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?
About the author:
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.
I had not heard of this book until now. I appreciate the summaries and discussion.
“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.”
That’s exactly it. It’s not that people don’t care or don’t want to help. It’s just that these problems are so complex and so difficult that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s much more manageable to help one person or a small group. For most people, trying to imagine how take on an entire system or thousands/millions of needy people is just too much for the mind to even grasp, much less to imagine solutions! Not everyone is a visionary of that type. Maybe they can learn to be so, but they’d need to be taught. Most of us are struggling to keep our own life situations afloat!
This portion concerns me because it’s representative of a problem I am seeing quite often in Christian circles:
“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.
Generally speaking, “systems” don’t cause social problems. Individuals and their life choices cause social problems. (I’m speaking of America. The situation is often different in other countries.)
It’s become so popular today for everyone to consider themselves to be helpless victims. This is simply false. People choose to have sex when they are teenagers. They choose to have children way too young, before they even want them or are capable of properly caring for them. They choose to have kids by several different fathers. They choose to stop going to school. They choose to join gangs. They choose to do drugs.They choose to get involved in crime. On and on I could go.
I’m not saying that as Christians we are supposed to ignore such people. I’m saying we can’t get into the mentality of our culture, which says that people like this are only helpless victims of society and of “the evil rich” and “the system”, and are therefore entitled to be supported by the government and by others, indefinitely.
Isn’t part of the gospel to call people to their personal responsibility before God for their lives? And doesn’t that include our earthly lives, not just our eternal souls?
Interesting points. I too get a bit leery when people talk about systemic change, since it is all too often an attempt to remove personal responsibility and a way to avoid the offensiveness and personal intimacy of the gospel. However, I do think we underestimate the ways in which systems are “stacked against us”. While people choose to have sex when they are teenagers, they don’t need to be so easily exposed to near-pornographic messages and a condoning culture. While they choose to have “kids by several different fathers”, they often can’t choose the parents (or lack thereof) that modeled that sort of behavior for them. While they choose to join gangs, they do not choose the paucity of jobs, or the single parent household that left them in a vulnerable position. They do not choose the urban zoning plans that turn their neighborhoods into ghettoes. They do not choose the bullets that zip by from gang fights. It is simply amazing how many factors influence a child’s development that he or she have very very little control over, many of which are crafted by very unjust policy. I think we must recognize that while an individual must be held accountable to his or her decision to choose sin, so too must a community be held accountable to its choice to fail to exercise every advantage and leverage every opportunity to teach them to do otherwise. In that sense, Christian community is rightly condemned for its failure to engage as it ought.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t go for excuses like that.
I am female. I am Hispanic. My parents are good people and they always worked hard for us, but in difficult, low paying jobs. We didn’t grow up with designer clothes and fancy gadgets. It wasn’t even a Christian home. In fact, I never read the Bible until I was 18 years old and began attending church with a friend! In other words, I was a perfect candidate to do all those types of things. I chose to do none of them.
The sad part is that people like me – who often do still have problems, just not the self-inflicted kind! – get zero help or support from anyone.
So much time and effort is spent on people who have no desire or inclination to make better choices in their lives, while those who try to do the right things and yet still struggle are completely ignored. This bothers me.
It bothers me more that I don’t have an answer to it.
Hi, Mo. 🙂
It sounds to me as if you’re frustrated with people who blame others for the choices they’ve made, when you’ve been faced with similar difficulties and haven’t made those same choices. I can understand that, certainly.
And sure, systemic injustice is sometimes used to excuse bad behavior. I think we all agree that doesn’t mean systemic injustice doesn’t exist. As you said/implied, you have had to face difficulties that non-Hispanic men with the money for designer clothes have never had to, and you’ve come out alright. 🙂 But where injustice exists, it becomes much, much harder for people to make the right choices. Not impossible, perhaps… but harder.
