“Holy Huddles”

A fascinating article (free sub. req.) in the New York Times today about young evangelicals. The thrust is that the under-35 crowd in evangelicalism (at least those among the young urban professional class) remains fairly conservative socioculturally and politically but is nevertheless consciously separating itself from what one source in the article called the “suit and tie power brokers of the evangelical right.” The article is worth the time on its own terms, but it occurred to me while reading it that the backlash against the Falwell-Robertson-Dobson approach to politicized Christianism, as it’s been called, may well be part of what’s contributing to the decline of Christian retail and other aspects of religious culture that rely, as I was trying to say in an earlier post, on Christians’ wanting to separate themselves from the wider world.

Money quote:

The older generation, the congregants said, had drifted away from Jesus’s example.

“What the church has done wrong is that it has created these ‘holy huddles’ of Christian magazines, music and schools that have set them apart from the world because the world is bad,” said Mr. Beckemeier, who grew up in an evangelical family. “Instead of doing what Christ did, and bring light to the world, they retreat from it.”

This is a perfect example of what I was talking about when I wrote the other day about the ethos of contemporary evangelicalism having gone from “be like us,” to “we’re like you.”

Beckmemeier is a 30-year-old member of a stealth Baptist church called the Journey in St. Louis. I say stealth because in a lot of ways I got the impression reading the article that the church and its members really can’t do enough to distance themselves optically from the Southern Baptist brand, starting with the church’s name.

For instance, Beckemeier’s comment came from a weekly discussion group for other young church members that meets in the back of a local brew pub and restaurant (Schlafly Bottleworks, which is a great place … a lot of local graduate students hung out there when I was in graduate school, and it’s exactly the kind of just-hip-enough-but-not-too-much local place one might go if one were a young Christian trying to shed the image of the conventional Baptist but without crossing over to the dark side of a full-blown cocktail lounge). That has prompted the Missouri Baptist Convention to … wait for it … cut off funding for new churches like the Journey because gatherings of Baptists at a restaurant where alcohol is served start people down the path to sin.

I don’t know about that. But I do seem to recall Missouri Baptists like a lot of other SBC types back in the 80s claiming that anyone who shopped where newly legalized lottery tickets were sold was headed down the path to sin, until lottery tickets became so ubiquitous that a path-to-sin boycott would mean no groceries or gas. So we stopped hearing a lot about that. Next it was buying groceries at stores where beer was sold. Path to sin! That is, until Wal-Mart added full beer selections to their grocery stores. So we stopped hearing a lot about that, too. This kind of selective, and somewhat self-serving, sanctimony has been the norm from the holy-huddler leadership of mainstream evangelicalism as long as we 30-somethings can remember, whether we lived it from the inside or watched it from the outside. And now these Journey folks are on the receiving end of holy huddleism.

So we shouldn’t be terribly surprised if no one from this 2,000-member church bothers to shop at the local Lifeway store any time soon. And even if they did, I wouldn’t expect many of these young people to pick up any southern gospel. It’s not because they might not like it (I’m sure some would) but because no matter how many sg groups update their wardrobe to bidness-casual, the sg brand is still deeply aligned with the suit-and-tie evangelical establishment (Charles Stanley, John Hagee, TBN, Rod Parsley etc). In cultivating explicit relationships with these rearguard figures and institutions, much of the industry continues to act like the future of the music is in making gospel the soundtrack for the kind of “holy huddle” evangelicalism that can’t countenance a group of church friends socializing in the back of a restaurant that sells beer.

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  1. philip elwood wrote:

    There was a professor of Theology at one of the ivy league colleges who un surprisingly was a liberal Biblical scolar. However,he didn’t start out that way. His first college was Bob Jones,followed by Wheaton and so on. He was informed of the fact the higher up he went in the university pecking order the harder it would be to hang on to his fundamentalist right wing faith.What i’m trying to say is, there is a direct correlation between education, intellectual ability, socio-economic status etc and how people choose to display their faith. You will notice the St Louis folk were young professionals.Right wing southern baptists,i’m sure, are mostly made up of a totally different demographic type.Then take Thomas Jefferson, clever man that he was, shock horror, a dualist! A well it takes all sorts…..

  2. philip elwood wrote:

    Silly me. Scholar not scolar. Apologies.

