Burned Over Barna

Barna Research put out a fascinating list of America’s Top 100 most ‘Bible-Minded Cities’.  Its not the top 10 Bible cities but the bottom 10 that are so telling! barna_biblemindedcities_preview1

The bottom 10 are:

  • Boston, Mass
  • Manchester, NH
  • Hartford/ New Haven, CT
  • Portland/Auburn, ME
  • Burlington,VT
  • Plattsburgh, NY
  • Albany/Schenectady/Troy, NY
  • Providence, RI
  • New Bedford, MA

It really caught my attention for 3 main reasons.

1. When I was in college I was an evangelist and Barna was our go-to source

2. During that time a common mantra in my circles was that ‘the Pacific-NorthWest is the most unchurched are in North America.’

3. After college I went to help plant a church in upstate NY (near the VT border) and grew suspicious about that Pacific NW thing.

I had spent time in the Pacific NW and while there were lots of unchurched people … there were also tons of churches – but specifically big churches aggressively engaged in the culture wars.

In the New England (or NorthEast) region, it was different. There was a cynicism is had not seen. Not a coffee shop atheism like the west. I deep suspicion unlike I had encountered.

 This came to a head for me when two roads converged. 

Ingredient 1: I was charismatic and had bought into a thing call “Re-digging the Wells of Revival” where you go to places where God has worked in the past and, through prayer, you try to unplug that ancient well of what God wants to do to release the anointing that once flowed.

I lived in area that had seen large revivals in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In fact, the denomination I was a part of was founded in the region and still had some of the revival tabernacles as properties! I would go to the  one closest to my house (Round Lake, NY) and pray for revival to sweep our area again.

I even started doing historical research. I stumbled into something. It was called ‘the Burned Over region’. It turns out that the much celebrated  revival had burned through so fast and so hot that when it was over … a cynicism had set into many people. Families that had given large amounts of time, sums of money and even family jewelry collections grew bitter.

A problem developed for me. The circles I was running in were celebrating the 2nd Great Awakening and other historical renewals of the church. I was growing suspicious and that altered my prayers.  I stopped praying for the same kind of revival we say 100 years ago and started praying for a different kind that didn’t leave generations of families bitter and broke.

 Ingredient 2: I went to a Barna Conference in western NY (Syracuse or Rochester area).  I sat there the whole time shaking my head as Mr. Barna presented to a packed massive auditorium. The finding that he was presenting were not exactly true of my area.

I had read a book by that point called “The Nine Nations of North America” and had begun to concoct a theory that merged (for churches) the New England of Nine Nations and my findings in Burned Over research. When you put those two together it really explained a lot.

 I kept saying to myself, “Even NY is different east of the Hudson river. From Albany east NY is more like New England than like Western NY and Pennsylvania”.

After Barna’s presentation I voiced my suspicion and that was not greeted well by my denominational cohort I was attending with.

I even brought up the Pacific NW thing and how out there you can hear 3 big christian radio stations and find a christian bookstore every couple of miles. We had neither.

The Pacific NW had mega-churches. We had one church over 1,000 and people in our area were suspicious that it was a cult, “because how else could you get that many people to all come and sing the same thing at the same time and then listen to one guy talk for a half-hour?”

 All of that is background for this past weekend. Barna put out a fascinating new list of the 100 most biblically minded cities. You can go read the article to see how they configured that.  The 2 most important things to me:

1 – the top 50 are East of the Mississippi River (except for Bakersfield, CA).

2 – the bottom 10 are all in NE or that NY Hudson River basin.

To me this says two things. First, the Bible Belt is a real thing and when combined with something like ‘Nine Nations’ is potent to think about.

Second, The bottom 10 are all in the burned over region and should give us concern about what 100 years from now will look like. I know that there are lots of factors over the last century and that someone will say “the past is not the future” and I get that.

But as one who a) studied this, b) while I lived there, and c) called it out in real time… I’m telling you -

The bottom 10 of this thing are far more relevant to our future than the top 10. 

 

Share
If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!

