of these advanced devices to their ministries.

Smartphones are not the future; they are already here.

So the failure lies not in ministry budgets (people have their own phones), it lies in the imagination of leaders to use these devices to advance their ministry.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mosaic Bible - The Branding of Devotional Christianity

I agreed to write a "review" of the new Mosaic Bible, a new formatting of the Protestant Scriptures published this Fall by Tyndale Publishers. The publisher provided me a deluxe, imitation leather version. Joining Tyndale's campaign afforded an opportunity for me to look take a closer look at some of the sociological aspects of Bible marketing today.

Walk into any local bookstore, and you will find dozens of choices for bibles today. The production and distribution of market-savvy bibles may surprise some, but it is one of the most interesting developments in modern Christianity.

Crafting Editions of The Word of God

This Gutenberg Bible is displayed by the Unite...Image via Wikipedia

We can look back and see how the printing press certainly enabled a more ambitious structuring of the Protestant scriptures. The Geneva Bible first printed in 1560 was the first Bible to add numbered verses to make referencing passages easier. In addition, every chapter included extensive marginal notes and references making the Geneva Bible the first English "Study Bible." Between Between 1560 and 1644 at least 144 editions of this Bible were published.

Yet the initial effort to craft these bibles was considerable. It took scores of hours to typeset new bibles, and innovative systems of notations, illustrations, and footnotes created enormous difficulties. Take a glance through any edition of the Thompson Chain Reference Bible to gain an appreciation for the tremendous hours of work required to craft these books as ultimate "Bible Study Tools" intended to take personal reading of the scripture to unprecedented layering of hermeneutic possibilities.

Furthermore, the structuring of "notes" became the occasion to self-consciously promote whole theological systems. Consider the successive editions of the Scofield Reference Bible for its quite specific (and to many people peculiar) discussion of world history, the relationship between Israel and Christianity, and anticipations of eschatological happenings.

Now, the rise of digital typeset and new print techniques (including the ability to print color pages cheaply) have greatly expanded the possibilities for bible formats. Production houses have become increasingly creative in the formation of new types of bibles. While the "text" of the bible (the translation formats) may often be the same, the formatting, illustrations, and notations accompanying the text are what make a new product.

Bibles Proclaim a Brand of Faith

Moreover, bibles are not only intended to provide exhaustive notations but also reorientation toward the faith. In other words, while it may initially seem that "a bible is a bible is a bible," it is important to note that the crafting of a bible is equivalent to forming a strategic presentation of the Christian faith. In short, any carefully designed bible proclaims a brand of faith.

Enter Holy Bible: Mosaic NLT.

The Mosaic Bible strives to make a book primarily meant for meditation and prayer. It claims to be "a new genre of Bible—a weekly meditation Bible." In comparison with the large, white bible that occupied the living room table of my home growing up, the Mosaic Bible is portable and durable. But more than its portability, what makes the bible intentionally geared to personal reflection is that nearly the first half of the whole book is a series of weekly "installments," a set of scripture readings, prayers, reflections, and empty lines (for writing) accompanied by religious artwork. The weeks are aligned with church seasons. (For those who don't know which season it is, a website can be consulted; this is the 26th week of Pentecost ("Righteous Judgment"), pg m314.

The readings and prayers are intended to be diverse, affirming Christianity as a historic and global religion. There are readings from ancient to contemporary authors from every continent and every century. Of course, these excerpts are all highly orthodox and contain the presentation of Christian concepts and virtues to those generally accepted by more conservative Protestant Christians.

There is also a notable striving to affirm of the use of art in religious devotion. Full-color artwork, hymns, and poems are included.

The New Living Translation provides the base scriptural text, a newer, freer English version that allows for contemporary and colloquial speech constructed by a team of (mostly Evangelical) biblical scholars.

So, what is the branding of Christianity that comes through this particular bible?

I would suggest several dominant themes:
  • A bible can be aesthetically pleasing, yet should still evoke a pious consideration of the "sacredness" of the book as traditionally understood.
  • The bible is to be a personal, devotional tool such that the notations in "your" bible will not be the same as those in "my" bible.
  • However, the bible is not meant to be read "individualistically," but in the context of a broader community of believers through history.
  • The bible is to be read regularly and systematically.
  • The bible is most profitably read accompanied by prayer and focused reflection on themes.
  • Although structured devotions are useful, individuals should take corporate themes as launchpoints for personal reflections and commitments.
  • Bible study tools including cross-references, dictionary, maps, and concordances, are now "assumed" as essential in personal bibles.
  • The use of contemporary translations means that there is a recognition that the spiritual value of the bible is not found in traditional words or phrasing but rather in the meaning of those words to the extent they can be accurately conveyed.
  • And the aggressive marketing of a bible is appropriate in that the goal is not self-promotion as much as the distribution of a tool that gets people to read the scriptures for themselves.
My participation in the "blog tour" of the Mosaic Bible certainly indicates that bible publishers are attempting to work with a crowded marketplace. There are already many bibles on the market; the attempt to craft a message to highlight the uniqueness and devotional utility of any new bible presents a considerable challenge. To these ends, Tyndale has a dedicated website, a blog, a twitter account, and a listing of other blog reviews available.

