My comments on college students and social media in Wheaton alumni magazine

How does social media matter for college students? Here are some of my thoughts in a recently published piece:

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It’s notable that “when we get a break in class, the first thing that almost all of the students do is pull out their phone and engage through the deice,” said Professor of Sociology Dr. Brian Miller ’04, who studies emerging adults and social media.

But these students aren’t the first Christians to embrace new media.

Miller says American evangelicals in the twentieth century were quick to take up new technology forms and adapt them to Christian uses. Miller points to the National Association of Evangelicals and its concern that evangelicals had a radio presence. As other media forms were introduced – television, Internet, and social media – Americans evangelicals have adopted and used them.

“My sense as a sociologist is that we’ve often innovated and adapted [to new technology] and hten asked questions later,” he said.

Right now, for instance, Miller said more Christians might consider asking some questions, such as, “Is what we’re doing on social media as Christians good or useful?”…

Miller is encouraged about ways Wheaton students, staff, and faculty might be able to address some of these questions related to using social media responsibly. How could we build some best practices, consider the worth of social media fasts, or figure out how to gauge social media addiction?”

Now that social media is maturing – it has been around on a mass scale for almost two decades now – I would hope we in college settings could be effective in providing information and options for students and ourselves regarding how we engage with social media. When the interaction with social media is almost always on an individual-by-individual basis, it can feel chaotic and difficult to change patterns. Why not encourage more positive community-based practices with social media?

Particularly in faith-based settings, why not more direct conversation and instruction about social media and its effects? The majorities of congregations and people of faith are engaging social media throughout their days, yet my sense is that religious institutions provide limited guidance on how much to engage, what it is useful for and what it is not so useful for, and how social media shapes our perceptions of the world and life. Sociologist Felicia Wu Song’s book Restless Devices is a good resource for this.

If Colorado wants to become home to Disney and be the anti-Florida, would all the evangelical organizations in Colorado Springs want out?

As Florida moved to revoke the local governance power granted by the state to Disney, Colorado Governor Jared Polis extended a welcome to Disney:

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Colorado Governor Jared Polis has invited Disney to relocate to Colorado after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ “socialist attacks” on the company.

“Florida’s authoritarian socialist attacks on the private sector are driving businesses away,” Polis tweeted on Tuesday. “In CO, we don’t meddle in affairs of companies like @Disney or @Twitter.”

Polis then made his pitch for a new theme park in Colorado. “Hey Disney we’re ready for Mountain Disneyland,” he continued—a statement DeSantis’s office told Newsweek was “an odd invitation.”…

Polis also invited Twitter to launch headquarters in Colorado, regardless of “whoever your owners are.”

States fight over companies and jobs regularly, even as this round includes a particular culture war dynamic.

I am interested in the possible fallout for the cluster of evangelical organizations in Colorado Springs. While Colorado as a state made have made several decisions in the last decade or so toward blue status, it has longer featured two centers of power: a more progressive Denver and Boulder and a more conservative Colorado Springs. Even though the latter center has fewer residents than the cities to its north, it is home to many evangelical organizations. The profile of the city was particularly boosted by the move of Focus on the Family from the suburbs of Los Angeles to Colorado Springs in the early 1990s and the rise of local megachurch pastor Ted Haggard to president of the National Association of Evangelicals in the 2000s.

Would a continued shift left in Colorado lead evangelical organizations to want to go somewhere else? Some of the factors that made Colorado Springs attractive in the first place might still be there but the political climate and state policies less friendly. And where would they go? There might be safer clusters. For example, one study examines three other evangelical parachurch clusters in addition to Colorado Springs – Tulsa, Nashville, Washington, D.C. Would Tulsa and Nashville be safer and/or attractive choices compared to a changing Colorado?

Some city or community might also take advantage of this. Instead of waging a Twitter and media campaign impugning the choices of another state, why not quietly offer tax breaks, a promise of limited red tap and regulations, and a welcome plus reassurance that the evangelicals of Colorado Springs would be welcome in a political environment more to their liking.

