The Sociology of Catalyst Pt 5: Trying to Change the World

While all “religions create action orientations,” one of the most striking, and for some alarming, facts about Catalyst is its undeniable attention to impacting, engaging and changing the world.[38]  As Smith notes in Christian America?, evangelicals are the most “most intensely distinctive and most publically oriented subgroup of conservative Protestants.”[39]  Furthermore, as Smith documents repeatedly, the language used by some evangelicals has caused media and society generally to view them as organized and poised for a rather aggressive campaign to change the nation.
            A lap around Gwinnett Arena, where Catalyst East is held, might raise similar concerns based on the language used on the vendors banners and attendee T-shirts.’s banner stated “We’re about catalyzing movements” and that of the leadership organization Equip asked “Who will change the world?” to which one T-shirt seemingly responded: “Here I Am. Send Me.” Others with similar messages included “I see change…” and “CTW – Change the World.”
           A closer look, though, suggests that the change-centered ambitions were largely framed around the need to help those in need as an expression of genuine Christianity.  Project 7 invited attendees to “Brew for a Better World” with Fair Trade coffee.  Others read: “Impact the Global Orphan Crisis,” “Teach Oversees,” “Seek Social Justice,” “Sacrifice. Action. Justice. Jesus.” and “Help End Sex Trafficking.”  A popular print T-shirt carried a similar message: “Live. Love. Give.”   Others backed for-benefit organizations “ONE” and “People of the Second Chance.”  Another framed the need explicitly in terms of faith: “Jump!  Put faith in Action.” 
        Catalyst itself plays a huge role in this world-changing ethos.  It has partnered with numerous cause-related organizations including: 410 Bridge which links American and Kenyan churches, Advent Conspiracy which seeks to substitute Christmas consumption with compassion, HOPE International (a microfinance network), Rwanda Clean Water (launched by Catalyst), TOMS Shoes (outfitting needy children), (serving orphans) and others.[40]  410 Bridge set up an Kenyan school house at Catalyst to bring the reality of poverty to awareness. 
This stress on the Christian call to work for justice in the world was driven home at Catalyst East 2010 when one of the main sessions was devoted to hearing the heart-rending story of Rani Hong, who as a child was the victim of sex trafficking.  Hong was explicitly invited to appeal to the gathering for support as she initiated the Tronie Foundation to bring to light the stories of survivors like herself.
This commitment to social action resonates with Webber’s assertion that younger evangelicals are “committed to the plight of the poor” and “ready to commit.” [41]  McCracken identifies this missional impulse as central to hipster Christianity as well: “A defining characteristic of the new generation of cool young Christians is that they are aggressively on the side of activism, of social justice, of getting their hands dirty to serve others and help the world (though they sometimes speak more about it than actually do it).”[42]
How to Catalyze
As note above, Catalyst’s approach to social action is founded on a  “high belief in the impact that one changed life can have on another” and thus their focus on “personal change with a community application.”  This language is an almost direct match with what Smith identifies as the evangelical approach to impacting culture, which he labels the “personal influence strategy.”  This tactic assumes that social change is simply the aggregate of individual change.  In Christian America? Smith expands on the core evangelical solution for influencing nonevangelicals.  There is a near-concensus among self-avowed evangelicals that they should
1.     focus first on being faithful in their own lives;
2.     always be loving and confident, not defensive or angry;
3.     show tolerance and respect;
4.     allow adversaries and antagonists to have their own opinions;
5.     never force Christian beliefs on others;
6.     avoid disruptive protests and hostile confrontations;
7.     rely on the power of individual good examples and shared faith through personal relationships
8.     to influence others, rely on voluntary persuasion through positive dialogue and communication.[43]

