Anointed? … Evangelicals and Authority 5 (RJS)

I recently received, courtesy of the publisher, a copy of the new book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall Stephens, an associate professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College and Karl Giberson, formerly a professor of Physics at Eastern Nazarene. Giberson has now moved on to concentrate on a number of writing projects.

In this book Stephens and Giberson examine several different facets of American evangelicalism to explore the manner in which “America’s populist ideals, anti-intellectualism, and religious free market, along with the concept of anointing – being chosen by God to speak for him like the biblical prophets” influence a broad range of evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs and practices.

Chapter five, A Carnival of Christians, discusses the evangelical subculture and the way Christians grow up and live within this culture, separated to an extent from the broader western culture. The presentation is shaped around the experience of a young Christian – Paul – who grew up embedded in this culture in the southeastern United States. Stephens and Giberson focus on two specific aspects of evangelical culture and the way they shape Christians – the culture of the local church and the Christian family and the culture of Christian higher education.  Both of these are worth some discussion and thought. In order to do justice to each I am going to consider the issues raised in this chapter in two separate posts. The post today will look at the local church and Christian culture. The post Thursday will turn to consider aspects of higher education and what is termed the “carnival of Christians“, the diversity of Christians views that deviate from any individual’s stereotyped expectation.

The evangelical subculture for Paul, and for many over the last several generations, has been an immersion in a parallel American culture, existing alongside the mainstream, but separate from it in many ways. This culture includes church services, children and youth activities, adult gatherings, music (traditional hymns, gospel choruses, and CCM), entertainment, t-shirts (“God is Totally Awesome” or “His Pain, Your Gain”), candy (Testamints and Faith Pops), even golf balls (Top Flite’s Gospel Golf Balls imprinted with bible verses).

The role of the local church in the evangelical subculture, however, loomed large – much larger than the somewhat cheesy merchandise. To be part of the church was to belong to an extended family. Parents were committed to the church and children were raised embedded in the community of the church.

Do you think that church is an extended family?

Is this evangelical subculture a positive or a negative influence?

Stephens and Giberson present a broad ranging description of the generic evangelical upbringing.  Among the points they highlight are the close community and deep social bonds of the local church.

[Paul’s mother] expected the … congregation to help. “Just like in out home I loved you, cared for you, supported and encouraged you – spent time, effort, and energy investing in you, I expected the same from the church,” she told Paul.  … The church was our extended family – it was the place to be.” (p. 185-186)

This freed his parents to attend adult Sunday school classes and the preaching service. The socially robust programs in churches like … nurture community as people spend time with one another’s children, take turns teaching classes, drink coffee together, and collaborate on running what are often the most substantial social programs in the local community. (p. 186)

Evangelical children experience this world of goods and services to varying degrees. All of them would attend Sunday school, where they would learn stories and songs; most would listen to Contemporary Christian Music and read Christian books and magazines. … Like any subculture, levels of commitment and participation vary as children first absorb values from their parents, then from their peers and teachers, and finally work through things on their own. (p. 209)

The church as extended family, church as a “second home” … whether moderately large (the church Paul grew up in was ca. 3000) or smaller (the church I grew up in was more like 400 give or take) … this is the kind of church many of us grew up in under the evangelical or fundamentalist umbrella. And it was commitment and involvement – 2-3 hours on Sunday morning, another 2 or 3 Sunday evening, Wednesday evenings, Bible Studies, Family camps, retreats, VBS, Christmas programs, mission trips, local mission projects, and more. Without waxing overly nostalgic, it was a place where people were known as individuals – from the babies in the nursery to the octogenarians.

This immersion into the Evangelical subculture was centered on church. Some children within the culture were educated in conservative Christian schools (like Paul and some one to two million others),  but most were in public schools. The commitment and immersion was not significantly less for those in raised in the public schools because the experience centered on the local church as extended family.

The education aspect of this immersion experience has changed significantly in recent years. Over the last 10 or 20 years a million or more children have been homeschooled. According to Stephens and Giberson 1.5 million children were homeschooled in 2008, up 74% from 1999, and some 70% of these students are thought to be evangelical, but there are no good polls providing firm data (p. 189).

That was then … but is it now? As with many of the points made by Stephens and Giberson in their book, this description, accurate for Paul and for many of us from earlier generations, may be somewhat out of date, behind the times. While immersion in the subculture formed my childhood and to a large extent, that of my children, I am not sure that this is the expectation or intent of many today as we moving deeper into the 21st century. Churches are not organized in the same fashion and don’t have the same goals and purposes.

