Evangelical Journeys – choice and change in a Northern Ireland religious subculture

Cover of Evangelical Journeys - by Claire Mitchell and Gladys GanielOver the last decade, Claire Mitchell and Gladys Ganiel (no stranger to this parish) have interviewed ninety five self-declared evangelicals in Northern Ireland to build up a picture of their dominant spiritual journeys and the individual choices that have determined the routes they have followed.

The analysis of these interviews has recently been published by UCD Press in a fascinating book Evangelical Journeys.

The authors spoke about their book in an In Conversation event at Contemporary Christianity in Belfast back in October. The audio from that evening is still available online. And just a few weeks ago, William Crawley interviewed Gladys and Claire on Sunday Sequence – there’s a link to the audio on Gladys’ blog.

Based on each person’s description of their faith development and their spiritual turning points, the authors loosely categorise them into one of six journeys.

  • Converting to evangelicalism
  • Deepening evangelicalism
  • Maintaining a steady faith
  • Moderating evangelicalism
  • Transforming evangelicalism
  • Leaving evangelicalism

The main part of the book consists of a chapter per type of journey, dipping in and out of the individual stories, noting the similarity and diversity in the experiences.

For non-believers, we think these stories can provide insight into what it is like to be religious in the contemporary world. For those who are evangelicals, we think these stories may help in the process of reflecting on their own religious journeys … readers may also be able to identify with some of the people they meet in the book.

Because it’s peppered with the voices of those interviewed, Evangelical Journeys is a captivating read. There’s an element of spot-your-own-journey as you read, as well as a constant challenge to the tenets that prop up – or are the foundations of – your own faith as you grow to understand so many other people’s journeys.

One fundamental observation is that although someone’s initial denominational involvement tends to be an accident of birth (primarily their parents), subsequent decisions that “change and alter their religious views … are not random choices” but stem from conscious reactions to their physical and mental health as well as to their peers.

The authors steer clear of trying to define ‘evangelicalism’ or adopting stereotypes. They acknowledge that “aspects of evangelicalism have contributed [enormously] to the conflict in Northern Ireland” but dismiss any simplistic notions that evangelicalism is either “rigid and unchanging” or “preoccupied with politics” pointing to examples of change, diversification, political withdrawal as well as strong social action resulting from ethical outrage and conscience.

Converting to evangelicalism. Unlike the other five journeys, nearly all interviewees described conversion as part of their religious journey, most commonly referring to one (or more) incidents before the age of ten. Childhood socialisation through attending church and Sunday schools – even with only nominally Christian parents – has a major influence on individuals.

All of those who converted as adults had some familiarity with evangelicalism from childhood. When they encountered evangelicalism in later life, this was not radically new information.

Relationships with evangelicals (‘advocates’ who initiate conversation), crisis and trauma were all noted as tipping points on the conversion journey.

Even where conversion takes place in a dramatic or emotional way, it seldom occurs without a great deal of prior active deliberation on the part of the potential convert.

Deepening evangelicalism. A subset of evangelicals become more deeply conservative. At the time of their interview, all identified themselves as DUP voters – though remember it was a qualitative sample rather than demographically balanced (the chapter on methods explains more).

Quite a number of people in this chapter identified themselves as fundamentalists … A smaller group … detailed study of biblical doctrine was paramount … Some … value Calvinistic interpretations of the relationship between church and state. Some people whose faith was deepening described themselves as ‘right-wing conservatives’, ‘traditional’, ‘saved’ and ‘born-again’.

Church activity fills the week of many of these people, surrounded “with godly people”, and a reduction of individuals’ contact with non-evangelicals. The authors found that some of their interviewees saw the NI peace process as a sign of the end times. One forty-something policewoman (identified as ‘Helen’ in the book) felt that it is getting harder for Protestant Christians and said the “green [nationalist] victory” in Northern Ireland is “a sign of the times”.

For her, the presence of ‘murderers’ in the Northern Ireland Assembly ties in with predictions in the biblical book of Revelation that in the last days evil men will rule the earth.

At one time extremely politically active and vocal, Helen has withdrawn from political involvement. A keen home-decorator, she says that “if she is doing anything in the house she will ‘hurry up and get something picked’ before Armageddon”. The authors note:

Whilst we should not make more of this comment than was intended, it is interesting to note that Helen continues to improve those temporal things around her that she has control over, such as her home, and does not attempt to change things in areas of life where she feels powerless, such as Northern Ireland politics.

Maintaining a steady faith. For these evangelicals, “their religious beliefs and practices as adults in mid or later life closely resembled their beliefs and practices as teenagers and young adults”. While all interviewees “mentioned going through a period of finding out about faith for themselves rather than simply accepting what they had been taught without question”, some intentionally protected their faith “by not studying certain subjects at university or only reading books that confirmed their faith”. Others “chose not to dwell upon any difficult questions that arose”. Many described a faith that was “personal and devotional, rather than being over focussed on doctrine”.

I found some of the stories of buffering faith to shut out challenge quite disturbing. Colin explained his strategies for surviving university:

You are taught to think in university and investigate and look at things from a different point of view and what you have to be careful not to do is transfer that onto your Christ beliefs … because you are constantly taught to question and you could start doubting it.

Choosing to compartmentalise and ring-fence fence their faith in the knowledge that other critiques of their faith exist.

Moderating evangelicalism. Interviewees in this category tended to describe themselves as ‘liberal evangelicals’, ‘progressive evangelicals’, ‘followers of Jesus’ or just plain ‘Christian’. Some were uncomfortable with the term ‘evangelical’ point to heavy association with Paisley. Many had moved them “away from their conservative evangelical upbringings, but also away from strong forms of union ism, loyalism and range Order politics. The authors found that “a significant minority of people on a moderating journey had come to see themselves as Irish”.

