Doughnuts

Michael Metzger

When Americans and Europeans look toward Africa, Asia, and Latin America, they see Christians doing many good things like digging wells. Closer to home, however, Western Christianity looks like a doughnut. Not healthy.

Early Christianity enjoyed success by working from the center of society outward. It embraced the “four-chapter” gospel – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. The human job description was “making cultures.” Since cultural analysts say cultures change from the center out – rarely if ever from bottom-up or top-down – the church’s strategy proved impactful. By starting in the middle, impacting elites and influentials, early Christianity was better resourced to serve the marginalized.

Starting with elites isn’t snobby. It’s sound history. It is sometimes true that political revolutions occur from the bottom up, but in the long term, they are almost always short-lived. Sociologists would say that, by starting in the center, the early church wasn’t a marginalized faith.

For example, by the 3rd century, Christians were influential advisors to emperors, including Julius Africanus, a Greek polymath from Palestine. “Far from being a socially depressed group, the Christians were dominated by a socially pretentious section of the population of big cities.”1 Origen of Alexandria went to Rome to help the emperor set up a library in the Pantheon. By AD300, over 50 percent of the Roman Empire population had converted to Christ.

John Adams said facts are stubborn things. The fact is, early Christianity wasn’t a religion of mostly under-privileged, uneducated people. “What is certain is that there is no room for the later romantic myth of Christians as a perpetually hounded minority. Nor is there truth to the modern myth that presents the advancement of Christianity as the rise of a religion of the underprivileged.”2 The early church started with the privileged and influential, extending outward to the underprivileged.

By the early 19th century, however, American evangelicalism began embracing “two-chapter” gospels (fall and redemption), what Dallas Willard calls “gospels of sin management.” The focus was on conversions more than cultures. European and American elites ignored these gospels, dismissing Christianity as a drug for the distressed, the down-and-out. Pushed to the periphery, Western Christianity became populist.

Historian Nathan Hatch writes that populism is the deepest impulse of evangelicalism. It is suspicious of institutions and elites (i.e., influentials). Populism believes in the power of everyday people to change the world “bottom-up.” It dismisses the need for cultural capital, so cultural elites in Europe and America dismissed the evangelical gospel.

Sensing this, evangelicals turned their attention overseas, sending out missionary waves. Two-chapter gospels are easier to sell to the down-and-out overseas than to influentials back home.

The result looks like a doughnut. When Western Christians look at a map of the world (most feature the US in the middle), Christianity has a hole in the middle. It looks like a doughnut. This is a problem, but it also presents an opportunity.

What problem? Modern Christianity’s “two-chapter” gospels explain why, on a global scale, Western Christianity is spreading south, into Africa, Asia, and Latin America.5 It is helping the down-and-out in Philippine barrios. But it can’t get a foot in the door in Philippino boardrooms. We’re replaying our 19th-century mistake in 21st century Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 19th-century Christianity, which became a doughnut here, is becoming a 21st-century doughnut there. The doughnut hole is growing.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the entire doughnut could one day disappear, taking with it “two-chapter” gospels. That would be good, but we shouldn’t overlook an opportunity here.

What’s that? There’s a new generation of younger believers who recognize you can’t solve a problem inside the frame that created it. We have to reframe the problem. Good news: it only requires returning to pre-Enlightenment, pre-19th-century understandings of the gospel. We don’t have to be original, don’t have to invent anything, don’t have to clever. Just have to stop making doughnuts.

 

1 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (HarperCollins, 1996), 30.
2 Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, (Blackwell, 1996), 24-25.
3 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From It’s Cultural Captivity, (Crossway, 2004), 73.
4 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 54.
5 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002).

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18 thoughts on “Doughnuts”

  1. Mike, this is your clearest explanation of the “competing models” — both are two chapter, both are incomplete. One is not superior, one is not inferior. The gospel is effective when it is complete.