In particular Churches are no longer extended family, don’t see themselves as such and are not expected by most who attend to be such. Rather than deep social bonds and shared experiences participating in worship and taking turns teaching, we have  a much looser association of individuals and family units who gather for worship. The self-sufficiency of the homeschool movement may be part of this overall cultural shift – not a cause, but another facet providing insight into the cultural changes. We are a very individualistic culture. Self-sufficiency and self-feeding are the watchwords for the future, not interdependence and community.

Although the children do still attend Sunday school, where they learn stories and songs together with parents freed to attend the worship service.

But perhaps I’m missing something.   I’d like to know what you think.

Is church as a second home good, neutral, or a net negative?

Is it important for children? Is it important for adults?

And perhaps more to the point …

Is the community based evangelical subculture becoming a relic of the past?

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  • This is insightful, rjs. I have noticed the shift, but thought that it was perhaps geographical in nature.

    I miss having this for my kids. As someone who grew up this way, I feel so adrift without it.

  • And as to has this culture at large shifted to the homeschooling community? I’ve educated my children at home for 15 years and would have to say “no.” Homeschooling does draw like-minded families together, but often it is online. It is not truly organized, only loosely knit. There are not structures nor accountability nor older generations looking out for and nurturing the younger ones (as in the local church) – it is largely focused on individual families. (In fact, it almost centers around individual rights and responsibilities, and on the parents’ duty to be in charge of their children’s education.)

  • Rick

    If the members of the community do not cut themselves off from the rest of the world, then I think it is a good, healthy, needed thing.

    Apart from the fact that the Wed. night service does not seem as popular as in years past, I think “small groups” have taken the gatherings away from the church building and put it in homes and neighborhoods. Therefore, the close interaction with many at church is now just on Sunday mornings, and not as deep, but closer community is taking place with tighter groups.

    I think the “missional” push by many has created more balance. Furthermore, the generation that grew up in this atmosphere is aging, and the rising generations are reportedly more outreach oriented.

  • RJS


    I think small groups fill a needed niche – they are valuable. But I don’t think they fill this niche. They are two small, too homogeneous, and too exclusionary. (If they are none of these, they don’t fill the needed function of providing a place for accountability and vulnerability.)

    I think you will also find that this cut off from the world criticism is overblown, especially for the vast majority who were involved in public schools and their local communities.

  • MattR

    Church for me growing up was definitely like the authors described… a “second home.”

    This was both good and bad.

    Good, in the sense that my faith was infused from an early age as a relational faith. And for many in my youth group, their family life was such that this was one of the ONLY positive family experiences they had.

    On the negative… Once I began to re-evaluate the more fundamentalist aspects of this culture as a young adult, it was harder to break away. It felt like one was not just changing theology, but leaving FAMILY. Felt the impact for many years.

    I think your hunch is correct RJS, this community culture has shifted in recent years. Those in their late teens and early twenties I talk to do not automatically see the church as ‘family,’ but rather themselves as individuals navigating a program or set of programs.

    In a sense, this might make it easier to shed some of the baggage, and take on a richer or more progressive theology… But I fear maybe we have lost something in the process.

  • Mark Farmer

    “That was then…but is it now?” Aye, there’s the rub! This post was a helpful reminder for me as I pastor a consciously family-style congregation. We are finding that model increasingly difficult to maintain. Thanks, rjs, for articulating the question so well.

    Here is my question: If a small congregation cannot maintain its traditional extended-family model, with what can they replace it without growing much larger? I see no other alternative than redefining what it means to be extended family, just as the larger culture has. We can cultivate ways to stay in touch in other ways, and meet less often. As Judy Collins sang, “Something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day….”

  • John W Frye

    My observations as a pastor are that focus on the Christian family became ‘the Great Commission’ of the USAmerican evangelical churches. The jingle sounds good: “Good families make good churches and good churches make good communities, etc.” but the actual practice stops at the boundary of the family. Christian parents become almost paranoid “to get their kids saved.” Don’t remind them of the global call and mission of the church. Evangelicals focused primarily on their own families have generally little missional impact. In making the family first and the church second, we have lost the kingdom impact of both.

  • Elizabeth

    Unless the church ‘family’ is very healthy and welcoming, I would think that single people (and perhaps widowed, divorced, childless/child-free) people might not feel included as they don’t fit into the mold of the perfect family unit.

    Is church as a second home good, neutral, or a net negative?

    It depends so much on the healthy function of this ‘second home’ – it can be so wonderful and nurturing, but dysfunctional families (nuclear and church) are often characterized by secrets, abuse, authoritarianism, unspoken threats. There are fewer of these risks to “an individual navigating a program or a set of programs” (as per Matt’s comment, #5).

    Agree with others that “that was then but is less true now.”