Finally, as part of the marketing blitz for the product, Tyndale is giving away a few copies of this new book. If you are still reading this and are interested in one, the first person to email me with a request will receive a certificate from Tyndale that can be redeemed for your own personal copy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Church “Tradition” Previous Era’s Cultural Accommodation


Thanks to Jason Byassee, Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, a new post on their Call & Response blog describes my take on tradition and innovation in church life.


In a post titled 'Our "Tradition" is Often a Previous Era's Cultural Accomodation," I try to give church leaders a perspective that will open them to reconsidering not only the new religious movements which they often hate, but also their own religious traditions which they so very much cherish.

The
post says:
When new forms of religious vibrancy clearly manifest social change, critics are often quick to attribute their successes to crass appeals to popular tastes.

Here’s an example. I describe in my book “Hollywood Faith” how Oasis Christian Center, an evangelical church in Hollywood, California, grew from five hundred to over two thousand people from 2001 to 2003. Incorporation of entertainment, fun, relevance, and practicality in the promotion of spiritual vitality yielded this spectacular growth.

It is worth asking whether the growth and excitement evident at Oasis is due simply to placating a consumer-driven, popular culture. Is Oasis a secularized “church”? Is religion being compromised?

My main point is to urge recognition that no religious tradition exists which was not forged through a historical processes of accommodation and acculturation.

Working the delicate tension between relevance and ritual, between cultural resonance and cultural transformation, is a perpetual challenge for church leaders everywhere. I want to encourage church leaders to think more carefully about negotiating this tension in recognition that their cherished "tradition" are historical forms that represent cultural adaptations to a prior era.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New Approaches to New Evangelicalism - Special Session in Denver

Here's a shout out for a session I organized for this weekend at SSSR in Denver, Colorado, on contemporary Evangelicalism in the US and abroad.

Jesus SavesImage by Andwar via Flickr


Competition among sessions this year at SSSR is fierce!

So many great sessions in each slot, but you just can't miss the session on New Approaches to New Evangelicalism. Our session brims with brilliance through the work of excellent scholars doing fascinating research. You can count on this being a stimulating time with plenty to chew on.

New Approaches to New Evangelicalism
Westin Tabor Center
Room: Teller

Organizer: Gerardo Marti, Davidson College
One Way Out: Examining the ‘Evangelical Exit Clause’ for Central America
Robert Brenneman, University of Notre Dame (rbrennem@nd.edu)

Exporters of Religion: Evangelicals in Global South Impact Other Countries with the Gospel
Stephen Offutt, Boston University (soffutt@bu.edu)

Reconstructing Social Space at Willow Creek Community Church
Peter Mundey, University of Notre Dame (pmundey@nd.edu)

The Emotional and Aesthetic Dimensions of the Local Church Rock Scene
Kevin McElmurry, University of Missouri (Klm143@mizzou.edu)

Plan on meeting us Saturday October 24 @ 3:45pm-5:15pm.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Religion Scholars Meet in Denver

Quick Post: I'm getting ready for another meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Although not everyone likes "scientific" in the name because not everyone accepts the loaded connotations of the word... Nevertheless, SSSR (pronounced "triple-es-arr") is a corporate attempt to talk about religion in "non-confessional terms" and is the most focused gathering of scholars from the social sciences in the United States.

These meetings are great. Really great. Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, economists, political scientists, historians, etc., etc., who gather in a focused manner to bring everyone up to date on the most recent, most exciting scholarship, happening on religion all around the world. Not only do I learn a lot, I enjoy the people I've met at these meetings. I've made many friends over the years and expect to make many more.

Take a look at the topics and research being presented over the coming weekend. In one session I'll be presenting research on African Americans as the icon of worship among members of multiracial churches; in another, on how attenders become members, then lay leaders, in the American megachurch.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sociologists Need to Account for Evangelicals’ Vitality

Thanks to Jason Byassee, executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, I was asked to contribute a post to the Call & Response Blog. As a sociologist, I'm fascinated by the intersection of religion and social change. Because much of my focus has been on the American context, it's impossible to ignore the vitality of Evangelicalism in the United States.


I've noticed that not everyone is as sanguine about Evangelicalism as I am.

In fact, most sociologists ignore all forms of religious enthusiasm. At Duke Divinity's Call & Response blog, I write:
Spiritual vitality is not a topic normally addressed by sociologists. My discipline historically has more often severely critiqued religion for its oppressive beliefs and practices.

Of course, sociologists are not alone in this: gauged by books and magazines at my local bookstore and conversations with colleagues and neighbors, arguments for the oppressiveness of religion are everywhere. The disappointment and hurt so common among people I know fuels the attention given to the "new atheism" in recent books like Sam Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great,” and Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.”

But, a few social scientists do pay attention, and I point out that my reading of some recent publications reveals social scientists promoting their own particular religious bias.

The Evening Descends album coverImage via Wikipedia



There is a lot they don't like about Evangelicalism.

They acknowledge the strength of Evangelicalism and the evidence that churches in the "Mainline" are adopting Evangelical tactics. Yet, the very spread of "Evangelicalism" is not seen as success, or less the work of God, but rather evidence of a noxious spread of the frightening demons of shallow individualistic spirituality, right-wing freakishness, and worldly decline.

