An excerpt from Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, a new book by Omri Elisha.

There are many ways to be ambitious, and many different objectives that ambitious people aspire to aside from wealth and power. For those we call “people of faith,” the life of religious commitment is a relentless, often challenging pursuit of virtues that-like fame, fortune, or artistic genius-are perceived as elusive yet ultimately attainable. Whether such virtues are enacted in everyday life or conceived in other-worldly terms, the ambitions that propel religious people toward lofty ideals are rooted in cultural practices that allow sacred pursuits, including the triumph of righteousness over mediocrity, to appear not only desirable but always close at hand. The ambitions of religious faith, and for that matter all personal aspirations that we often misrecognize as expressions of radical individuality, are inherently social in their inception and saturated in moral content.

This book is about evangelical Protestants affiliated with megachurches and faith-based ministries in the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, and the ambitious efforts of some pastors and churchgoers to increase their faith community’s investments in various forms of altruistic social engagement. Based on nearly sixteen months of ethnographic research carried out between 1999 and 2002, my study focuses on cultural practices and individual experiences related to organized benevolence and social outreach, areas of ministry that are fraught with ideological tension. In describing how conservative and predominantly white evangelicals navigate the shifting and contested boundaries of social engagement, I offer an in-depth perspective on important aspects of North American evangelicalism-including the complexity of evangelical moral and political attitudes at the congregational level-about which there has been much speculation but little concrete analysis.

Through my discussion of the moral ambitions of evangelical social engagement it will become clear that in the process of assuming an activist orientation, conservative evangelicals position themselves to renew and even redefine the terms of Christian evangelism-the project of “spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ”-in ways that reflect changing personal, social, and political circumstances. In so doing they also experience shifts, however subtle, in their ideological and even theological perspectives, which can at times put them at odds with other members of their home congregations and the prevailing cultural politics of the Christian Right. Nonetheless, their ambitions remain roughly consistent with a broad ideological agenda that underlies most instances of grassroots activism and institutionalization in modern evangelicalism. That agenda is the Christianization of culture, or “the reformulation of social relations, cultural meanings, and personal experience in terms of putatively Christian ideals” (Hefner 1993: 3-4).* In the case of conservative evangelicals, those “putatively Christian ideals” are closely linked to a morality rooted in biblical fundamentalism and premillennial apocalypticism. They also stem from more or less articulated notions of public theology, which for contemporary evangelicals entail collective efforts to redefine civil society as a space of missionary intervention, efforts that have been well served by recent national trends such as the proliferation of evangelical megachurches and the political currency of “faith-based initiatives” in the wake of federal welfare reform….

Early on in my fieldwork I was advised by members of the evangelical community to get in touch with a man named Paul Genero*, who was then a staff pastor at a small suburban church with close ties to Eternal Vine Church. They told me that he too was “writing a book” about churches and faith-based ministries in Knoxville. I later learned that he had recently completed a fairly comprehensive survey of faith-based social services in Knoxville, with an emphasis on Christian community organizations and church programs. He circulated the findings in a self-published report full of regional statistics on problems such as poverty, homelessness, at-risk youth, and domestic violence, combined with moving biographical sketches of social workers and clients whose stories of despair turned to hope were meant to inspire local churchgoers to take action. When I finally contacted Paul in the fall of 2000, our initial phone conversation had that remarkable spark of serendipity, that moment when individual pursuits (in this case, his and mine) are forever changed by the fact that their paths have fortuitously converged.

The first thing that struck me about Paul was his infectious enthusiasm. “You’re blowing my mind here!” he kept saying, as I explained that I was a doctoral student from New York studying the social outreach efforts of local megachurches. He could hardly believe it, and relished the fact that someone other than himself was interested in studying “what God is trying to do in Knoxville,” as he phrased it. Wasting no time at all, he immediately pointed out that we would surely benefit from one another’s work, and he recommended that we meet in person as soon as possible so he could tell me about a new Christian faith-based organization that he was creating to improve the state of social ministries in Knoxville. Two days later I met Paul in the parking lot of a barbecue restaurant on Kingston Pike, Knoxville’s main commercial artery. He was a slim, energetic man in his midthirties with an athletic stature and a warm, slightly mischievous grin that seemed never to leave his face. As soon as I arrived Paul suggested that we go to a different location, where it would be easier to talk. I got in my car and followed his pickup truck to a small café by the railroad tracks about a half mile away. It was an artsy spot, popular among local hipsters and college students, where poets and folk musicians performed and artists displayed their work.

