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Our Impoverished Imaginations: The World of Jen Hatmaker

November 1st, 2016 | 12 min read

By Jake Meador

Last week Jen Hatmaker, a prominent evangelical author who most recently featured on the Belong Tour with several other notable evangelical women, gave an interview to RNS focused primarily around politics and the 2016 election. Amongst other things, they covered issues related to sexual ethics, same-sex relationships, and gay marriage.

RNS: Let’s get into the issues, and I want to start with gay marriage. You’ve created some controversy with previous comments on the matter. Politically-speaking, do you support gay marriage.

JH: From a civil rights and civil liberties side and from just a human being side, any two adults have the right to choose who they want to love. And they should be afforded the same legal protections as any of us. I would never wish anything less for my gay friends.

From a spiritual perspective, since gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, our communities have plenty of gay couples who, just like the rest of us, need marriage support and parenting help and Christian community. They are either going to find those resources in the church or they are not.

Not only are these our neighbors and friends, but they are brothers and sisters in Christ. They are adopted into the same family as the rest of us, and the church hasn’t treated the LGBT community like family. We have to do better.

Later in the interview:

RNS: You mention faithfulness and God. Do you think an LGBT relationship can be holy?

JH: I do. And my views here are tender. This is a very nuanced conversation, and it’s hard to nail down in one sitting. I’ve seen too much pain and rejection at the intersection of the gay community and the church. Every believer that witnesses that much overwhelming sorrow should be tender enough to do some hard work here.

The easy route to go here, of course, is to critique Hatmaker because of her specific comments about LGBT issues. To some extent she deserves it—that a prominent Christian author would comment on these issues without ever mentioning Scripture or church history is absurd.

That said, condemning Hatmaker exclusively for her comments on LGBT issues without recognizing broader questions that feed into this issue plays into the “Evangelical Outrage Machine” narrative and does us no favors as we try to explain our position on this difficult issue.

If we are to avoid accusations of arbitrarily focusing on pet issues of ours to freak out about while ignoring other enormously significant questions, then we need a better critique of Hatmaker and the world she comes from then “she’s bad on LGBT issues,” even if that is true.

Younger Evangelicals and the Boomer Church

One of the stock narratives in recent years about younger evangelicals is that many of us are burned out and jaded by abusive fundamentalist churches. The millennial exodus from the church, which is a real thing though it can be over-stated, is thus interpreted as individuals responding en masse to a movement that had been corrupted by too many abusive leaders who were hypocritical and unresponsive when confronted by the many abuses going on in their churches.

Certainly such churches existed. I grew up in one. Amongst the stable of young millennial evangelical memoirists, Elizabeth Esther and Matthew Paul Turner did as well. But the size of this group amongst evangelicals from generation x and the millennial generation is almost certainly over-stated. If a sample of the memoirs we’ve written is any proof, there are far more young evangelical and post-evangelical Christians who grew up burdened by a kind of white suburban civil religion with Christian elements to it.

This sort of religion is still gravely disordered and in its most extreme forms is not even Christian. But the problems here are more often social pressure to conform to sub-Christian norms and a tendency to ignore, rather than actively abuse, marginal groups or marginal individuals within their own congregation, neighborhood, or city.

The generation that grew up in these churches has rebelled against the performance mentality, the hostility to outsiders, and the often narrow political focus of these churches. This is all old news, of course, and many of the changes are welcome ones.

The greater emphasis on a comprehensively pro-life political witness is a great good, as is the attempt to think more seriously about racism in the American church and its role in our republic more broadly. (Hatmaker herself has been part of some of these works and the church is better off because of her work in these arenas.)

The First Generation of Seeker Sensitive

But what may be more interesting is not where the second generation of this suburban civil religion differ from their parents but where they are similar. This is the main point we need to understand as we think about writers like Hatmaker as well as other prominent evangelical writers from the same general sub-culture.

The suburban Christianity of the 90s and 2000s existed within a broader cultural milieu. This milieu relied upon the same thing that sustains our culture today: Market-backed individualism that sacrifices the social capital existing amongst traditional small societies in hopes of obtaining increased personal freedom for individual members of the society. Within such a space, religious and political identity becomes more of a personal branding statement than adherence to a defined set of principles that you believe to be accurate descriptions of what is good, true, and beautiful.

Boomer-era evangelicalism was itself a creature comfortable living in this ecosystem. Indeed, the institutions that defined it were almost unimaginable apart from that broader system. We had our huge megachurches with concert-like worship spaces and pastors who often behaved more like CEOs than shepherds of souls. We had our radio stations, TV stations (and shows), musicians, and award shows. We had our own tee-shirts and gift store paraphernalia. We had youth ministries that looked like typical after school clubs but with superficial trappings of Christian faith.

