Spring Reading: Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches by Omri Elisha

In the early pages of the book Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, Omri Elisha lets the reader know that he is a native New Yorker, who is Jewish and an anthropologist, who wanted to study conservative evangelical churches in an eastern Tennessee city. He had in mind earlier work by Nancy Eiesland that looked at the social impact of churches on a local religious ecology.

For the book, Elisha spent 16 months in two churches in Knoxville, Tennessee in the early years of the George W. Bush presidency. The churches, which he calls Eternal Vine Church and Marble Valley Presbyterian Church, averaged 3,500 to 5,000 worshipers each Sunday during the period of his fieldwork. Both are made up of mostly white, middle- to upper-middle class members. Most live in the suburbs and the churches include many who would qualify as political and economic elites in the Knoxville community.

Elisha made two discoveries shortly after beginning his work in Knoxville. First, he found that pastors and church members were regularly taking the churches to task for failing to “maximize the human and material resources at their disposal in order to achieve ‘real’ cultural and spiritual transformations in the greater Knoxville area.” Second, he found that there was a small but vocal segment of conservative evangelicals who were determined to see the churches take an active role in outreach activities.

The book’s focus is on the concept of what Omni Elisha calls “moral ambition.” By this he means two things: part of the evangelical’s goal is to simultaneously cultivate religious virtues in the self and others; this goal is fueled and constrained by ideological demands of the institutional contexts in which people find themselves. In the case of evangelical social engagement this means taking seriously diverse strands of Christian missionalization, revivalism, social reform and fundamentalism.
The main body of the book introduces Knoxville and its churches and looks at similarities and differences between Marble Valley Presbyterian and Eternal Vine. The author makes excellent use of ethnographic profiles of individuals who personify aspects of evangelical social engagement. I was especially impressed (and moved) by the author’s account of the practical struggles around actual work efforts in Knoxville’s African American community. Elisha candidly examines questions of race and “accountability,” which emerge as points of tension between suburban volunteers and city residents.

It occurs to me that some of the very best recent work in the field of Congregational Studies has been by “newcomers” to the traditions they are studying. I think, for example, of Samuel Freedman’s book, Upon This Rock, a study of a Black congregation by an observant Jew or Paul Wilkes’ And They Shall Be My People, a book on a Jewish congregation by a Roman Catholic. I would add Omni Elisha’s book to that list. Some of what we learn here about evangelical social engagement comes from the fact that the book’s author is an outsider to the tradition he is studying.

One question that remains for me after finishing the book is how it might have been different if the churches had been Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic or Muslim? We can’t know that, of course. Like the best practical theologians, Elisha has rooted his analysis of Eternal Vine and Marble Valley Presbyterian within their own faith traditions. He is very careful not to import notions of the “good congregation” from some external source. One can hope that someone else will be inspired to ask similar questions in different settings.