I say to my colleagues that we need a broader analytical approach that encompasses, rather than ignores, the strength of Evangelicalism --
Social scientists must switch from merely a critique of evangelicalism to a broader analysis of what constitutes the set of dynamics broadly labeled (and vilified) as “Evangelicalism.”

How do we account for the passion, excitement, and (dare I say it?) spiritual vitality evident in at least a portion of evangelical churches?

I'm not alone. Theologian Philip Clayton at the Claremont School of Theology has also aggressively promoted a more open-minded understanding of evangelical vitality. This is a call not to promote Evangelicalism, but rather to avoid merely dismissing it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Evangelical Elites - Power in American Culture

Today I present this extended video lecture from my friend and colleague D. Michael Lindsay given earlier this year at Calvin College. Michael is a sociologist at Rice University and author of the bestselling book Faith in the Halls of Power.

Michael centers his work on the workings of power in American culture.

While completing his research at Princeton University, Michael accomplished an unusual research project. He successfully conducted interviews with more than 350 people of prominence, including two former Presidents of the United States and over two dozen Cabinet secretaries and senior White House staffers; more than 100 presidents, CEOs, and senior executives at large firms (both public and private); two dozen accomplished Hollywood professionals; more than 10 leaders from the world of professional athletics; and more than 100 leaders from the artistic, philanthropic, educational, and nonprofit arenas.

His recent focus on Evangelicals has drawn a great deal of attention, and this lecture titled "Powerful Faith: Evangelicals in American Culture" given to business leaders in Grand Rapids provides a glimpse into his findings.


TJS 20090120 lindsay from Calvin College on Vimeo.

Michael continues to do excellent work and now leads an ongoing multi-year study known as The PLATINUM Study—Public Leaders in America Today and the Inquiry into their Networks, Upbringing, and Motivations.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Brazilian Evangelicals - New National Religion?

According to UK's Guardian, Brazil's evangelical churches are booming, but for all their marketing savvy they don't have the status of Catholicism.

A fascinating article from the UK pits Evangelicals versus Catholics in the battle for Brazil's religious self-identity. Pictures from the story show young, enthusiastic worshipers pouring their hearts out in worship.

This ain't your grandma's Sunday school.

The vibrancy of commitment seen here can be excused as being "Brazilian" - the Latin passion manifesting itself through worship. Except this same style of worship can be seen in the contemporary Evangelical churches in the American mid-west.

It's not an ethnic religion, but a charismatic worship that's being seen here.

Instead, we are seeing continued evidence of the Global South embracing forms of ecstatic Christianity. From the article:
In the past 20 years or so, Brazil, cited as the country with the biggest catholic population in the world, has witnessed a migration from Rome to the booming evangelical churches. According to IBGE (the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), the Catholic population in the country was 91.8% of the total in 1970. But the most recent survey, in 2000, revealed that the number of Catholics had fallen to 73. 8% with the number of evangelicals up from 5.2% to 15.6%.
The shift is accompanied by new methodologies of "doing church" similar to things we've seen in the United States. According to the article, "Rock concerts, fighting events and surfer rituals are some of the activities laid on by new churches that are garnering increasing numbers of followers."

But can we explain away this spiritual vitality by approaching it as savvy marketing?

I don't think so.

According to Antonio Flávio Pierucci, professor at the department of sociology of the University of São Paulo and a specialist in the sociology of religion, "the new Pentecostal churches [are good at] media and marketing..." BUT "analysing the statistical data shows that older evangelical churches have grown too."

For Pierucci, "It means that Catholicism is struggling against older Pentecostalism as well as the new varieties."

Pierucci says a key reason for churchgoers' change in allegiance is the development of the religious freedom, a process which began at the end of the 19th century. With the end of the empire and the advent of the republic in Brazil, the Roman Catholic church lost much of its power. And although the article does not explain how this works, Pierucci also states that the military dictatorship (1964-1984) also helped sow the seeds of the evangelical "boom".

We've got to look at the bundle of social changes that stimulate new religious developments. Media push and marketing "tricks" are simply not enough to sustain broad growth in any religious orientation.

And the new wave in Brazil is experiencing it's own challenge in how people understand the new movement. "It is really rare to find a student who is brave enough to say that he is a new Pentecostalist. There is still some prejudice."

"It is not just about class, but about the status of the new Pentecostalism."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Paper versus Digital - Paper Wins

So, it happened. After several months of keeping up with blogging (more or less), I've suddenly found my time shrinking dramatically and have had to cut corners, re-prioritize, and make new to-do lists. And, guess what?

Paper-based projects take priority over digital ones.

A stack of manila paper.Image via Wikipedia

Let's start with the obvious. I've got journal articles in "the pipeline" that need attention, and draft chapters of my current book need revising (and quite a bit of writing left to go). These products will eventually become paper as the process of turning onscreen words into offscreen print is what drives the process overall.

At the end of the day, articles and books are also becoming online, digital entities. Just about everything I've ever published is available electronically. But the fact that these will be paper products -- and not just online -- makes it a priority because these products count more for my professional future.

In addition, my students turn in papers. Yep, I'm old-school about that, and my office is starting to collect a pile of papers that need evaluation for a final grade. I work these over with my pen, writing brief comments and assuring myself that I've understood their accomplishment which I then place into a matrix of my standards for the course.

