Evangelical Elites Avoiding Church?

Much has been written about Michael Lindsay’s recently published study on evangelical elites in America, summarized here in a USA Today article. Among his findings: evangelical elites, by which he means those evangelicals who have attained positions of influence in culturally significant institutions, from business to politics to mass media, don’t go to church nearly as often as what he calls “populist” evangelicals.

Instead, he says, they belong to home study groups, to friendship circles, and (here’s where things get a bit sinister) to invitation-only fellowships of similarly powerful Christians.

There’s lots to dislike about this picture. It’s one thing to be elite: some people are much more successful in certain things than the rest of us, such as gaining power in mainstream institutions. It’s another thing to be elitist: to think of oneself more highly than one ought to think, to keep out the rabble and to keep oneself to fellow “right-thinking” people.

Some also think it’s bad to see all this power, talent, drive, and, yes, money being kept out of local congregations and diverted/devoted instead to parachurch organizations.

And some think that these high and mighty folks could do with a good dose of reality, with having to roll up their sleeves in an ordinary church among ordinary people and learn some common sense wisdom from common folk.

That’s one side of it, if a pretty slanted side. But then, as Lindsay himself points out, there’s another dimension to this issue: evangelical elites can’t find churches worth going to.

Preaching? How many preachers out there are preaching sermons that, week after week, would intrigue, inform, and inspire someone so intelligent, imaginative, and serious that she can lead a major company or influence a major news medium?

Worship? How many services feature hymns or liturgies—ancient or modern or both—that would excite the deepest feelings and express the highest aspirations of someone so thoughtful, articulate, and sophisticated that he can reshape a creative field or engage in advanced scholarship?

Polity? How many meetings of committees, boards, or vestries would capture the imagination and galvanize the enthusiasm of someone so analytical, discerning, and insightful that she is called upon by governments and corporations as a top-flight consultant?

Ministry? How many service opportunities in a typical local church would call upon the gifts and passions of someone whose workday frame of reference is whole cities, regions, countries, or international networks of commerce or culture?

Most churches can’t possibly serve well such people. And that’s fine, since most churches should serve most people.

But who is even trying to serve such extraordinary people? Who is aiming at something higher than the Lowest Common Denominator? We reach out to the poor, to the young, to the disabled, to the mentally ill, to the old, to immigrants, and to those in emergencies, and of course we should.

But who is going to do anything, and enough, to reach, to disciple, and to enlist in service those who are unusually gifted and who thereby feel, and are, alienated from most congregations?

Moaning about elitism isn’t going to help anyone, that’s for sure.

0 Responses to “Evangelical Elites Avoiding Church?”

  1. SursumCorda

    This is a familiar problem, in a totally different context: public education. The setting may be different, but the attitudes are the same. We teach to the Lowest Common Denominator, and the intellectual “elite” are very poorly served. Special education for those at the lower end of the intellectual spectrum is (now) taken for granted, but talk about doing the same for the upper end and you’re likely to meet with sneers. The bright children can look after themselves, it is said, and anyway, shouldn’t they be helping their less-fortunate classmates? Some succeed, it is true, but some are crippled by the system and actually end up performing more poorly than the less-able students; an alarming number commit suicide, and most end up achieving far less than would have been predicted from their potential.

    Many Christians are finding the institutional church unsatisfactory; it’s not surprising that the “best and the brightest” should also. Don’t get me wrong; I believe the local church still to be the best place to find community with those who are very different from us yet hold in common the most important things, which I believe to be essential to Christian growth and witness. Yet if there is no one like us in other important ways, who understands our temptations and our struggles and can challenge us in our particular areas of need, our strengths will atrophy and we will be of little use to anyone.

  2. Ken Carson

    The question shouldn’t be why the church isn’t serving the needs of the evangelical elite. Instead the question should be, why aren’t the evangelical elite using their gifts and talents to minister in the local church?

    If the church doesn’t provide the intellectual stimulation, then why aren’t the elites stepping up to teach intellectually oriented bible studies? If the ministries of the church seem parochial and simple, why aren’t the elites broadening the vision of the church by iniating church ministries which would be broader?

    The church is not about being served, but it is about serving one another!

  3. SursumCorda

    The short answer is, they are. I don’t know any of the powerful elites, but I know those of exceptional ability who have given and given in the way Ken Carson suggests, and I’ve seen them broken by it. No one is strong enough, or gifted enough, to survive without the help of the rest of the Body. These people — like all of us — need places where they can receive as well as give.