39 comments
AnthonyEhrhardt
AnthonyEhrhardt like.author.displayName 1 Like

I live in Orange County (west of the Hudson (but I've lived all over) and I've said that NY is bone dry..it's more atheistic then Europe.

 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @AnthonyEhrhardt There is really something to this - that is why I wanted to get it out there and have this conversation! Thanks for the note.   -Bo 

AnthonyEhrhardt
AnthonyEhrhardt

 @BoSanders I though it was just me. I'm ordained with the Assemblies of God, and the biggest ones in our area are very small.

Nutygoalie
Nutygoalie like.author.displayName 1 Like

I am live in the Hudson River valley (Nyack) now but I am original from the Midwest (ND). I can attest to the level of cynicism being taken up to a new level out here in the east.  There is a whole different approach needs to be taken here compared to the rest of the country.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @Nutygoalie Glad to have a witness to the difference between the 'Bread Basket' (Nine Nations terminology) and the North East!   I am thinking about doing a whole series on this after Easter, talking about regional difference from those who have migrated ;) 

Nutygoalie
Nutygoalie

 @BoSanders  @Nutygoalie  That would be an real interesting series. P.S I stumbled across your blog back this fall but just recently realized that your father is at my seminary. 

thobie01
thobie01 like.author.displayName 1 Like

There are many unchurched out here in the NW, but many of these have religious backgrounds of some sort.  I don't find many hard core atheists (probably not many more than any other urban area).  What's really true about the NW is that there is no "Christian" culture.  It is thoroughly secular and politically liberal, despite the presence of the large culture-warring megachurches.  Not sure how that compares to the NE, though I remember hearing from other sources that the NE has technically surpassed the NW in percentages of unchurched.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @thobie01 Either way it is not good :)  The Portland-Seattle-Vancouver connection is important (and telling).  But what has happened in the North East is telling for a different reason.  -Bo 

OwenPaun
OwenPaun like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @BoSanders  @thobie01 What do you mean by "The Portland-Seattle-Vancouver connection is important (and telling)."

kenalto9
kenalto9

 @BoSanders  @OwenPaun  @thobie01 Douglas Todd, religion writer for the Vancouver Sun, has written extensively on un-churched, open to other traditions nature of spiritual life in the NW - he has edited a book of essays on the topic : Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest.  It is a bit dry for my tastes (odd, given the mossy nature of Cascadia) but Todd writes excellent columns in the Vancouver Sun - he introduced me to John Cobb ;-)

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @OwenPaun  @thobie01 In evangelism - evangelical - charismatic circles, the 'Pacific NW' has a mystique as the most unchurched region in N. America.   But my contention is that there a big churches there, often with an aggressive-confrontational view of cuture and a christian culture that has radio stations, book stores, networks and a presence that ... lets just say that christian are not invisible.  

Living in the NE is not like that. 

 

Does that help?  If not let me know -Bo 

AndrewHahn
AndrewHahn like.author.displayName 1 Like

fascinating, bo!

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @AndrewHahn I'm glad you liked it.  I think about this stuff all the time and when that thing came out I was like "I KNEW IT!"  :)   -Bo 

tjoord
tjoord like.author.displayName 1 Like

Funny that your thoughts were the same as mine when looking at this list: I thought Pac NW was supposed to be filled with the godforesaking folk. But you'd think there was a correlation between bottom Bible cities and godforesakingness!

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @tjoord The connection between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver is important. I don't take that away.  But there is a sub-plot in those bottom 10 that I think signifies something for the rest of us.   -Bo 

DanMc
DanMc like.author.displayName 1 Like

Great article, Bo.  I moved to New England from Texas a few years ago, and what a difference (I'm not complaining)!  Knowing a bit of the history of how controlling the church was in the past I am not surprised people are so cynical about the whole thing, they don't want to go back to the bad old "Scarlet Letter" days.  I recently heard a show on Vermont Public Radio about hidden rooms in peoples' homes and one of their main uses was to hide the booze when the pastor came over to inspect!     

wg23
wg23 like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @DanMc Funny. I am a pastor in New England, and now I hide my beer (including my homebrew) in my coat closet when the parishioners come over to inspect! 

