On Declining Empires: Part Four

Part 4 of a 5-part series.  Read Part 1; Part 2; Part 3

I wrote last time about the torment I experienced at Awful Group because it helped me to gain a visceral understanding of a major blind spot currently facing the evangelical church.  Awful Group was established to pursue (“minister to” in evangeli-speak) a hyper-specific demographic group: single professionals in their 20s and 30s.  In reaching these people – as well as people like me with a knack for ending up in places they don’t belong – Awful Group failed to create desirable Christian fellowship, but found wild success in the area of fostering petty and hurtful divisions.  This happened because targeting young professionals elevated career status to disproportionate importance in the identities of Awful Group members.  It’s a perfectly predictable result of emphasizing one demographic at the expense of another, and it’s a problem eating at the evangelical church.

The thing is, every evangelical church is divided on some level along demographic lines.  6 year-olds do not attend the same Sunday school classes as college kids, and grandmothers are not in the same bible study as 7th grade boys.  Understand me: there’s nothing inherently wrong with the fact that evangelical churches always segregate along demographic lines, and I’m not saying we should stop doing so.  But such separations do alter the ways in which the separated understand their identities – groups for divorcees lead them to see themselves as Christian Divorcees rather than (just) Christians, men’s groups elevate the importance of being a Manly Christian instead of (just) a Christian, etc. – and this does come with two critical drawbacks that I’ve yet to hear any evangelical leader address.

The first such drawback is likely obvious in my description of Awful Group: encouraging someone to identify too fully with a demographic subgroup runs the risk of creating cliques within the church.  Awful Group’s members, for example, sat with young professionals at church.  After church, they ate with young professionals.  During the week, they attended bible study with young professionals, and on Saturday night, they dated young professionals.  Some members of Awful Group had never spoken to anyone at their megachurch who was over 40, under 20, or not a professional, and there was no reason to think they ever would, even though such people accounted for 90% of the church.  While the church behind Awful Group did not deliberately encourage these young professionals to develop an elitist church-within-a-church, it happened.  And it can happen with any other subgroup in a church.

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I don’t know which identity groups in your congregation exist as a separate church-within-a-church, but here’s the safest bet: the kids.  The rationale for separating children for Sunday school and worship (your church may forego children’s church, but it is a very evangelical phenomenon) is unassailable: children need to hear the Gospel explained via concepts to which they can relate, and keeping them with a staff that has been screened shields them from creepers and pedophiles.  Even so, churches cannot dodge the tradeoff that comes when children are separated so much: because kids’ experience of church differs so profoundly from that of their parents, young people not only attend a separate church; in many cases they basically practice a different faith.  No, really.  They sing different songs, get lessons rather than sermons, spend far more time studying the Old Testament than the New, and do more snacking than praying.  It’s a related faith, but the differences are striking.

So here’s the hidden cost: the degree to which young evangelicals are segregated from the larger congregation dictates that – for a child raised in an evangelical church – the decision to become an adult evangelical actually requires adopting different understandings and practices of the faith.  Seen in this light, the evangelical church’s demographic struggle to keep young people makes perfect sense; it’s as easy to replace childfaith with nothing as it is to replace childfaith with adult faith.

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The second drawback to the way we divide up the ministries of evangelical churches has to do with those on the other side of the dividing lines and priorities.  I’ve already explained how this played out in Awful Group – grad students just as smart, just as attractive, with just as much money (bear in mind, young professionals frequently have massive loan bills), and exactly the same age as the professionals in the group felt inferior and experienced social domination.  Take away the bit about striving to reach young professionals and none of Awful Group’s members ever would have conceived of a social division along career lines.  Add it in, and you reap division and dysfunction.

Demographic divisions serve to disempower those excluded from the demographic being pursued, and no two groups of evangelicals grasp this more clearly than singles and childless couples.  The evangelical church emphasizes families so strenuously that those adults without children or a spouse frequently find themselves relegated to the status of children.  Ordinarily, using marital or reproductive status as a conversation starter tramples the boundaries of taste.  But every Sunday across America, tens of thousands of conversations open with confirmation that evangelical culture simply assumes non-parents have not yet fully matured as people.  After all, how many singles or childless people sit on your church’s official board or board of elders?  Maybe this attitude was fine in the 1970s when Americans married and started families in their early 20s, but that isn’t the world in which we live anymore, and it’s a way in which the white evangelical church profoundly disempowers a huge (and growing) demographic slice of America.

Once again, I’m not calling on the church to stop prioritizing families – healing family stresses and problems are one of the most important things the church can do, and it should never be neglected – but evangelicals need to acknowledge that this approach comes at a cost, and that cost can be addressed.  Absent efforts to address the byproducts of evangelicalism’s family focus, the evangelical church will continue to infantilize the childless and the unmarried.

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This, therefore, is the unacknowledged cause of the unnoticed decline of the evangelical empire: evangelicalism is so preoccupied with ministry organized along demographic lines that it has failed to see the paradoxical demographic drawbacks to this otherwise valid methodology.  This threatens the very future of the evangelical movement in the United States by allowing to fester two problems that alienate the young Christian demographic in two specific ways.  Separating children from adults creates a church within a church that decreases the odds of a child Christian transitioning to an adult Christian, and the church’s emphasis on family disempowers and alienates those without families (who are often, but not always, young).

Taken together, the threat to the evangelical church is grave.  Nevertheless, I have a few suggestions, and I’ll conclude this mini-series by positing some of them in part 5 next week.

To continue to the final post in this series, click here.

On Declining Empires: Part Three

This is part 3 in an ongoing series.  For part one, click here.  For part two, click here.