And I continue to read, read, read. Although I've tried ebook readers and computer-downloaded content, I find I read more thoughtfully and more energetically when I have the physical paper in my hands. Yes, I even print out online articles to read on paper.

Wow, I'm feeling old.

Well, I will add more thoughts to this blog soon. I've been thinking about several things. I've also been asked to contribute to other blogs out there.

But, first, I've got to get these papers done.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My Experience Twittering Religion

Quick Post: In the past month, I've noticed a lot on the use of media in congregations. It also happens to be a very blog-friendly topic -- visual media items can be seen, reviewed, and downloaded by readers with the links provided.

Now that I've experienced a conference where I fully immersed myself in living the "twittering stream of religion," I want to again bring up the use of Twitter in religious gatherings.

What started my thinking for today is coming across another "Twitter and Church" discussion. The website Church Marketing Sucks posted a set of links to their recent entries on the use of Twitter (the micro-blogging service) you can explore:

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase

But the extent of Twitter is far more than church services.

More broadly, posts like this lead me to conclude that churches, denominations, seminaries, and para-church organizations have moved American religion decisively toward mainstreaming social media.

My experience with this at the Moltmann Conversation organized by Emergent Village is the first time I decided to dive into this Twitter stream full-force.

Conferences like the Moltmann Conversation I joined at Chicago and the earlier Earl Lectures conference at Berkeley encourage attenders to "tweet" through the sessions. Wi-Fi is available in the auditorium, and extra electrical "plugs"are spread throughout the room. This allows laptops and other portable devices like smartphones to sustain power. I used the "twubs" service found at "http://twubs.com/moltmann" and the "#" hashtag "#moltmann" available through my twitter feed.

The collective "tweets" are available to participants and displayed on a large, public screen at the front of the auditorium. Between my laptop, my phone and the screen up front, I was able to access tweets continuously. This added another dimension to capturing the mood and messages of the conference by letting participants reverberate quotes, observations, questions, insights, and online resources through a continuous live stream.

In my experience, Twitter primarily echoes significant statements made on the platform. I found the 250+ audience in Chicago to be aggressive listeners. When they hear a good statement, they capture it and reel it in with the zeal of a fly fisherman. Fellow "tweeters" will snatch that sentence -- keeping it to 140 characters -- and "tweet" it to the rest of the group. The more times the statement is posted, and the more it is RT'ed (return posted by others), the more collectively important the sentence appears to be. As the conference goes on, I read and follow others thoughts as we revisit significant statements, drawing them out of the steady flow of talk happening out front.

This forces the conference to take on an aphoristic quality. Sharp, witty statements are accentuated; paragraphs of thoughts are assumed. It's less a summary, and more an attempt to help hearers remember what happened.

In addition, people post short remarks and questions. Some will add a link that sends others to online ideas and sources. This gives a privileged view of the "mind" of other participants. What are they asking? What are they critiquing? What do they highlight? What do they ignore?

Also, some at the conference took a few pictures. Using the service "Twitpic", you can capture the view of the conference as taken by one of the participants. Here's a picture twittered from the Moltmann Conversation. Using all tweets together, we have the potential of creating a type of textual and visual archive for the event.

Because the Twitter feed is accessible to anyone with an internet connection, people unable to physically attend are able to vicariously experience some aspect of the conference by also catching the tweet-flow. While it is not a summary of the conference, those not there still derive at least some small benefit and an unusual privilege of overhearing some of the best "lines" from a very long conversation.

Finally, it's hard to ignore that "tweeting" conferences is a fascinating form of participatory marketing. Conference organizers know that while actively twittering adds value to participants and observers, it is also a benefit to the organizers to "spread the word" and broadcast the happenings of the conference in multiple directions through social networks. Thus, the power of social media to promote this and future events is realized in a distinctive way.

My experience at the conference helped me appreciate the extent to which organizers are deliberately adding "tweeting" to their events. So Twitter is interesting and important not only for worship and liturgy but also for the expansive experience of religion and collective experience.

I left considering this question: could the use of Twitter become as "normal" to Christianity as the use of hymnals?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Instant Cool: Explaining the Diffusion of "Contemporary" Church Culture

Church Marketing Sucks, a website concerned with the use of contemporary marketing techniques by church leaders, recently provided a list of great media resources for churches freely available online. Through sites like these, we have a privileged window into American religion. Why? Because understanding the circulation of these media materials gives us an alternative means for understanding the widespread diffusion of "contemporary" church culture.

The Fields Church - Newspaper AdImage by mufan96 via Flickr

We know contemporary churches use rented facilities. Not just movie theaters and high school auditoriums--churches are using bars and coffeehouses, community centers and warehouses, even lake shores and parking lots. How do these church leaders focus spiritual attention in these architecturally challenging sites?

Well, what's happening is that even churches who do not have specially-designed or "megachurch" aesthetics are adopting sharp media imagery to promote an exciting "vibe" that directs devotional attention and speaks to quality (and money) even when the church is just starting out.

