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.

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