  2. Fascinating! This one really grabbed me. Would like to hear more. Our own culture might be changed, and certainly our mindset to the rest of the world would be different. Perhaps our “missionary” efforts could be more sustainable…

  3. Mike Metzger

    Bailey – what’s clear is that more and more younger Christians are being naively drawn to two-chapter gospels of the left: “Let’s build wells and do social justice,” etc. I recently spoke at a university where the entire application of “calling” was boiled down to Third World settings under the banner of “social justice.” No mention of Wall Street, Nashville, or Hollywood. There is no doubt that justice is part of the gospel, but this is simply a truncated two-chapter gospel falling off the horse on the other side.

    Robert – good to hear from you as I respect your work. You’d like to hear more? Call me. I doubt that our US culture will be changed however, as – to give you one example – the overwhelming percentage of success stories that I hear in my church are with the down-and-out. We’re doing wonderful work in downtrodden West Baltimore but I’ve never heard a word about downtown Baltimore paying much attention to Christianity (T. Rowe Price, for example). I took my daughter to a Leadership Summit last year and was struck by the story of an engaging woman who left Wall Street to help convicts in Texas. I’m sure it’s a wonderful work she’s doing with these down-and-out men, but what if she had instead successfully reformed Wall Street before this current debacle occurred? Makes me wonder…

    And even those who “bring their faith to work” do it as a series of special events, as Dallas Willard describes it. Bible studies, being good people, doing honest work. That’s fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far. You end up with doughnuts at work. We don’t change the patterns of work, just offer a few platitudes.

    Of course, what makes this entire conversation problematic is populism’s infestation of Western Christianity. Capitalism is currently that Bad Guy, so even talking about the up-and-in sounds snotty. But it’s sound history and sociology – two areas where too few Christians excel.

  4. Mike,
    You wrote, “The truth is early Christianity wasn’t a religion of mostly under-privileged, uneducated people.”
    However, it seems like in at least Corinth God began with a group mainly made up of foolish, weak and base. As Paul reminded them, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.”
    There were certainly some wealthy and wise (educated) among them, but this was of no consequence either way. I do not think Paul had a target audience in terms of who he would preach to in order to change society or culture.

  5. Transforming the culture is necessary, and there are many models for doing this. From my experience, being a single individual swimming in the ocean of a counter-Christian culture may be one of the most difficult. In a contest of Individual vs. System, the System usually wins. Though we do have stories of those rare individuals who do triumph under great odds, it’s difficult to do.

    But there are other ways to play. Taproot Theater in Seattle and The AD Players in Houston are examples of Christian-based theater ensembles that are very much a part of (not apart from) the art scenes in their communities.

    And The Christian Science Monitor (the first major daily newspaper to go fully online) has participated in the culture of the news world while maintaining its distinctly Christian perspective.

    Maybe all this is to say that leavening the culture still takes a faith community–but one fully committed to being in that community, not separate from it. And for the lone players swimming in the neutral- or hostile-to-Christianity culture, let’s hope that they have a community of faith backing them up.

  6. Mike Metzger

    Tim – As much as I respect your opinion, I think you’re mixing apples and oranges. Apples made up the bulk of the Corinthian church, the middle class and the down-and-out. They didn’t reform the Corinthian culture. Oranges, the elites, were fewer but they write the history. Its no coincidence that a more careful reading of scripture reveals elites coming to faith (such as the first convert at Crete – the governor). Sounds strategic to me. Paul often first went to the synagogue, not a soup kitchen – sounds strategic to me. I can only recommend Peter Brown, Rodney Stark, Wayne Meeks, Bakke and a slew of historians who say that the church penetrated and shaped the cultural “givens” by shaping the culture’s elites (who constitute no more than 10% of a given population) while caring for the poor. This is why there are “not many.” That’s true everywhere, and God used the down-and-out in the Corinthian church to humble the up-and-in, but not to negate their disproportionate influence. To argue that the poor, “foolish, weak, and base” shaped Corinthian culture is incredibly naive regarding history, a misreading of Paul’s letter, and sounds very populist.

  7. To quote Aline Brosh McKenna’s character, Miranda (Devil Wears Prada) – “it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” Mike first turned me on to this film, mostly to understand the context of this quote. The doughnut hole is a problem if we hope to reshape how fashion either honors the beauty of man and woman in all their glory or commodifies them. The individual who chooses the “frumpier” cardigan, according to McKenna, is not really the one choosing. The choice about what is sexy and chic, and conversely non-chic, has already been made. I hope that Mike is right about my generation, and that we will decide to become a vibrant part of the up and in, bringing good to cinema, economics, fashion, and maybe even politics. People are so much more than a metaphysical spirit, and the gospel is for people.

