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.