 

Honestly, that is a bit of an embellishment, but I do keep the beer in the coat closet.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @DanMc yikes!  you must have had some real culture shock :)   -Bo

 

ps: I really miss Vermont Public Radio 

wg23
wg23

Bo, thanks for this reflection. As I have been living in and serving churches in MA for several years now, this post resonated deeply with me. I was born and raised in Northern NJ, and I can see a great cultural/religious difference even from there. I spent some time as a new church planter and am currently a pastor in a traditional church in MA (that is equidistant from Boston, MA and Manchester, NH). 

 

I think there is really something to your understanding of NE as a Burned Over Region. I also believe that this is the reason why church planting and revival strategies do not work here the same way that they do in other parts of the country. New England cannot look to what has worked well in other places in order to move forward, because New England is the future of the church. We must, instead, discover a way of being church, and perhaps more importantly a theology, that speaks to how people have experienced God and the church throughout our own history.

 

Lately I have been intrigued by the ways that Radical Theology speaks to the New England experience. My experience of most church planting and revival/renewal literature is that it is rooted in a theology of certainty. (If we get a group of faithful folks together and pray and discern, God will bless this ministry). This theology only fuels the cynicism that already exists, and it a revival endeavor fails it reinforces the culture even more. Increasingly, I believe that this region is desperate for a theology of doubt. Folks in New England don't beat around the bush. They want straight talk about what is actually going on. Talk about a God who is going to do great things, or keep the building going, or double attendance by next year, or reach all the unchurched , etc... if we just pray enough and get lit up by the Holy Spirit; just doesn't cut it here. 

 

New Enlander's (NorthEasterner's) experience is that the church is dying, the God of certainty is irrelevant, and that things just aren't going to get better. I believe that Radical Theology (and I know that you have reservations about it, Bo) speaks a language that just might reach people here. 

 

One quick example. On Christmas Eve, I wove some Radical Theology into my sermon (a somewhat bold move in my setting). Although I am sure you don't want the full sermon posted here, I will highlight the main points. In my sermon spoke to the fact that everything was not made right in the world when Jesus was born, he did not make everything right in his lifetime, we still live in darkness; but in spite of all this we can be light in the darkness to one another as the Body of Christ. By sharing and embracing our brokeness, doubt, and weakness we can be in true community....blah, blah, blah...   After worship had ended, a man I had never met before approached me and said that he has been wrestling with God for over 20 years now. He did not intend to take communion that night, but the sermon inspired him to take communion for the first time in 20 years. He told me some of his story, and he was a pretty standard cynical New Englander. He had a moving experience of being in the Body of Christ, because of a message that embraced loss, pain, weakness, brokeness, and the absence of God. 

 

Sorry for the long post, but more and more I believe that my life's work is to delve into what revival might actually be in New England. And, if your theory is correct, if any sort of revival does take place in New England, the rest of the country would be wise to take notice.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @wg23  Oh wow!  great stuff.   Thanks for the affirmation! Its great to hear from someone with who it on the ground in the region.   I am SO glad that you wrote in!  

 -Bo

 

two quick things: 1) I don't just have hesitancy about RO...   That would be a massive understatement :)   2) I loved what you said in your sermon and this post but don't think that RO is necessary for any of it. You could get all that you have from a hundred different places without taking on the baggage associated with RO.  Just my 2 cents

danhauge
danhauge

 @BoSanders  @wg23 a little confused here . . I think the original post referred to Radical Theology, while RO is Radical Orthodoxy, right?

wg23
wg23

 @BoSanders  @danhauge  @wg23 Ha! This is funny. The really embarrassing part is that instead of picking up on the mistake, I adopted it and used RO as my abbreviation in the response. So, to clarify from my end, every time I wrote "RO" I meant "RT". Thank you @danhauge for picking up on the mistake.

 

I do still think Bo's 2 cents applies. RT also has some baggage. 

 

Matt W-G

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @danhauge  CRAP CRAP CRAP !!!   I totally MESSED UP @wg23 comment!!!!   UUUUUGGGGGHHHHHHH.  Shoot.  

 

SO glad you caught this!  I was answering comments on last week's post at the same time and MIS-read!!!   ouch :(   SO sorry.

 

OK - Regroup....   Does Radical Theology speak to New Englanders?  YESS YES YES>  now I see.  That makes SOOOO much more sense. 

 

It would be embarrassing if it weren't so funny.  But now I get the original point and it is FANTASTIC   -Bo 

danhauge
danhauge

 @BoSanders  @wg23 Sorry to spend too much comment space on this, but in the original wg23 comment (which included his sermon topic) there are a few references to Radical Theology and not one to RO. Then in his most recent response he uses the term RO, but I think he means Radical Theology (I don't think Catherine Keller is RO!).

 

Anyway, I think I'm noting a mis-communication here, but hey, could be wrong.

 

Oh, and by the way, the main post about Barna was really interesting :). I hadn't heard about the Burned Over region before and I'm interested to look into it more.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @danhauge You are right - Last week's post was about Radical Theology.   @wg23  just introduced RO in his comment here. -Bo 

wg23
wg23

 @BoSanders Thanks for the 2 cents. 

 

I think you are right that RO isn't necessary for any of that. In fact I remember having some deep conversations along these lines wile exploring the luminous darkness with Catherine Keller during my M.Div. at Drew. I think that RO has been informing some of the ways that I have been thinking as of late, but I can't see adopting it wholesale at this point. I have been deeply inspired by process theology for years without adopting it wholesale as well. I am very happy that the two schools of thought are in conversation and look forward to where that conversation might be going. 

 

Interestingly enough, I just realized that Catherine Keller is the first person who introduced me to Jack Caputo.

SoundFuryBacon
SoundFuryBacon like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

According to the info-graphic, "Respondents who report reading the Bible within the past seven days and who agree strongly in the accuracy of the Bible are classified as Bible-Minded." I'm guessing "accuracy of the Bible" ties in pretty heavily with Barna's "biblical worldview" idea. I don't think that's a very fair metric, and I'm not surprised that my home region would be so low on the list. I did my Masters in Theology in Boston, and even though most of my classmates and professors took theology and Scripture very seriously, I sincerely doubt they would pass Barna's test for believing in the accuracy of the Bible. 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @Shedinator yeah - and that's why I didn't get into the metric.  my only concern was that 'by whatever they are measuring' this region show up powerfully (bad).   -Bo 

 

I love your point (and your example) 

SoundFuryBacon
SoundFuryBacon

 @BoSanders  fair enough. Honestly, after having some disagreements over their "biblical worldview" survey a few years back, I've taken to doubting these sorts of studies from them. New England is full of 2 things- Catholics, and intellectuals. Those two groups don't tend to do well on Barna's Bible-related surveys.

 

Now, I do think there are some aspects of New England which would suggest that the Church there is in trouble. I would point to things like decreased attendance, decreased giving, etc, as well as the fact that religion has been made subservient to politics, social moorings, and other cultural pressures.

 

But then, I also think the Church in the Bible belt is in trouble, and a Barna survey would likely never be worded in such a way to show this. It does not take much effort to see that in many of the areas Barna has called Bible-Minded, religion is just as subservient to politics, social moorings, etc. as it is elsewhere. The difference is that in those areas, the politics and social moorings happen to pass the standard battery of Evangelical litmus tests.

ScottJCowan
ScottJCowan

it looks like 18 of those cities are east of mississippi river?

do you mean that the top 50 are figuratively east of the mississippi? i'm seriously asking....i don't know if that is a phrase in california, haha.

 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @ScottJCowan HA! yeah :)  That is my kind of short hand for "eastern half of the country"   - you caught me ;p 

 

It came to my mind because of the 'bookmark' in the Barna info-graphic.   Point well taken.  

