Evangelicals meeting with Trump at the White House August 27, 2018
What does it mean to be as shrewd as snakes?

Megachurch pastors supporting Trump should be worried about driving the college-educated away

 

 

The phenomenon of a couple of pastors publicly defending Trump

It is surprising that Jack Graham and Robert Jeffress have been the main spokespeople and defenders of this event between "evangelical leaders" and Trump at the White House that I have described extensively at my post: Evangelicals meeting with Trump at the White House August 27, 2018

Both pastor Southern Baptist Convention churches. That is not surprising. Many of those represented were Southern Baptist or from independent churches or from other non-church organizations. The Southern Baptist Convention has very little control over its pastors so these pastors are largely independent agents who can do as they see fit.

Theologically it is odd because they are among a small number of seminary-trained pastors who were present and therefore one would think they would be more nuanced in their support of a president who 49% of Americans think should have impeachment proceedings brought against him. It is one thing to praise Trump's support of conservative judges because of pro-life. (As stated in my previous post, this has been the rational for evangelicals voting for Republicans since at least 2000 and probably farther back to Reagan in 1980.) It is another to praise Trump's work as president more generally. Many within the Republican party publicly object to many of the things Trump has done even though they may cooperate with him on specific issues like conservative judges. These Republican critics of Trump include many conservative columnists like George Will, Michael Gerson, David Brooks, Bill Kristol, David Frum, David French, Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan, and Peter Wehner. Recall too no Republican senators except Jeff Sessions supported Trump in the primary and very few readily praise him except when it is helpful for their re-election or if there is some narrow issue they agree with him about. (Senators tend to be more nuanced than their House counterparts since they have to win state-wide elections). Consider the implicit criticism of Trump by other Republicans all week in light of John McCain's death. It is strange that these pastors are not more circumspect in their praise of someone historians currently rank as the worst president in history

Finally, as we will see, it is interesting that both Jeffress and Jack Graham are in the Dallas, Texas area, which is not as uniformly Trump-supporting as one might think. 

One has to wonder what the congregation members think of their pastor's support of Trump. Are they unaware of Jeffress on Fox News and Jack Graham in the Christian Post or are they supportive of their pastor's vocal support for Trump?  

I have argued in my previous post that there are good theological, biblical reasons not to support Trump. I think there are also practical, statistical ones--that a pastor is likely driving people away that they want to attract. 

 

A statistical argument why most megachurch pastors should not vocally support Trump.

 

(1) megachurches are often in highly educated and wealthy zip codes

Typically, to have a very large church (17,000 weekly attendance) like that of Prestonwood Baptist Church where Jack Graham pastors, it helps to have a prosperous surrounding area. If an area is hurting economically or losing population, churches like other organizations such as businesses typically also have challenges. A church planted in a rapidly growing zipcode does not automatically grow but a church located elsewhere has a much more difficult time.

Rick Warren recounts, "During the summer of 1979, I practically lived in university libraries doing research on the United States census data and other demographic studies . . . One afternoon I discovered that the Saddleback Valley in Orange County, southern California, was the fastest-growing area in the fastest-growing county in the United States during the decade of the 1970s . . . As I sat there in the dusty, dimly lit basement of that university library, I heard God speak clearly to me: 'That's where I want you to plant a church!'" Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth without Compromising Your Message & Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub., 1995), 33-34.

David Olson writes, "Growing churches were more likely to be rural and less likely to be small town, suburban, or urban. While the common assumption is that rural churches are under the most stress, the research supports the opposite . . . Only one [other] external factor was significant in the growth or decline of the church—the change in the population of its zip code. Fast-growing churches—those that increased by more than 20 percent in attendance—were more likely to be located in zip codes where the population growth was higher than the national average. If a church declined or was stable, it was more likely located in a low-growth zip code where population growth was lower than the national average." David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 132-133.

Scott Thumma and Dave Travis similarly note that "We are now seeing a rapid rise in the number of churches reaching megachurch proportions that are located in more exurban, formerly rural counties." Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 26.

Prestonwood Baptist Church's main campus started in a cow field and yet now finds itself among the 95% most educated and richest zip codes in the nation.

 

Prestonwood Baptist location education and wealth

 

(2) more educated voters disapprove of Trump

In the 2016 election, of the 15 best-educated districts in the country, Trump won only one. Moreover, on average, Trump performed 13 points worse than Mitt Romney in the best-educated districts. "Republicans in well-educated but traditionally conservative areas now shoulder the burden of Mr. Trump’s weak performance. It suggests that previously safe Republican incumbents in Orange County, Calif., or the suburbs of Dallas and Houston could face serious challenges next November." Generally, if a white neighborhood was more than 65% college-educated, it voted for Hillary; less than 65%, it voted for Trump. This was not the case with regard to 2012 where many more areas with college-educated voters voted for Romney.   