  3. philip elwood wrote:

    Before i get shot down by some theologian,i meant Deist.(TJ could have taken part in the odd dual of course).

  4. judi wrote:

    One point about The Journey is that they chose Schlafly bottleworks’ community meeting room to hold a Wednesday night Bible Study. That’s right. I’ve been there to eat during the middle of the week and the people come in carrying their Bibles. Some of them are couples but there are many singles, and they are mostly 20s-40s from what I could see. One night I saw two young women, one of them very pregnant, come in and head for the gathering. The restaurant is also the location of a weekly farmers’ market that features organic products, so there is a kind of upscale, yuppie cast to it. It’s something of a community center, and the Journey decided to go where the people were, rather than hanging out a shingle and waiting for people to come to them. And yet The Journey also has taken over the space of an older church in the city and has just a simple sign, ‘the Journey’ out front. I had to look twice and then the traffic took my attention away. None of this is to take away from your point but to provide a little local color to AVFL readers from out of town.

  5. Kyle wrote:

    VERY good point on demographics…..

  6. not a grammarian wrote:

    I’m guessing you meant “duel”??
    I have an uncle (former history professor at Johns Hopkins University) who explained the process this way — you expand your knowledge so that you know more and more (detail) about less and less (narrowing your focus) until you finally know everything about nothing - then you have truly arrived. I suspect that is the case with your liberal theologian at Ivy League establishment - more and more knowledge, less and less application

  7. Glenn wrote:

    Phillip Ellwood,

    Who are you and where have you been? Doug, great post and one of the reasons I enjoy your blog.

  8. RF wrote:

    I was raised in what was a traditional Southern Baptist Church. Along about the time I became an adolescent, one of the deacons got a revelation from God that the church should become independent, answerable only to the Lord and not the folks in Nashville (or wherever the SBC was located then). They went at it hot and heavy, boycotting stores, forming a Christian Academy (in a community where no one had any problem with the schools), refusing to associate with other churches in town, and vowed to only do business with other church members, “so we will know where our money is going.”

    I left.

    Today, the church which swelled to nearly 400 members (remember this is a rual community) in its heyday, now stuggles to get 150. The academy has 24 students. The weekly collections to be sent to Jerry Falwell stopped years ago, and people moved on mostly to other churches.

    One upon a time, the church leadership told the members not to buy at a certain Christian bookstore because they carried those evil Catholic Bibles and rosary beads.

    Where did those people end up? In one of three Pentacostal churches in the community. What of the theology–Baptist usually don’t cotton to speaking in tongues. None of that goes on these days in the local churches. But the music does and the freedom from man-made rules seems to have these churches growing. And guess what? Most of them are in the 20-40 age group, too. Even in Appalachia.

  9. philip elwood wrote:

    Not a grammarian, you were right, an other typo, bad,bad. Tends to water down ones argument. Glenn: who am i? A 47 yr old wasp. Where have i been? Lots of places. Any thing else?

  10. philip elwood wrote:

    Pup for pub? Even Dr.Doug can make the occasional howler.

  11. philip elwood wrote:

    #6. That piece of homespun philosophy apply to all areas of academia does it? With that mentality God help us we would still be treating ringworm with a white swan feather dipped in iodine and building futile Towers of Babel skywards. But then again that suits alot of evangelicals,if doesn’t involve a ’simple child like faith’ then it must be Satan inspired. Sadly thus,preventing any form of progress social or otherwise. Fundamentalism + extreme right-wing evangelicalism = dark ages.

  12. charismatic clergy wrote:

    God has not changed we have ! It’s hard to find a place where you can hear the truth.A sign of the times,If a preacher stands behind the pulpit and preaches the truth the deacons,council ,elders (whatever your church calls them) are ready to run him off and HIRE another preacher.The signs of power are not being seen because we(the church as a whole) don’t want a move of God we want a God that fits our ideas.

  13. not a grammarian wrote:

    #11 (are you one of the original Blues Brothers?)
    Not at all, just pointing out that even in academia, they are aware of that danger. Ravi Zacharias and Ergun Caner would be other arguments against your point with a less “homespun” argument.
    My point is that you can become so cerebral about your faith that not only does it have no effect on your day to day walk, but that “information overload” can sour you on what you derisively label ’simple child like faith’ . I believe there was another very early teacher who mentioned that as well, what was his name? Seems to me they put his words in red in the back part of my Bible. According to you, it couldn’t possibly be important since it happened so long ago - we’re so much more educated than that simple carpenter, right?