In 2003, Catalyst’s motto was “Inside-Out,” stressing the importance of personal faithfulness.  This is entirely consistent the evangelical view that sees “themselves as uniquely possessing a distinctively effective means of social change: working through personal relationships to allow God to transform human hearts from the inside-out; so that all ensuing social change will be thorough and long lasting.”[44]  One attendee’s T-shirt echoed the sentiment: “Transformation: It starts in the heart.” 
Catalyst’s embrace of personal holiness as a strategy for social change is also seen in welcoming spiritual-formation internet start-up Monvee to be a sponsor of the event, which entailed the right to roll a commercial to the whole gathering.  John Ortberg, a spokesperson for Monvee and a well-known evangelical author and speaker on spiritual formation, found resonance with his Pre-Lab audience of 1000 early attendees when he declared: “The world will not receive a gospel of transformation from untransformed people.” Catalyst attendees (and their social networks) evidenced agreement with this outlook by the audible silence in the room and the ensuing dozen or more tweets and retweets that represented more than for anything else he said. 
Christian Smith, critiques the naïveté of evangelical confidence in the potency of personal influence strategy.  In this approach change is sought through one-on-one relationships leaving “evangelical rather blind to the supraindividual social structures, aggregate effect, power dynamics, and institutional systems which profoundly shape human consciousness, experience, and life-chances.”[45]  Ultimately, in Smith’s view, the evangelical approach is “inadequate to for the task of genuine social change.”[46]  While most will applaud those who commit themselves to the kind of social action Catalyst calls for, it is not apparent whether it represents a genuine departure from the individualistic “Relationalist” approach which Smith judges impotent.   With the ironic vitality and impotence of Evangelicalism in view, Smith concludes: “Subcultural distinction can be a mixed blessing” because “the social forces that can unite people into a movement can also paradoxically undermine their attempts at effective social influence.”[47]
Is Catalyst content with “mercy ministry” or are they indeed committed to advocacy on behalf of the poor?  Are they discovering the “transformative power of countercultural communities and alternative collective identities and practices which challenge normative systems” or is their talk of “incarnational” and “missional” communities just rhetoric?[48]  Only time will tell, but there are some indications that this new class of evangelicals may be innovating in a way more fundamental than the mere shedding of the evangelical label. 
Two notable exceptions to the prevalence of personal influence strategy at Catalyst suggest some self-awareness regarding its .  First, keynote Roni Hong, the former sex-slave who now leads an organization seeking to unite victims, declared to the audience of 13, 000: “Christians have the power to change the system” and promoted a bill in US Federal legislation to that end.

      A second, and more poignant, exception to the personal influence strategy was from keynote Gabe Lyons and co-founder of Catalyst.  Lyons’ talk (video below) drew on his important book The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America and included mention of the “seven channels of cultural influence,” which he describes at a site where he blogs:            They are the social institutions that govern any society, including business, government, media, church, arts & entertainment, education and the social sector.  Their combined output of ideas, films, books, theology, websites, restaurants, investments, social work, laws, medical breakthroughs and technology drive an entire nation.[49]

On the main stage, Lyon’s noted that among the seven channels, the church is the only one who to convenes all the others on a weekly basis.  He claimed that when people in the different channels work to a common goal “that’s when we’re going to see a revolution,”  challenging the gathered church leaders to capitalize on this opportune position.  

Catalyst Atlanta 2010: Gabe Lyons from Catalyst on Vimeo.

The influence of Catalyst’s brand of evangelicalism on U.S. society is yet to be seen but one thing is clear: whether effective at changing society or not, this mission is at the very core of its (evangelical) self-identity.  As Smith predicted of American evangelicalism broadly, I likewise expect Catalyst-influenced Christianity to “flourish into the foreseeable future.”[50]  If the calls for commitment to causes such as human trafficking, global poverty and orphan care translate into substantial action, it may well be that these next evangelicals will rise above the reputation of their forbearers and make the shift that Lyon’s foretells from offended critics of the world to provoked restorers of it.  Either Catalyst’s brand of evangelicalism will indeed catalyze social change, or they, too, like their forbears will be aptly described as “less than conquerors.”[51]  But if this concluding tweet is any indication, Catalyst’s groupies expect to make a world-shaking difference: @jonmcnary:  “home from #cat10 in ATL. Amazing week. Full tank. Look out world :)”.

Works Cited
Berger, Peter. “Epistemological Modesty: An Interview with Peter Berger.” Christian Century 114: 972-75, 978. 1997. 
Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Second Edition. Lanham: Rowman and Little Field Publishers, Inc., 2008 
Griel, Arthur L., and David R. Rudy. “Social Cocoons: Encapsulation and Identity Transformation Organizations.” Sociological Inquiry 54: 260-78. 1984.
Kandell, Steven. “How Looking Poor Became the New Status Symbol.” Details, May 2009. 

Kimball, Dan. They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2007.
Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997.

Lyons, Gabe. The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2010.
McCracken, Brett. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010.
Smith, Christian and Michael Emerson. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Smith, Christian. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
_______. Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
Webber, Robert. The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

[38] Christiano et al., 9.
[39] Smith 2002, 18.
[41] Webber 54.
[42] McCracken 149.
[43] Smith (2000) 37.
[44] Smith (1998) 188.
[45] Smith(1998) 202.
[46] Smith (1998) 187.
[47] Smith (1998) 217.
[48] Smith (1998) 196.
[50] Smith (1998) 220.
[51] Smith (1998) xi.

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