While Bruce was on sabbatical, the issue of gay marriage became a topic of increasingly intense political focus. Within one year, Minnesota went from debating whether it was appropriate to define marriage in the state constitution as being exclusively between “men” and women” to passing a bill allowing same sex couples to legally marry. While Bruce already planned on conducting research surrounding issues of gender and sexuality in the context of evangelical “Mega churches,” the events that unfolded made his questions even more timely.
With this question in mind, Bruce decided to look into Evangelical Protestant’s beliefs on issues such as gay marriage and gender roles in the twin cities. Specifically, Bruce was interested in investigating evangelical “Mega churches,” and chose to visit churches with congregations of between 2,000 and 15,000 people.
Attempting to gain a better understanding of contemporary Evangelical Christian beliefs on gay marriage and gender roles, Bruce imbedded himself into Evangelical-Christian culture, visiting 16 different churches over the course of the year. Bruce split his time between attending services, researching different group programs offered by the churches, examining church literature, and reading up on current sociological studies of evangelical Christianity.
During the course of his research Bruce came to a few rather surprising findings. Contrary to popular public portrayals, Bruce found that most evangelical “Mega churches” in the twin cities do not actively speak out in opposition of LGBTQ rights. In the media, evangelical Christianity is often portrayed as being vocally opposed to issues such as same sex marriage. However, in his study Bruce found that only 5 out of the 16 churches gave sermons in which the pastor made negative comments about same sex marriage. Additionally, the literature most of the churches circulated to their congregations contained few if any traces of anti-GLBTQ rhetoric. While many of the members themselves may have been opposed to same sex marriage, the vast majority of the churches did not publicly address the issue of homosexuality or gay marriage.
Instead, Bruce found sustaining and supporting heterosexual marriage was the primary concern of these “Mega churches”. Viewing the institution of marriage as an entity in danger of losing cultural significance, these churches sought to educate their members about the importance of marriage in family life. While little time or resources were invested in opposing gay marriage, almost all of the congregations Bruce visited had a number of programs that were targeted towards married couples.
In addition to pressure from church leaders, Bruce concluded that changing demographics and attitudes of the members of Evangelical “Mega churches” also created an increased focus on marriage. Women now make up the majority of church membership, and many of these women also work full or part time. This increase in responsibility leads many of the female congregation members to seek a “companionship oriented marriage”. However, these egalitarian beliefs about marriage seemed to contradict the more traditional gender roles traditionally taught by evangelical churches.
Nowhere was this paradox between modern and traditional views of gender roles more apparent than in the many men’s groups and sermons that Bruce listened to. On one hand, Bruce noted that meetings such as this encouraged “soft patriarchy”. While never explicitly stating that men should have control over a women’s agency, by encouraging men to assume positions as leaders within their families these churches seemed to be promoting an unequal power dynamic between husbands and wives. Yet, by challenging fathers to take a more active role in their children’s lives, these churches were simultaneously encouraging their male congregation members to participate in more maternal aspects of child rearing. Bruce concluded that situations like this highlight the complex, oftentimes contradictory relationship between masculinity and femininity at Evangelical “Mega churches”.
When I asked Bruce if he had any advice for so/an students interested in conducting their own research, he continually reiterated the importance of designing a project that fits your time and resources. Bruce noted that employing ethnographic research methods was a simple and relatively inexpensive way to conduct individual research and that this was his primary method of data collection for his research on “Mega churches”.
If you would like to know more about Bruce’s research on evangelical “Mega churches”, feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, he has office hours on Tuesday 10:00-11:00 a.m., Wednesday, 3:00-4:00 p.m., Thursday 3:45-4:30 p.m. in the Cage, and Friday 10:30-11:30 a.m. and by appointment. We are extremely excited to welcome Bruce back – his wealth of knowledge of both issues regarding race and gender and cookie recipes was sorely missed!