Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why Evangelical Christians Matter and Why I (Sometimes) Like Them

Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University, calls the tremendous ongoing growth of the evangelical movement the most important religious and social movement in American history. Other scholars call it a revolution in American religion, restructuring our political and religious identity as a nation. Whether you agree or disagree, you are surely familiar with evangelicalism, the widespread adoption of a Bible-based worldview promoted by a diverse group of Christians who, over the past twenty-five years, have kept growing and growing, and growing. It’s not difficult to see this boom happening in my home state of Minnesota, with the unparalleled growth of Eagle Brook Church, an evangelical community started in 1991 that now boasts the highest weekend attendance of any church in the state (over 11,000). In December, Eagle Brook, which broadcasts televised sermons from its Lino Lakes campus to sites in Spring Lake Park and White Bear Lake, released to the press that it will be building two additional sites in Blaine and Woodbury, respectively. The Eagle Brook experience may seem foreign to Christians who are new to the “mega-church” scene; the sights and sounds of Eagle Brook include stadium seating, rock-type music, smoke on the stage, and a few hands waving in the air.

This past summer, I conducted twenty-four interviews at three Twin Cities churches as part of my Senior Individualized Project ("senior thesis") at Kalamazoo College. I studied Eagle Brook’s various campuses, House of Hope Church on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, and Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul to examine how the traditional patterns linking social class and belief about God in America are challenged by the increasing popularity of evangelicalism among the upper-middle class. One of the most important findings of the study posits that the congregation at Eagle Brook demonstrates a stunning in-group theological unity (i.e. everyone believes the same things), unparalleled by mainline Protestant churches like House of Hope and Central. In my analysis, I argued that Eagle Brook does this by directly defining expectations for the beliefs and behaviors of its congregants and by capitalizing on emotionally-charged group experiences with the sacred. They achieve this with culturally relevant services and by demonstrating mastery of the art of oral communication in a nation of talkers.

In a left-leaning state, there is no shortage of negative stereotypes about evangelicals. When I told fellow Minnesotans (or fellow students) about my thesis, they often responded with disparaging perceptions about evangelicals. Upon beginning the study, I myself assumed that evangelical culture embraces a stagnant thinking and irrational faith. After attending a few services and conducting several interviews, I discovered that, on the contrary, “Eagle Brookers” invest great energy into wrestling with the doubt and mystery of a Christian faith. Further, Eagle Brook places a radical emphasis on reducing global and local poverty beyond that of any church I had ever seen or heard of before.

Like many others, before I began the study I found it hard to rationalize the staggering costs of the facilities at Eagle Brook, with the construction of the Lino Lakes campus alone totaling $24 million. But throughout the course of the study, I began to see the astounding social impact of “Eagle Brookers.” According to my interview with executive pastor Rev. Scott Anderson, in the past three years alone, Eagle Brook has raised $2 million for the reduction of AIDS in Mozambique. Anderson said, “We can do more, too. I see it as a failure of the church that people…are starving. Shame on us when the Church of Jesus Christ is more worried about the air conditioning level in an office than about the people who are dying all around us.”

According to the Eagle Brook Church website (, since 2007, “Eagle Brookers” have filled and donated 4,300 backpacks to kids in need through Here’s Life Inner-City. Their March 2009 food drive yielded 23,100 pounds of food and almost $17,000 in cash donations for local food shelves. In November 2009, Eagle Brookers donated 5,753 gift-filled shoeboxes to be given to children in desperate situations around the world through Operation Christmas Child. The list of local and global social contributions goes on, and the point remains that Eagle Brook is making an astonishing social impact.

The facilities may be expensive, but the Eagle Brook community realizes that with such privilege comes great responsibility. Whether or not you agree with the theological or political opinions of the majority of evangelicals, there is no denying that the seriousness with which social issues are addressed at most “mega-churches” and the magnitude of their impact on poverty reduction leaves most mainline Protestant churches (and many secular non-profits) in the dust. As Eagle Brook and its like-minded churches nation-wide plan even more radical goals for poverty reduction in the coming years, I look forward to a more just local and global community. (Click here for a two-minute snippet of a sermon from Willow Creek Church, which inspired the "mega-church" movement. Click here for my favourite full-length sermon from "Willow" on enemy love.)


  1. I listened to both those links and found them interesting and actually, really unexpected. I guess I was surprised by how universal the enemy love sermon came across. I don't really know what I expected from an Evangelical preacher, but this wasn't it. I think I thought there would be more controversial remarks (ignorant, I know). I thought the first two minute snippet was really good too. Last semester I worked on a project for a historic church in downtown Minneapolis. At first, I have to admit I was really reluctant. Those class was on the economic benefits of historic preservation and I was really worried that this class would be more about saving a church than saving a building, and frankly, I was just not interested. I tried to get interested in the class but found it really hard until I met the former pastor of the church (This church was Methodist, but then the Methodist Conference removed the congregation and it became non-denominational, with a recovery focus). He was such a passionate and loving man. This church had done so much for the community- it was one of the first open and affirming churches in the country. In many ways, this pastor was on the front lines of when AIDS first started to spread in Minneapolis, seeing his congregation dying, taking in people who had been abandoned by their family because of their homosexuality. The fact is, he gave them a place where they could be loved when so many people had rejected them. It was then that I realized that the building, its people and its mission were really inseparable. To use what Bill Hybels said, it reminded me what's at stake when a church dies, and even if I don't believe in god, I do believe that what is at stake matters.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Nikki. That's so fascinating! I should mention that some of the sermons are more controversial, but I picked those because I like them and do find them more universal. I wanted to show how accessible and progressive evangelicalism can be.

    That church sounds really incredible. Unfortunately, as you well know, not every church is as welcoming as that one, but I still think it's sad that well-educated liberals tend to stereotype religion and Christianity in specific as a bad thing. Period. Pretty much every major religion has excluded people or perpetrated violence at one time or another, but almost every major religion has also done incredible things to broaden acceptance and spread affirmation and justice. Anyway, what ended up happening to the church you were working with?