Evangelism for Davis Square, MA: Characteristics

The following three posts are sections of a paper co-written with Ross Ponder for our project on Evangelism in Davis Square, MA.  I have made a few, final editorial omissions. 

Evangelistically Relevant Characteristics of Davis Square, MA Residents
     Stepping outside of the Davis Square Red Line T-stop, a person quickly encounters a number of local businesses (i.e., restaurants and bars, delicatessens, coffee shops, and stores) throughout the Square. Curiously, though, most churches (over a half dozen) in Davis Square are positioned along College Avenue, which leads up to Tufts University. The churches function as landmarks for passersby on their way up to Tufts, even as the church has traditionally marked a person’s journey through life. Interaction between local congregations and the residents of Davis Square, as our research contends, is marginal and of little consequence to the daily lives of most Davis Square residents.  Our research identifies five key characteristics about the residents of Davis Square and wider Somerville for the church to practice faithful evangelism. Christian witness in Davis Square needs to address 1) a jaded attitude towards Christianity, 2) questions that surface among the highly educated, 3) an aspirational stance towards life and its possibilities, 4) politically progressive attitudes and commitments, and 5) the experience of sojourning in a “transient” lifestyle.

Jaded toward Christianity
     According to a 2004 Percept report, based on census data from 2000, 51% of the population in 02144, Davis Square’s zip code, is between the ages of 23-43. While youth can serve as an indication of several characteristics relevant to evangelism, one of the most pertinent is the predominant posture toward religion among this age group. Percept describes the overall “faith receptivity” of 02144 residents as “somewhat low” with 44% not at all involved in a church, far more than the national average of 35%, and an additional 32% only somewhat involved.
     David Kinnaman’s large scale research of “young outsiders,” those ages 18-29 who do not attend church, highlights the significance and texture of this characteristic. According to Kinnaman, “young outsiders are most likely to be frustrated with present-day expressions of Christianity, followed by their aggravation with Christians” (24). While 38% have a “bad impression of present-day Christianity” the numbers are much worse regarding particular negative attributes (24).  Strong majorities of young people consider Christianity to be a lot or somewhat antihomosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), overly political (75%), old-fashioned (78%), out of touch (72%), insensitive (70%), boring (68%), not accepting of other faiths (64%) and confusing (61%).  While Christian institutions and believers themselves are negatively viewed, Jesus “receives outsiders’ most favorable feelings” with 95% responding positively.  As Dan Kimball’s apt book title summarizes, They Like Jesus but Not the Church.
     Effective witness in Davis Square must take this widespread critique into account in three ways.  First, Christian witness must begin in humble response to its reputation. It is futile to imagine Davis Square as a venue for “first evangelization”— the practice of witness must include robust deconstruction and self-critique. Second, building on the popular affinity to Jesus, it is crucial to offer a Jesus-centered witness, rather than an institutional apologetic. Third, as Kinnaman emphasizes in his conclusion, the reality that these negative perceptions “are an accurate reflection of the kind of Christians many of us have become” (222) demonstrates that whom Christians are shapes their public image. Thus, effective witness “comes down to this: we must become Christlike again” (224). 

Highly Educated
     Boston, Massachusetts has received the nickname “Athens of America” due to its association with education. Somerville fits this generalization well. According to Somerville’s 2009 American Community Survey, 62.9% of all residents enrolled in school (from nursery to graduate school) attend college or graduate school.  Exactly half of all Somerville either possess a bachelor’s (27.3%) or graduate/professional degree (22.7%), well above the national averages (17.6% with a bachelor’s and 10.3% with a graduate/professional degree). Somerville’s highly educated face a growing awareness of the world around them: globalism, economic insecurity, and especially religious pluralism.
     Faithful evangelism among the highly educated of Davis Square will require evangelists to be able to give an account for their hope (1 Peter 3:15) that takes seriously global issues such as pluralism. Diana Eck’s A New Religious America brilliantly highlights the United States transformation from a so-called “Christian country” into one of the world’s most religiously diverse.  Elsewhere (Encountering God), Eck has suggested three reactions to pluralism practiced in the Christian context: exclusivism, our truth is the only truth; inclusivism, our truth is superior to or inclusive of all truths; and pluralism, truth is not exclusively or inclusively possessed by any one religion. Christianity, in Eck’s tripartite description, must negotiate the two dangers of encroaching on others’ beliefs (i.e., Christians claiming “their” truth as “ours”) or falling into moral relativism.  James Adams exemplifies this second danger and seems to forget the gospel’s truth claims when dealing with “thinking persons”. Adams suggests that “progressive Christianity” can solve the pluralism problem, “by defining it [progressive Christianity] as church members letting outsiders in on what they have found of value in Christianity” (22). Accordingly, Christianity becomes reduced to a person’s individual experience and subjectivity. Adams disavows tradition and the particularity of Jesus among other things to allow space for handling religious pluralism.
     Bearing faithful witness in Davis Square faces the challenge of answering the important existential and faith questions characteristic of a highly educated group. The first task of evangelism is to make room for persons comfortably to ask the “big questions” about the Christian life and God. The second, and more challenging, task is remembering the significance and particularity of Christ. Evangelism in Davis Square challenges people to use their awareness and education to be inclusive of the strangers and remember the demands of the gospel.
     The Percept data labels the primary cluster of concerns among Davis Square residents as “Hopes and Dreams” indicating focus on such things as “finding life direction” and discovering a “satisfying job/career”.  This is not surprising, given that 89% of residents fit the “young and coming” lifestyle that is characteristic of educated and promising young people. 
    While their prospects are bright, these residents are looking for fulfillment beyond a good paycheck and social respectability. Jeffrey Arnett, in Emerging Adulthood, notes that for young people 18-29, work is an “identity quest” (163). As a result they have high expectations for work: “…it is not enough simply to have a job…they want to have a job that is enjoyable and gratifying, a direct expression of their identities” (157).
    The quest is more, even, than the pursuit of an enjoyable means of income.  It is a search for personal fulfillment and meaning. This sometimes manifests as a creative impulse, hence why www.somervillema.gov considers Davis Square a hotbed for “the creative class” with an abundance of software, architectural, marketing, and design firms. The quest for more finds expression in the activistic nature of the Davis Square population which recently hosted the fifth annual Honk!Fest, a three-day extravaganza of “activist street bands” which make music to protest a world of violence and oppression “in reaction to the fatalism and indifference that has gripped the advanced industrialized democracies.”  Davis Square residents seek fulfillment through creative and cause-based enterprises as they seek to make a difference in the world. 
     The significance of the aspirational nature of Davis Square residents for Christian witness has to do with the hopeful, creative, activistic, redemptive nature of the gospel. Though unaware, Davis Square residents are seeking vocation, and Christianity can affirm this quest for fulfilling, important work as a sign of God already in their midst. In addition to affirming this quest, the Christian community can hold out a unique invitation to the most important human work—participation in the divinely-powered cultivation and redemption of the cosmos.

