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.)
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.
Why? For many it is because churches aren't run like businesses:
... James Unruh, who served as the chief executive of Unisys, was also at one time an elder at his Presbyterian church in California. He has since decided he will never serve again. He couldn't stand the inefficiency of church meetings, a common refrain among those I interviewed.
"It's very frustrating to be patient and not to try to run things because that's what you're doing all day in your business," Unruh told me. Others described local congregations as "inefficient," "unproductive" and "focused on the wrong things."
These factors are driving evangelical leaders into the arms of fellowship groups that exist outside the churches, often called "parachurch" organizations. The shift began in the 1950s, but it grew dramatically over the past 20 years as the parachurch sector became more professional and well-resourced. Nearly three-fourths of the leaders I interviewed serve on the board of at least one parachurch organization, such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They prefer these groups because they have a broader reach and a bigger impact...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?