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Evangelical Elites Don’t Understand Church

Professor John Stackhouse, an excellent commentator on North American evangelicalism, has posted a story about evangelical elites who don’t attend church. While this story is concerning in itself, I have more concerns with Professor Stackhouse’s response.

The story about evangelical elites originated with a summary of Michael Lindsay’s researched published in USA Today. Here is his own summary:

I spent the past five years interviewing some of the country’s top leaders — two U.S. presidents (George H.W. Bush and Carter), 100 CEOs and senior business executives, Hollywood icons, celebrated artists and world-class athletes. All were chosen because of their widely known faith. Yet I was shocked to find that more than half — 60% — had low levels of commitment to their denominations and congregations. Some were members in name only; others had actively disengaged from church life.

Why don’t they attend church?

Why are these leaders so disconnected from their local churches? Executives and politicians are often distressed by the way churches are run. James Unruh, who served as the chief executive of Unisys, was also at one time an elder at his Presbyterian church in California. He has since decided he will never serve again. He couldn’t stand the inefficiency of church meetings, a common refrain among those I interviewed.

“It’s very frustrating to be patient and not to try to run things because that’s what you’re doing all day in your business,” Unruh told me. Others described local congregations as “inefficient,” “unproductive” and “focused on the wrong things.”

These factors are driving evangelical leaders into the arms of fellowship groups that exist outside the churches, often called “parachurch” organizations. The shift began in the 1950s, but it grew dramatically over the past 20 years as the parachurch sector became more professional and well-resourced. Nearly three-fourths of the leaders I interviewed serve on the board of at least one parachurch organization, such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They prefer these groups because they have a broader reach and a bigger impact.

Without engaging the study in any more detail, there are obviously concerns about this research. It shows, at least, that these leaders have a poor understanding and practice of ecclesiology. Here is exactly where Stackhouse’s comments are not helpful.

Stackhouse asks which churches are providing preaching, worship, polity and ministry that these leaders can connect with. For example, he asks: “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?”  He concludes:

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?

I agree with the Professor that the church should serve all people. The church must be inclusive and reach out to every member of society with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But these executives aren’t executives without Christ, they are Christian executives!

Therefore, these executives need to do what all Christians (rich and poor) need to do: stop looking for a church to fulfill all of your own personal needs and preferences. Stop being a consumer of the church.  Read the executive’s words quoted above again:

“It’s very frustrating to be patient and not to try to run things because that’s what you’re doing all day in your business,” Unruh told me. Others described local congregations as “inefficient,” “unproductive” and “focused on the wrong things.”

Who is teaching this man that the fruit of the Spirit is patience.  Who is teaching this man that the church is not about running the church as he runs his business, but about looking out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:1-11)?  Who is teaching this man that the church is not focused on business but is focused on the mission of God (Matt. 28:18-20)?

The purpose of church is not to give executives another avenue to lead.  The purpose of church is not to be efficient.  The purpose of church is not to satisfy your own wants or stimulate you personally in preaching and worship music.  The purpose of church is to be a redemptive community that loves God and loves others.  This is our mission.

These executives have a place within the body of Christ just as every other Christian does.  Their gifts need to be utilized appropriately.  But, in utilizing their gifts, they need to possess the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:1-11, again).  When they don’t, we all know the type of rebuke that Jesus gives to powerful and influential members of the religious community…look out!!

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