Jana Riess on the Runaway Success of the Enneagram Among Young American Christians

Jana Riess is the author of many books, including “The Prayer Wheel” (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church” (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Several years ago, I began learning about the Enneagram,which is—depending on your perspective—either the latest passing fad in personality tests or a vital tool for self-discovery and spiritual growth.

I started in the first category, as a skeptic, and then moved to the second as the Enneagram slowly won me over.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Enneagram sorts the human race into nine basic personality types—ennea is the Greek word for nine—and further variations within those nine types.

From the standpoint of what’s going on in American religion today, it’s those variations that are catching my attention.

Let me explain.

There are three “instinctual variants” within each type (self-preservation, social, and sexual), meaning there are really 27 basic types, as Beatrice Chestnut makes clear in her book The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge.

For example, maybe you are a Two with a “social” variant. Twos are already the therapy dogs of the Enneagram, defaulting to love love love in a way that other types find baffling. But social Twos take that to a whole new level, working the room and knowing everything there is to know about everyone at the party.

Then there are the “wings”—the numbers on either side of your core number. Most Enneagram teachers say you’ll be influenced by the traits of (at least) one of those two numbers. For example, I think a friend of mine is a 5w6, which means she has all the nerdy and introverted intellectualism of the 5 type with a shade of the anxiety that comes courtesy of her 6 wing. It’s a super fun combo, let me tell you.

With the wings and the instinctual variants in mind, that gives us 54 types—27 who prefer the wing on their left, and 27 who gravitate toward the wing on their right. What’s more, if we follow the teachers who believe some people are bi-winged, with equal access to both of the numbers on either side of their own, that makes for another 27 types, or 81 in all. And possibly more.

Are you confused yet?

In a way, you should be. That’s kind of the point.

The recent runaway success of the Enneagram among young American Christians can be attributed at least in part to a logical backlash we should have seen coming. Church leaders have been trotting out the same strategies in the same ways with a new generation of very different people who have been trained since birth to expect customization to their individual tastes—and then been surprised when Millennials don’t appear to want what the church is selling.

Consider what Hannah Paasch, author of the sharp and acerbic new book Millenneagram: The Enneagram Guide to Discovering Your Truest, Baddest Self has to say about how the Enneagram helped her to heal from her childhood in the evangelical church. It’s worth quoting at length because what she says here could be the anthem for a generation.

“I know this is hard to believe for those of us coming from conservative, evangelical, or patriarchal cultures—ya know, those button-the-top-button kinda folks—but anything you have to force is not right or healthy or good. You should not have to force wholeness. Positive change should not look like white knuckles. It shouldn’t look like repression. It shouldn’t look like stifling or coping or self-flagellation. All of that behavior modification does nothing to actually change you long-term. All it does is mold you in the likeness of whatever deity the powers that be have constructed . . . .

The Enneagram was a huge part of my own healing. As you can tell, the church I grew up in left some scars, and it was ultimately the Enneagram that gave me a path to becoming the best person I could be in a way my religion just couldn’t.

When I was growing up in the church, there was this word they talked about a lot about from the pulpit that meant ‘getting better,’ and that word was ‘sanctification.’ This word drove me nuts because I wanted to ‘get better,’ but the definition was vague as fuck: the only kind of answers I could get out of anybody were to be more ‘Christ-like’ or practice the ‘fruits of the spirit,’ which basically meant ‘kindness’ and ‘joy’ and ‘peace.’ These are easy to talk about and a fuck-ton harder to attain.

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Source: Religion News Service