  4. LBetts

    As much as we like pat answers and quickly assigned blame, I believe, as your essay suggests, there is a (perhaps embarrassing) paradox for us “evangelicals”.

    And it isn’t that the elites avoid service. They serve, but principally through other organizations than the local church.

    I wonder whether it may be more prevalent among those of the “free church” tradition than among those of the liturgical churches?

    I recall several statements by C.S. Lewis that he attended worship at his local church in spite of the fact that he detested much about the services themselves (for example, he claimed that the British sing terribly and should never do so congregationally) – but he attended in spite of his offended tastes in order to create a public testament as to “whose side he was on” in the eternal conflict.

    Do those of the free church tradition feel less obligation? Or, do the elites among the liturgical traditions also shy away from their local churches?

  5. Joe Strube

    I cannot believe…I’m shocked at what I just read (main article not the responses)! Success is often nothing more than being in the right place at the right time. I agree with the critique of the church and of the sermons and of the short-sightedness of most churches to incorporate a depth of Christian service in their identities. But, how does any of that relate to successful/elite evangelicals. Certainly there is some other insight into elite evangelicals that is more valid than that there are not any good churches.
    1. Because of the positions that they hold there are difficulties existing in the authority structure of most evangelical churches.
    2. Perhaps the lack of rigor required to prepare for ministry in evangelical churches leads to a poor organizational structure or depth to ministry.
    3. Perhaps they would like to protect their resources (wealth/time/etc) that are often demanded in evangelical churches.
    and so on…

    But I cannot agree with how you have framed your possible reasons.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Thanks to Sursum Corda for those pertinent and helpful remarks.

    Brother Ken, however, seems to be showing us the sort of incomprehension, if not defensiveness, that is typical of churches that marginalize these elites. To what other group of people should church leaders say, “Hey, if you don’t see what you want here, just do it yourself!” Indeed, this sort of church rarely even openly invites such people to participate. Instead, there is just “what we do” and if you don’t like it, well, you can make your suggestions for improvement and then we’ll see. Again, can you think of another demographic that we’d treat that way?

    (Actually, I suppose I can: young people. And here’s another: artists. But I digress.)

    Brother Ken, leaders are supposed to lead. And among their leadership responsibilities is to create places in which people can, yes, serve and also, yes, be served. I can’t see that it’s enough to retort, “It’s up to them.”

    As for Brother Joe, I’m honestly mystified. Given that you agree with the critique I offer, how can you not see how the one connects with the other?

    As for your own suggestions: (1) doesn’t yet make sense to me, since it’s so vague (“difficulties existing in the authority structure”?); (2) seems actually to agree with my critique: bad structures are discouraging good people; and (3) is not borne out by the data, since these evangelical elites in fact contribute a great deal of time and money to institutions and causes they feel are worthwhile.

    So far, then, friends, I stand by my concerns that too few church leaders really want to reach out to such people, understand them, and serve them.

    As for LBetts’s questions, well, I doubt that it does break down along liturgical/nonliturgical or paedobaptist/believer’s church lines. C. S. Lewis is, indeed, a case in point: a liturgical guy who could hardly stand going to his liturgical church, when he did go…

  7. Alan

    I’ve taken quite a few months “off” from church for a number of the reasons that John lists above. I don’t think I can claim to be part of an evangelical elite, but I finally got tired of banging my head against the firm commitment to passivity and mediocrity at my local church.

    After being encouraged to sit on a number of church committees where my gifts and training could be put to good use, I grew increasingly frustrated by the leadership’s passive-aggressive refusal to consider any kind of change or improvement.

    Outside the church, I have a responsible position and am paid well to do the work I do. Inside the church, my contributions were regularly discounted. During my work week, the meetings I attend have to lead to decisions and action — or else. At church, meetings are frequently an end in themselves and don’t need to produce anything other than idle chat and poor coffee.

    Do I want to serve the Church? Yes, sir! And I have done since I became a Christian over 25 years ago. Will I be more discerning about where I devote my energies from now on? You betcha!

    A few generations ago, Christian ministers were some of the best educated and most accomplished people in town. Those days are long gone, but you’d never know it from our church structures, polity or worship.

