Sunday, February 13, 2011

Link: Brian Auten post at BHT, a great white sort in "missional" church planting?

Pulitzer-prize finalist Bill Bishop's data-tested thesis is that social conservatives and social elites sort themselves politically and form churches around already accepted social norms. This will explain how the PCA grew and why it likely won't grow beyond its current cultural demographic in the near future. For example (page numbers to Bishop's book are in parenthesis) ...

There is a great deal that could be said about these two links Brian Auten linked to. I will keep my comments relatively brief. As the son of an American Indian what I can say in response to the majority of points Anthony Bradley males about the failure of the PCA to effectively assimilate or reach non-whites as a whole is a great big "duh". A denomination with roots in Southern conservative Presbyterianism may have lots of trouble being a home to ethnic, economic, and racial groups that didn't already fit into them in the "big sort". Any church tradition which has as part of its legacy any connection to any Confederate anything at any point is probably going to have trouble winning over non-whites. Visit nearly any website at random that expresses concern about institutionalized racism connected to Christian religion in the United States and you're going to quickly find the name of Dabney and some choice words about the ideas Dabney set forth about race.

(3) As "white flight" ideologically sorted geographically, "liberal church goers would live in one place and conservative church goers in another"(42). Center city church goers likely voted for President Obama (regardless of whether or not they were evangelicals) whereas few suburban PCA'ers would even think about supporting Obama. I was recently at a city center PCA church overhearing a group of people loudly thankful for Obama's policies and presidency. I just can't imagine that would be the case in PCA suburban churches in Virginia, for example.

(4) According to Bishop, the "real white flight" of the past two generations has been white ideologues moving to communities that were becoming staunchly Republican to live among socially similar people (53). I don't have the numbers, but my guess is that upwards of around 90% of the PCA church plants between 1980 and 2002 were in Republican counties. This fits with the homogeneous unit principle. We mistakenly only viewed "white flight" as racial. It was ideological.


(8) Ideological and social white flight has left rural America behind [emphasis mine] (137). The most neglected and ignored churches in the PCA are rural. They have been left behind by suburban and city center white elites (137). As I've written before, middle-class elitism does not seem to care about poor white people. [emphasis mine]

9) City center churches will be easier to plant in the future because young Americans culturally sort by lifestyle preference. Lifestyle is a city's main product and the housing market has shifted accordingly. People will use "missional" as justification for sociologically sorting as an urban elite if necessary. [emphasis mine] Church planters follow people who sort according to social and cultural preferences (153). We should not be overly impressed with center city plants because they will likely also not be successful at reaching blacks or Latinos in cities (as I've stated before).

Since I attend and joined a PCA church all of this stuff interests me, not least because I joined recently and because, having an American Indian dad these things do kinda address me where I live in an urban center. But what also intrigues me about these observations is that I cannot help but wonder if they in some sense could explain the entire "young, restless and Reformed" community as a whole. These are the kinds of young buck Christians (or youngbuck at heart rabblerouser Christians) who admonish us to read "dead white guys" and brush up on church history and all that. They are the sorts of folks who manage to repackage the middle class suburban white middle-American dream as though it were "countercultural" simply because this is a life that is presented as "counterculture" to the urban setting in which "missional" churches get planted.

The popular slogan amongst theo-bloggers I've read in the last five years includes the motto "what you win them with is what you win them to". The PCA may well not be the only Reformed denomination or Reformed sort of church in which we convince ourselves that our distinctives are chiefly our theology when out in the trenches our distinctives may be socio-economic and cultural. That the entire "missional" movement may be catering almost exclusively to upwardly mobile white twenty-something males who hope to get "upstream" and "influence culture" may show that not only traditional denominations but even many of the so-called "missional" churches may turn not into "God's new thing" but new forms of old, established white conservative denominations.

In fourteen years I've seen Mars Hill in Seattle go from a tiny "emergent" non-denominational church into what I would describe (I think fairly) as a nascent Reformed Baptist denomination catering to white upwardly mobile urban hipsters. To be sure white upwardly mobile urban hipsters need Jesus, too, but Mars Hill (and the PCA, let's be fair) may both constitute Reformed and neo-Reformed church movements that appeal to or seek the loyalty of the young white males who may be considered the culture-shapers of the future and tend to be theologically conservative and (very probably in many cases) politically conservative.

We get statistics saying that the number of Christians who are "real" Christians does not seem to be growing a whole lot and yet Reformed churches report growth. What if this is, as Bishop's work may propose, a "big sort"? What if the "growth" is not real growth so much as ideological alignment that is confused for growth. If the big sort were, say, people fleeing the mainlines into either more conservative denominations or no religious affiliation at all then people are not necessarily being reached for Jesus.

Or, perhaps worst of all, people are being reached for Jesus but they are being reached for a Jesus we have engineered to conform to the kind of social community or social network we already have in mind. Say whatever you wish about the new perspective on Paul and whether you think that is a terrible or a great thing (there's a lot I admit I respect about it), there may be a point at which the axiom "What we win them with is what we win them to" will hinge upon what Jesus we declare to the world to be the king of kings, particularly how we say obedience to this king of kings "ought" to play out in the Christian communities and friendships we form together. It will remain, perhaps, a tragic inevitability that in many ostensibly Christian communities where there is to be no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female that all those divisions will not only remain in place but that each division will have its own conception of Jesus to ensure that those divisions remain in place.


JS Bangs said...

I'm not particularly tied up about the future of the PCA, I have the same sort of concerns about where American Orthodoxy is going. In my experience, the convert-heavy Orthodox churches in America cater to a similar niche: conservative hipsters, well-educated urban whites, and non-traditional traditionalists (i.e. the sorts who really like tradition and custom, so long as it isn't the mundane sort of American tradition and custom). And yes, I myself resemble all three of those categories.

This is mitigated somewhat by the existence and continuing significance of immigrants from the old countries, who come with a whole different set of cultural markers, though I worry that their influence will be eclipsed by the high rate of converts from other Christian groups. It helps that the converts aren't usually antagonistic towards the old-country types in the same way that middle- and upper-class whites tend to look down on poor whites. I'm also somewhat heartened by what I hear about Orthodoxy in the South, which is apparently a lot more blue-collar than what I see here in the Northwest.

But still, I do worry about the Orthodox in America cocooning themselves into a particular cultural niche that limits their ability to really be catholic and universal.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

The problems of the white sort are almost guaranteed to be more accute in Seattle than in the South regardless of denominational or traditional affiliation. Seattle as a whole is probably one of the most symptomatic towns of the sorting process. By the white sort I mean the urban hipster separation rather than just mere white accumulation. People tend to be most comfortable being around people like them and it's frankly too easy to just assume the worst about the South. What I hated about living in Oklahoma when I was a kid was the climate and not the people.

All this more generally ties with my mulling over that in the body of Christ it seems Paul's warning to the Corinthians through his body metaphor will never lose relevance. The hands cannot say to the feet "I have no need of you". Regardless of traditions that seems to be a risk inherent in each cluster of Christians. As I somewhat jokingly put it elsewhere in this blog, Calvinists need Lutherans and vice versa. The white sort is probably a truly ecumenical concern in America. Decades of culture war stuff "probably" makes this a bigger risk for Protestants than Orthodox or Catholic congregations but it's probably a white conservative issue that remains ecumenical to some degree.