That’s why I am reluctant to blame others for their poor decisions when I have never had to face the same hardships they have. I grew up with two loving parents. I had clothes to keep me warm and shoes to wear. I had clean water to drink. I never went hungry. No one shot at me or my family, at work or at school or in the streets. Those things alone make me a child of unspeakable privilege. I do not know what choices I would have made if I had been born into the circumstances others have had to face. What I do know is how often I fail, how badly I need the grace of God – I, who have had every advantage that so many others have not been given.
I am desperate to see systemic change because I recognize my own weaknesses in the wrongs others commit. I feel a basic injustice in expecting those who have been given less to rise above difficulties greater than any I have faced. I deeply suspect any theological or political discourse which trumpets individual responsibility while refusing to recognize that the economic and social structures which frame our choices are themselves, sometimes, deeply flawed – that while we all must choose between right and wrong, some of us can make that choice at leisure while others do it with a gun to their head. Even in America, not all of us are equally free.
Seeking systemic change, for me, does not mean excusing individuals from personal responsibility. It means recognizing that another person’s choices may be restricted, if not coerced, by the structures of power and privilege of which I (like it or not) am a part. It means trying to remove the beam from my own eye before evaluating the size of the speck in someone else’s. It means pursuing justice before judgment.
Let us hold each other accountable, by all means. But let us start with ourselves.
Andy Walsh says
I’m curious about this notion that individual choices cause social problems in America, but not necessarily in other countries. Can you elaborate on that? Do you have specific examples in mind of how things work in other countries?
Well, some countries are always in the middle of wars/conflicts, they are ruled by dictators who abuse their people, there is very little infrastructure, etc.
Obviously people still make choices, but there are far fewer choices available in situations like that compared to what we have here in the U.S.
Andy Walsh says
So, if systemic deficiencies are not distributed equally across the world, and thus limit the choices of people in some places more than other places, why can’t the same be true within the United States? In other words, isn’t it possible that the United States is not a single system, but rather a network of interconnected and overlapping systems, some of which offer more choices to people living in them than others?
@ Andy Walsh –
(I guess the commenting system only allows one ‘reply’ to each comment?)
if you can’t make the distinction between the examples I gave of other countries vs. America, if you really think these situations are equal (even somewhat) then I don’t know what to say to you.
I am not saying this in a snotty way to you. I honestly don’t know how to respond to that.
Andy Walsh says
Well, fortunately, I can make distinctions between the situations in various countries, so perhaps we can still have a conversation.
Actually, I’ve said very little about what I think thus far. I’ve found that in online conversations, I have to ask a lot of questions to make sure I understand what other people are saying & thinking. And even then, sometimes I don’t always ask the right questions, or ask them in the right way. I still have a lot to figure out in that respect.
So let’s try this again. You did acknowledge that people in some other countries have more limited choices because of the circumstances in those countries. From that, I understand that you think that systemic deficiencies which can limit choices do exist. Is that correct?
If so, then the question is whether any such choice-limiting systemic deficiencies (not necessarily the same ones) exist in America. From your comments so far, I get the impression you believe they do not. Is that correct?
Would it also be fair to say then that you think everyone in America is free and able to make all of the same choices?
Thanks for the great questions and comments. I’ll have to do another post, I think, to discuss Elisha’s take on evangelicals and “systemic change.” In the meantime, a couple of quick thoughts:
Without question, evangelicals’ focus on personal responsibility and personal charity is one of our great strengths. So is our desire to see individuals respond to the Gospel. As with most strengths, though, it comes with a downside, which is that we have a much harder time seeing the role of systems and structures (or “powers and principalities” if you prefer some Biblical language) in our lives.
Here’s a quick example of how systems can affect individual choices that (I think) doesn’t include any issues of sin or morality. My family lives less than half a mile from our daughters’ school; my brother-in-law’s family lives a similar distance from his daughters’ school. However, our community was built as a collection on unconnected subdivisions, whereas his community was built around a planned grid system. There is no sidewalk from our house to our school, and our kids would have to cross a wide and busy highway, while his kids have plenty of sidewalks, crosswalks, etc. At their school, a very large percentage of the kids walk to school nearly every day, while almost no one walks to our school.