The transmission of religious faith from parents to children and individual faith choices

A sociology book published in 2021 emphasizes the role of parents in religiosity in the United States. From an excerpt:

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Parents define for their children the role that religious faith and practice ought to play in life, whether important or not, which most children roughly adopt. Parents set a “glass ceiling” of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise. Parental religious investment and involvement is in almost all cases the necessary and even sometimes sufficient condition for children’s religious investment and involvement.

This parental primacy in religious transmission is significant because, even though most parents do realize it when they think about it, their crucial role often runs in the background of their busy lives; it is not a conscious, daily, strategic matter. Furthermore, many children do not recognize the power that their parents have in shaping their religious lives but instead view themselves as autonomous information processors making independent, self-directing decisions. Widespread cultural scripts also consistently say that the influence of parents over their children recedes starting with the onset of puberty, while the influence of peers, music, and social media takes over.

Other common and influential cultural scripts operate to disempower parents by telling them that they are not qualified to care for their children in many ways, so they should turn their children over to experts. Further, the perceptions of at least some (frustrated) staff at religious congregations is that more than a few parents assume that others besides themselves (the staff) are responsible for forming their children religiously (in Sunday school, youth group, confirmation, catechism, etc.).

Yet all empirical data tell us that for intergenerational religious transmission today, the key agents are parents, not clergy or other religious professionals. The key location is the home, not religious congregations. And the key mechanisms of socialization are the formation of ordinary life practices and identities, not programs, preaching, or formal rites of passage.

There are multiple implications of these findings. I’ll briefly consider one hinted at above. In the United States, religion is often considered an individual matter. A believer is one who has consciously made a choice in their religious beliefs, behaviors, and belonging. In the American religious system, there is plenty of freedom to make such choices, whether one is identifying with a different religious tradition, putting together multiple pieces from different traditions, or citing no religiosity at all.

But, sociology as a discipline suggests no one is a complete free agent. This applies in all areas of life, including religion. We are pressured – a negative connotation often in the American context but social pressure can be positive or negative – by society and its parts.

If a religious tradition then emphasizes agency and authenticity regarding faith, it has the possibility of ignoring or downplaying social forces at work. Take evangelicals. According to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, one feature of this group is conversionism. This emphasis on a religious conversion often refers to an individual moment when a believer made a decision and/or had a definable conversion experience. This helps establish that this is a true and authentic faith, in comparison to being a cultural Christian or adopting the faith of one’s family or people.

The excerpt above does not suggest that the actions of a parent – or other social actors or institutions – always leads to a certain outcome but rather that how parents interact with religion increases or decreases the likelihood of religious faith of their kids. It is not deterministic but it is a demonstrable pattern where social forces – parents – influence individuals regarding religiosity.

If parents influence the faith of a teenager, is that teenager’s faith less real? Or, is this how human life works: we are influenced by social forces around us and we have the ability to exercise some agency?

The shrinking lifespan of popular worship music

Earlier in the week, I read about the likelihood that Adele’s new album will fade more quickly from the public consciousness because music today does not last as long. This may also be the case for popular worship songs sung in churches:

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Worship songs don’t last as long as they used to. The average lifespan of a widely sung worship song is about a third of what it was 30 years ago, according to a study that will be published in the magazine Worship Leader in January.

For the study, Mike Tapper, a religion professor at Southern Wesleyan University, brought together two data analysts and two worship ministers to look at decades of records from Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). The licensing organization provides copyright coverage for about 160,000 churches in North America and receives rotating reports on the worship music that is sung in those churches, tracking about 10,000 congregations at a time.

Looking at the top songs at those churches from 1988 to 2020, the researchers were able to identify a common life cycle for popular worship music, Tapper told CT. A song typically appears on the charts, rises, peaks, and then fades away as worship teams drop it from their Sunday morning set lists.

But the average arc of a worship song’s popularity has dramatically shortened, from 10 to 12 years to a mere 3 or 4. The researchers don’t know why.

