Lockdown liminality: evangelical formation in the age of Covid-19

By late March 2020, a previously unimaginable situation had occurred across the British church as places of worship around the country were forced to lock their doors and in-person collective worship was banned. Believers were forced to change habits that had lasted for lifetimes within a matter of days and around the country churches scrambled to move online — whether on YouTube, Facebook Live, Zoom or other platforms.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Thinking on this new state started immediately and within weeks Heidi Campbell (2020) published an e-book drawing on reflections of both practitioners and digital religion researchers. Yet this work, along with the majority of coverage around religion in the time of Covid-19, focused on the experience of adult believers. For thousands of child and adolescent Christians, however, the disruption was just as severe, yet can be easily overlooked.

While my ethnographic study of an evangelical youth group in London ended 15 months prior to lockdown, my experiences continue to resonate in the pandemic era. My initial intention had been to study the influence of digital and social media on the formation of religious subjectivity for the young people in the group. With a full set of digital methods prepared, I entered the field confident in my questions and approach. Within two months, however, it had become clear that changes were required. The plans demanded too much of the busy teenagers, but more significant were the conversations that revealed the comparative insignificance of mediated sources in their religious formation. My attention therefore shifted to the processes at play within the group itself.

What emerged was an approach to religious formation best understood through the lens of a rite of passage, albeit unlike any explored in the classic texts of Arnold van Gennep (1960) or Victor Turner (1969). Over the course of their adolescence, these young Christians were separated from their wider church community — both spatially and structurally — and operated primarily in a state of collective religious liminality for the length of their time in the group. Through practices and priorities that differed considerably from the adult worship environment, these young people were able to exist in a space of collective religious exploration and uncertainty that would not be possible in most adult evangelical spaces. While the institutional desire is clear that they will reach full evangelical selfhood upon leaving the group aged 18, in the meantime there was not the expectation of coherent and confident individualised belief that is anticipated from adults.

Central to this was the collective and relational experience of the group, a common feature of liminality and yet standing in stark contrast to the individualised focus of adult evangelicalism. The space was fluid and informal, encouraging members to interact. Socialising was not limited to those who arrived early or stayed around for tea and biscuits at the end of a service but rather was intentionally built into the structure of every session. The first formal activity each week, starting a half hour after the advertised start time, would be a whole group game, each chaotic, physical, and overwhelmingly filled with joy. This was a constant and unquestioned feature of the adolescent experience of collective religion yet was unheard of in the adult environment.

Through these activities social barriers could be broken down and bonds formed, but it was in the teaching that peer-focused collective formation came to the fore. Here, rather than the traditional sermon model in which individual believers listen to and absorb the wisdom of a single authoritative voice, pedagogy revolved around active discussion and open questioning. Thus, while the youth leader may be perceived as the primary authority, the voices and challenges of peers can also contribute — influencing not only perceptions of theology and practice, but a wider normalisation of religious questioning and uncertainty. During an age in which the influence of peers is more significant than any other period of life (Blakemore 2018), the opportunity to share with and hear from other teenagers was a highly valued element of the group for the young people. Thus the nature of faith formation within this space was one that depended upon collective exploration and experience in a manner unseen in the adult evangelical context.

With this in mind, then, we are led to ask whether the experience can be replicated in the pandemic era. While this might be a generation associated with technology use, my research was forced to change away from the digital as I realised that for these young people, the value of meeting in person with peers and influential leaders far outstripped the role of any mediated online relationships. Yet suddenly, unexpectedly, young evangelicals have been taken out of their huts and side-rooms and onto the online sphere, physically distanced from the peer relationships that were central to their faith formation in this liminal time. It is not yet clear what impact this may have on the nature of evangelical adolescent experience, but the ability of groups to maintain this collective experience might be crucial.

Rob Barward-Symmons is a doctoral student studying faith formation in an evangelical youth group in London. Based on interviews and a year of participant-observation, his research argues for seeing this process as an extended rite of passage incorporating practices, priorities, and spaces that are unparalleled in adult evangelical contexts — and the ethnographic research that has studied them. Rob completed his thesis in September 2020.

Works Referenced:
BLAKEMORE, S., 2018. Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. London: Doubleday.
CAMPBELL, H., ed, 2020. The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online. Texas: Digital Religion Publications.
TURNER, V., 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
VAN GENNEP, A., 1960. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Originally published at https://socrelstudygroup.blogspot.com on August 14, 2020.

The socoiology of religion study group at the British Sociological Association. https://www.britsoc.co.uk/groups/study-groups/sociology-of-religion-study-group/