  • What changes everything today is we are no longer a nation of families. In certain significant demographics, the number of single adults is greater than married adults with children. Therefore, the church should not expect the same size crowds as there once were to Marriage Encounter weekends, How to Raise your Children Seminars and Sunday School with a family emphasis. And people have stoked the “busyness fires” to the exploding point. More than anything else, busyness and singleness have fueled the popularity of the Sunday morning “Mini-concert and Inspirational Blurb” hour that passes for church in gymnatoriums today.

  • Louise

    I am a boomer who lived far away from my biological family as a young adult and while raising children. Our Evangelical church was like our extended family and support group all rolled into one. It was a place of belonging. We moved from mainline Presbyterian to Evangelical because there were more children, and more men and families attending. Not only that but most of the local community services and ministries were affiliated with the church and we liked that. Our children grew up immersed in this culture but attended public schools where we encouraged them toward the most challenging classes. Two attended private non-denominational Christian colleges. The first came out very cynical and almost lost his faith entirely. The second left the Christian college to pursue a career (radiology tech) not offered at the college. Both felt like they were not Christian enough at the Christian colleges but were too obviously Christian in public school. The third just attended secular state universities and has had struggles of her own.

    As our home church has grown larger the emphasis has shifted onto the small groups to offer support to families within the church and it is not the same in my opinion. Some people fall through the cracks. Home school families, Christian school attendees, and public school attendees seem to kind of stick together in their own subcultures within the church too.
    I would probably do it all over again as the net for our family was positive, all of our adult children retain faith in Jesus Christ but all are more liberal than their father and I.
    As families continue to break down in our society as Mike noted in comment #9, churches centered around traditional families will not suffice. This is the sad reality.

  • AHH

    I think John Frye @7 is onto something with his mention of focus on the Christian family.

    As the church has increasingly idolized the Ozzie & Harriet nuclear family (even as a smaller fraction of the population is in such families), I see several consequences:
    – Most basically, the idea of the church as extended family gets left behind as parents with their own kids are the only unit that counts.
    – As parents follow society in making their own kids the center of the universe (helicopter parenting, shuttling kids to zillions of extracurricular activities), they are less available to participate in the church.
    – Single people, childless couples, and the elderly, who might have served as part of the church extended family, are marginalized and sometimes alienated by the church that idolizes the nuclear family.

    I also wonder if the increasing professionalization of ministry harms the idea of an extended family. Often the expectation now is not that the Body of Christ does the ministry, but that we hire staff to do the ministry (as we hire people to perform other consumer services).

  • Randy Gabrielse

    IMHO: The conservative subculture that many of us grew up in was one of white Anglo Saxon maleness where we were very comfortable with people like ourselves, and with spreading the gospel to people who were different but very far away and so not a threat to our communities. (Witness the number of church splits that occurred during this time frame, and what they were over.) Most alarmingly, I believe they fostered a sense of superiority that looks remarkably like that of 1st-Century Jews who expected and longed for the Messiah, but totally missed what he was about when he came. –Specifically, I remember going to a Christian school. Some of our calendar differed from that of the public schools. When they had off and we were in school we saw them around the borders of our school and play-yard and hated them as “publics”., who were utterly different from us, rather than as people whose parents could not afford to send their children to Christian schools. We were never encouraged to see other people as made in the Image of God, like we knew we were. Maybe if we had, we might have found it easier to befriend and reach out to them.

    On the other hand, we got to hear many great sermons on how we were “the elect” and they were not.
    Randy Gabrielse

  • RJS


    Interesting. That wasn’t my experience. All of us were in public schools. Many of the adults were public school teachers or administrators. A member of the school board was in our church.

    The church was an extended family, but we were not really separated from the local community.

  • DRT

    Fun, my culture was that half went to Catholic school, the bad half had to go to CCD class on Saturdays because they went to public school.

  • DRT

    I was not raised in this type of culture, but have a question. The churches I have now attended have a process of questioning the children and adults to tell them the family problems so they may pray for them. This was one of the big problems I had in my previous church since these teachers should not be quizzing the kids to see “who to pray for”. Is that common everywhere now or just here in rural VA.

  • DRT

    …and in case I am not clear, the last thing I want is every detail of my life to be shared with everyone in the church! Just because they go to my church does not make them family.

  • John C. Gardner

    It seems to me that America has always been too individualistic.
    An apt image would be “me and Jesus sitting on a log together.” The evangelical churches which I have been a part don’t have a robust ecclesiology or a operational view of the church as the Body of Christ.
    This is a sad reality.

  • Yes and no to the question of community in Jesus being family. Of course it most certainly is, and the Spirit works that way in spite of ourselves. But we are so individualistic in terms of our spirituality we’ve inherited, and we live in such an individualized society, that our default is not to mix. That’s not the point for us, to interact, and grow up in that, even in a commitment to each other. This needs to become intentional, and indeed a value not only written, but practiced. And by and large in my experience, it has been the status quo, with some good, notable exceptions.