Take a look through the free resource sites listed by Church Marketing Sucks below. Each of these congregational ministries have longtime experience producing entire suites of visual materials that compliment and accentuate message series:Clicking and exploring these sites, you get a sense of what non-high liturgy, "contemporary" churches are bringing into their services.

(For church-researcher types, these materials provide fodder for understanding seeker churches, new paradigm churches, and emerging adult spirituality.)

But, I'm writing this post to make a particular point: The availability of these materials points out an aspect of the modern diffusion of church culture. Here's what I see.

The internet is allowing more easy accessibility to media resources. Churches which have produced these materials (and are frequently asked by scores of other church leaders who literally salivate over obtaining such things) are seeing the extension of their local church ministry as giving away these resources--at zero cost.

See, churches that produce these materials are well aware of the money and time invested in the creation of media materials that have an inherent disposability to them. They'll never be used again in their church (since churches don't "repeat" sermon series). So they are happy to have them used by others and see their investment put to good use by others.

In other words, providing media resources to other churches (after they have been used in the base church) is understood to be part of the missional outreach of the congregation.Graphic materials are viewed as tools (modern, necessary, missionary tools) that can be easily adapted by like-minded ministries who are perceived to be essentially partnering with them to spread a message they already believe should be widely promoted.

Because these media items are used in many different churches across the nation (perhaps the anglophone world), and because church attenders are highly unlikely to know the materials they see were originally used somewhere else, there is an unacknowledged yet powerful diffusion of Christian visual culture -- at last a type of Christian culture.

And because we have not studied this, I speculate that the diffusion of style, ambiance, and ethos of religion embedded within these media materials is reinforcing particular boundaries of similarity and identity.

In the research literature, this is a type of "institutional isomorphism." But I won't go into all that now. It's enough to say that researchers DiMaggio and Powell* defined imitating or "Mimetic Processes" as coming from similar external conditions. In particular:

Uncertainty encourages imitation.

What does this mean for how "contemporary" church culture is widely reproduced?

Let's look at how this works. Using DiMaggio and Powell's framework, predictors of similarity (or "isomorphism") are based on premises like this:

Principle 1: The greater the centralization of resource supply, the more it will change to resemble the organizations it is dependent upon.

Application
1: There are only a few churches willing to give away these media materials, so the dependency on these few churches raises their influence as models for how to "do church."

Principle 2: The more uncertainty, the more an organization will model it's structure after successful firms.

Application
2: The means to growing new (and struggling) churches is highly uncertain, so leaders look to the successes of other, usually much larger and media-rich, churches.

Principle 3: The more ambiguous the goals, the more an organization will mimic a successful one to establish legitimacy.

Application
3:
A mission statement like "Reaching our community with the gospel" is quite ambiguous, so church leaders quickly become alerted to widely accepted models of ministry and absorb their media practices.
These are not exhaustive, and certainly the principles are not directed soley toward understanding the use of media. Nevertheless, these principles provide a quick peek into the dynamics of isomorphism that can be applied.

Other important aspects are how organizational models can be diffused is through employee migration, which in the case of churches would include the movement of clergy, lay leaders, as well as members between churches. Larger churches with well-institutionalized media ministries more quickly diffuse their media-intelligent people in comparison with smaller churches which are not likely to have as extensive of media practices.

Also, organizational models are spread by consulting firms, which in the case of leaders is usually accomplished through church leader conferences. Highlighting and discussing the use of media is a common aspect of "contemporary" church conferences.

I've come a long way in this post, something I thought I'd shoot off much more quickly than I did. Here's my main point.

In short, I've come to think that the accessibility and wide-spread use of church media materials gives us an alternative pathway to grasping how the cultures of "contemporary" churches can be understood. For me, this highlights that the occurrence of "contemporary" churches are not isolated phenomena--and most of us know this.

Further, it also suggests that "contemporary" churches are more tightly networked with each other than we usually think, specifically around assisting one another to reach similar goals with similar methods. Media materials provides a tangible means to enact those networks.

*P. J. DiMaggio & W. Powell, "The iron cage revisited" institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields", American Sociological Review, 48 (1983), 147-60.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Inside Look: Andy Stanley's North Point Church Describes Creative Process

Quick post: The media department of Andy Stanley's North Point church in the Atlanta area posted a blog today walking through their creative process for a new sermon series.

North Point in Atlanta is a large, multi-site church that invests time strategizing their communication process.

This is more than just "making sermons interesting." The ambitious effort to craft ideas based at the heart of Christian concerns that connect to a mainstream audience is routinely performed.

Here's one video that came through this particular process.

Of course, North Point is not alone in their concern to craft image-saturated, symbolically-rich content. In my own research I've described Mosaic in Los Angeles and Oasis in Hollywood at length (yes, yes, "read my book...").

Nevertheless, it is important to realize the degree to which religious creativity is channeled through the construction of mission-driven religious content.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dan Kimball Gives Update on New Network of Entrepreneurial Evangelicals

Thanks to Dan Kimball, we now have a nice update of what's coming through the initiative of a group of missional, innovation-friendly Christians this coming year.

Posting an "insider's view" of the Origins Project on his website, pastor and author Dan Kimball from Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, describes a series of new initiatives coming out of a meeting at Eriwn McManus's house with David Gibbons, April Diaz, Margaret Feinberg, Josh Fox, Amena Brown, Eric Bryant, Marc McCartney, and other staff members from NewSong Irvine and Mosiac Los Angeles. (Others like Scot McKnight and Mark Batterson were unable to join.)

