Evolution, Revivalism and Renovation: Come to the Church through the Kitchen

Dear Social Construction Workers:

The research of two scholars converged in my head this past week and now occupies much of my musing. The first is religious sociologist Azim Shariff, whose studies posit that religion evolved as human social groups became too large for relational scrutiny. The second is historian Jeffrey Mullins, who studies the scientific method used by revivalists in 19th century America, in particular the tent revivals of Charles Finney.

Shariff proposes that religion significantly evolved about 12,000 years ago when human groups, once tribes no larger than 50 people, became villages and cities where individuals could no longer directly observe the honesty, compassion or trustworthiness of their fellow citizens. People needed a way to identify commonly held values and virtues, and mutual dedication to a judging deity created a shortcut to discerning those who could be trusted. Expensive rituals, grandiose temples and flamboyant festivals funded by enthusiastic supporters demonstrated to newcomers the dedication of the group to a common god and their shared acquiescence to that god’s expectations. They, in effect, announced their trustworthiness by demonstrating shared dedication.

In Mullin’s work he attempts to debunk the theory that antebellum American revivalists were anti-science. Presbyterian minister Charles Finney relied heavily on a scientific understanding of the human soul, suggesting his lengthy revivals cultivated the heart of the participants to receive the news of God’s grace in the American frontier. Theologians contemporary to Finney, chief among them Charles Hodge, denounced his work as psychological manipulation eliminating the true work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of converts. If salvation could be manipulated, it could not be trusted. This tension divided 1850’s Presbyterians into New School revivalists and Old School catechists.

In my own musing, I believe Finney faced the opposite problem Shariff describes. Whereas Shariff’s religious evolution addressed the needs of small social groups migrating to the big city, Finney’s revivalism faced the problem of the American frontier where settlers were leaving the big cities to endure great isolation in the expansive west. Finney’s revivals were a means to reconnect isolated rural communities with a common spiritual experience, conversion. As a result, answering the question “Are you saved?” or “Have you been born again?” provided a quick trustworthiness insight for those in an isolated frontier as was experienced by those in urban extravagant religious institutions.

Now we live in a new wave of social integration. Connectivity permits us to associate with like-value people without reference to geographic distance. We are now in relationships of trust based on mutual assent to common memes and social networks; these ideological frameworks exist only in media-space, manipulated with a psychological precision that would have made Charles Finney jealous and Charles Hodge weep.

It’s no surprise that today’s new church developments split between those doubling down on social media and others attempting to create small face-to-face fellowships, both attempting to build communities where people can trust one another.

I realize for many, my musing is only theoretical gobbledygook, but I am going somewhere with this. I would suggest the greatest sense of mutual trust will not be found in mutual ideological assent but in mutually accomplished mission—small intentional steps motivated by our shared concern for the well-being of others.

In a few days, sledgehammers will be smacking away the walls of a dumbwaiter for the purpose of expanding our Parlor Kitchen. Some may think this is a self-indulgent expenditure investing in a shared value of fancy food-prep. But my hope is something very different.

From our Parlor Kitchen comes repast for people who have lost loved ones. In that room we prepare small tokens of expressed grace, cookies and cheese plates announcing our love for those who are struggling with the reality of death.

From that kitchen we also provide refreshment for those who gather for study and fellowship, tiny sandwiches or the occasional doughnut hole announcing our commitment to feeding both soul and body. From the dust and debris will come a space where we can share the crucial message that people matter; they are welcome, loved and trusted. This kitchen renovation is not about us; it is a small step in our mission to sharing God’s big news—people matter and here they can be safe.

Looking forward to enjoying the dust and mess of ministry, I remain,

With Love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor