Traditionalists and Explorers: Insights on the Future of Faith and Community

Over the past two years I’ve been working on a project (codenamed The Orontes Project) developing a new model of faith community as well as experimenting with ways to strengthen and grow existing faith communities.

Core to this project has been a market research study that was funded by a grant and a private donor to study the decline of religion and test a new faith community concept.

While the study, conducted by one of the world’s best market research firms, Lieberman Research Worldwide (LRW), turned out a gold mine of data, there was one finding that stood above the rest.

The qualitative phase of the study spent six weeks with 150 individuals learning about their attitudes and practices related to religion and spirituality.

What they found was that everyone fell on a continuum with what they called “Traditionalists” on one end and “Explorers” on the other. Traditionalists are described as individuals who value rules, structure, and few (if not a single) sources of authority. They want someone to tell them what to do and believe. Explorers value individuality, autonomy, and their beliefs are influenced by multiple sources that they consider and choose from. They want to figure it all out on their own.

Remember, however, that this a continuum, and the research found that most people move along the continuum throughout their lives. The classic example to illustrate this is the kid who grew up in church youth group but left church and developed more open-minded beliefs in college, but ultimately returned to the church after they were married and started having children.

In other words, major life events spark movement along the continuum. However, I also suspect that people also slowly slide in one direction or the other over a longer period of time for various reasons.

It’s probably safe to say that for a long time the vast majority of Americans sat to the center left of this continuum. Not hardcore Traditionalists, but folks who believed in the necessity and authority of institutions to maintain moral authority and keep communities stable.

However, as we now know, the population is not so slowly shifting toward the Explorer end of the continuum. With more and more people getting married later, having kids later, or not doing either, there’s less of those typical life events that shift people back to church. That can be combined with the fact that there are more and more people who haven’t been raised in the church, so they don’t have anything to go back to in the first place. The failure of religious institutions, advances in technology and in scientific knowledge, and the rise of the internet, have led to more and more people deciding to figure out religion and spirituality on their own.

The Righteous Mind

As I reflected on these findings I couldn’t help but think that they go toward confirming the arguments made in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. In the book Haidt, an NYU professor, looks at the brain science behind political beliefs. Haidt argues that at birth we’re all probably pre-wired to be liberal or conservative, however, environmental factors (adult influences, influential events, friend’s opinions, etc.) have a huge influence in determining where we land. Haidt uses the example of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards to illustrate this point. He shares the story of Richards growing up as a kid living life on the straight and narrow, a literal “choir boy” until one day he’s told that he has to repeat a year of school because of all the classes he missed while being part of a traveling school choir. In that moment a rebellious fire sparked in him and he’s rejected authority ever since. In other words, he was probably prewired to be an Explorer but it didn’t kick in until his Traditionalist influences and environment pushed him one step too far.

But that’s not all when it comes to the belief centers of our brains. Haidt also points out that confirmation bias is a built-in feature of our brains. Our brains are constantly on the lookout for information to further cement what we already believe.

I think all of this is critical when it comes to understanding our current situation in the church and even in the world.

Our churches are built for Traditionalists, not Explorers.

While this is obvious, it has a couple of implications.

First, there are still plenty of Traditionalists and I think it is safe to assume that there will always be Traditionalists. We still need and will always need churches for Traditionalists.

Second, LRW’s research also found that people who have left or have never been a part of the church still have some pretty major human and spiritual needs that are not being fulfilled in their lives. They are overwhelmingly looking for their purpose in life, want to be more compassionate and generous, and are looking for community.

These are all needs that have classically been fulfilled by the church, but for Explorers Traditionalist church is not an option. In other words, we need new, innovative, types of faith communities for Explorers. However, that creates and incredibly difficult dilemma.

The Innovator’s Dilemma

Harvard professor and author Clayton Christensen is probably best known for his business book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen details in the book that when it comes to innovation and reaching new audiences, classically structured and long-standing businesses are often no match for disruptive startups.

The reason for this is that longstanding companies are built to improve upon the products they already have for the customers they already have. The reason is simple: it’s not cost effective to create new innovative products for new audiences. Another drawback is that established companies cannot justify spending massive amounts of R&D resources on studying small, yet, upcoming audience segments that aren’t big enough to turn a profit, yet, will ultimately become the core of the market.

An example of this would be a taxi company upgrading their fleet to more comfortable sedans while Uber invents ride sharing. On paper the taxi company makes a seemingly low-risk business decision to make their long time customers happier only to be effectively rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, while Uber spends billions of dollars innovating for generations who will never ride in a traditional taxi cab. The same can be said of iPhones, Tesla’s cars, and streaming services.

The answer to this dilemma is for existing companies to create“subsidiaries” to innovate new technologies and products for new audiences. These are independent organizations that are equipped with the culture, resources, procceses, and freedom to create something new.

The church has a decision to make: it can keep improving on the existing model or it can keep doing that AND innovate for Explorers. But that sends us right back to the dilemma. My denomination, The United Methodist Church, is in a nosedive and is on the cusp of a monumental split. For an institution without rapidly receding resources the dilemma is difficult enough.

Now imagine trying to make such an investment while in the midst of schism.

Another Dilemma

I now believe our imminent split in The UMC is because denominational Traditionalist leaning and Explorer leaning folks believe there’s nothing anyone can do to change one another’s mind. If we take Haidt’s research at face value, then changing someone’s political or religious stance on argument or principle alone is indeed almost impossible.

If someone is wired to believe that the world should be ordered by rules and structure while someone else is wired to always see that order and structure as harmful then a stalemate will always ensue.

By the way, I believe this effect is compounded by smartphones and social media (thanks, disruptive innovation!). These technologies allow partisan information to be customized, targeted, and delivered to our neural belief and confirmation bias pathways. It has the effect of injecting Traditionalist or Explorer heroin directly into our brains. We then inject the drug for hours per day while looking at our phones, tablets, and computers. I believe this has the effect of sending us further and further toward are respective ends of the spectrum, an accelleration I do not believe would be happening if not for the narcotic of social media and its rapid acting delivery system.

Is there a solution to breaking this cycle?

Possible Solutions

I believe all is not lost. In fact, there are potential cures (or at least treatments) to all of this where Traditionalists and Explorers create meaningful relationships with one another and perhaps even create positive change together. The solution is less politics and technology and more in-person human connection.

In fact, when we tested a new faith community concept in the LRW study we asked how people wanted to participate in that community. We were surprised that the answer was not through technology, but through in-person community. When it came to politics and religion people showed an overwhelming disdain for mixing the two. They wanted a place where they could make friends, make them selves a little better, and make the world a little better.

Haidt shows that while our own brains make it hard to switch out of our tribal thinking, that it is possible, so long as we approach relationships differently. His own solution is to foster more relationships with political opposites, relationships that begin with connecting over shared commonalities. If we truly want to solve problems and come to consensus on issues, we need to spend more time building casual relationships (not debate clubs) with those whom we disagree with.

Multiple scholars who have studied the adverse affects of the internet and technology have also found that our diminished capacity for empathy and compassion, brought on by social media and technology, can be reversed by spending more time in nature, in deep thought and contemplation, and in conversations with and in the presence of other humans. The same could be said about reversing rates of depression, loneliness, and suicide. (See work by Sherry Turkle , Nicholas Carr, and Adam Atler)

Human connection used to be fostered through denser neighborhoods, shopping at the grocery store, taking the kids to the local park, at the barber shop, the bowling league, and yes, even religious institutions. We used to have no choice in interacting with our neighbors. Even those brief moments in the check-out line add up to a lot of human connection and more human connection leads to less distrust and fear of one another and a greater willingness to help one another. Suburban sprawl, the internet, automation, home delivery, and the (rightful) distrust of religious institutions make increasing healthy, natural, human connection one of the biggest challenges in our current age.

To be clear, I’m not a luddite advocating for the elimination of technology, but am instead advocating that we enter into a true time of reckoning related to the role technology plays in our lives and society as a whole.

Rebuilding human connection cannot be done through legislation, debate, and political processes but instead must take place in neighborhoods, in gathering spaces, and around dinner tables. It can only be done so long as we can put aside our insistence on not just winning political battles, but destroying our opponents in the process. This brings with it a tremendous amount of risk and requires a tremendous amount of trust and vulnerability. This is a long-term behavior change that requires grit and persistence when the world demands the instant gratification of a magic pill.

Unfortunately, this dilemma may be more difficult than the dilemma of convincing a dying institution to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in helping people discover their purpose, find community, and be a little more compassionate and generous in their lives.

But that’s exactly what we need right now: better, healthier, institutions and communities that bring out the best in us, whether they be for Traditionalists, Explorers, or an attempt to reconcile both. We have an opportunity to do something new, something innovative, and something disruptive that can truly transform the world. Let’s not let that opportunity pass us by.

Connecting People. Connecting Ideas. Creating Change.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store