Don't Reach

Michael Metzger

Eric Metaxas says America’s elites are the next unreached people group. He’s on to something. We might, however, assume that if elites are unreached, outreach is the solution. Not true.

Metaxas is the author of the biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. He recently wrote an excellent article describing America’s elites as “the next unreached people group.” “For better or worse, it is our cultural elites who determine much of what goes on in the rest of the culture, who can set the tone and content of the cultural conversation.” Just as there is trickle-down economics, Metaxas writes that there is “trickle-down culture.”1

Metaxas recounts the work of William Wilberforce and the Clapham circle as one example. This elite network abolished the slave trade, enacted banking reform, improved the treatment of prisoners, enacted child labor laws, cared for orphans, combatted alcoholism, fought against prostitution, improved illiteracy among the poor, and abolished public spectacles of animal cruelty. That was a long time ago however.

Much of modern evangelicalism is no longer influential with elites. Metaxas characterizes the evangelical faith as mostly individualistic (emphasizing conversions over cultural renewal), anti-elite, and anti-intellectual. The result is that America’s elites now constitute an unreached people group. Many evangelicals will read Metaxas’s fine article and assume outreach is the way to reach these unreached elites. The etymology of the word “outreach” should make us think twice about that.

In the early 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States. He then summarized impressions in a book, Democracy in America. Tocqueville commented on how American upper, middle, and lower classes lived together in cities and worked to solve local problems. “In the United States, the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day.” In his brilliant new book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray notes: “That’s not true anymore.”2

In the mid-1800s, new immigration patterns began to turn cities into mixing bowls of mixed races. Cities lost social cohesion. The cultural elites fled the urban squalor but still offered “expert” ideas on how cities ought to operate. In 1870, elites coined the word “outreach” to justify their work of reaching into communities they had deserted, posing as the authorities for fixing urban problems they no longer personally experienced.

This is the problem with “outreach.” At the core, it’s condescending. Elites see it as reaching down to pull up the less fortunate. And to some degree it works. Culture is trickle-down. But outreach rarely works with peers. And it is especially ineffective with elites. If you recall mealtimes as a kid, you can see why.

I grew up as one of four sons. Mealtimes could be raucous. If I dropped my napkin, my parents instructed me to reach down and pick it up. But we were forbidden to reach across the table for food. “Don’t reach.” Instead, you politely asked someone to pass the ketchup. Reaching out was rude. This is why outreach to elites doesn’t work, especially given the changes in America’s upper class.

In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray describes how America’s cultural elites are now cloistered in what he calls “SuperZips.” There are 882 select zip codes in the United States where 80 percent of America’s elites now live.3 As one Princeton study notes, America’s well educated and affluent have “increasingly segmented themselves off from the rest of American society.” You can’t do outreach to reach them because reaching is only effective downward. Reaching across the classes, or upward, isn’t. To impact elites, they have to reach you.

That’s the solution, but it will difficult for some. It requires rewiring how we approach impacting cities. In the late 1980s, Harvard professors David McClelland and David Burnham began to notice a profound shift in what characterizes high-performing leaders. They discovered leaders producing top quartile results “return authority.” In terms of impacting elites, this means high-performing Christians don’t try to build bridges to elites. They instead ask questions, build mutuality, learn the complexities in elites’ problems, and discover whether they (Christians) are viewed as a “value-add” by elites in terms of solving problems. If Christians are, elites will build bridges to them.

Many Christians are surprised to learn that “outreach” is recent in history. The good news is that the next generation of evangelicals might be open to retiring it. America’s elites are the next unreached people group. Coming alongside and getting in there is part of the solution, but it requires retiring outreach. My sense is those young believers seeking to have the gospel taken seriously will work hard at becoming “value-adds.”


2 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 100.
3 Murray, Coming Apart, p. 79.


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  1. Is there a common standard, or measurable definition, by which one is considered “elite”? Is it the level of income, education, etc? I see the word used frequently and am unclear on this.

  2. “Elite” comes from the French word for “excellence.” The elites are those who are recognized as excelling in their gifts and abilities. They are influential individuals who enjoy disproportionate influence in society. They enjoy and exert influence primarily by working in and through overlapping networks of influential institutions. These institutions then have the means to influence behavior by creating images and items that shape desires.

  3. What would Michael Lindsay say who thinks that evangelicals have “joined the American Elites” & that there is “faith in the halls of power”? Just asking.

  4. In every domain of human endeavor, there are key institutions of influence who are themselves run by gatekeepers — individuals who stand at the doorway of influence. This is true nationally and locally within one’s neighborhood. Generally, there are four kinds of capital that these people hold: money, learning, social connections, or symbolic (the recognition by others that they have high amounts of the other three forms). What determines the amount of capital necessary for influence and what kind of capital is preferred is the field of human endeavor. Universities will bias learning, entertainment symbolic and Wall Street economic. It just depends on what field we are playing in. Depending on what game one is playing the trump card may differ. So it is relative to context.

