Omri Elisha: The Moral Ambition of Evangelical Christians

Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches by Omri Elisha (U of California Press, 2011)

Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches by Omri Elisha (University of California Press, 2011)

Last year, I began a series reviewing academic perspectives on evangelical Christians, beginning with James Bielo’s Words Upon the Word and T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back. I’m picking up this series again with Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches by Queens College anthropologist Omri Elisha.

Elisha’s work came highly recommended by two trusted sources. First, friend-of-ESN and occasional guest blogger Kevin Birth suggested I review Moral Ambition when I asked for suggestions last year. Then, at Urbana, my InterVarsity colleague Julian Reese commended Elisha for his insight into evangelicalism. Julian heard Elisha speak at the University of Tennessee in 2011 and had been impressed by his take on evangelical Christianity — which is especially notable because the subject of Moral Ambition is two evangelical megachurches in Knoxville, home of UT. If Julian thought that Elisha had gottent the religious climate right about his hometown, then this needed to be the next book I review. So far, having read three of the book’s seven chapters, I’m finding Kevin’s and Julian’s recommendations to be well-deserved. Moral Ambition is an insightful portrait of evangelical Christianity.

Like Words Upon the Word and When God Talks Back, Moral Ambition is an ethnography of specific groups of evangelical Christians, focusing on one particular aspect of the religious experience. Where Bielo looked at Bible study groups in Lansing, Michigan, and Luhrmann at the experience of “hearing” God among Vineyard Christians, Elisha examines social outreach in two evangelical megachurches in Knoxville.

Evangelical Activism and Social Outreach

Central to Elisha’s book is the concept of moral ambition, which he uses to describe the evangelical social outreach that both responds to evangelical beliefs and seeks to inspire those beliefs in others:

…as socially engaged evangelicals work to attain religious virtues associated with grace and compassion, they simultaneously work to inspire others to adopt the appropriate moral dispositions necessary to enhance volunteer mobilization. (2)

By “social outreach,” Elisha specifically means work done for the good of the community beyond the church, especially among the poor, dispossessed, and alienated members of society, distinct from the care provided to members of the church or outwardly focused evangelism. As anyone who has been involved with these types of efforts at evangelical churches know, they occupy a complex place within the church. As he does with many other areas of evangelical life, Elisha captures the complexity and tensions well:

Far from having a singular motivational source, evangelical social engagement is animated by diverse traditions of Christian missionization, revivalism, social reform, and fundamentalism[1]. Socially engaged evangelicals struggles with a whirlwind of competing imperatives that they have inherited from these traditions….Disagreements abound, for example, over whether the Christian gospel should be viewed as a blueprint for making the world a better place or strictly as a mandate calling on individuals to repent as humanity heads toward its imminent demise. (2)

Activism is one of the four points of the Bebbington quadrilateral that classically defines evangelicalism, but many evangelicals are uncomfortable with the term, seeing it as implying a certain type of (liberal) political engagement. Elisha, however, makes a strong case that the socially engaged evangelicals he examines ought to be considered activists of a sort:

As activists often do—including, for example, social reformers, environmental activists, and community organizers—they confronted what they perceived to be indifference, ignorance, and lackluster participation among their like-minded peers. They created new faith-based ministries and tried to improve existing ones, and in the process hoped to inspire levels of civic participation and spiritual revitalization that would profoundly transform local churches and the city as a whole. (25)

This engagement, however, was not always embraced by fellow evangelicals. Elisha notes that conservative evangelicals are, on average, less involved in social outreach than other kinds of Christians. He describes socially engaged evangelicals as a “surprisingly small and frustrated minority” (9) within the megachurches he studied — one or two dozen individuals in congregations of the thousands.

Tensions within Bible Belt Religion

I greatly appreciate Elisha’s attention to intra-evangelical tensions like this one. His section on evangelicalisms “waves of engagement” with broader society (pp. 10–18) is one of the better summaries of American evangelicalism that I’ve read. Too often, “evangelical” is used as a stand-in to mean a particularly type of political conservatism, but Elisha surveys the more complex history of evangelicalism in order to situate social outreach and Knoxville’s particular climate within evangelicalism as a whole.

Chapters 2 and 3 provide the ecclesial and geographic context for book. Elisha gives cover names for the two churches he studied: “Marble Valley Presbyterian” is a 200-year-old tradition-rooted church affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, while “Eternal Vine” is a much younger charismatic-influenced Evangelical Free church. Both have weekly attendance of three- to five-thousand.

