Mark Tooley, "Evangelical Focus on the Smart, Young & Beautiful" (Juicy Ecumenism: The Institute on Religion & Democracy's Blog, July 31, 2015) -- with relevance for German bishops and Vaticanistas too! (And this time from a former CIA employee who is now president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.)
In recent years there’s been much understandable and laudable Evangelical conversation about expanding Christianity’s reach to attract diverse demographics through creative branding, especially but not exclusively Millennials.
These exertions have led to rhetorical, liturgical and sometimes theological innovations whose goals are greater persuasive power with the unchurched and unevangelized. Sometimes the tweaking is primarily about packaging, like the preacher shedding his shirt and tie for skinny jeans and t-shirts. Sometimes and more problematically it is about the substance of the Gospel, particularly sexual ethics but also about the exclusivity of Christ, the full authority of Scripture, and emphases on Christian social justice.
This ongoing conversation disproportionately focuses on reaching a particular kind of fairly narrow demographic: typically very educated, overwhelmingly Caucasian, white-collar, socially liberal, urban-minded and upwardly mobile young people. Not in-coincidentally, this well-heeled and fashionable social subset is also a preoccupation for secular commercial advertising. It’s an important group, as its members wield or will wield influence over our culture for decades to come, influencing millions. But does this demographic merit preoccupation to the near exclusion of others in Evangelicalism’s public conversation?
There are other major, often unreached for the Gospel demographics that are maybe not as prestigious but no less spiritually important and in some cases far more numerous. A gun-owning middle aged white man in West Virginia or central Pennsylvania who’s a truck driver or living on disability is not a major part of the Evangelical conversation. A near retirement age housewife who works part-time at Wal-Mart in a small Midwestern city is typically not part of the conversation. A Millennial age high school drop-out, unwed mother is typically not part of the conversation. Working class or unemployed black people are typically not part of the conversation. Nor are Asian or African immigrant families who come from traditional cultures, especially if they’re not doctors or engineers and are instead driving cabs and/or working retail. Hispanic immigrants are often topics of Evangelical public conversation because of immigration politics. But evangelistically appealing to a 35 year old Guatemalan construction worker or restaurant cook is not typically central to the conversation.
A Bolivian woman in her 30s who cleans my house monthly recently told me of her spiritual struggles after her mother’s unexpected death. This married mother of young children was raised Catholic, had been attending a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church, but now is not regularly worshipping at any church. She still has her faith, believes in the Bible, but like many believers at times, is now ambivalent about the church. I doubt immigration politics or other political advocacy will speak to her spiritually.
So much of Evangelical public conversation about expanding outreach assumes that parts of Christianity must be liberalized or deemphasized to appeal to the religiously non-practicing. But so much of what is suggested or offered as the supposed solution may appeal to sophisticated young urbanites who read The New York Times online but would be highly ineffective if not repellant to tens of millions of other unchurched and unevangelized persons. Touting some version of LGBTQ themes will not appeal to the middle aged West Virginia gun owner, the 65 year old Wal-Mart cashier, the 20 year old unemployed urban black man, the female Iraq War veteran struggling to start a new career, the Nigerian cabbie, the Korean business owner, or the Hispanic parents working several jobs to support their family. Most of these people don’t spend lots of time in urban coffee houses, don’t read The Times, don’t listen to NPR, and didn’t attend prestigious colleges.
Environmental or anti-war advocacy by churches won’t appeal to the West Virginia truck driver or the military veteran. Pushing for higher minimum wages would antagonize the Asian business owner and may lose the job of the Wal-Mart cashier. Themes of sexual liberation or ultra feminism may repel the Nigerian cabbie and the Hispanic mother. The unemployed urban black man or young suburban unwed mother likely will be bored or put off by self-important intellectual appeals to abstract social justice. Many of these people, like most people, are busy surviving day to day, or lost in apathy through addictive diversions (booze, drugs, porn, online gambling, reality TV, online cavorting), and will respond to direct Gospel appeals about the basic meaning of life that will give them purpose, comfort, challenge and goals.
There is an imperative for the church specifically appealing to the very smart, sophisticated, attractive and well-placed. God loves them too and can deploy them to expand the Kingdom. But the church can’t obsess over these golden people. Most hearkeners to the Gospel are not, by worldly standards, materially or physically exceptional. Yet God loves them no less, and many of them will occupy some of the most exalted mansions in Heaven. For every sophisticate like St. Paul in the economy of God there are probably 20 or 50 ordinary laborers like St. Peter, or Mary and Martha, who don’t gleam in the world’s eyes, but they will through faith glow forever in the eternal constellation of the saints.