President Bush is Public Evangelical No. 1. His presidency is the capstone of evangelicals' 30-year rise from the margins of society to the halls of power. But while the president has gone to great lengths to testify publicly to his faith, he often doesn't do the one thing that defines most evangelicals — go to church. He attends chapel at Camp David and other special services, but the president rarely can be found in a congregation on Sunday morning. (In contrast, Presidents Carter and Clinton both attended services in Washington during their tenures.)Why the disconnect? Many of them said they couldn't stand the way churches are run - inefficient, unproductive and focused on the wrong things - so this led many evangelical leaders into fellowship groups that exist outside the church called "parachurch" organizations (like the Billy Graham Association). They feel these groups have a broader reach and more impact.
Surprised? When most of us think of devout evangelicals, we think of people who attend church regularly and are active in their local congregations. Yet many of the most prominent evangelicals do neither. They regularly attend Bible studies and religious gatherings, including last week's National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, but many can't be found in the pews on Sunday. [...]
I spent the past five years interviewing some of the country's top leaders — two U.S. presidents (George H.W. Bush and Carter), 100 CEOs and senior business executives, Hollywood icons, celebrated artists and world-class athletes. All were chosen because of their widely known faith. Yet I was shocked to find that more than half — 60% — had low levels of commitment to their denominations and congregations. Some were members in name only; others had actively disengaged from church life.
I can understand some of their criticism. Churches are run by people with various ideas and levels of commitment and the results are often dysfunctional, but ALL members of the congregation are encouraged to participate in the church community regardless of gender, race, income, etc. No one is left behind. That's not the case with these elite evangelicals.
In an effort to evangelize among the nation's elite, evangelicals have launched hundreds of invitation-only programs and organizations. Business leaders in Manhattan conduct Bible studies that meet in private clubs. Fellowship groups in Washington are reserved for diplomats and members of Congress. The CEO Forum, an invitation-only group for CEOs of large corporations, has been extremely important to the religious formation of many business executives. And, ironically, meetings designed to spur Christian philanthropy are held at fancy hotels and resorts. Indeed, the evangelical advance into the nation's higher circles has entailed an extension of, instead of a departure from, the privileged and powerful worlds these leaders regularly inhabit. Yet how does an exclusive religious fellowship square with Christian teaching? [Emphasis added]How indeed. Jesus hung out among the poor, homeless and sick, and He often scolded the rich for throwing fancy banquets that excluded the poor. In fact, He told them to invite them in and seat them at the best tables and give them the best food. I'm pretty sure Jesus wouldn't approve of "invitation-only" worship and fellowship. I'm not the only one appalled. Their actions aren't going over too well with church leaders either.
Pastors and religious leaders — not just among evangelicals, but also among liberal and mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews — are concerned about these developments. Churches lose out on talented, bright volunteer leaders. Wealthy believers lose out on spiritual fellowship. And most important, the people in the pews lose out because, while evangelicals have political power as never before, those who wield it have lost touch with the kind of people they used to see every Sunday.They've also lost touch with the lessons they learned in church - or maybe they weren't really important to them in the first place.