  8. Drew

    As an educator I always ask two questions – even for churches in this regard: what are we teaching our people (that’s one of those items in the great commission that I think just might go beyond the hottest VBS curriculum, just maybe), and the necessary follow up of that – how do we know they are learning it? The pedagogy in the churches is as appalling as no child left behind as a measure for actual competence. Pardon the cynicism – that was rather rawly worded… 🙂

  9. rebecca

    An interesting discussion with a good point … after working in inner-city ministry for a short time, I realized pretty quickly that if things were going to change, it would need to come from those with power. So engaging them is an important task, I agree.

    But it’s a pretty tough call for most pastors to preach sermons, run meetings, and excite deep feelings and high aspirations in those with such a high level of gifts and talents. I don’t see the flaw in expecting those who have been given greater gifts and great privilege to use those gifts in greater ways. If mind-numbing boredom in church meetings is your worst problem, you’re probably doing pretty well…. so those of you out there with great intellect and spiritual savvy, step up to the plate and serve this group of people with extraordinary gifts and extraordinary needs. The rest of us are just trying to survive.

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  11. John Stackhouse

    Let’s be clear, friends, that I’m not calling on most pastors, as Sister Rebecca thinks I am, to minister to the elite. I’m saying that SOMEONE should do so. And I find it simply callous and defensive to say, “Well, they should help themselves. After all, they have money and power and brains”–as if that’s all that’s needed to care for such people spiritually!

  12. terri

    It is hard not to bristle at the word “elite” simply out of the narrative baggage that it carries.

    I understand you point, but wonder how the local church could meet the needs in a consistent way. If anm attender is more nuanced and knowledgable than the pastor and leadership of a church, then how can there be an expectation that the leadership could even comprehend the need to minister in this type of way? It is outside their realm of awareness. So much so, that I wonder if it is even possible to do.

    In such a case it would seem necessary for the “elite” to take ownership of the issue, because they are the only ones conscious of the lack of stimulation.

  13. dopderbeck

    John, intriguing post. Here’s my take: most local churches can’t handle the uncomfortable theological questions “elites” often raise, or worse, they handle them in offensive ways, because many pastors seem to think their theological training renders them competent to offer authoritative opinions about about everything from psychology to culture to politics to natural science.

    I don’t consider myself “elite,” but I’ve been blessed at this point in my life with the opportunity to work in academia. Almost everything I’ve ever heard from the pulpit while attending evangelical churches over the past thirty years relating to my area of expertise — law and public policy — has been embarrassing, shallow, dogmatic, and at times disingenuous. I know that’s a strong statement, but I’d stand by it. I know a little bit about the natural sciences, and the same could be said about what we often hear from the pulpit about those disciplines. (I’m talking here about typical pulpit sermonizing in local churches, not about the discourse that happens in publications like Books & Culture).

    If you have expertise in some area, as many of these “elites” do, and you hear the pulpit minister talking nonsense about it or simplifying tricky issues into dogmatic platitudes, you’re likely to tune out. And if you try to offer some of your expertise, more often than not the advice is unwelcome, or worse, your faith is subject to question.

    So, I’d suggest that part of the problem is that typical evangelical seminary training seems to impart some sort of anti-intellectual hubris to budding pastors.

  14. John Stackhouse

    dopderbeck is quite right: seminaries, Bible schools, and any other institution that trains pastors need to train them to recognize both their gifts/strengths and their limitations/weaknesses so that their genuine authority in the former is not undermined by their overreaching in the latter.

    Professors share the same occupational hazard as pastors, of course: some people (our students, our congregants) do want to hear our opinions on certain subjects and we easily (and arrogantly) confuse that with the preposterous vanity that everyone wants to hear our opinions on everything.

    To be fair, when they discuss current events and issues, pastors often are simply trying to connect with businesspeople, or professionals, or intellectuals, or young people, or whatever. But just as a pastor, however sincere, loses credibility when he attempts to talk the idiom of teenagers (and invariably fails!), so most pastors will lose ground when they opine on globalization, or bioethics, or other vexed subjects.

    So who should address those subjects? Those members of the Body who really do understand them and who also have been theologically trained by their pastors and other Christian teachers so that they can think Christianly about those other subjects.

    Regent College was founded to provide laypeople with just that sort of education. Our churches need also to be offering what they can in adult Christian education–and most need to radically improve their programs so that the laity really are equipped to help the rest of us understand this or that matter of business, medicine, politics, and so on.


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