  8. Very thoughtful. I agree on the left and the right observations. Both are equally devoid, but for different reasons. Thanks for articulating this clearly. One of the issues today is that the normal thinking is that people are not called to Wall Street, T. Rowe Price or other “secular jobs”. Bad thinking that is epidemic. I am in a couple of conversations regarding the connection of Craftsmanship and Calling. In both cases it is the 4 Gospel definition of the words. I want to discuss that further with you.

  9. Well said, Mike, and it echoes something I recall Gabe Lyons saying in a presentation once last summer — we’ve only been telling half the story, that people are fallen sinners without explaining the big-picture context, and then wondering why that doesn’t seem to resonate. I have likewise seen many folks my age and younger heading for these “gospels of the left”, almost as a reaction to what they see lacking in the faith they’ve been raised on, without being able to see they’re just picking a different side with different shortcomings.

    And many of those sticking with the “right side”, meanwhile, have become more and more disengaged with the culture and society around them, preferring instead to “haul up the drawbridge and bellow from the parapets”, as I recall someone saying a few years ago. You can’t change the culture by yelling louder, but many sure try.

    But I do see signs of hope, as many such as Gabe and yourself begin to challenge us all to think in terms of the bigger picture, in terms of our actual goals and how we might achieve them, and in terms of what our full mission here might be as opposed to what we may want to make it.

  10. I agree completely that the church is making little strategic attempts to reach the “elite”. However, I see many churches using essentially your arguement “that they are attempting to influence the work place” to focus on individual “transformation” with no strategic thought to really changing the world for the elite or the poor in their community. The only people they seem to be focused on are the well off subarbanites in their congregations and sending money to places around the world.

    One of my favorite quotes is “it’s alright to build castles in the sky, if you’re willing to put in the effort to build the foundation up to it.” I think that an applied campus ministry that fuses work with the “down and out” to the career latter they are on to strategically look at impacting the culture over time. I’d love to hear more detailed thoughts you have on getting this done becasue I don’t know many upper-middle class families willing to make the sacrifices that real change would take.

  11. Comments aside, once again, the article is great. However, a few comments are in order regarding some of the supporting material.

    “When these gospels were unable to get to first base with cultural elites, they went overseas in miss[.] waves.”

    1. To the extent this statement implies deliberate decision-making by generations of Christians, many of whom many not have anticipated 20th Century genocide, modern-day sexual mores, Sheila-ism and numerous other cultural patterns as we would like, it is not adequately supported. The statement deserves some greater evidence, at least a compelling footnote. If I read the context properly, it tends to place responsibility squarely upon 18th and 19th century Christians (e.g. Wilberforce and crew, who did believe in overseas church-building), rather than upon present-day Christians, alive on this earth, which is surely where responsibility belongs. Carey, Mott, Sutcliffe, Judson et al. are not the root of the problem.

    “Early Christianity”

    2. Although personally influenced by Kuyperian Christianity, L’Abri, etc. discussing “the culture”, I have not yet seen a quotation from a Roman-era Christian talking about “the culture.” Does such a quotation exist? In the quotations one typically reads, such Christians basically seem intoxicated by Jesus and willing to follow him anywhere, as it were. The “culture” strategy seems secondary. This does not, however, mean that they did not have a view on culture or on calling — I surmise, based on other readings and on the evidence you present, that your view is closer to theirs than what most people today think about the subject.

    “European Christians”

    3. Is the reference to European Christians entirely right?

    Having spent some time in the Netherlands last year, a country with many wonderful Christians, I wonder. An article came out in a Christian-oriented newspaper there where a pastor complained about American Christians with all of the novelties you designate as “peripheral.” In his country, by contrast, members of a city council actually published a book about their efforts to impact society for its’ own sake and for God’s over the last 25 years.