Along with the possible reasons listed in the article for this change (social media, pressure to incorporate new music faster. remote church), this might also go along with an increased speed of social change more broadly. There are more cultural works accessible to more people at a quicker speed. Any cultural work may struggle today to stand out and endure in such a flood of possibilities. I could imagine it would be fruitful to bring a sociological of culture lens to the same data and research question to get at what factors have led to these changes.

Additionally, this hints at the cultural speed at which congregations feel they may have to operate. Is religious faith and practice timeless or must it keep up with the times? American evangelicals are distinctive in part because of their interest in engaging with culture while attempting to retain what they see as traditional and important beliefs. How does the speed of new music affect this tension?

Materialism and religion in the clothes pastors wear

An Instagram account highlights the expensive wear of ministers:

On his feed, Kirby has showcased Seattle pastor Judah Smith’s $3,600 Gucci jacket, Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes’s $1,250 Louboutin fanny pack and Miami pastor Guillermo Maldonado’s $2,541 Ricci crocodile belt. And he considers Paula White, former president Donald Trump’s most trusted pastoral adviser who is often photographed in designer items, a PreachersNSneakers “content goldmine,” posting a photo of her wearing $785 Stella McCartney sneakers.

As the Instagram account grew, Kirby started asking more serious questions about wealth, class and consumerism, including whether it’s appropriate to generate massive revenue from selling the gospel of Jesus.

“I began asking, how much is too much?” Kirby said. “Is it okay to get rich off of preaching about Jesus? Is it okay to be making twice as much as the median income of your congregation?”

This is a long-standing issue within Christianity, let alone in American Christianity where money and status have existed alongside religious fervor and practices for a long time. In a society that emphasizes consumption, even conspicuous consumption, plus celebrity, is it a surprise that ministers would want to wear expensive items?

Counterfactuals to these observations might help. Two come to mind:

  1. Are there mainstream religious groups or leaders who actively shun or downplay status? I can think of famous pastors who are not as well dressed. But, are they necessarily poorly dressed? How much does presentation of self matter compared to other noteworthy factors like particular religious doctrines or practices? I assume there is some limit where a pastoral presentation has to fit some parameter or the lack of style or flashiness will be a negative. Is the nature of American religion with its religious economy of competition inextricably tied to status and presentation?
  2. Some evangelicals have raised questions about materialism and consumption for decades. Historian David Swartz’s book Moral Minority highlights how evangelicals in the early 1970s questioned the consumption patterns of Americans. If you want to go back further, Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that a particular ascetic approach to spending wealth on oneself helped spur on capitalism. How far did this critique go? By the 1980s, evangelicals largely became associated with conservative economic policies and reside in suburbs where appearances and keeping up with the Joneses matter to some degree. At the same time, evangelicals often claim they do not want to be too flashy or that they are middle-class even if they have the resources to be above that.

The evangelical books on suburban life recommended for devotional reasons

Following up on Friday’s post on a recent publication titled “Faith in the Suburbs: Evangelical books about Suburban Life” and yesterday’s recommendation of The Suburban Christian for a more scholarly approach among evangelical books that discuss suburban life, today I highlight two books that stand out in taking a more devotional approach to evangelical life in the suburbs.

As I noted yesterday, the books I examined all had an interest in helping Christians grow in faith and practice and live in the suburbs at the same time. Both Dave Goetz’s 2006 book Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul and Ashley Hales’ 2018 book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much stand out for their mix of advice for and insight into the everyday suburban religious life and the spiritual practices they recommend for a changed suburban life.

They approach these practices in slightly different ways. In the opening chapter, Goetz sets up the problem:

I think my suburb, as safe and religious coated as it is, keeps me from Jesus. Or at least, my suburb (and the religion of the suburbs) obscures the real Jesus. The living patterns of the good life affect me more than I know. Yet the same environmental factors that numb me to the things of God also hold out great promise. I don’t need to the escape the suburbs. I need to find Jesus here. (5)

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Subsequent chapters then each start with a listed environmental toxin of suburban life and then a practice in response. The material for each chapter then discusses these two features. Pursuing these practices will help readers find the thicker life he describes this way:

This much thicker world is a world in which I am live to God and alive to others, a world in which what I don’t yet own defines me. (13)