With little prodding on my part, Paul launched into a lengthy but eloquent commentary enumerating his complaints, aspirations, and strategic intentions with regard to local churches and faith-based ministries. He argued that one of the biggest problems with Christianity in “middle-class America” was a general lack of commitment to addressing the problems facing poor and needy people “in our own backyards.” He said that evangelical churches have become woefully inadequate in their mission to relieve suffering and offer hope to the distressed and have lost sight of the fact that compassion is a theological imperative, equal in importance to other components of Christian evangelism. “We’ve always been good at proclamation evangelism-preaching sermons and handing out pamphlets and such-but we’re terrible at loving people.” He added that conservative churches in the Bible Belt have “atrophied” with regard to “the social action part of Christianity,” and that this was particularly ironic in a region known for its religious fervor.

Omri Elisha, author of Moral Ambition

Paul tore a clean sheet of paper from his notebook, drew a series of small circles randomly on the page, and twisted the paper around for me to see. The circles represented individual churches, dispersed and isolated like desert islands. This, he explained, was the current state of affairs in Knoxville: evangelical churches stubbornly refusing to work together and having little impact on the greater region. Paul then drew one large circle encompassing the others and said that this represented the spirit of unity and cooperation that will exist once churches are convinced of the need to work together to address pressing social and spiritual concerns. Conservative evangelical churches, he explained, tend to be “extremely ignorant” of social issues beyond their sanctuary walls “because they are too busy taking care of the flock.” The first step toward fixing this was to educate people, and then to create organizational networks for communication and collaboration that will allow congregations to be more effective at social outreach. “We can love the city better together than on our own,” he said, “and that’s why we need structures for high-impact mobilization.” This was the impetus behind Paul’s plan to form a coalition of like-minded churches and faith-based ministries, and he would soon resign from his staff position at church in order to coordinate the effort full-time. The purpose of the resulting organization, which I will refer to as the Samaritans of Knoxville, was to streamline informational and material resources for church pastors, ministry professionals, social workers, and lay volunteers who were eager to increase the levels of outreach and volunteerism among Knoxville’s churchgoing evangelicals. The Samaritans of Knoxville would also facilitate training workshops and distribute materials such as sermons and study guides that were meant to inspire and educate churches that were less than wholeheartedly committed to social ministries. Paul’s ultimate vision, however, was even grander and resonated with the broad, seemingly utopian visions expressed by many of the evangelicals I spoke with: “We’re after a cultural transformation. We’re asking Christians to be Christians. If Christians would live like Christians, the aroma-the sweet smell of Jesus-would just overpower everything!”

Part of the aim of this book is to explore what happens when religious actors of a certain aspirational persuasion-people like Paul Genero-pursue moral ambitions that are recognized as virtuous by others and simultaneously regarded with ambivalence and aversion. I examine how such moral ambitions are shaped within specific cultural and institutional milieus that define, authorize, and constrain their actual potential. Moreover, I analyze the mobilization strategies employed by those who, in claiming these moral ambitions, seek to inspire others to follow suit. The strategies usually involved identifying and critiquing deficiencies in the faith community, and then proposing socially relevant methods of counteracting those deficiencies. All told, this book portrays a localized cultural arena where I found conservative evangelicals engaged in modest yet meaningful activities akin to what Sherry Ortner has called “serious games”: a concept that helps us think about “the way in which people are defined and constrained by the intersections of culture, power, and history in which they find themselves, and yet at the same time are active players in making (and sometimes remaking) those worlds that have made them” (1999: 35).

Omri Elisha is an assistant professor at Queens College, CUNY.  He received his PhD in Anthropology from New York University. 

Editor’s Note: Names of individuals and churches are all pseudonyms.  For complete footnotes, refer to the book.