If you don't know these names, together they constitute a dynamic collection of evangelicals who write, speak, and perform across the world on matters of mission, relevance, innovation, and church leadership. Dan expresses in his own words the core of this Origins group:
Origins is a network/community being birthed for those who are passionate about Jesus, Humanity and Innovation. So this means it is for anyone who desires to join in on the hopeful mission of people experiencing and knowing the love, and saving grace of Jesus. And using our God-given creativity and innovative thinking in this mission.
There's a lot happening with this very passionate, highly mobilized, and well-networked group. We're getting in on the ground floor through this post. Some highlights include:
Origins festival-event - July 2010: We will be doing an event next summer (most likely in July). It will have a festival-like feel to it with lots of break out groups for connecting, music, art creating, poetry and spoken word creating and inspiration of stories and various sized meetings. Part of the event will be actual serving the community - so it will be about the gospel of Jesus being both proclamation and in deeds.

"Listening" tour - Fall and Spring 2009-2010: We are taking the development of this seriously as we want to be listening to people who have ideas and how they envision Origins to be. It is already happening in the "community" section of the website. But this Fall we will have meetings all across the country where we will be asking questions and listening. Questions like "What would you envision this network to be like?

Regional Groups: part of this will be forming regional groups around the country who can connect for inspiration, discussion and encouragement and learning from one another.

A kick-off book: We discussed some really great ideas for a kick-off book which will hopefully be an inspiring one and a different approach to what a book like this normally would be.
One thing that stands out here is how religious innovation involves a communal network of zealous participants. It is a social movements model invoked by this group that is discontent with staid, "churchy" ways of doing ministry and instead stretching to reframe Christian discipleship as a dynamic, vision-driven, world-involved, and relationally-saturated way of life.

And while the words and actions of this group are involved in a problematic critique with mainstream Christianity, they are spending less time speaking about the enemy of dead religion (as they see it) and more about coordinating their efforts to foster new congregational forms.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

iPhone Church - Religious Media Jumps on the Digital Bandwagon (Again)

As part of their expanding digital offerings, Pastor Wayne Cordeiro explains a new service provided through the IT department of New Hope Church in Hawaii. The "iPhone devotions" borrows the iconic Apple style to communicate relevance to the digital literati.


Even more, entire church services at New Hope can be streamed live.

It appears that New Hope Christian Fellowship, a large Foursquare Church in Hawaii, is the first to launch iPhone services on July 4th of this year. A press release indicates that "live streaming to the iPhone was one of the most requested features from church attendees" and that the live streaming capabilities of the 3.0 software allowed this to happen.

SAN FRANCISCO - JUNE 19:  The new iPhone 3Gs i...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

"Typically, churches are years behind other organizations when it comes to technology and innovation. We have tried to reverse that trend and pioneer new ways to spread the Gospel using the most current tools available," explains New Hope's Technology and Innovations Director, Michael Sharpe. "We don't mind the long hours and stress that comes with innovating because we know that if we can come up with something useful, it can be used by other churches around the world."

You can check out their dedicated e-church site here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Young, Amateur Sikhs Lead New "Emergent" Congregations

NY Times reporter Samuel G. Freedman shows young professional Sikhs participating in amateur-led services as part of the "emerging movement."

Today, I caught another intriguing article by the Samuel Freedman on young Sikhs in Manhattan.

Seems they are creating new forms of worship, "youth gurdwara" or youth temple, created by and for young professionals. News of their meetings are spread by word of mouth, email, and social networking sites like Facebook.

NEW YORK - APRIL 25: Members of the Singh fami...By Getty Images via Daylife



Mandeep Singh remembers his first diwan located in a rented multipurpose room in a luxury condominium:
What most caught Mr. Singh’s eye, though, were the other members of the congregation, or sangat. They were, like him, young professionals, the BlackBerry crowd, and as the worship service, or diwan, proceeded over the next several hours, these amateur clerics took turns leading the chanting of sacred poetry and the singing of devotional hymns.

According to Freedman, this is "the Sikh version of what religion scholars call the emergent movement, a growing trend toward small, nimble, bottom-up, laity-led congregations that especially attract young adults."

Kanga, Kara and Kirpan - three of the five art...Kanga, Kara and Kirpan - three of the five articles of faith endowed to the Sikhs via Wikipedia


This is "not your chacha’s (in Punjabi, your uncle’s) gurdwara."

On reading about all this, my friend John Schmalzbauer called these "Sikher sensitive services." Yow!

The article describes how worshipers enter with bare feet and covered head, bow before the holy book, and so fulfill centuries-old obligations. "The service follows the time-honored sequence of readings, hymns, a discourse called katha, the distribution of the sweet sacramental food karah parshad and finally the sharing of a communal meal known as langar.

"But the words of the liturgy are projected from a laptop, both translated into English and transliterated phonetically for the many members who cannot read Gurmukhi, the script of the Sikh religious texts. One set of projections carries the logo 'Sikh to the Max.'”

While a diwan in a conventional gurdwara goes four or five hours, this one finished in two.

