Gerardo Marti: Sociologists need to account for evangelicals' vitality

Many sociologists have reviled Christianity. More recently some have defended their version of it. It remains to account for the spiritual vitality of some churches—namely evangelical ones.

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.”

When some sociologists do address spiritual vitality, their “social scientific” writings frequently reveal biases of their own religious orientations. They tend to speak from within their ecclesial communities to argue for the appropriateness of particular church practices. For example, Diana Butler Bass’s interesting book “Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith” begins with a nostalgic trip to the mid-20th century when mainline denominations were at their peak. Her lament of the decline of mainline churches is not, in and of itself, problematic. But she simultaneously expresses sorrow for new and different forms of religious vitality. She writes that her sadness is based on “conservative evangelicals” who embrace a “right-wing political agenda” and are “narrow and inhospitable.” Bass’s scornful descriptions criticize all evangelical religious orientations and practices, especially to the extent that they appear to neglect tradition, aggressively hoard power and media influence, and foster self-promoting egotism.

Another recent book, Stephen Ellingson’s “The Megachurch and the Mainline,” laments that “the boundaries between old mainline Protestantism and evangelical Protestantism are weakening.” The Lutheran churches he grew up in are incorporating practices from high-profile, evangelical megachurches. For Ellingson, "elements of the tradition -- its hymnody, its 16th century theological language, its liturgical order, and its ethnic heritage -- were seen as expendable or at least as candidates for modification in order to make Lutheranism and their congregations programs relevant prospective members, who are believed to be uninterested in following the tradition." He continues, "choice, innovation, and experimentation come to be prized as the means to achieve growth while preserving or rediscovering the tradition comes to be devalued because it cannot accomplish the necessary work of conversion." Even more damning "is a theology in which the individual replaces God and church as the primary religious actor and in which growth is elevated to the highest organizational and religious value." His analysis is a long whine over the loss of tradition, while implicitly presenting tradition as something monolithic and unchangeable. He criticizes the sources of evangelical vitality to the extent they differ from his own tradition.

Bass does reluctantly acknowledge the strength of evangelicalism. And perhaps Ellingson’s conclusion that "evangelicalism and non-denominationalism are colonizing mainline Protestantism” is true. If so, then 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?

As is evident in my recent study of the Oasis Christian Center and my previous study of Mosaic in Los Angeles, I admire the entrepreneurialism evident among evangelical and non-denominational pastors who are not dependent on structures of denominational support. And I am not alone. Theologian Philip Clayton at the Claremont School of Theology has aggressively promoted a more open-minded understanding of evangelical vitality. We agree that innovation among evangelicals is spurred by their missional impulse to reach out. In both innovating and reaching out, they become highly attentive to cultural currents. It is an intentional strategy, certainly, and one that can be questioned. Nevertheless, those churches that survive and thrive have done so out of an interesting attempt to maintain the priority of inspiring spiritual vitality while being flexible enough to meet at least half-way those uninitiated or disenfranchised from church life.

Gerardo Marti is L. Richardson King Assistant Professor of Sociology at Davidson College in Davidson, NC, and is author of "Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church" and "A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church."