I’m reading and blogging about Omri Elisha’s Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, an ethnography of two evangelical megachurches in Knoxville, Tennessee. See my introduction to the series and my follow-up post about Bible Belt Christianity.
In Chapter 4 of Moral Ambition, anthropologist Omri Elisha profiles four evangelical leaders who
personify the activist orientation of evangelical social engagement, and embody the virtues, struggles, and moral ambitions that go along with it. (87)
While each of the four had his or her own reasons for becoming socially engaged, Elisha suggests that the general narrative of their lives represents a kind of “second conversion,” as do the lives of many missionaries, evangelists, and other Christian activists:
Typically, it was sometime after they became professing Christians that they were convinced of the theological imperative to serve the poor and needy, and decided to convince others to do likewise. Although not conversion testimonies, their reflections on the revelation process were often testimonial in tone, especially insofar as they would claim to have found the true meaning of God’s grace only when they stopped focusing on themselves and learned to adopt a compassionate disposition toward others. (87)
Elisha matches each of the profiled individuals with a Biblical archetype that captures the theme of their life and work. (Their names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.)
- The Apostle, Paul Genero, the organizer of a ministry coalition called Samaritans of Knoxville who was extremely active in encouraging churches to increase their social engagement
- The Teacher, Stacy Miggs, a former marketing professional turned a homeschool mother and a leader in her church’s outreach efforts, who sought to help others exercise their “gift of mercy”
- The Prophet, Jim Elroy, the director of one of Knoxville’s largest homeless shelters and a high-profile advocate for the poor through his public speaking and writing
- The Missionary, Margie McKenzie, director of one church’s social outreach ministry who had become active with inner city causes, as well as giving aid and assistance to people with HIV/AIDS, after chaperoning a teen short-term mission to inner city DC
The work of these four indviduals is inspiring and personally challenging. I was struck, however, by the frustrations they faced in recruiting volunteers and generating interest in structural change.
Frustrations of Recruiting
All four faced challenges in recruiting other evangelicals to get involved with social outreach, as well as keeping themselves motivated for the task. For example, Elisha accompanied Paul to a painting project at a shelter for victims of domestic abuse:
“You probably didn’t expect to be doing this much work!” [Paul said.] I knew what he was thinking. Neither he nor I had expected there to be so few volunteers. (95)
Stacy taught an 8-week course on Matthew 22:39 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) at one of the two megachurches Elisha profiled, but the turnout was extremely disappointing:
After the course was over, I asked her how it had gone. She looked out her kitchen window and shrugged. “Not a helluva lot of response,” she answered. Only four people had signed up, and there was no indication that Stacy would be expected or invited to teach it again. (102)
Even though she oversaw social outreach ministry for the other large church Elisha profiled, Margie often could not get enough people to help:
However, much of the time she would have spent on strategic-planning was actually spent doing the work of outreach herself because there was rarely a critical mass of volunteers available to get things done without her immediate involvement. At times it seemed almost as though she was the social outreach ministry… (113)
The churches profiled by Elisha have thousands of members, and evangelicals make up the largest religious group in Knoxville. Yet a tiny percentage of evangelicals are personally involved with ongoing work among the poor and needy.
Helping the Individual, Ignoring the System
Jim, as the director of one of Knoxville’s largest homeless shelters, seemed to have less trouble in getting people involved. However, as much as he and the other leaders tried to draw evangelicals’ attention to changing the systems that caused social problems, they struggled to get evangelicals to think beyond the personal needs of individuals. Speaking at a church about his organization, Jim tried to direct the conversation to systemic problems and solutions, without success:
Although the discussion was lively, hardly anyone took up the structural dimensions of Jim’s main argument. No one followed his lead in thinking about possible avenues for churches to approach social problems through larger frameworks of social action and reform. After a few minutes, Jim tried to steer the conversation back to this when he asked, “But what do we as a church need to do, systematically?” Whether the question fell on deaf or reluctant ears, the response was clearly less than he had hoped for. The discussion returned, as if by gravitational force, to the theme of relationships and the importanceof showing God’s love through direct personal influence in people’s lives. (109)
Anyone involved in a strategic ministry or cause can probably relate to Jim’s frustration. It’s much easier for people to have compassion for a single needy individual than to show concern for thousands or even millions of people. This is why so many charity solicitations feature close-up photos of needy children and why child sponsorship is one of the most popular forms of fundraising. People will give money and sacrifice their time to help a single person; when the topic turns to helping many more through systemic change, people tune out.
Have you experienced similar frustrations? If you have ever led social engagement efforts, have you found strategies to increase the number of committed volunteers? Have you found ways to get evangelicals thinking about structural and systemic change?