In all these ways, we had a Christianity that served more as a brand identity within the broader realm filled with autonomous, self-made consumers building and refining their selves through commercial activity. We had different products, but the differences weren’t the point; the products were.

As long as we shopped and engaged in other sorts of commerce as the primary way of expressing our self-identity, the market was happy to indulge our difference. Thus religious identity for many Americans came to look more like a brand than fidelity to the Covenant Lord we meet in Scripture.

It was not all gloom-and-doom, of course. The 90s and 2000s evangelical church in America made real gains on pro-life issues and, through the world-view movement, laid the foundation for the intellectual renaissance happening today. Unfortunately, however, the uncritical way in which this movement situated itself within mainstream America inevitably led to far greater problems.

Megachurches and the Shape of Evangelicalism

At the heart of this evangelical movement was the megachurch, which we have already mentioned. But the suburban megachurch calls for closer attention because it is in the megachurch that we find the methodological keys to understanding both the evangelicalism of that era and the second-generation spin on this same model that is embodied by women like Hatmaker as well as her friend Shauna Niequist, herself the daughter of the founder of this movement, Bill Hybels.

The seeker-sensitive movement began with a simple idea: Charitably stated, it was that the Christian faith was increasingly nonsensical to modern Americans and it needed translators who could listen to the culture and then speak about the faith in ways that were sensible to them.

Unfortunately, the way that Hybels and others like him attempted to do this work of translation depended far too heavily on secular ideas about marketing, branding, target demographics, and so on. The faith became a product, churches became places of entertainment and commerce, and pastors became the heroic CEOs with the right vision to grow the business:

So churches like Willow Creek leaned on a method for doing evangelism and outreach that essentially amounted to selling the Gospel using marketing strategies targeted at specific demographic groups. They did market research, figured out what people wanted in a church, and began shaping church services accordingly.

The problem with this method is that it can only ever be reactive. Seeker-sensitive evangelism and churches can only react to what they learn in their market research and what they gather from observing mainstream culture. But they cannot create work that drifts from the basic grammar and vocabulary that they inherit from the culture they’re attempting to reach.

The result of this is that many Christian institutions and, indeed, the Christian experience of many individual believers, came to exist in an almost exclusively parasitic way, leeching off the concepts, ideas, and categories handed on to us by the broader commercial culture.

The Second Generation of Seeker Sensitive Evangelicalism

When you understand this point, public figures like Hatmaker suddenly make a great deal of sense: They are the natural second-generation for such a movement.

The evangelicalism of the boomers was reactive because it couldn’t be anything else given the way it was shaped and created by market research and the broader consumer capitalism of post-Cold War America. Thus much of their work ended up looking like Jesusy knockoffs of recognizable secular products:

  • The world had afterschool clubs and we had youth groups.
  • The world had successful CEOs presiding over multi-million dollar businesses and we had successful Pastor/CEOs presiding over multi-million dollar church enterprises.
  • The world had Creed; we had Kutless. They had N*Sync; we had Plus One. They had Jimmy Eat World; we had Bleach.
  • The world had Full House; we had Seventh Heaven.
  • The world had Barnes and Noble; we had Family Christian Bookstores.

The list could go on.

Now consider: The following is a promotional video for a popular business conference held earlier this year:

And this is a promotional video for the BELONG Tour, which featured both Hatmaker and Niequist:

This is one example but it is not the only one.

Even when they try to stake out a more ostensibly counter-cultural position, as Hatmaker did in 7, they often end up mimicking more mainstream trends in rich, suburban America.

To be fair, the BELONG Tour is not unique in this. Millennial evangelicals from this second-generation seeker-sensitive movement are doing this sort of thing en masse. The other obvious example of this is the Q Conference, which is an evangelical riff on TED talks.

Even so, this needs to be understood: The things that Hatmaker said last week are entirely consistent with a movement that cannot create culture but can only react to it and mimic it. Even where I think she is more right than wrong, as she is in her handling of race issues, for example, her response shows a kind of captivity to prevailing cultural norms that are typical of seeker-sensitive ministries. It is a movement driven by the same techniques used to grow businesses and which interprets the contemporary expression of Christian faith through the medium of current cultural norms and, particularly, common business norms and practices.

There is simply no foundation in the movement for someone like Hatmaker to resist the cultural momentum that has carried so many people toward a view of the human body and sexuality that is wildly out of step with historic Christian teachings.