Hales puts the problem this way:

More than 50 percent of Americans live in suburbs, and many of them desire to live a Christian life. Yet often the suburbs are ignored (“Your place doesn’t matter, we’re all going to heaven anyway”), denigrated and demeaned (“You’re selfish if you live in a suburb; you only care about your own safety and advancement”), or seen as a cop-out to a faithful Christian life (“If you really loved God, you’d move to Africa or work in an impoverished area”). From books to Hollywood jokes, the suburbs aren’t supposed to be good for our souls. Even David Goetz’s popular book, Death by Suburb, though helpful, presumes suburban life is toxic for your soul – as if suburbia were uniquely broken by the weight of sin. The suburbs – like any place – exhibit both the goodness of God’s creative acts (in desiring to foster community, beauty, rest, hospitality, family) and sin (in focusing on image, materialism, and individualism to the exclusion of others). We cannot be quick to dismiss the suburbs out of hand. (8)

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The practices and counterliturgies Hales recommends would help Christians see suburbs and their role their differently:

This book is about coming home, about finding ourselves in the story of God and rooting ourselves in our places. It’s a bold look at the culture of affluence as expressed in suburban life. My hope is that is challenges your idea of belonging and also shows you a more beautiful story to root yourself in. As individuals, families, and churches commit to love and sacrifice for our neighborhood and subdivisions, we will find our place. (14-15)

If an individual, church group, or religious organization wants to consider evangelical life in the suburbs, both of these books could be a good starting point for conversation and action.

The evangelical book on suburban life recommended for scholarly reasons

Following up on yesterday’s post about a recent publication titled “Faith in the Suburbs,”” I wanted to highlight the one text that best connects readers to scholarly discussions of and existing research on suburbs.

One of the features of the books I examined is their focus on everyday Christian/evangelical life. On the whole, these texts are part of a larger category of books where evangelicals wrestle with current social issues and consider Christian approaches. Across the books, the goal is help readers build their faith and draw on evangelical and biblical resources.

Al Hsu’s 2006 book The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty is the best on drawing on existing historical, theological, and other scholarly research on suburbs and places. There is a full chapter on suburban development that draws on a number of well-cited texts about how the American suburbs came to be. While some books I studied cited no scholarly works, Hsu cites numerous works and the discussion and footnotes could provide a good starting point for a reader who wants to engage the decades-long scholarly discussion.

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The engagement with a wider academic conversation may be connected to other unique features of Hsu’s text. He considers how Christians could engage race and social class in the suburbs. In the final chapter when discussing solutions, Hsu connects religious activity and structural activity:

While we must never neglect the significant of evangelizing individuals, equally important is transforming societal, organizational and municipal structures. (188)

Hsu also helps individual Christians think about their beliefs and practices in the suburbs. For example:

Behind the readers’ comments is a tacit assumption that the Christian life simply can’t be lived in certain environments…But for Christians, nothing is beyond redemption. (13)

For individuals, church groups, and religious organizations looking for an evangelical book addressing suburban life with a more scholarly angle, this would be a good starting point.

New publication – Faith in the Suburbs: Evangelical Christian Books about Suburban Life

The recently published The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Cities includes a chapter that took me several years to put together.

This chapter began in reading several books written over the last two decades where evangelicals considered how to live as a Christian in the suburbs. I slowly collected these books, purchasing some myself and even having one gifted to me by our college’s president. With Americans firmly established in the suburbs at the beginning of the twenty-first century (over 50% of Americans living in suburbs), from different angles the books ask some common questions: do the suburbs present particular opportunities or challenges regarding religious faith? Should Christians live in the suburbs or elsewhere? The chapter I wrote considers common patterns in these books as well as several areas they do not consider.

This chapter is not only about these books; I think these texts also hint at a larger sociological question. How do different spatial environments affect religious faith? Evangelicals do not always consider this; faith is often considered portable, truths are consistent across a variety of contexts, and churches are more about the collections of people rather than buildings and places. Other religious traditions take places more seriously. In the American suburban context with voluntaristic religion, congregations meeting in all kinds of structures, an emphasis on individualism and private property, and geographic mobility, how could a suburban environment not affect religious faith?