Can we walk to school? Yes, and we have on a couple of occasions. However, the physical structures of our town, as well as the invisible systems of our county (e.g. zoning laws, county development plans) have made that a very difficult option to choose, adding considerable cost for anyone who wants to walk to school.
Using your own example, the problem would be if either group chose not to attend school at all because of the difficulties in getting there. But that’s not happening. Both sides, both groups of parents are choosing to make sure their kids get to the school somehow. Both groups of children go to school, even if it’s a bit more difficult for one group to get there than it is for the other.
What I am not hearing you say in your example is that the parents and children of the more difficult-to-get-to school have chosen to stay home and do nothing at all. Or worse, they complain and expect the school to send the teachers to them.
That’s what I’m trying to point out here. Life is hard. We all need help at one time or another. But in the U.S. there is this ever increasing victim and entitlement mentality that says, “I can’t do anything for myself because [The Rich, or another race, or whatever situation] is keeping me down. I demand others to take care of me forever, while I do nothing at all to improve my situation. In fact, because I’m taken care of by others, I’m going to take advantage of the people and their help and make even more irresponsible choices! It’s my due!”
Now, they don’t say that out loud in that exact way, but that’s what we see happening in attitude and actions. And these days, churches are agreeing with this attitude and telling their members that this is Jesus’ way of doing things, and if we disagree, we are not obeying Christ.
I’m sorry, but I do not agree. Jesus helped people, but He also called them to personal responsibility and to stop sinning.
Mo, you’re reading quite a bit more into my post than is there.
I’m not trying to read anything into it. I’m simply taking it to a logical conclusion to better explain my own comment.
I’m sorry if it didn’t come out that way, but that was my only intent.
I think Andy asked some very interesting questions. Your argument of individual responsibility can function well if all of us truly have the same choices. I do agree that even under difficult situation it is still possible for people to make the right choice. However, this possibility of making the right choice has to be based on the assumption that people understand what the right choice is. Imagine myself growing up in a family with little parental supervision, no positive role models. The only role model may be the gang leader who is driving a nice car with pocket full of cash. Under such an environment, I’m not sure if I would know what the right choice would be. It is not simply a matter of poverty, skin color. We are all products of our environment, and this environment may have been perpetuated for generations. The products of such environment may simply not know right from wrong.
Let’s set aside the sociological perspective. Let’s look at theologically. Jesus did call for personal responsibility. The question is to whom does this calling apply. It is my understanding that he is calling for personal responsibility on people who recognize their sins and are willing to repent. Remember the sequence of events, Jesus always forgave the sinner first, then told them to sin no more. I think this sequence is significant because first, Jesus could not have forgiven the sin until the sinner recognized the need to be forgiven. This illustrates the fact that the sinner has to agree with the same moral premise as Jesus teaching BEFORE they are forgiven. Then in step two, Jesus issues the call for personal responsibility based on the same moral premise. If you look at the moral teachings in the epistles, the target audience was clearly Christians. It is simply impossible to call for personal responsibility when all parties do not agree on what the responsibility is.
How does this theological perspective relate to the social question at hand? I think one way is to understand that it is useless to call for personal responsibility until we can establish a mutual understanding of what it means. We need to change the environment systematically in order to teach and enable people to see and understand their responsibilities, maybe through a jobs program, maybe through education. In the meantime, we do need to address their needs as well, just as Jesus did through healing before repentance. Some may never accept their responsibilities. We still need to try with grace and mercy in hope that some will. Jesus loved us before we are lovely, before we realized our need for his love.
@ Rachel –
“That’s why I am reluctant to blame others for their poor decisions when I have never had to face the same hardships they have. I grew up with two loving parents. I had clothes to keep me warm and shoes to wear. I had clean water to drink. I never went hungry. No one shot at me or my family, at work or at school or in the streets. Those things alone make me a child of unspeakable privilege.”
No, it doesn’t. It’s normal, and what should be normal. It’s not “privilege”.
Stop feeling guilty for your family being normal. Stop feeling guilty and responsible for other people’s failures.