Politically Progressive
    According to the Massachusetts Elections Division (as of Oct. 15, 2008), 54.7% of Somerville holds voter registration affiliated with the Democratic Party, whereas 4.8% are Republican. In the 2008 presidential election, 64.2% of Somerville’s county, Middlesex, voted for the Democratic candidate. While having a Democratic majority alone does not necessarily indicate political progressivism, some of the practices unique to Somerville’s Davis Square residents do.
     One only needs to walk around Davis Square a few minutes to find the plethora of businesses committed to social justice, local community, diversity, and environmental sustainability. The popular Diesel Café, for instance, recycles and composts all its waste, and earned the “Green Award of the Year” from the Somerville Chamber of Commerce. Young adults frequent establishments like Diesel Café after attending Sunday services at the Greater Boston Vineyard. Robert Jones writes about such individuals in Progressive & Religious.  Via 96 interviews with individuals of the Abrahamic faiths, Jones argues that the “Religious Right” has no monopoly on religion and politics. Jones’ research identifies several key features of the simultaneously “religious and progressive” across the Abrahamic faiths: (a) social justice; (b) relational approach to truth; (c) rigorous engagement with tradition; (d) unity of all humanity; (e) the generosity and interdependence in lieu of unilateralism (171-191). These characteristics are areas of common ground, and opens the possibility of common cause between Christians and political progressives. 
     Faithful witness to the politically progressive of Davis Square will begin with hospitably that welcomes the “other” and the “world” into relationship. This expression of faith will be free from national alliances, mindful of the oppressed and open to diverse relationships.

     Justin Hildebrandt, Pastor of College Ave. UMC, describes many of the residents of Davis Square as “transient” in large part due to the presence of local university students and graduates.  According to the American Community Survey of Somerville in 2009 more than one in four residents have lived in their current residence less than a year, while the national average is nearly one in seven.
     Being “new in town” and “only here for a few years” presents some unique challenges.  As anyone who has relocated can report, second only to finding the grocery store is the priority of identifying where and how to build local friendships. Kinnaman says for young people “relationships are the driving force” as they seek “to belong, usually to a tribe of other loyal people who know them well and appreciate them” (22). This drive is compounded by the longing of most young people, especially singles, for companionship, something Percept identified as an especially high concern among Davis Square residents. While the Square hosts a happening nightlife “emerging adults tend to regard people they meet in these settings as potential partners for flirtation and perhaps casual sex, rather than as potential love partners” (Arnett 76).  This presents a challenge for young adults serious about finding companionship, especially after they leave the love-fertile campus environment. Even those seeking friendship more than romance face a dilemma once they have graduated from the party scene, which might explain somewhat the local popularity of Diesel Café and Starbucks Coffee.
   The relational challenges that accompany transiency have deep relevance to the texture that faithful witness will take in this context. Most notably, evangelism will be, above all, an invitation to belong in a community of meaningful, authentic relationships. Among a population of guests, evangelism must be characterized by intentional hospitality. 
     A second, less immediate, relevance of local transiency is connections that can be made between the stories of residents and biblical and spiritual pilgrimage. Davis Square residents, like Christians, are people who have come from somewhere and are heading somewhere unknown.  Resonant evangelism will offer these sojourners a deeper and more ancient journey.

Here's part two, offering a contextual theology of evangelism for Davis Square.

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