I especially appreciated Elisha’s discussion of Knoxville’s overall religious character, which struck me as both accurate and appropriately nuanced. Too often, I have seen discussion of the “Bible Belt” that treats the region’s religious character as homogenized and static. Elisha, true to my own experiences, writes that

the prevalence of evangelical Protestantism shoudl not distract us from the fact that the history of Christianity in the South is marked by diversity and conflict among rival churches and denominations vying for dominance in public life. (77)

Conservative Christianity dominates the culture in the South, but the nature of this Christianity is heavily debated. For example, who should be considered a Christian is never far from the surface. Within a multidenominational pastors group,

[d]ebates arose whenever someone questioned the participation of another member who was seen as representing an unorthodox or heretical traditon, which raised the question of whether it was possible (or desirable) to accommodate diverse perspectives and still maintain essential unity. (82)

I’m willing to bet that some churches avoided this multidenominational group altogether over questions of doctrinal unity.

The question of “who,” however, also extends to the issue of sincerity — true belief vs. mere acculturation. Evangelicals in Knoxville

are wary of false confidence, and insistent that superficial markers of religious adherence do not amount to much if, in the final analysis, Christians are simply “going through the motions.” In the words of another megachurch staffer, “Here in the Bible Belt, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” (79, emphasis happily added)

I look forward to sharing more from Moral Ambition with you, especially Elisha’s discussions of antimaterialism among evangelicals and the tensions between compassion and accountability. Both of these issues get to important themes in contemporary evangelical life. Our theology was formed in periods when evangelical Christians were largely outsiders to the dominant culture, but we know find ourselves at the center of political and business success. Further, while all social activists struggle with the tension between helping someone in the short term and helping them change over the long term, evangelicals’ strong sense of sin and the need for repentence makes this tension even more powerful.

For Further Discussion:

  • What has been your experience with social outreach at evangelical churches?
  • What tensions have you observed between evangelicals from different traditions or denominations? 

  1. Though “fundamentalism” is frequently misused as a pejorative term without regard to its historical context, Elisha here uses “fundamentalism” to refer (correctly) to the 20th-century conservative Protestant movement.  ↩
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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Hannah commented on January 15, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for the review, Mike! Looks like a fascinating book. I’m really finding this series interesting.

    As I was thinking about your post, I began wondering if sociologists have looked much at multi-church campaigns or movements that encourage social outreach, say something like The Advent Conspiracy, or awareness campaigns launched by evangelical nonprofits like International Justice Mission. Does anyone else know? It would be interesting to read something on that as well.

    Or maybe the blog already covered this, and I missed it?

    Andy Walsh commented on January 16, 2013 Reply

    So, I’ve never understood “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” On the one hand, I don’t want to become a hamburger, so I am quite satisfied every time I go to McDonald’s and fail to become a hamburger. But I would be disappointed if going to church did not contribute to my becoming more Christlike. Nor is transforming people into hamburgers a thing which occurs regularly under any circumstances. So from that angle, you could replace “going to McDonald’s” with just about anything and it would be just as accurate and make as much sense to me.

    On the other hand, McDonald’s is very good at turning the appropriate raw materials into hamburgers. They have a well defined process for it that can hardly fail to produce the desired results if followed correctly. From that perspective, McDonald’s is much better at making hamburgers than the church is at making Christians.

    So either way, I just genuinely don’t understand what I’m supposed to take away from this metaphor. And yet it comes up often enough that I feel like I should.

      mhick255 commented on January 16, 2013 Reply

      Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I resonate strongly with the metaphor. In my hometown, everyone was a “Christian” and everyone went to church – it was just an expected part of the culture, even though my same hometown had a long history of racially motivated violence and discrimination. Yes, going to church *should* help you become more Christlike, but when going to church is just “something you do,” without any effect on the rest of your week, I think there’s a kind of inoculation-effect. Like Jesus says, only hearing his words is worthless unless you also do them.

      When I moved to Vancouver, BC, where reportedly only 3% of the population attends church on Sundays, I was actually encouraged. When you saw people in church, you knew that it meant something to them, rather than something they were doing just because of culture, family politics, or putting on a public face.

      mhick255 commented on January 16, 2013 Reply

      I should also say that, in a culture where everyone assumes they’re a Christian, regardless of their actual beliefs or behavior, I think it’s a slogan that pastors use to try to shake people out of their complacency.