    Are we certain Europeans are part of the problem? How much impact are European Christians having on the North American church today?

    “Young believers”

    4. The “young believers” paragraph alludes to a generational question related to the article: have Baby Boomer Christians focused on their own “enlightenment” and then again on their children’s, while failing to groom the generation behind them, the one too old to be their children yet of an age not appropriate to become cultural transformers soon, to lead precisely the kind of lives mentioned in the article? Boomers seem to be obsessed with twenty-somethings, i.e. their own children, leaving out ages 35-50, those who would otherwise now be able to envision and implement a considered reaction to the article over a period of years, and placing them off of the proverbial radar and perhaps beyond the efforts of Boomers.

    The main point of praying and working creation-fall – redemption – restoration over many years, touching the Praetorian Guard, the Emperor’s household and the Emperor and loving God and neighbor so that the culture is changed is phenomenal.

  12. *** CORRECTED ***

    Comments aside, once again, the article is great. For example, the right and left “truncated gospels” are well-illustrated. However, a few comments are in order regarding some of the supporting material.

    “When these gospels were unable to get to first base with cultural elites, they went overseas in miss[.] waves.”

    1. To the extent this statement implies deliberate decision-making by generations of Christians, many of whom many not have anticipated 20th Century genocide, modern-day sexual mores, Sheila-ism and numerous other cultural patterns as we would like, it is not adequately supported. The statement deserves some greater evidence, at least a compelling footnote. If I read the context properly, it tends to place responsibility squarely upon 18th and 19th century Christians (e.g. Wilberforce and crew, who did believe in overseas church-building), rather than upon present-day Christians, alive on this earth, which is surely where responsibility belongs. Carey, Mott, Sutcliffe, Judson et al. are not the root of the problem.

    “Early Christianity”

    2. Although personally influenced by Kuyperian Christianity, L’Abri, etc. discussing “the culture”, I have not yet seen a quotation from a Roman-era Christian talking about “the culture.” Does such a quotation exist? In the quotations one typically reads, such Christians basically seem intoxicated by Jesus and willing to follow him anywhere, as it were. The “culture” strategy seems secondary. This does not, however, mean that they did not have a view on culture or on calling — I surmise, based on other readings and on the evidence you present, that your view is closer to theirs than what most people today think about the subject.

    “European Christians”

    3. Is the reference to European Christians entirely right?

    Having spent some time in the Netherlands last year, a country with many wonderful Christians, I wonder. An article came out in a Christian-oriented newspaper there where a pastor complained about American Christians with all of the novelties you designate as “peripheral.” In his country, by contrast, members of a city council actually published a book about their efforts to impact society for its’ own sake and for God’s over the last 25 years.

    Are we certain Europeans are part of the problem? How much impact are European Christians having on the North American church today?

    “Young believers”

    4. The “young believers” paragraph raises a generational question related to the article: have Baby Boomer Christians focused on their own “enlightenment” and then again later on their children’s, while leaving aside grooming the generation just behind them, the one too old to be their children yet still becoming cultural transformers, to lead precisely the kind of lives mentioned in the article? When one looks at evangelical institutions, Boomers seem to be obsessed with twenty-somethings, i.e. essentially their own children, leaving out ages 35-50, those who would otherwise now be able to envision and implement a considered reaction to the article over a period of years, and placing them off of the proverbial radar and perhaps beyond the efforts of Boomers.

    The main point of praying and working creation – fall – redemption – restoration over many years, touching the Praetorian Guard, the Emperor’s household and the Emperor and loving God and neighbor so that the culture is changed is phenomenal.

  13. Reality it is moving from the gospel of salvation, the door, to the gospel of the kingdom. Most are stuck at the door or are doing aspects of the kingdom such as helping the poor in the 3rd World or trying to be agents of salt & light in the workplace. We need to pass through the door & not get stuck in the revolving variety breaking out of our habits into what the Lord has called us to.

  14. Martin,

    I bristled a bit when I read your comment that seems to minimize what I consider to be one of my mandates: to be “salt & light”.

    That made me think – does this whole conversation, as enlightening and exciting as it is, minimize the fantastic efforts of our brothers & sisters working with those on the fringe?

