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.