To the extent that Hatmaker has helped promote and grow this sort of syncretist Christianity she should be criticized, but this problem is far older than Hatmaker and is something that Hatmaker inherited from other older Christians. So criticism that singles out Hatmaker is misguided; Hatmaker is one part of a much larger sub-culture of evangelicalism that is deeply broken and incapable of doing the very things it was designed to do, which is communicate the truths of the Gospel to a culture that finds those truths increasingly strange and alien. By adopting the norms of the bourgeois, the attractional Christians of the 1970s were setting themselves and their children up to become good syncretists and utterly incapable of mounting any kind of serious prophetic critique of their culture.

Two Proposals for a Post-Attractional Evangelicalism

There are two things we must do if we are to do what Hatmaker, largely for reasons outside her control, is not able to do: resist the culturally dominant sensibility that translates all of life through the language of individual achievement, freedom, and autonomy and thus dispenses with not just traditional limits to human sexuality, but to limitation more generally.

First, we need to regain the idea of Christianity being an entire life system. Our faith does not simply serve as a set of therapeutic principles to help individual people feel better about themselves. It actually defines what reality is and holds us accountable to it.

We must learn to get behind (or perhaps underneath is a better word) the deeply capitalistic, consumer-friendly logic of our cultural moment and to assess the world in a more comprehensively Christian way. The market and the domain of human action that the market is allowed to shape must be defined (and constrained!) by Christian faith rather than the other way round, which is what has consistently happened within the seeker-sensitive evangelical movement.

Amongst other things, this means we need to stop thinking about church in consumer-friendly categories, that we need to devote ourselves to the reading of Scripture and to prayer (and to historic theology!) in order to better see the errors of our own day, and that we should have a strong aversion to commercializing our faith.

Second, we need to recover the idea of small home economies as well as the village that surrounds them. The chief problem with events like the BELONG Tour is not necessarily with the things that are actually said there. Much of what is said could be made quite helpful with slight modification.

The problem is with the uncritical posture to the cultural and economic regime that we simply take for granted. “Rocking your purpose,” in the language of the BELONG Tour, almost inevitably means “dedicating yourself to one’s career or to a discipline that can be made into a career.” Certainly, the simple fact of a tour in which the speakers are away from their homes most weekends and that charges fairly high ticket prices suggests an event targeted toward people focused on their individual careers.

What we must recover, then, is the idea of a domain in which we live that is not the global marketplace. We need to return again to the idea of smaller places that we work to build and improve through work characterized first and foremost by affection, intimate knowledge, and patience. This requires a great deal of time from us, of course. (And, for starters, probably means not spending half our weekends on the roads putting on huge, expensive conferences.) This must begin with homes and families, but it can then (slowly) extend outward into neighborhoods, churches, and cities. And, this is key, the work we do in these places must be defined and judged by a standard that is largely indifferent to the braying demands of the market.

So this will almost certainly require significant career sacrifices either in the form of a spouse staying at home to give maximum attention to creating a home or one or both spouses working from home or both. At minimum, it requires a way of thinking about career and work that is largely indifferent toward the corporate ladder, individual achievement, self-realization, and all the other jargony buzzwords that get parroted uncritically by far too many people.

Such a shift will require us to think about duty, responsibility, propriety, and wisdom more than we think about self-advancement, freedom, possibility, and independence. This is a point that my friend Brad Littlejohn makes very well in a recent video released by the Davenant Trust, a non-profit I have the pleasure to serve as Vice President:

The key point Brad makes comes later in the video:

What we need to recover is the glory of the mundane. Much of Christian discipleship is very mundane. Christian political engagement is important, but much of it is slow and mundane, not glorious and exciting. We have trouble with that. We want to raise the stakes and make everything into spiritual warfare or else we leave out the ordinary vocations and we say ‘well the important thing is Christians in churches doing churchy stuff.’ We need to recover the reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and we exercise that priesthood on behalf of society alongside unbelievers.

The point Brad is making relates directly to the problem I am highlighting with both boomer seeker sensitive evangelicalism and the new millennial seeker sensitive style of a Hatmaker or Niequist. It is much too easy for Christian people in America to naturally adopt the models and methods of our secular peers in the ways we attempt to do ministry. So Bill Hybels did market research and now his daughter does a Christian-spin on a TED tour.

What is needed is a rejection of those norms that goes down to the roots. We must stop our ineffective attempts to somehow redeem ways of building institutions and communicating with people that are inevitably commercial and thus inevitably prone to trivializing the claims of the Gospel by making them a sort of self-selected brand identity. The call of the Gospel is to go smaller, “to break the ladders,” and ground ourselves in the small economies of home and village.

EDIT: On May 4, 2022 Jake amended this essay to remove a quote from Doug Wilson which had run it in previously. We’re leaving this note at the bottom of the essay in order to be transparent about the editing history of this essay and our broader editorial policy.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).