Freedman mentions other emergent congregations, evangelical Christian and Jewish ones, but the focus of the article is how 28 year old Singh has become a more religiously active person through this peer-led temple. Being with other young adults seems to motivate attenders.

Freedman notes, "For while news media coverage of Sikhs in the United States has tended to focus on controversy — bias crimes against Sikh men, who are mistaken for Muslims because of their turbans, or civil rights suits by Sikhs to allow men to wear turbans and keep beards in various workplaces — the more prevalent, day-in-day-out experience is of finessing the balance between accomplishment and assimilation."

"Balance between accomplishment and assimilation..." Nicely said.

Sikh weddingBy eyesplash Mikul via Flickr


Another attender Amit S. Guleria said, “When you’re living the life of someone in your 20s, it gives you a different energy.” He added, “When you go to a traditional gurdwara, you feel more like an observer than a participant. Here, the onus is on us. And that’s a responsibility we want to have.”

Who are these 20 somethings? "Well-educated and upwardly mobile... the diwan includes doctors, lawyers, bankers, engineers, computer consultants, graduate students and at least one chef. Perhaps half are the American-born children of immigrants, half are immigrants themselves...

Either way they have a foot apiece in tradition and dynamism."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sabbatical Ends - New Year Begins

Well, I'm coming off of being on sabbatical from Davidson this year. That meant few responsibilities at the college, yet taking on other commitments elsewhere. Far from a quiet year at home, this past year was one of the "fullest" schedules I've ever had.

wedding at calvin collegeImage by Joits via Flickr

The "Year of Research and Rest" really kicked-off with a seminar headed by the esteemed Steve Warner, professor of sociology at University of Illinois, Chicago, and hosted through the Seminars in Christian Scholarship program at Calvin College (see Michael Emerson's very cool seminar coming 2010). Michigan is so pleasant in the summer, and our family enjoyed connecting with old friends as well as making new ones. It was great to see other colleagues who visited as "guest lecturers" as well. Nice job, Steve! Especially memorable is a morning service led by Steve and his lovely wife Anne Heider at Calvin's chapel (pictured on the right). I'm looking forward to a reunion of sorts with the team at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Denver later this year.

While in Grand Rapids, I had a nice interview for the show Inner Compass broadcasting through PBS. That was fun.

Rice University, Houston, Texas, USA - Statue ...Image via Wikipedia

From there, it was off to Houston.

Special thanks to the Humanities Research Center at Rice University who hosted my stay in Fall of 2009. My colleagues there in Religious Studies and Sociology (with my fellow "HRC Fellows" alongside) provided sustained kindness and camaraderie.

I completed several projects at Rice (including a forthcoming article titled "Ego-Affirming Evangelicalism" in Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review and made significant progress on my book manuscript for Oxford). And my students in my Race and Religion Seminar were great - pleasure to have wide-ranging, immersive conversation on issues both personal and public.

Happy to see my new book Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church published last October. Reviews are just starting to come in - so far, so good! Thanks to colleagues using the book in their class (see Dr. Walt Bower's review at Barnes and Noble.com). Students seem to relate to the "Hollywood angle" while sneaking in some sophisticated sociological theorizing. Relevance structures and teaching - that's how we roll...

Although it was back to Davidson for Spring, it really was more of a launch point for a schedule full of speaking, traveling, and consulting in a mix of academic and congregational contexts. Thanks to Bill McKinney, I've enjoyed getting to know the community at the Pacific School of Religion. These are my California kin-folk who are so willing to embrace a wide-ranging dialogue on the future of American religion. Scott Thumma and Warren Bird provided an opportunity for me to join a team of scholars studying the "megachurch phenomenon" using extensive data they've collected. Our time at the Innovation Gathering in Dallas (notes & audio here) was productive and fun. More coming from that project, including presentations in Denver and a possible edited book.

Color: Fiber FestivalImage by >>>WonderMike<<< via Flickr


Thanks also to Bayside Church in Granite Bay, a huge center for new-style evangelicalism in Sacramento, and to the American Baptist Church General Executive Council, for each hosting a set of conversations focused on an overlap between their questions and my own research concerns.

In addition to continuing projects, I am excited about a new ethnographic project started this past year on political identity. I found a fascinating congregation in Charlotte, NC, that strives to negotiate the conservative-liberal political dimension in a way that reveals significant trends happening in Obama-Age American Christianity. Special thanks to leaders and members who have been interviewed so far -- their rich experiences contribute to all of us understanding the new changes occurring at the intersection of politics and religion in the US.

In the midst of all that, my first book is coming back to get some fresh attention. With a new preface, a second edition of my book A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church will arrive sometime in early Fall. Nice to see a slim, affordable edition available for students, church leaders, and anyone interested in where religion may be headed.

There's no way to represent all the happenings this year. So many new friends, so many exciting projects, so many relationships that continue to deepen. I'm looking forward to another exciting year!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Religious Nones Spark Even More Sociological Research

Quick Post: The annual meetings of the American Sociological Association and the Association for the Sociology of Religion have kept my last several days full bouncing between meetings, presentations of research, catching up with friends, and a little bit of sleep here and there.

