Teaching, Playing, and Praying: Evangelical Networking and Community Building in Modern America

AHA Session 48
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom D (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Matthew Avery Sutton, Washington State University
Randall Balmer, Barnard College, Columbia University

Session Abstract

Violence in public schools, anonymous neighborhoods that lack a sense of community, and legalized abortion all represent social, economic, spatial, and demographic changes that threatened the evangelical ideal of Christian schools, Christian neighborhoods, and Christian nation in the late twentieth century. Rather than attacking these problems head-on, many evangelicals built dynamic networks in an effort to realize their ideals outside the mainstream. In this effort evangelicals participated in a paradoxically mainstream American tradition of self-identifying as “outsiders” while endeavoring to create utopias. This panel addresses three such networks in the form of homeschooling, megachurches, and prayer marches. Yet even as evangelicals’ attempts to construct ideal communities are part of a longstanding American tradition, the three papers presented here also reveal the innovative ways in which evangelicals are building networks and communities today.    

            First, Rachel Coleman’s study of Christian homeschoolers in Delaware County, Indiana, demonstrates the successes and challenges of local evangelical networking in an era of technology. While Coleman’s homeschool subjects, eager to protect their children from ungodly influences, originally created a “homeschool community” that shut out non-Christian homeschoolers, the Internet soon served to decentralize and democratize homeschooling, offering greater opportunities but less social control. By focusing on the mechanics of this local network’s evolution, Coleman reveals a pattern that sheds light on national homeschooling’s creative solution to the isolation of the digital age.

            Second, and in contrast to the democratizing forces at work in Coleman’s homeschoolers, Lauren Beaupre’s study of Bellevue Baptist Church reveals the increasingly insular communities of modern megachurches. Replacing intimate neighborhoods with religious centers that provided education, recreation, and entertainment, Bellevue and other megachurches holistically attended to a dispersed Christian community. In response to large-scale reorganizations of metropolitan space, community became a religious product for sale in enormous religious complexes that were more like small towns than traditional parishes.  Buying into the product was easy, but Beaupre also reveals the challenges created by one-stop shopping for the broader local community.

            Finally, where Coleman sees a Christian alternative to public education and Beaupre highlights a Christian alternative to restoring residential neighborhoods, David McConeghy shows how prayer became a Christian alternative to public policy or legislation. Prayer was both a weapon to be wielded in the “culture war” against secularism and the olive branch shared among divided Christian churches. American communities could be redeemed if they could either be purged of sin or united by revival, and new spatial and geographic prayer techniques emerged to facilitate God’s intercession for spiritual breakthroughs on secular obstacles.

            The three networks examined here affirm the creativity and resourcefulness of evangelicals in attempting to recreate their ideal of Christian schools, Christian neighborhoods, and Christian nation. Yet while education, church, and prayer had long been important to evangelicals, the alternative communities they formed in the late twentieth century differed from previous efforts in their use of communications technologies, economies of scale, and critical geographies. Together these networks show evangelicals adeptly balancing the past and present in order to save American communities.

See more of: AHA Sessions