  14. thom wrote:

    to Judi #4 - thanks for the insight as to the location. It sounds like they are doing a good thing and reaching people that they may not reach otherwise.

    to the rest of you: So what if the restaurant sells beer?

  15. Leebob wrote:

    I saw a great example of what has happened to the church way back in the early 80s and it still ahs application today.

    This particular evangelist placed the Bible on a stand and called for 2 volunteers. 1 was near the Bible a little to the left holding a sign depicting “the world” and the other was about 5 paces away on the other side of the Bible to the right holding a sign depicting “the church”. This depicted where the world and the church were coordinated with one another in relation to God particularly in the USA around the time of “Leave It To Beaver”. He made the stattement that the church was separated from the world but actually a little off from the Word.

    Both participants took three steps to the left thus placing “the church” pretty close to the Bible and still separated from the world. Another five steps later and “the world was nearly outside the small sanctuary and “the church” was still separated from “the world”, but farther away from the Word.

    His point was this: the church for too long has used “the world” as a focal point in relation to their stance with Christ and consequemtly used visible measuring sticks (i.e. dress, hairstyle, theatre attendance, etc.) to distinguish themselves from the world but kept creaping farther adn farther from the Father.

    “Set your affection on things above and not on things below.” Far too long I allowed those “in the know” pre-determine how my walk with Christ should be instead of allowing the Holy Spirit direct my life. Released from those shackles my walk with Christ has flourished because I am now running the race that He has set for me, not anybody else.

    I am tired of reading the judgemental attitudes of those “in the know” on here adn other places who miraculously know what God’s plan is, not only for themselves, but the rest of Christendom. Live your life, get it right, tehn worry about others.

  16. Josh wrote:

    I’m a pentacostal who graduated from a Christian accademy.We are not fundamentalist nut cases like some might want to believe.I’m a young man(26) and I chose this way.

  17. philip elwood wrote:

    #16.Doh.Fancy a cameo in the Simpsons? Classic example of demographics.

  18. philip elwood wrote:

    #13NAG. Elwood’s my surname not my forename.

  19. Brian wrote:

    Very nice Leebob…I may use that tid bit. I think that is an accurate account of where we are as the Church. We have shifted our focus. I am not accountable to the world, only to Christ.

    Josh…me too. A little older but me too. It was a choice. My Bible says there is no wide path to Heaven, only narrow ways. The wide path leads to distruction, not my words. If that makes the Holy, inerrant Word of God a narrow minded way, then count me in. “I’ll take the ole Highway, the one called straight. It’s very narrow, all the way to the gate. It started at Calvary, thats where I got on. It’s the old, old Highway paved with Grace all the way Home.” Yeah, I stick with that one.

  20. Letitia (The Damsel) wrote:


  21. TN wrote:

    There is a southern gospel connection with The Journey, however. Joel Lindsey is either currently involved at the church and/or helped plant it. I wonder if “southern gospel” songs have been “done” there and it’s just not presented as “southern gospel.” I used to work at a large church in the same area and we sang southern gospel(progressive) specials at a 90% praise and worship church and they went nuts for it. I think it’s the perception and history of the label “southern gospel.”

  22. Brian wrote:

    I read the article that is linked above. Am I the only one who finds it interesting that they say there is no politcal agenda, no politcal talk, it should be Gospel not politics…however they make sure that all of their “non-political” talking points are made? For example, global warming, help for those infected with HIV, immigration, stem cell research and so on. The entire article is political including all of the polls cited and talks of discussions they had at the bar. The article states that the older generation of Southern Baptist have become to politcal but the entire article about the “new” Church is an article about where they stand politcally. Am I the only one scratching my head on this one?

  23. Joel Lindsey wrote:


    There are, oddly enough, four Joel Lindsey’s in the world, all of whom are songwriters. Weird, huh? Anyway…I’m the southern gospel songwriter and not the worship leader at The Journey. I actually have mutual friends with this other guy and they say we even look alike! But, alas, we are two different people.

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