Scholars don't accomplish much all by themselves. While it can be a lonely business, and we can publish papers with our names on it, the foundation of our work is how we all participate in larger conversations on broad topics and questions. These large, yearly get-togethers become critical for our work.

Image by ruSSeLL hiGGs via Flickr

In attending these conferences, one of the most important things for me to do is to listen to what other people are paying attention to. This year, so much attention is focused on "religious nones." Religious Nones are people who do not mark a religious preference or affiliation on surveys. The percentage of Nones have gone up (lots of news this year on this like here), but we are still trying to figure out what this really means.

Everyone agrees on one thing - being a Religious None does not mean a person is an atheist.

Religious Nones is a survey category, and it can be asked in a lot of ways. For example, there are people who go to church and others who do not. Among those, there are people who go to church who believe in God (as we expect), but there are people who go to church who say they do not believe in God (not many). This simple example shows how there are different ways to discover types of Religious Nones, adding further complications about what it means.

In a session with sociologist Michael Hout, he demonstrated using new data how over the past decade the proportion of Conservative Believers becoming Religious Nones is greater than any other religious group. Conservatives are moving toward Nones more than any other segment of the religious population. Hout thinks this may be due to the growth of attention on the Religious Right from the media - he showed a striking parallel between the two - and that Conservatives are eschewing the label of religion to get away from the stigma of being part of those fundamentalist-moralistic crazies.

Think about that for a moment. If Conservatives are leaving a label, are they leaving religion? Or is something else going on?

In short, are Religious Nones less "religious"? Hmmmm...

A chart showing the relationship between weak/...Image via Wikipedia

Well, we frankly don't know in part because we do not have a commonly agreed definition of what it means to be religious. Working with notions of "atheism" doesn't seem to help either. But other research out there seems to suggest that we need to pay attention to how people are defining and living out their religious practices rather than relying on these survey scores.

There are probably lots of ways to be a Religious None.

Still, the notion of a Religious None has filtered it's way into congregational leader's thinking about ministry for a long time. Here's one thought -- From my own research, I believe much of the vitality we see among entrepreneurial evangelicals comes from the attempt to craft a church that will appeal to a growing culture of "Religious Nones". This has some relationship to the "unchurched" or "seeker" ideas of the last decade.

Catch the irony here - creating church for people who have rejected religion. Doing so is based on crafting our own understanding of who is rejecting "church," "God," or "religion" and why they do. Then create church (in language, ritual, style) that seeks to overcome those things.

Anyways, this is only one of several dozen ideas that flow through my head as rich information and new perspectives are being brought by the bright, curious, and ambitious scholars I encounter here every day.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Religious Historian Ed Blum Brings New Jersey Sensitivity to Reading Hollywood Faith

Over at the Religion in American History blog, historian Edward J. Blum, author of WEB Du Bois: American Prophet, brings a suburban New Jersey sensitivity to reading my book Hollywood Faith.

Professor Blum writes,

Cover of Cover via Amazon

Growing up in suburban New Jersey – where making money, just saying “no” to drugs, and interrupting people as a way to show you care were the cultural norms and the entertainment industry was something way out there – I never thought too much about religion and film.

I tried to avoid movies with too much swearing or nudity (except for the time a youth group friend compelled me to see
Natural Born Killers, which I still haven’t recovered from; yes, Kevin Pepper, you scarred me for life). Southern California is a different animal. If you aren’t in a band or trying to land your Screen Actors’ Guild card, you can’t be very important. The entire culture confuses me.

Thank goodness for Gerardo Marti. An incredible interpreter of congregational life...

Blum is a gifted historian who brings a wealth of understanding to the intersection of race and religion, especially in the African American experience,

WASHINGTON - APRIL 28:  Invited guests stand a...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I think Marti is at his best analyzing how Oasis appeals to aspirants in the entertainment industry in ways similar to how historically black churches have appealed to embattled African Americans who often experienced economic problems, setbacks, and frustration more often than whites.

Marti suggests, I think brilliantly, that Oasis bridges the gap between older black congregations that looked to “advance the dignity and rights of African Americans as a racial group” and the newer black churches that emphasize “individual upward mobility.”

Blum's expertise makes his assessment of my discussion of the Black Church sooooo very much appreciated.

Read his full post is over at the Religion in American History blog.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Workshop on Theology and Social Science - Jürgen Moltmann Conversation in Chicago

Quick Post: Scheduling for the coming year is in full gear, and I'm happy to have a few opportunities to dialogue and develop new directions in my thinking with others.

The annual Emergent Village Gathering this year features the notable theologian Jürgen Moltmann in Chicago in September.

In addition to four sessions with Moltmann, the conference is adding several workshops on various topics connecting his work with a variety of issues. I'm pleased to host one that centers on possibilities for connections between theology and social science.

From the workshop announcement:

Can We Bridge Social Science and the Theology of Hope?

Gerardo Marti

For most of the 20th century, the study of God and the study of humanity have been at odds. The uneasy and often antagonistic relationship between sociology and theology might yet become productive - if we realign the paradigms guiding the conversation. Jürgen Moltmann's theology offers several points of connection that can energize a new dialogue centered on a common concern over the future of humanity.

Other workshops are listed on the conference website.

Registration is limited to 300 participants, but as of today there is still room for more. Join us in Chicago!