SO - now that is resolved ... what are your thoughts?  -Bo 

ScottJCowan
ScottJCowan

 @BoSanders hah, just checking. I moved out to LA this past year and have heard that idiom used out here often. in a way, its a really interesting relic that has probably survived since western expansion/gold rush days? i dunno?

 

anyway.

 

I've not spent much time in either region, but have heard of both regions being spoken of stereotypically as 'unchurched'. I would expect that the experiences and biases of either opinion could be spoken for to some extent. 

could these regions be 'unchurched' because they are being compared to a standard of something like the biblebelt? If that is the case, either region gains a sense of 'otherness' upon which Christians not from whichever region can posit  a general 'lostness' and fuel their own drive to be missionaries in the US. To what extent is this kind of head counting any different than a megachurch who is proud to have 8000 in attendence every sunday (three services in the morning and one at night)? In what degree does reinforce the viewers safety and alienate a person or people of a specific region? 

I'm only curious because it seems that in order to describe a situation like this, the researcher must already have a theory about its cause/deterministic origin/situation/etc in mind. I wouldn't want to deny that there are areas that have less of a pop-culture recognition of church, but what is the good in relying on research that is  most susceptible to being used by thinking that is in line with the researchers program. 

Maybe it has to do with some Wittgenstein said that deals with difference: Someone asks, "did you recognize your desk when you came in the room this morning?" To which you reply, "of course I did, its my desk." Yet it would be misleading to say that any recognizing had occurred. The desk was not strange to me and I wasn't surprised by it as I would have been if a different desk would have been there.

No one will say that every time I enter my room there occurs an act of recognition of all the objects that I see and have seen hundreds of times before. (he finishes this up by talking about the nature of recognition)

 

 

Maybe what would be more interesting would be trying to understand how to connect the networks of the east coast 'unchurched' with the networks of the PNW 'unchurch'. A network of networks that connects through the midwest/bible belt, as opposed to relying on one entities difference to be a defining factor. 

Besides, it seems glaringly obvious that the 'most churched' cities are the ones where it is hardest to have an actual conversation that explores the limits of Xt rather than having to join in the status quo version before suggesting alternative, yet minor, perspectives.

 

...just my initial reaction

Optimistic Chad
Optimistic Chad

Hopefully whoever named the city "Providence" had a sense of irony...

OwenPaun
OwenPaun like.author.displayName 1 Like

From my understanding, the Burned Over Region was the aftermath specifically of Charles Finney, who invented/popularized the "sinner's prayer" and high-pressure conversionism. That style of evangelism has since dominated in many corners of Protestantism. It doesn't seem to be doing the same amount of damage as then, but most of the deeply cynical people I meet tend to come from that specific religious background.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @OwenPaun Great point.  Great point.  Finney and his new measures have become standard practice in much of the evangelical/charismatic church.  I should have included that in a 'things that will come back to bite us' section :) -Bo 

DouglasHagler
DouglasHagler

You know, it's funny. Whenever I take one of those quizzes that tell you where to live, my top 10 places to live almost exactly match the bottom 10 most "Biblical" places on this list (with the exception of Portland, OR which always comes up for me). I think we have done more than enough to warrant that much suspicion from the country, and worse than suspicion. Heck, I'm suspicious of churches. If someone says "I read the Bible and pray every day", my first thought is "Oh God this person probably hates gays and evolution", rather than "Oh wonderful this person cares for the poor and the least and is nonviolent like Jesus." Why is that? Because that's my experience.

 

I don't know who exactly the "we" is in the last sentence, but I agree with the sentiment in general. The people who are 'burned over' - they are on to "us". They have looked behind the curtain, seen one too many public Christian leader crash and burn in hypocrisy, and have moved on. There's a whole swathe of country where Churchianity is weakest, and bluntly, it is weakest there for a lot of good reasons, and where Churchianity is strong, it is strong for what I see as bad reasons. Maybe "we" need to move on with "them".

ngilmour
ngilmour

Whose future?  Who are "we" in the last sentence of this post?

Trackbacks