    I think we must recognize, and maybe I overlooked it, that a Christian answering his or her “call” to be a missionary in in Papau is not per se wrong, followers of Jesus working in business, gov’t, arts etc should be equally as dedicated to act on a call within their sphere of influence.

    I believe that as part of the body of Christ, one’s calling could simply be to be “Salt & Light”, not everyone is the same therefore our witness will not be the sameL some people are in marketing, some in sales so to speak. The key is to ensure one is faithfully striving to “hear His call” rather than use the “salt & light” as a justification to avoid moving out of one’s comfort zone.

    Ministering to those on the fringes is not wrong, but influencing those in central positions of society will have a greater affect on the rest of the bodies in orbit.

    Fill in the “doughnut’s hole” to make it whole.

  15. Mike Metzger

    Hank – I think you’ve got it essentially correct. Salt and light however is a metaphor for purity and proximity – to all levels of society… down-and-and along with the up-and-in. Don’t confuse strategic deployment with an individual’s significance before God. Not all deployments are equal – every person however is equal. While it is also true that we want everyone to sense God’s call, in my limited experience those we put up front (who are esteemed for hearing and following God’s call) are far more frequently called to Macau than Microsoft. We need both.

  16. Mike – I got connected to your work from Brent Homcy, who speaks very highly of you. Thank you for the thoughtful commentary and comments – very provoking.

    Relative to Dwight’s great comment on Craftsmanship and Calling, I am endeavoring to “hear the calling to the marketplace” after more than a decade in full-time local church ministry. As I do, a release to see the future of church ministry has occured…

    What would it be like if we focused not on building larger churches with ellaborate campuses saturating a given region or nation, but instead sought to leverage the same sort of large organization to create neighborhood-sized congregations? These would be strategically developed to take one neighborhood at a time for Jesus and focus on care and development. Care for those that are first of all spiritually desperate, then to develop those and others to impact their workplace.

    I believe that the Church of the future is not in need of more staff – it is in need of more people being the church where they work as political, economical, educational, entertainment, social, and industrial leaders.

    Mike – I really like your point about the lady who bailed on Wall Street to minister to inmates – I think the church has over-romanticized this type of “sacrifical calling” all too long and justified our own coawardness to not take world leaders by the ear and influence the direction they lead our culture in.

    I so appreciate people like Phil Chalmers who has dared to confront and address the stars of movies and music and challenge them to consider their lives – if they gain the whole world yet lose their souls… But it will take far more than one man and his organization to do this, and there are many areas where others have better access – to political arenas, leaders of industry, law and policy makers, professional athletes… Why has the church largely left these areas to parachurch ministries and chosen to minister primarily to only those in desperate need? Jesus definitely ministered to the poor, but He also spent much time challenging the political, social and religious elite of His day (pharisees, sadducees, Zacchaeus and several of His own disciples to name a few).

    I am all for community outreach and service to the poor and the down-and-out – we just completed an incredible 7 Days of Servolution, but what will we do to strategically address the need for the Church to take its place back in the gaping hole at the center of society? I think it will mean some cultural shift, new priorities, aggressively relentless tactics to intentionally attract and develop leaders, then release them… it might just look like a neighborhood church, or several 100 for that matter.

    I don’t know about your neighborhood, but in my courtyard alone there is a Capitol Hill lawyer, two NSA agents, several high ranking military officers, a public health director, and several municipal leaders. If we led a church in our neighborhood focused on winning these people to the Lord, consider what our impact could be? Now multiply that by the 1,000’s of neighborhoods in the MD suburbs alone… that’s serious impact.

    In your mind, is this feasible and a viable model for the future church (the better future, that is …)?

  17. Mike Metzger

    Will – I think the kind of a church that you describe is feasible and would be quite viable. A friend once told me however that coming to faith is only the beginning of becoming undeceived. The work of unlearning what church ought to be is probably just as great as adopting a new model. But it can be done. I’d recommend this as the end goal: that the municipal leaders you mention above would take our definition of reality seriously and act upon it. Until this happens, it doesn’t really matter how large a church you have. And if this doesn’t happen we’re only talking to ourselves.

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