Berger on evangelical Christianity as the most modern large religion

Sociologist Peter Berger argues evangelical Christianity may be so successful around the world because it is individualistic:

Why is this? David Martin, another British sociologist who has been a kind of dean of Pentecostalism studies, has shown in great detail how this astounding development can be understood as yet another incarnation of the Protestant ethic, which was a crucial factor in the genesis of modern capitalism.I think he is right.

But I think there is another important factor, which has been generally overlooked. Allow me to regale you with the Berger hypothesis on why Evangelical Protestantism is doing so well in much of the contemporary world: Because it is the most modern of any large religion on offer today. I am well aware of the fact that this contradicts the prevailing view of Evangelicals in academia and the media—so brilliantly expressed in President Obama’s priceless characterization of a demographic not voting for him in the 2008 election as economically challenged people “clinging to their guns and their God”. In other words, seen from the perspective of Harvard Yard these are the great unwashed out of step with modernity. But curiously this is also how diehard Evangelical fundamentalists see themselves—as defenders of the true faith against the intellectual and moral aberrations of modernity. They are both wrong.

Evangelicals believe that one cannot be born a Christian, one must be “born again” by a personal decision to accept Jesus. What can be more modern than this? This view of the Christian faith provides a unique combination of individualism with a strong community of fellow believers supporting the individual in his decision. It allows individuals to be both religious and modern. That is a pretty powerful package.

Berger isn’t the first to note the individualistic ethos of evangelicalism. This reminds me of one of the conclusions of Souls in Transition where Smith and Snell suggest that while conservative churches are the ones that have thrived in the United States, particularly compared to mainline churches, they too have accepted the tenets of liberal Protestantism including individualism, declining adherence to authority, and pluralism.

If Berger is right, can this tension between individual religiosity – notable dubbed “Sheilaism” in Habits of the Heart – and community (adherence to a larger umbrella of conservative Protestantism, going to church regularly, etc.) continue to propel evangelicalism or tear it apart?

Asking why emerging adults seem to be leaving the church in greater numbers

A story in Christianity Today looks at recent research that suggests a larger proportion of Christian emerging adults are leaving the church compared to previous generations. On top of some questions about whether these numbers are a big change or not, there is another question: why is this happening? The author suggests more emerging adults are leaving because of reasons related to the church rather than due to outside pressures:

In my interviews, I was struck by the diversity of the stories—one can hardly lump them together and chalk up all departures to “youthful rebellion.” Yet there were commonalities. Many de-conversions were precipitated by what happened inside rather than outside the church. Even those who adopted materialist worldviews or voguish spiritualities traced their departures back to what happened in church.

What pushed them out? Again, the reasons for departing in each case were unique, but I realized that most leavers had been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith. When sociologist Christian Smith and his fellow researchers examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers, they found most teens practicing a religion best called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are “good, nice, and fair.” Its central goal is to help believers “be happy and feel good about oneself.”

Where did teenagers learn this faith? Unfortunately, it’s one taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches. It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups. When this naive and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away.

An interesting argument. But it would be helpful to know the converse – why do some emerging adults stay? What keeps them linked to churches while others head elsewhere?

Any sociological studies about moral therapeutic deism within evangelical churches and evangelical theology?