“I am desperate to see systemic change because I recognize my own weaknesses in the wrongs others commit.”
That’s the problem that I see everywhere. Everyone seems to feel so guilty if they happened to be born into a normal, loving family. Why should you? You can’t help how you were born/raised. Of course we should help others when we have opportunity to do so. But we are not called to blame ourselves to the point where that guilt becomes our driving passion.
“It means pursuing justice before judgment.”
“Let us hold each other accountable, by all means. But let us start with ourselves.”
This is what bothers me most about the “social justice” crowd. When you get down to it, there’s a subtle (and often not-so-subtle) attitude of moral superiority.
You are free to feel guilty because you had a good upbringing. You are free to continue to feel responsible for other people’s terrible choices in life. But please do not try to place that same guilt upon me.
Unless I am directly involved, I am not responsible for other people’s failures in life. And neither are you.
I love that you stick to I love that you stick to your points, too, Mo. ^_^ Seriously. I hope that you don’t feel that I’m ignoring, minimizing, or misrepresenting your concerns, either, because I agree they’re important. I don’t think we’re dealing with a difference of principle, but a difference of emphasis.
“No, it doesn’t. It’s normal, and what should be normal. It’s not “privilege”.”
It should be normal. But it’s not – that’s what I’m saying. Privilege is a rule which applies to some but not to others. And while everyone SHOULD be able to grow up with access to the basic necessities of life, we forget sometimes that not everyone does.
Let me be clear: I don’t feel guilty for what I’ve been given! It’s a gift – the right response is gratitude. All these ordinary blessings of family and food and safety – these have been a very tangible means of God’s grace in my life. To feel guilty for them would be to deny the goodness of the gift and the Giver. So no… to the extent that I ever feel guilty, it’s for my own ingratitude – those days when I forget that everything I have and am is a gift from the Lord of heaven and earth. When I said that I recognize my own weaknesses in the wrongs others commit, this is what I meant: that I know the darkness of my own heart, and I know there is no difference between me and the “chief of sinners” except the overwhelming, unmerited grace of God, expressed not only in the body of his Son and the work of the Spirit in my life, but in things as simple and as necessary as clean water.
My commitment to systemic change flows from a desire to see those ordinary blessings shared as widely as possible – to see a world where everyone really can take them for granted! We know that so much of the evil and suffering we see in the world today is a consequence of sin and death. The tragedy is that the consequences of sin extend beyond the sinner, and sometimes even across nations and generations, so that those of us who didn’t commit the crime are left with the mess, and the choice of whether to say it’s not our problem, or try to clean things up as best we can… to prepare the way of the Lord.
We aren’t personally responsible for the injustices that plague our society. But I do think we are personally responsible for trying to fix them. One of the things that bugs me, btw, is the tendency of the “left” to expect the government to fix society. I don’t trust the government that much. 😛 I would vastly prefer to see the Church take the lead on these issues, because we of all people should understand the intimate connection between the call for justice and the call for repentance – the two run together through so much of Scripture.
“This is what bothers me most about the “social justice” crowd. When you get down to it, there’s a subtle (and often not-so-subtle) attitude of moral superiority.”
I’m sorry if I came across that way! That’s the danger of any attempt to apply moral principles to a real world situation, though. Because the same attitude of moral superiority that bothers you about the “social justice” folks bothers me about the way the “personal responsibility” argument is sometimes phrased: it can be read as implying that the fortunate are also the morally superior, and the rest of the world deserves what they get for making bad choices. I don’t think that’s what either of us are trying to say.
I’m assuming our difference in emphasis comes from a difference in experience – because I have not met a lot of people who claimed entitlement in the way you’re describing and who blamed their bad decisions on others. (I’ve met plenty of academics and heard plenty of lawyers who tried to do that for them, but that’s not quite the same thing. 😛 ) So dealing with people who think they’re entitled to help is simply not a problem I’ve ever had to confront. On the other hand, I’ve met lots of people who refused to help others because they didn’t “deserve” it. I assume we’re each critiquing the error with which we’re most familiar.