Moreover, a poll came out this week saying, "He’s at new lows among college-educated Americans (albeit just by a point; 29 percent approve) . . .  The single biggest shift is among college-educated white women – just 23 percent now approve of Trump, down 17 points from the peak in April 2017, with disapproval up 20 points, from 55 percent then to 75 percent now."

This suggests that few people surrounding the megachurches, in these highly educated areas, approved of Trump in 2016 and even few now. Likely, this is also true of attenders. 

 

(3) more educated people are more likely to attend church 

In addition to the fact that more educated voters might be able to contribute more financially and bring specific talents to a congregation, more educated people are more likely to attend than less educated. More education tends to correlate with more religious participation. "Millennials with grad degrees attend about 15 percent more than millennials who dropped out of high school. Educated young people are not leaving religion, just the opposite. The relationship is also positive for Gen-X and Boomers, but smaller." And, yes, many people are still attending church. "Young people are just as likely to attend church as their parents. More educated people are actually more likely to attend than those with less education. The percent of people who attend weekly is unchanged in the last 20 years."

Thus, statistically speaking, it does not seem like a good strategy for a pastor to be a vocal supporter of Trump in an educated zip code. Only 29% of college-educated Americans approve of the job he is doing. And these college-educated people are the most likely people to attend church. 

 

(4) Even in Texas, there are precincts in the suburbs that did not vote Republican 

But, you might say, "This is Texas. This is the south. The college-educated vote Republican. Everyone votes Republican." And yes, the precinct where the main campus is located voted 58% Trump, 38% Hillary. The black-lined box in the center of the map is the precinct where Prestonwood Baptist's original campus is located. But look at the map of the area surrounding the precinct. There we see some blue (Democratic) precincts on every side of the light pink precinct.

Prestonwood Baptist location

Here is a different map from the local Plano newspaper, where the district is numbered 123 in the southwest corner of the map. 

Plano map

 

So, often very large churches are located in relatively wealthy, educated areas. Educated people tend not to like Trump. Educated people are the people most open to attending church. Even in Texas, there are suburban precincts that did not prefer Trump. Therefore, it does not make a lot of sense statistically for pastors of these congregations to be vocally pro-Trump. 

 

First Baptist Dallas is likely in worse trouble

The black-lined area in the center of this map is the precinct where First Baptist Dallas Church is located. Robert Jeffress pastors First Baptist Dallas. They are likely to have more severe problems. This church is located in a very blue Democratic area: 75201. That precinct voted 68% Hillary, 26% Trump. With his touting of Trump on Fox News, it seems likely that many attendees drive in to the church from other areas. There are Trump-voting precincts north of the church building in University Park but that is a relatively small geographic area to draw from. There is a lot of blue all around the church's location. 

First Baptist Dallas location

 

But pastors should not make decisions based on statistics but rather on what is right. 

Of course Christian pastors should not make decisions based on what is expedient. I wrote elsewhere

for Christians, statistics are descriptive, not prescriptive. While helpful in the decision-making process, statistics do not tell Christians what they should do. The church deliberating under the Scriptures tells us what to do. A statistic which seems to indicate that a Christian response is inadvisable does not mean a Christian should jettison it. As Karl Barth defiantly said in 1933 after Hitler's party had been elected into power in Germany, "The decisive things which I seek to bring to these problems today is to carry on theology, and only theology, now as previously, and as if nothing had happened." In other words, in the tumult of seemingly discouraging events, Christians need not be dissuaded from doing what they know to be right. In Numbers 13-14, ten spies reported that the people in the land were so strong that the people of Israel seemed like grasshoppers. Joshua and Caleb saw the same data but insisted the interpretation by the spies was flawed. The minority faith-full report was vindicated. 

But I think the statistical argument above may give someone pause who thinks that the way to keep their "evangelical" congregation or reach outsiders is to defend Trump. Be more principled. Be more thoughtful. Disagree where you should. This is what thoughtful people expect and want from their pastors.

If a pastor feels the need to please the base of Trump supporters in their congregation, they are likely losing the educated members of their congregation (and also probably the younger members and people of color and female members though we didn't get into that in this post). It is not worth it. Many of these large megachurches are going to struggle regardless as economic forces are volatile and people's opinions are fickle. It is better to go down sinking or swimming in the raging waters with an emphasis on truth and integrity. 

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