Choosing Our Religion: Workshop at East Belfast Mission

image Today Dr Claire Mitchell and I visited East Belfast Mission, where we spoke about our forthcoming book, Meet the Evangelicals: Journeys in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture, due to be published by UCD Press in the next year.

The title of our talk was ‘Choosing My Religion: Evangelicals in Northern Ireland Tell Stories of Religious Journey.’ The question at the core of our research on evangelicalism for the past ten years has been, ‘why do people from the same religious community choose such different religious paths?’ We think our talk today shed some light on that question. We received additional insights in the feedback that we received from an attentive and passionate audience.

Our research has included more than 100 interviews with evangelicals and ex-evangelicals. Although we resist putting people into boxes, we have identified six main directions or ‘journeys’ in which evangelicals have been moving. They are the: the converts, the deepeners, the steady, the moderators, the transformers, and the leavers.

We shared the stories of people on these six types of journey. While we don’t claim to have an overarching theory that can always predict how and why people from the same religious subculture will change, we have been able to isolate patterns of experiences and clusters of factors that – in a variety of combinations – consistently influence change in one direction or another.

For example, evangelicals who have ‘moderated’ may have had significant contact with Catholics in work or at university, have spent time abroad, found spiritual resonances in secular popular culture, and participated in an intense internal evangelical dialogue (which has been quite robust in Northern Ireland, especially during the 1990s), among several other factors.

Evangelicals whose faith had ‘deepened’ (some might say it has become more conservative or traditional) talked about how they restricted their close social relationships to people from the church, avoided the corrupting influences of popular culture, interpreted political events in Northern Ireland as signs of the end times, and/or felt they had direct communion with God.

There were many questions from the audience that are helping us to clarify our ideas and motivations for writing the book. One person asked what we hoped the evangelical churches would do with such a book.

Our aim in writing the book, as social scientists, has been to increase our understanding of processes of individual religious change. For those outside of the evangelical subculture, we also think that it will show them that there is more to Northern Irish evangelicalism than Ian Paisley!

For evangelicals themselves – who are on a variety of journeys – we hope the book will faithfully present the perspectives of others with whom they might fundamentally disagree. We think this can provide evangelicals with some insights into where others are at, helping them to see each other as people with similar struggles, hopes, and experiences of the divine.

There will be an audio recording of the workshop available soon on the East Belfast Mission website.

2 thoughts on “Choosing Our Religion: Workshop at East Belfast Mission”

  1. Will look out for the audio from the workshop.

    The formation of the evangelical Christian experience into six “journeys” is very interesting. Based on cumulative results of the interviews, no one will exactly fit into one of the “boxes”, but then academia is all about trying to define the previously undefined.

    How have you and Dr Mitchell defined “Evangelical”? I would go for “a person accepting the Bible as the prime object of spiritual authority”. One could add “…and affirming the doctrine of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth”. Is yours and Claire Mitchell’s definition significantly different? Any other offers?

    I wonder if the six journeys you have constructed would translate to other Christian or Christian-based communities? Roman Catholics, Pentecostalists, Anglicans, are some possibilities. Without having seen the full initial results, my own estimate would be that the “journeys” may have to be redefined, with new ones adding to or replacing the six presented above. Among other communities, spiritual authority may pivot around different phenomena and objects. Sometimes, the preferred source(s) of authority differ within the respective groups as well. The result is that the religious life may be experienced, articulated and interpreted in different ways to an Evangelical Christian.

    On the other hand, I imagine some surprising parallels occuring between the experiences of Evangelicals and other believers.

  2. Hi Tim,
    Claire and I cite David Bebbington’s four fold definition of evangelicalism:
    * the necessity to convert or be born again
    * high regard for the bible
    * belief in Christ’s death and resurrection as historical events necessary for salvation
    * the necessity to engage in evangelism or social activism

    We also have a chapter that discusses indepth what’s distinctive about the evangelical ‘subculture’ in N. Ireland. …

    You are right, there could be some interesting parallels and points of contrast with other expressions of Christianity and even other religions. The most likely points of similiarity, I would think, would be in the sociological processes that people experience – rather than in the substantive religious ideas that people talk about.

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