    Andy Walsh commented on January 17, 2013 Reply

    “Yes, going to church *should* help you become more Christlike”

    In light of this, if you’re in a situation where going to church to become a Christian is as nonsensical as going to McDonald’s to become a hamburger, isn’t that a reflection on the church as an institution, rather than the complacency of the individuals in the pews?

      mhick255 commented on January 17, 2013 Reply

      Yes, sometimes. There’s plenty of blame for all. It’s not easy to pastor people who have become accustomed to ignoring the pastor, or who are comfortable with the status quo. There’s also a long history of churches who don’t mind the status quo and who don’t have a theology of discipleship. Part of the legacy of revivalism is a theology that says, explicitly or implicitly, that your conversion is *all* that matters. Billy Sunday used to preach that, the best thing that could happen to you after converting to Christ at his revival is to get hit by a bus and go straight to heaven.

      Rachel commented on January 18, 2013 Reply

      It occurs to me that you can make the metaphor work very well depending on your theology of salvation. If you’re a cow (predestined) going to McDonald’s (church), you probably *are* on your way to becoming a hamburger. 😛

      I remember reading Pascal’s advice for people who found they could not make themselves believe despite his wager – basically, “go to church anyway and fake it til you make it” – and becoming very annoyed with him because of how shallow and overly simplistic that sounded. But I’ve started to wonder if Pascal didn’t have the right idea after all, and I’ve just had wrong ideas about church. The church should be an institution that helps form people into the image of Christ. In my (mainline Protestant) church, we often see this in terms of instruction – going to church is like going to class to learn how you’re supposed to live. Sometimes we add in that you need the support of a community to encourage and support you, and if we’re feeling particularly theological, we’ll phrase that in terms of being the body of Christ. But the things that we do in church on Sunday mornings do not force people to practice being Christlike – just to hear about it. It’s a lecture plus an exhortation to practice what has just been preached, while the actual application is left up to each individual. If we were doing church right, complacency wouldn’t matter so much – people wouldn’t be able to walk out the doors before they had had to act on what they had just heard.

        Hannah commented on January 18, 2013 Reply

        I’ve just started James K. A. Smith’s *Desiring The Kingdom*. I’m pretty early in the book, but it seems as though Smith might be saying something similar to what you’re saying here, Rachel.

        I think he’s arguing that desiring God is central to being Christlike and participating in God’s Kingdom, and that worship rightly entered into enacts and increases that desire. So if a church is practicing worship well, and an individual comes with the willingness to be formed in Christlikeness, it’s almost impossible not to be changed. Public worship *is* a Christlike activity in this model, I think, rather than being chiefly a way of conveying information.

        Of course, what it means to worship well and what it means to be a willing individual are huge questions in their own right, and might bring us right back to the question of what the McDonald’s/hamburger statement actually means . . . 🙂 And I could be wrong about all of this – I’m really not far into the book at all.

    theurbanresident commented on January 23, 2013 Reply

    This definitely reflects my own experiences working in both my church as well as campus organizations. It is a very ill-defined field in modern evangelical Christianity, even though historically Christians did not seem to suffer from such schizophrenic identity. I think a large part of the problem comes from two issues: 1) secular humanism’s capitalization on humanitarianism as its ethical prerogative and justification, displacing the church into prosetylization and marginalizing those attempting to do both, and 2) a creeping sense of legalism within evangelical evangelism that implies charity is only useful as far as it purchases goodwill and salvation opportunities, and is useless or fruitless otherwise.

      theurbanresident commented on January 23, 2013 Reply

      I wrote about this for a campus publication all the way back in 2007, focusing on college humanitarianism. Curious to hear people’s thoughts/experiences on their own campuses.

      “Some have said that a systematic discussion or action on the questions of social justice and action in the context of Christian fellowships skews established political neutrality and that it is therefore better for individuals to pursue these answers for themselves. Yet most Christian fellowships on campus teach a particular perspective on sensitive topics such as gender roles, dating and relationships, and homosexuality. If we can establish a well-reasoned, biblical and reasonably “neutral” perspective in these areas, surely we can do so in the area of Christian humanitarianism as well.

      As members of the university, it is our responsibility to encourage intellectual exploration and examination. As Christians, we are called to do this in the context of a “gospel worldview,” or the interpretive effect of Christ’s redemption of humanity on all the effects of humanity. It is simpler to shrug our shoulders and walk away or donate a few dollars and deal with a vague sense of discomfort. But a more appropriate response to the lingering questions of Christian humanitarianism is to begin finding their resolutions in the university and with the full blessing, endorsement, and systemic support of the Christian community. For what students are equipped with the time or resources to perform such an endeavor only as individuals? And how nuanced can such an endeavor be if there is no systemic support for or encouragement—ideologically, philosophically, or spiritually—for these questionings? If the religious community is a place where students can find balance and perspective for life, shouldn’t that restorative power be brought to bear on the area of service as well?”

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