We found that many evangelicals on a moderating journey had progressed beyond [‘some of my best friends are Catholics’] and established deep relationships with, and genuinely positive attitudes about, Catholics. Rather than holding on to the strong religious unionism with which they were raised, and seeing Catholics as hell-bound sinners, their faith has become more open and inclusive … people on moderating journeys began to see that, rather than being the enemy, Catholics were actually ‘fallow pilgrims’.

Bible study, ECONI, Evangelical Alliance, university Christian Unions and experiences at Bible College were all cited by individuals as tipping points onto a journey that better coped with alternative interpretations of evangelicalism.

Most moderating evangelicals who were interviewed had experienced disappointment with their churches. Crucially, when leaving a conservative church they had ‘outgrown’ they were able to find other churches “they could be happy in”. (This is not always the case for transforming evangelicals can be “disillusioned with all churches”.) Some remark on the scriptural grounding and protection they received from conservative churches in their youth.

Throughout the stories, there’s an openness to challenge – often through a wider range of books (Douglas Copeland gets a mention), films and music (U2). Some had experienced life outside Northern Ireland, often choosing to get away to seek out different experiences.

Transforming evangelicalism.

This chapter considers the stories of people who at one time considered themselves evangelical, but now think about and practise their faith in a radically different way. Although most continue to see their lives as part of a Christian story, they now interrogate and critique their former evangelical subculture. They have varying degrees of attachment to evangelical institutions, networks and friends.

Some interviewees used the term ‘post-evangelical’ or identified with the ‘emerging church movement’ to describe their journey. Highly educated, one interviewee described people of transforming evangelicalism as “a sort of liberal, intelligentsia, middle ground”. Communities – or ‘support groups’ to deal with “the trauma of their evangelical past” – like Ikon, Zero28, names like Rollins, Tickle and McLaren and talk about ‘truth’ abounds. Peter Rollins was amongst those interviewed for the book.

For him, evangelicalism reflects modern assumptions about being able to ascertain ‘truth’ and to verify facts. For evangelicals this means constructing an overarching religious narrative that explains everything, from the formation of the universe to the most intimate details of people’s lives. People like Peter disagree with over-arching narratives and want to construct alternative, diverse, open-ended narratives that they feel are more helpful for having a meaningful spiritual life and authentic relationship with other people … But this openness to uncertainty and doubt by no means precludes religious seeking.

Some transforming interviewees had found that evangelicalism “forced them into a zealous public persona that they were not comfortable with”. Two interviewees explained:

Melanie: You don’t have to get your neighbours saved – what a relief.

Sophie: You can just make friends with people and be friends, you don’t have to think ‘oh this person’s really nice, I want to be friends, oh, I wonder are they saved?’

Transforming evangelicals found that “Jesus has just become this formula for restricting people”. One interviewee Ross said that evangelicalism “can be reduced to agreeing with the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, not doing conspicuously conservative moral things like smoking or being drunk or having the wrong kinds of sex, won’t let women drive cars, forms that won’t let people who have been divorced and remarried pray in church”.

There was a suggestion from one interviewee that churches, like cigarettes, should have “a health warning: church can seriously damage your health”.

People on a transforming journey also had a deep frustration with the churches’ response to global issues. They said that evangelicals had become too caught up in narrow Northern Irish concerns and failed to see the bigger picture.

Kate explained her frustration:

I think it’s quite amusing in a sick kind of way that those on the fringes of the church are those who seem to give a crap more than anybody else. The problem is that they give a crap but the church doesn’t change, you know it sits there. We worry about this stuff, it really matters. [But] this dominant [church] culture, it just carries on.

While frustrated, doubting and questioning, transforming evangelicals have chosen not to leave religion behind altogether. Indeed “because they seek to challenge and change mainstream evangelical culture, some have continued to attend church alongside their participation in groups like Ikon”.

Leaving evangelicalism. The ten interviewees explained that leaving their faith was a gradual process.

Unlike people who are transforming or moderating their faith, people who had left their faith found that there was nothing worth saving.

Some got to this position by “granting oneself permission to question” and having passed the ‘what if’ threshold found that there was no going back. Others like Liz who had a child outside marriage found that harsh moral judgments from fellow Christians “delivered a blow from which her faith could not recover”.

The authors discovered that some of the interviewees had ‘relapsed’ and come temporarily back to religion. And more leavers than any other category had spent time away from Northern Ireland.

While the “high point for religiosity is the teens and twenties”, this is also the stage that interviewees tended to leave evangelicalism. The peak time for changing religious beliefs was in late twenties and thirties, particularly for moderating and transforming evangelicals.

Politics played its role as a basis for being interested in faith and “deepening in a conservative direction”. Yet politics was also reason for dissatisfaction: “anger at evangelical churches’ maintenance of the segregated status quo”. And people’s “focus on global political issues, social justice and peace-building led them to further deconstruct their faith” and distance themselves from previous expressions of faith.

Throughout the book, personal choice jumps off the pages. Stories of people choosing to eliminate opportunities to question or be challenged, choosing to embrace doubt, choosing to stay in relationship with God, choosing to reject their childhood faith.

As I say above, I found the snippets of the interviewees’ explanations of their journeys fascinating, an honest insight into the complexity of faith and practice. And while the book at times takes an academic tone and approach, it was accessible to me as a layperson.

Evangelical Journeys is certainly worth a read if you’re curious about Northern Ireland evangelicals.

[Thanks to the authors and UCD Press for a review copy of the book.]

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