Friday, June 26, 2015

Religious Travelogue at its Best: American Evangelicalism in Recent Times

Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In the prologue to his classic study of conservative Protestantism in late twentieth-century America, Randall Balmer writes: "This is a book about popular evangelicalism, a kind of travelogue into the evangelical subculture in America, a subculture that encompasses fundamentalists, charismatics, and pentecostals" (4-5). With that, he launches into a series of chapters, each one taking him to a different place, each one offering him a different slice of his topic. A few highlights:

Chapter 1, "California Kickback," recounts a 1987 visit to Calvary Chapel, an evangelical mega-church in Santa Ana, California. Under the leadership of pastor Chuck Smith, the church took off in the 1970s when leaders began preaching to washouts from the hippie counterculture in Southern California. As Balmer describes it, the church seems to have taken on certain aspects of the counterculture. At least some long-time members of the congregation are "Jesus people" from the 70s. Yet, Calvary Chapel attracts a remarkably wide variety of folks, attesting to the fact that the church is something much more than a big group of "hippies for Christ."

The setting for Chapter 5, "Adirondack Fundamentalism," is thousands of miles from Southern California: Word of Life Fellowship on Schroon Lake in upstate New York. Balmer describes Word of Life's summer Bible camp for teens in the summer of 1987. He chronicles some of the awkward, anxious religious lives of kids growing up in a devout Protestant home. He also discusses the historic issue of transmitting a vibrant faith from one generation to the next.

Chapter 14, "Oregon Jeremiad," tells the story of Balmer's 1986 visit to the Oregon Extension of Trinity College. Trinity is located in the suburbs of Chicago, while the small Western extension school is in Lincoln, Oregon, at a former logging camp in the Cascade Mountains. The extension and small church there, as Balmer describes the community, is a refuge for smart but sort-of-odd people who wouldn't fit in very well in one of the power centers of American evangelicalism, and who wouldn't want to.

Chapter 15, "Prime Time" was written in 1998, ten years after Jimmy Swaggart's public fall from grace following the discovery of his voyeuristic involvement with more than one prostitute. Balmer visited the Family Life Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Swaggart's church. According to the author's description, Donnie Swaggart, the son of the evangelist, became contentious when Balmer told him he was there on assignment to write an article for Christianity Today magazine. By contrast, Jimmy was very gracious and likable. (After the worship service, Balmer accidentally met up with the Swaggarts at a nearby restaurant). Balmer describes what the church and college campus looked like then. Only about 45 students attended Swaggart's college. Not many people attended the church services, and the sprawling campus of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries was poorly maintained.

Those were, in my opinion, some of the more engaging chapters. But there are over a dozen more. In the "Afterword: Twenty-Five Years Later," written in 2014, Balmer revisits some of the places he'd gone to and people he had spoken with a quarter century before. It's an interesting version of "Where are they now?"

I suspect that Balmer's work has appealed to so many readers through the years because it smoothly and consistently brings together four qualities: vivid description, historical context, penetrating analysis, and the author's own personal reflections.

There was one thing that I, involved with Churches of Christ all of my life, wondered about. In recent years, some scholars have asked about the degree to which Christians with roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement might be described as evangelicals. Along that line it might be significant that in this wide-ranging book, in which the author frequently draws connections between history and his contemporary subjects, the following names and terms do not appear in the Index: Campbell, Churches of Christ, Restoration, and Stone. I don't believe that's a mistake. Restorationists, Campbellite Disciples, Stoneite Christians, whatever you want to call them, are in a real sense not evangelicals. It appears that perhaps this book provides indirect evidence to support that conclusion.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Demographic Change in Clay County Arkansas and Numerical Decline in the South Thornton Church of Christ, Piggott

Back in June and July of 2014, I put up a couple of posts that tell just a bit about the history of the South Thornton Church of Christ in Piggott, Arkansas. I was blessed to be the preacher at South Thornton from October 1988 until August 1993, and will always be grateful for that opportunity and challenge. (I was a mere 25 years old when we first came to Piggott). To say the least, I will always be thankful for the good people of that congregation and what they have meant to me and my family.

Here, I want to establish and discuss some of the local contextual factors that have contributed to the numerical decline of the congregation during the second half of the twentieth century. But first, just a bit about what this means.

Anytime a church increases or decreases numerically, there are a number of contributing factors. In other words, church growth and decline are complex. To quote Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and his colleague in No County for Old Men, it's never just the one thing. To understand change over time, it's important to look at what are called "local contextual factors." That phrase simply refers to changes in a community that impact the church.