@ Rachel –
” I hope that you don’t feel that I’m ignoring, minimizing, or misrepresenting your concerns, either, because I agree they’re important. ”
No, not at all. I appreciate your comments.
You seem to have a more balanced approach than others I see. (And please know I wasn’t trying to single you out. I’m speaking about the general things I see in the culture. That doesn’t translate well sometimes online.)
“I would vastly prefer to see the Church take the lead on these issues, because we of all people should understand the intimate connection between the call for justice and the call for repentance – the two run together through so much of Scripture.”
I agree wholeheartedly! If we did more as the Church, the government wouldn’t have as much to do – which is a good thing, since they do it so poorly anyway!
“I don’t think that’s what either of us are trying to say.”
No, you are right.
“I’m assuming our difference in emphasis comes from a difference in experience”
An excellent point, and again I think you’re right. I live in a city where government handouts and the resulting ‘entitlement mentality’ are simply the norm. These practices and this mindset has ruined entire families – no, entire NEIGHBORHOODS – and for generations.
And after all is said and done, I am still not quite sure how to go about fixing any of it. It’s just overwhelming. I’d love a magic wand, where I could fix everyone’s lives/situations overnight! But that’s not reality.
I appreciate Mo for sticking to her points! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to make excuses for people, nor am I trying to negate personal responsibility. My parents also immigrated to this country and were fairly poor to begin with. But I think we need to be very careful; again, the issues of personal responsibility and community responsibility are not mutually exclusive things. Just because some people stuck in crummy environments still make good choices doesn’t mean that we don’t have a shared obligation to make those environments better, just as at the same time those in good environments can still make bad decisions.
I’m all for improving things when we have an opportunity to do so. Of course we should try.
It’s this attitude that says, “I’m ENTITLED to handouts (with no responsibility attached) because it’s everyone else’s fault but mine (especially The Rich/the privileged/white people) that I’m where I am!” that bothers me.
That, along with those who then accept that false guilt and in their desire to help only keep perpetuating the problem. I simply do not see that sort of thing in Scripture. God commands people to work when they can. He commands people to leave their sin. He commands people to learn to be responsible. And so on.
Whenever this issue comes up, this point is always ignored, and when people like myself bring it up, it is minimized.
I think if we’re honest the problem with these discussions is that when evangelicals talk about “systems” in relationship to poverty the evangelicals doing the talking are usually talking about systems from a leftish interpretation of how such things work. Simply stated, they are transmuting Cornel West a lot more than James Q. Wilson. That doesn’t mean they are always wrong, but the discussion touches upon some already touchy divides in the church that I think we have a really hard time being honest about.
For my own part it’s interesting that this thread talked so much about choices and systems, but nary a word about incentives.
Mandatory sentencing is a policy with historical roots on the right. Various sorts of Food Assistance has historical roots on the left. Both systems bear disproportionately on poor people, and both create an ecosystem of incentives those poor people must make their choices in response to. There’s a good argument that the incentives from both systems contribute greatly to why so many poor women have children without marriage: the man will either not be there to help raise the children, or he is not strictly necessary to the doing of it.
Both systems also incentivize parties who are not meant to be beneficiaries of the policy, but are certainly beneficiaries of the programs. That means, for instance, Correctional Unions and Associations of States Attorney General in the first example, and giant food service contractors like Sodexo, and mid-level USDA bureaucrats in the second. Their incentive will never be for less money to be spent, even if a bigger benefit might go directly to someone in need. And all of those folks have something that neither poor people, nor the taxpayers footing the bill for all this generally have. That is, lobbyists.
I would love to see evangelicals have a deeper and more honest discussion of these issues: one that does not leave one side accused of not believing in individual choice, or the other not caring about justice. I’m not optimistic such a discussion will happen, but there you are.
Thanks, JMW. I think you’re right about the tendency to read “systems” in a certain way. It also occurred to me this afternoon that we as evangelicals (or maybe just we as Americans) read the words “systemic change” as “government programs.” In reality, many of the most powerful solutions to systemic and structural problems have been created by churches, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses.