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.

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 (

Exporters of Religion: Evangelicals in Global South Impact Other Countries with the Gospel
Stephen Offutt, Boston University (

Reconstructing Social Space at Willow Creek Community Church
Peter Mundey, University of Notre Dame (

The Emotional and Aesthetic Dimensions of the Local Church Rock Scene
Kevin McElmurry, University of Missouri (

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."