• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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.