Naming modern phenomena “traditional,” evangelical tradition

To label something today as traditional is to reference the past, to perhaps suggest an unchanging connection between the modern manifestation and what something was (or what we think it was) before. Historian Kristen Kobes Du Mex highlights how evangelicals claim to be traditional:

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“America needs a tidal wave of the old-time religion,” inveighed 1920s evangelist Billy Sunday, self-proclaimed preacher of that “old-time religion.” In 1963, when an Episcopal clergyman accused Billy Graham of “putting the church back 50 years,” Graham responded: “I’m afraid I have failed. I had hoped to put the church back 2,000 years,” suggesting that evangelicalism was a return to a pristine, ancient Christianity.

As historian Timothy Gloege explains, however, early-20th-century evangelicals called their movement “old-time religion” even as they pioneered a new, consumer-oriented faith. Frequently sidestepping traditional denominational structures, evangelicals have excelled at using modern promotional techniques to deliver their message through celebrity spokespeople and an elaborate Christian media empire — think of ubiquitous televangelist Joel Osteen. Prioritizing an individual’s personal relationship with God and plain reading of the scriptures, they also created new standards of orthodoxy, including the “inerrancy” of the Bible. These innovations were often sold as “traditional” Christianity, but they developed the faith beyond what even Reformation innovators could have imagined.

This reminds me of a discussion in a grad school class involving the sociology of religion. In a discussion of different religious traditions and where they might fit in a current understanding of liberal or conservative, the professor jumped in at one point and noted that even the groups that claim orthodoxy or tradition tend to have moved over time from earlier practices and beliefs.

So, perhaps being “traditional” exists on a continuum with some versions closer to tradition and others further away? This might even be less of a changing of something and more of a shift in emphases. Think of the hundreds of Christian denominations in the United States who would highlight different aspects of faith as being more important or the major Christian traditions – Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, etc. – and how they might each claim to retain traditional elements of Christianity.

It would be worth noting what groups claim tradition more strongly, how they make these arguments, and for what reasons. Did evangelicals at the turn of the twentieth-century claim “old-time religion” and tradition in order to distinguish themselves from other religious changes? For various religious groups that have called fellow adherents back to the fundamentals of their faith, why do so at that particular moment? In a competitive religious marketplace in the United States, promoting tradition could appeal in particular ways – and not others.

New publication: Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness

Christian Higher Education just published online an article from co-author Ben Norquist and I titled “Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness: The Locations of CCCU Institutions.” Here is the abstract:

This article examines the locations of the 111 governing members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and consider how these locations hinder evangelical Protestants from reaching their goal of engaging American society. We found that CCCU institutions cluster in cities in mid-sized metropolitan regions in the South and Midwest, are more likely than the United States population as a whole to be in rural areas, and have a limited presence in the largest metropolitan regions in the United States, particularly their central cities. In comparison to the top 102 liberal arts institutions and top 101 national universities, CCCU governing members were on average founded later and they have locations more similar to liberal arts schools than research universities. We argue that these patterns are physical manifestations of the modernist-fundamentalist debate, suburbanization pressure and anti-urban sentiment, and concentrations of evangelical residents. We conclude that CCCU members’ locations limit their ability to help students and constituents engage society with locations away from the largest cities and their power, resources, and networks

This project began several years ago amidst a search for data on where evangelicals in the United States are located. Given that Ben and I are in a particular location and working for a CCCU member institution, we dug into this data (with the help of my TA Rebecca Carlson) to uncover the patterns of where CCCU schools are located, particularly in comparisons to other kinds of schools and where Americans live more broadly. The last two sentences of the abstract sum up our findings and the implications: with many locations away from the biggest cities and metropolitan regions in the United States, CCCU institutions may only be able to do so much in engaging a country (and globe) dominated by cities and their metropolitan areas. More broadly, if evangelicals are not present or active in these global cities and regions, their opportunities to engage American society are limited.