Have you ever been so nervous that the churning in your belly felt less like butterflies and more like a kung fu flick was filming in there?  So anxious that you weren’t sure if you could convince the mini Jet Li in your stomach not to kickbox his way back out of your mouth?  I once went to a bible study that made me feel that way.  For what it’s worth, I didn’t let my anxiety issues stop me.  I went.  Almost every week for a year, in fact.  And I battled the Karate Kid in my stomach.  Every.  Single.  Time.

You probably assume that I did this because whatever I received at or after the bible study outweighed my anxiety as I drove to it.  If so, you’re wrong.  Really wrong.  The best emotion I ever felt when I left that bible study was relief that I had successfully endured it again, and frankly, I often didn’t even feel that good when I left.  Most nights I just left the bible study both depressed that this torturous evening was the social highlight of my week and dominated by knowledge of my own inadequacies.

For the record, I’m neither crazy nor a loser.  I know that other people at the bible study felt exactly the same emotions – if maybe less intensely – yet they came too.  Often 30 of us, in fact.  And those of you who were ever evangelical singles in your 20s or 30s have already guessed why: it was a singles group!  Christian singles will do anything to spend time with other Christian singles, no matter how horrible the experience is and how awful it makes them feel, and I’m living proof.

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In the second post of this mini-series on declining empires, I suggested that two troubled American empires are the Republican Party and the white evangelical movement.  For reasons I explain in that post I think the Republicans will survive their wee crisis; evangelicalism, on the other hand, has a deeper demographic problem.  My experiences at the singles bible study above illustrate why.

The bible study I attended – it’ll be easier to talk about it if I give it a name, so let’s go with Awful Group – was one of the largest in a city of about 500,000 people (30 or so came regularly; the roster had close to 90  names), but it was otherwise unremarkable.  People like me put up with the suffering because we wanted to meet other evangelicals our age; my own church had only three 20-somethings, and we all went to Awful Group for a time.  As for what about it was so awful as to inspire so much terror, there were several factors at play.  For one thing, at its most basic, the group didn’t operate in a way conducive to making shy people feel welcome; instead it was run in that way that extroverts invariably think will put introverts at ease: Awful Group’s leaders assumed the way to make introverts comfortable is to make them the center of attention, one at a time.  As I said, several of Awful Group’s introverts visibly engaged in combat with intestinal martial artists weekly.

Awful Group could have overcome that moronic format, but there were two other problems that proved insurmountable.  Awful Group had no control over the first; singles groups are invariably meat markets, regardless of whether or not they’re evangelical.  People at Awful Group wanted dates, and that immediately stratified the group into gradations of datability.  The result, predictably, was basically Junior High with less acne and more bibles.

The second of these two fatal problems exacerbated the datability stratification, and it was entirely the fault of Awful Group: Awful Group was explicitly for young professionals.  Most people who attended were young lawyers, accountants, engineers, or medical professionals, and there was an inherent competitiveness regarding career trajectory.  Awful Group gave these young professionals permission to scrutinize the validity of one another’s careers, essentially, and scrutinize they did.  Worse still, of course, was the fact that maybe ½ the people invited to attend Awful Group were extremely intelligent non-professionals – many of whom were graduate students and were probably the intellectual betters of many of the professionals anyway.  The result was a room full of lonely grad students judging engineers to be half-wits, while the engineers (and doctors, accountants, etc.) looked back and judged the grad students to be children who needed to grow up and get a job.

Since I was neither a professional nor a grad student at the time, I didn’t have an affinity group of singles to which I could cling and I experienced the social stratification more deeply for it.  For those of us who belonged to neither camp but invited to join the group anyway, several conversations each night followed the same pattern: upon meeting, a person would ask my name, and I would answer and reciprocate.  Then they would ask what I did for a living, and I would answer and the other person would say, ‘oh,’ frequently walking away or entering a different conversation even before I could ask what they did.  It happened to me more than to most people (my job wasn’t at all sexy, and I never bothered to pretend), but I saw it elsewhere too; the structure of the group implicitly encouraged such shallowness.  And as I said earlier, people – professionals, grad students, and otherwise – left each night feeling socially dominated, but came back each week anyway, because that’s what lonely singles do.

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Since I’ve wandered so far from the tone of this series’ earlier posts, now seems like a good time to remind you that the very people who attended Awful Group are the type of people disappearing from evangelical churches nationwide, thereby casting the future of the evangelical empire in doubt.  From the perspective of the church that oversaw Awful Group, it looked on paper like a success of the type that would reverse the evangelical demographic troubles, making it a model ministry.

What Awful Group’s parent church never understood is that while Awful Group appeared to thrive based on numbers, nobody stayed long, for obvious reasons.  The stated demographic purpose of Awful Group invented – and imposed – all manners of social pressures, and it continued to draw relatively large numbers in spite of its focus on single professionals, not because of it.  And that is the key to this whole post: Awful Group was created with a specific goal in mind (reach people who fit into a very particular social box) and it met that goal.  This is what evangelical churches do, and this is why evangelical churches are in trouble.  Exploiting the needs of specific demographics – like Awful Group exploited the need of singles to spend time with other evangelical singles – brings people in.  But it’s a methodology that can foster alienation and identity crises, just like Awful Group did.  This lies at the heart of the evangelical demographic problem, and it’s a major reason why the empire is in jeopardy.

Not persuaded yet?  Read my next post, where I’ll broaden the lessons of Awful Group to cover the larger evangelical world.  I’m out of time for now.

Continue to Part 4 here.