Myth Busters. Myth #4: Declining Church Attendance can be Reversed by Appealing to Hearts, not to Minds.

In his 2011 book titled Religion and Modern Society British sociologist Bryan S. Turner develops the notion of expressive revolution.  This descriptive concept was first introduced by American sociologist Talcott Parsons in 1974.  In the student protests of 1960s that severely disrupted North American society Parsons saw a profound cultural shift from cultural-instrumental to affective-expressive values.  He linked this shift to the Pietist heritage that emphasized the emotional aspect of faith.  Even though the expressive emotionalist values that came to the fore in 1960s were very different from those espoused by earlier Pietism, the continuity between the two is evident in the affective individualism that was germane to both.  Turner points out the negative Evangelical reaction to the erotic aspect of the cultural change but neglects to mention that evangelicals did not feel entirely out of place in the new environment, as evidenced, for example, by the dramatic increase of the proportion of evangelicals among North American Protestants that have taken place since.  It seems that the new cultural values had more affinities with the revivalist spiritual heritage of Evangelicals than meets the eye.  The downside of revivalism was that it tended to inhibit the intellectual dimension of faith.  But in the overall environment of individualistic emotionalism that did not seem to be a significant obstacle for evangelicals in their efforts to win converts.  In fact, evangelicals grew in both numbers and importance, while mainline Protestant denominations went through several decades of decline.   Of course, the cultural shift toward affective individualism was not the only reason for these developments, but it was probably an important contributing factor.

But now the North American culture may be shifting in the opposite direction.  In his New York Times column about a month ago David Brooks discussed a paper by Victoria Buhler, who was a student in his class at Yale this academic year.  Buhler wrote that her age cohort, presumably those who are now in their early twenties, have gone through two formative events.  One was the Iraq invasion, which was justified by President George W. Bush in highly moralistic terms as part of the war against “the axis of evil.”  However, the decision to go to war with Iraq is now viewed by many as poorly conceived.  As a result, younger Americans have become dismissive of a highly moralistic language.  The other formative event was the Great Recession, which created a harsh economic landscape for college graduates. These events produced a deep resistance to idealism and the desire to test and substantiate hypotheses and theories before committing to action.  Brooks concludes: “After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.”

If Brooks is correct, the changing cultural landscape will present new challenges to evangelicals.   It will become increasingly difficult to win converts, or even to maintain church membership, by appealing primarily to emotions.  By their very nature religious beliefs cannot be tested empirically, at least not in the same sense that scientific theories can.  So, believers from various traditions may find the new cultural climate more difficult.  But evangelicals will face additional challenges: intellectual endeavors have not been their strongest suit.  There is a substantial body of literature on this subject, of which The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Knoll pergaps remains the best known.  But there may be a silver lining in that the cultural shift will force evangelicals to pay greater attention to life of the mind.  Consequently, those who make commitments to Christ in evangelical settings will have thought their commitments through in greater depth.  Hopefully, that will result in larger proportion of evangelicals whose commitment to their faith is not superficial.

But even if Brooks is wrong, evangelicals are not off the hook.  Church history knows of no precedent of an enduring Christian movement that neglected the intellectual dimension of faith.  Unless supported by the state, such movements have either disappeared or been obliterated into insignificance.  If modern evangelicals do not want to share the fate of Albigensians and Waldensians, sooner or later they well need to present their faith in ways that are not only appealing emotionally but also coherent and stimulating intellectually.  The solution is not in emphasizing one dimension of faith at the expense of the other but in finding ways of overcoming the chasm between the two that has bedeviled North American Protestants for at least the past hundred years.

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