For example, let's say that a small town gets absorbed by a nearby growing metropolis, as McKinney, Texas has recently been absorbed by the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. New homes and stores pop up quickly. The local population soars from 5,000 to 50,000 in a matter of a few years. Given that local contextual factor, it would not be surprising to find that several churches in the one-time small town started to see a large number of visitors. Those churches would likely attract several new members. That would be a case of numerical church growth strongly tied to a local contextual factor: a rapid growth in population. My question is, How did such factors impact the history of the South Thornton Church of Christ during the twentieth century?

Available census and demographic figures indicate that Clay County, including the town of Piggott, became smaller and older beginning around 1950. For example, in 1990, the population of the county stood at 18,107. That was down from 20,188 in 1980. At the time (the early 90s), some residents of Piggott were encouraged to see that, according to the 1990 census, the town was one of two communities in Clay County that grew in population between 1980 and 1990. But those figures were misleading since, during the 1980s, Piggott annexed one or more surrounding communities. Thus, the town's small increase in population during the decade of the 80s resembled swelling more than growing. Also during the 1980s, the population grew older, with the median age of the town at over 42 years old in 1990. To add a bit of perspective, consider that in 1990, out of 3777 residents of Piggott, nearly 1000 were at least 65 years old.

As the population grew smaller and residents of the town grew older, predictably, the congregation also grew smaller and older. In other words, the demographics of the church mirrored those of the community. To get a feel for the numeric decline of the South Thornton Church, I put together the following table. Having spent countless hours compiling these numbers, I can assure you that they are reliable. The first column in the table gives the year. The second column is the average Sunday-morning Bible class attendance for that year. The third is the Sunday-morning worship attendance average. Finally, the fourth column gives the average of the two averages. This is called the "composite" number. I figured and posted the composite because church analysts tell us that it is actually a better number to look at if you want to gauge the numeric strength of a church over time. Thus, if anything, the figure at the extreme right is the most significant:

Year       Sun Class Avg        AM Worship Avg        Composite        

1963                328                             376                           352
1964                304                             371                           338
1965                305                             370                           338
1966                302                             372                           337
1967                305                             371                           338
1968                290                             368                           329
1969                273                             345                           309

1970                261                             338                           300
1971                265                             341                           303
1972                260                             342                           301
1973                252                             338                           295
1974                255                             329                           292
1975                271                             323                           297
1976                274                             342                           308
1977                281                             349                           315
1978                283                             360                           322
1979                268                             336                           302

1980                282                             348                           315
1981                273                             343                           308
1982                266                             338                           302
1983                252                             323                           288
1984                247                             301                           274
1985                250                             304                           277
1986                246                             304                           275
1987                227                             282                           255
1988                223                             276                           250
1989                225                             281                           253

1990                226                             285                           256
1991                213                             265                           239
1992                215                             281                           248

A few observations about the numbers in the foregoing table. Notice that from 1963 to 1992 the composite number drops from 352 to 248. Occasionally, the numbers remain stable or increase moderately over several years. Nonetheless, the basic trajectory is downward. Significant to our investigation is that, if you were to draw a line graph of the population of Clay County during these years, and then drew another line representing the composite numbers given in the table above, you would see two lines that were basically parallel to each other. Most people would assume that the numerical decline of the congregation and the increasing age of its members were directly related to the same phenomenon in the local context. They would be right to come to that conclusion.

Not long after I began my work with the South Thornton congregation in 1988, one thing became absolutely clear to me: long-time members of the congregation were dismayed by the church's obvious numerical decline over the years. Most of them had one or more theories about why the church was not so large and vibrant as it had been in decades gone by. One thing that was especially remarkable about all of this is I don't recall one person ever suggesting to me that the numerical decline of the congregation might be related to the numerical decline and the rising age in the local population. This was true in spite of the fact that many of those I talked to had actually lived through that decline and understood it first-hand.

Those who study church dynamics agree that anytime a church grows smaller it also grows older. (Conversely, as churches grow in number they tend to grow younger as well). Smaller and older was the trend in Piggott, and in that part of Arkansas for that matter. But most members of the South Thornton congregation had theories about congregational decline that did not include these demographic facts. Instead, when it came to the long, slow decline of the congregation, most of the reasons that were offered had something to do with leadership: the preacher and the elders.

The foregoing is offered not as an excuse or full explanation for anything. I put this out there because I have compiled these facts and have thought about these matters for many years now, and also because the South Thornton Church in Piggott is not alone. Similar stories, thousands of them, have unfolded in many parts of the U.S over the past 75 years or more. We should think and talk about those stories.