Saturday, December 01, 2007

Elite Evangelicals?

The November issue of Christianity Today had an interesting interview with Michael Lindsay, sociology professor at Rice University. Michael Lindsay is the author of Faith in the Halls of Power, a book about evangelicals joining the ranks of the elite and influential in American society. It is based on 360 interviews conducted with evangelical leaders in various spheres of influence. In the interview, Dr. Lindsay refers to these elite Christians as "cosmopolitan evangelicals" -

"The cosmopolitan evangelicals I write about are people who are just as committed to their faith, just as involved in mainstream evangelical life. By and large, they are very orthodox in their beliefs. Yet they rub shoulders with a much more diverse population... The majority of their working day is spent with people of different faiths or of no faith. They have reached higher levels of education... It's a very elite group,....They read Christianity Today, but they also read The New York Times. They might go to a Christian rock concert, but they also go to the symphony..."

Lindsay shares more of what he's discovered about these elite Christians and how they differ from the rest, the "populist" evangelical community -

"I would say one of the key differences is that populist evangelicals are very interested in converting the other. That's a real driving mechanism—trying to persuade others that Christianity is right. I didn't find that quite as prominent among cosmopolitan evangelicals. They were more interested in legitimacy. They wanted their faith to be seen as valid, something that smart, intelligent people could embrace, that you didn't have to check your brain at the door to accept. You've got this more intelligent, savvy, well-traveled experience that naturally shapes the cosmopolitan's faith."

Apparently, the elite evangelicals also live the best of the American dream -

A lot of the elites I interviewed are really not that different from their peers. They stay in fancy hotels, they drive nice cars; some of them own their own airplanes. They are high flyers, and they aren't necessarily living like the poor.

Yet, according to Lindsay, they don't identify with the local church -

"For many of these leaders, local church involvement is not the principal source of spiritual solidarity. Rather, it comes from being involved in small groups, often among peers. Business leaders meet with other business leaders for a prayer breakfast or a Bible study the first Tuesday of every month. Or folks in the White House get together for the White House Christian fellowship."

I know, it's hard to read this without judging our fellow evangelicals who have found a place among the elite of this world. We must resist succumbing to uncharitable judgments. Generalizations like these can be unfair - I am certain that you know many influential men and women in politics, business and academia who share a deep love and passion for God.

Yet, when I read the interview, I found little to celebrate. Influence is for naught if it magnifies our accomplishments and not the Savior. We misconstrue progress when evangelicals are more interested with their faith being "seen as valid... that smart, intelligent people could embrace" rather than proclaiming the gospel.

Their noted disengagement from local church life isn't just a benign matter of preference, it's a sign of dangerous pride. God has designed church life in order that we might serve and be served by each other, regardless of our social standing, wealth or education. It's the antidote to pride.

Here's why this article caught my attention - the sense of elite evangelicals "having arrived" in American culture is antithetical to what I read this morning in the James 1:9-11.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

You may not consider yourself as one of the evangelical elites, but this verse is instructive to us all. (By the way, as you're reading this blog, if you have food for the week, drive a car, take vacations and have access to healthcare, you are likely among the richest 10% of this world's population.)

James tells us that if you're lowly, you should "boast in [your] exaltation". You should rejoice at the fact that you are actually rich because you possess eternal life. You're a dead man, who has been made alive; a beggar, lavished with the riches of heaven.

However, if you're rich and influential in any way, James says that you should boast in your humiliation. You should take special care to remind yourself that all your wealth will pass away, your natural gifts will fade and your greatest earthly hopes will fail you. This verse meant to remind us that Christ is our only refuge in the day of judgment, our only treasure and the source of everlasting joy. I read these verses in James, both as gentle warning and great encouragement.

Boast in your humiliation. What a different way to think about wealth, influence and the American dream. How otherworldly.


Ted M. Gossard said...

I love your exposition of James. Good words.

I think your application is important as well. I don't think from what you're sharing here that the article says that these people exclude themselves from participation in local churches. I live in an area where many wealthy people are faithful to their local churches.

I do like the scenario of people living modestly, even though they may be making alot of money.

I also like D.L. Moody's words- something like: "The Lord will keep the millions coming into our hands as long as they keep slipping through our hands."

Tony Rossell said...

Interesting post. I listened to Joe Gibbs speak at Sean Taylor's funeral the other day. He used it as a platform to present a prayer of repentance to those who listened on the radio and attended. I would view him as an elite evangelical, but also as one who is effective in communicating the gospel. So I guess I would not be too hard on this group. They are living in a very secular culture and fulfilling an important role. Tony

Shane Vander Hart said...

Great post... if they are functioning as salt and light great. If they are not pointing people to Christ, not so great.

I think that there is always a danger of becoming prideful when you reach a position of influence and power. You can even seen this in "vocational" Christian ministry.


Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for your thoughts's easy to judge the wealthy, that isn't my intention. However, it's interesting to ask: as evangelicals become more influential in society, does that translate to the gospel proclaimed and practiced?


It's interesting that gospel proclamation are commonplace in sports but not so in the business world...why do you think that is?


Thanks for your thoughts and also for stopping by. I think your words succinctly summarized my conclusions