  5. David:

    “Joining” (in some cases) might be the better word. I am for example mentioned by Lindsay as one of the elites. That’s kind but untrue. A few evangelicals are joining. Others are working to get through the door, so that they can walk the halls. But consider this: we live in a TGIF word, Twitter-Google-iPad-Facebook. Those are the halls of power, less so Washington. Not many evangelicals walking those halls, with their faith seen as a valuable resource for running those businesses.

  6. Hi Mike, and John,

    Great to read this piece. Read Eric M’s piece too. And of course Lindsay’s book years back. Thinking about the issue(s) really matters and your pieces are always valuable toward that end.

    A few thoughts: how change happens probably always changes, wouldn’t it, by definition? For example, Apple has changed the world, even though it’s a mere technology company seemingly void of spiritual or moral content; there’s just something about how our culture/world changes when so much of it changes even in just how we do our day’s work. It just might mean that who we think of as elite and how we might be among them and what emphasis might be meaningful might all change while we’re in process. Just being Mark Zuckerberg’s friend in school might bring you more access than a million spent anywhere else. Not to ditch analysis for fate but some “touching” rather than “reaching” is what it is because old-fashioned love & friendship never go out of style.

    I appreciate the analysis of the word outreach, and I understand the need to act differently, but the funny thing is that we’re still going to use the word in our evangelical tribe because we know what it means – in the same way that we know what we mean by the word evangelical – even though many of us are anxious to replace the word or stand apart from it in order to be what the word originally meant while we distance ourselves from cousins that we perceive are helping the cause of Christ in many sectors, but not ours.

    I wonder about touching/reaching elite professors. I have no clear-cut “how-to” answers but a lot of qualified guesses about how not to. I really like your “returning authority” notion though there seems to be nothing novel about it: it sounds like how friends talk with one another. Without that safety and closeness, nothing will really happen, will it?

    Mike, I don’t understand this: “a TGIF word, Twitter-Google-iPad-Facebook. Those are the halls of power, less so Washington.” Owning and/or managing these networking tools would mean a hall of power?

    To provide safety where one can be one’s self is hard to come by. We blow that we blow everything. Where it’s safe to be one’s self is where it’s safe to self-examine and then change. Often we evangelicals are not so safe, or, we are safe, but are puff-balls intellectually, theologically, or culturally, simply lacking depth. Thanks for the safety and depth you provide for us to wade around in and think these things through.

  7. Hi Dave:

    I appreciate your lengthy reply. A few comments.

    Your 2nd paragraph: I think you are confusing form and function. The dynamics of change – how it functions – don’t change. The forms (be it Apple, etc) can change. Second, there is no such things as a “mere” technology “devoid of spiritual of moral content.” I refer you to Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society.”

    Your 3rd paragraph: In his book “The Dying of the Light,” James Buchnell notes that wordsmithing is one indicator that a faith tradition has lost its ball in the weeds. In the game of golf, some lost balls are not worth retrieving. If, as you say, evangelicals are going to use the word “outreach” no matter what – working hard at wordsmithing it – then we have to ask whether today’s evangelical tradition (no more than 200 years old) is worth retrieving. Words matter – and I suggest that most evangelicals don’t in fact know what “outreach” literally means. Furthermore, outreach is incongruent with how high-performing leaders operate.

    Your 4th paragraph: I urge you to read “To Change the World” by James Hunter for a thorough and nuanced discussion on power and what he calls “center” institutions. Twitter-Google-iPad-Facebook are center institutions and wield disproportionate power in making culture.

  8. From Charles Murray’s article in the WSJ:

    If you are invited to a dinner party by one of Washington’s power elite, the odds are high that you will be going to a home in Georgetown, the rest of Northwest D.C., Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Potomac or McLean, comprising 13 adjacent ZIP Codes in all. If you rank all the ZIP Codes in the country on an index of education and income and group them by percentiles, you will find that 11 of these 13 D.C.-area ZIP Codes are in the 99th percentile and the other two in the 98th. Ten of them are in the top half of the 99th percentile.

    We’ve got some connections to make right here in DC! Very, very insightful. And thanks for linking to Metaxes article, brilliant stuff.

  9. Brent:

    You are exactly right. In fact, the largest contiguous geographic collection of SuperZIPs is in the Washington DC region – between Ellicott City (MD) and Springfield, VA.

    btw, in a survey of super elites, few if any could name (or claim to know) an evangelical. No surprise there.

  10. Dave:

    One more observation. While you are probably correct regarding the evangelical insistence to keep using the word “outreach” regardless of its connotations, I did notice that your organization (Campus Crusade for Christ) changed its name to “Cru.” CCC not longer insists on using “Crusade” in its title because it is a word with charged connotations in today’s world. Change can happen.

  11. Hi Mike, Well, I’m not with Cru, I’m the president of a different 501c3, The Leadership Connection. Yes, change can happen! I was only saying that although I’m sure your discovered definition of the word outreach is entirely correct, “collective evangelical memory” has no memory of the word’s origin, therefore they’re unlikely to change the use of the word because the “collective evangelical memory” of the word equates with evangelism, etc.

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