The Alpha & Omega of Social Sciences

"The beginning of all social scientific inquiry, theorizing, and research ought to be its validity under scrutiny of the authoritative Christian scriptures. The end of all social sciences, like any other part of life, ought to be the ultimate glorification of God and the manifestation of His Kingdom on earth."

-Anonymous Sociologist-


Summer So Far

I cannot believe that I have been away from Ann Arbor for a month already. It has honestly been very hard being ripped away from my academic routine and my social life on campus at Michigan. And being cognizant of the fact that I will not be back in the Fall has made it much harder than in years past. But it's not the dorm, or the classes, or the city that I miss. It's the people. Luckily, I have had a couple social situations this past month that have alleviated my friend withdrawal. This past Saturday, Tracy and I drove down to Marissa's house in Kalamazoo for a bonfire. Sarah and Katie and David and Courtney were there too. It was a fun evening of frisbee, playing with Marissa's dog Toby, and pyromania. And of course, May 10th was my graduation party at my mom's house. It was awesome to see so many of my Ann Arbor friends show up.

By far the best part of my summer so far has been the social alternative to Ann Arbor. That is, I have been thoroughly enjoying my friends from Riverview --- from Beaners with Emily yesterday to every Sunday night at Crunchies in East Lansing with everyone. I am so blessed to have such a solid and loving group of friends to come home to every summer. Upon coming home last summer, I felt like an outsider. This year, however, Kelli, Judy, Brett, and JR have especially made me feel welcome and missed during my first month back. Along with that, I have high hopes for our Sunday night Bible study at Justin and Devon's house. Just like last summer, those times and those people are what sustain me through the summer months. On a related note, I have been slowly yet surely raising financial support for the Riverview service project to Tijuana, Mexico in the end of June. More info to come.

As I have stated, I am working as a part-time research assistant this summer for a study currently underway in the Sociology department at the University of Notre Dame. Once or twice a week, I get paid to drive to Flint, attend church services, solicit consent, and then take pastors out to lunch to administer surveys and interviews about their church's mission, structure, and programs. This past Sunday morning, I made my first trip to Flint to attend a large church called Ebenezer Ministries. It was an awesome inner-city church, entirely African American, and ridiculously vocally expressive. Tracy and I were the only two non-black people out of approximately 500 in the entire service, and we were welcomed with big smiles and open arms. After sitting through the two and a half hour service, I spoke to the pastor's secretary about possibly scheduling an interview. She said that the pastor has been waiting for an online link to fill out the information online. This means that my five hour committment could have been equally fulfilled with one email. On an interesting sidenote, church volunteers were passing out fans during the service featuring the face of Barack Obama.

Aside from Saturday night church, The Element on Wednesdays, Sunday night Bible study, Crunchies, and various social engagements, most of my time this summer has been spent reading, sleeping, and looking for a second part-time job. Just so you know.


Campus Ministry & Forms of the Gospel

I just emailed THIS ARTICLE to all of the student leaders and staff with Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of Michigan. From, Tim Keller's most recent article "The Gospel in All its Forms" explains how the one eternal gospel of Jesus is articulated in various forms by Jesus and the apostles in scripture. He then outlines how we too must consequently be aware of the various presentations of the gospel during our ministry so that we can be used most effectively.

As Keller explains, "A generation ago evangelicals agreed on 'the simple gospel.'" This is "the four laws" that is currently used in evangelism by chapters of Campus Crusade for Christ throughout the world. It says: (1) God made you and wants to have a relationship with you, (2) but your sin separates you from God. (3) Jesus took the punishment your sins deserved, (4) so if you repent from sins and trust in him for your salvation, you will be forgiven, justified, and accepted freely by grace, and indwelt with his Spirit until you die and go to heaven.

The four laws presentation of the Gospel is true and succinct, yet has been criticized for being (1) too individualized in contrast to the message of the Kingdom of God at hand, and (2) too formulaic in contrast to presentations of the gospel in scripture.

Regarding the first criticism: Keller explains how we see in the four gospel accounts varying emphases on either individualized "receiving eternal life" or collectively "entering the kingdom of God." References to the kingdom of God that are found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are virtually missing in the Gospel of John, which usually talks instead about receiving eternal life. (Although Keller equates the two as "virtually the same thing" [Mark 10:17, 23-34; Matthew 25:34, 46; John 3:5, 6 and 17].) The point here is that God is interested not only in redeeming individual souls to Himself, but also in restoring the socio-political world to its initial state of peace, justice, and shalom. Just as the scriptures do, so also must we stress both the individual and the collective aspects to our salvation.

Regarding the second criticism: The apostle Paul speaks of being entrusted with preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, while Peter preaches the same gospel to the Jews. [Galatians 2:7] In scripture, we see that Paul reasons to the scriptures when preaching Jesus to Gentiles, specifically Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on the Areopagus at Mars Hill [Acts 17:18-34]. He reasons from the scriptures when preaching Jesus to the Jews in the Synagogues of Thessalonica and Berea [Acts 17:1-15]. Paul tailored his presentation of the gospel depending on whether he was speaking to Bible-believing people who thought they would be justified by their own morality, or to pagans and non-religious people. Just as in the first century, both types of people exist in our culture today.

As Keller explained in a past article, "[O]ur typical evangelistic presentations are effective with persons who assume they should be good. Then the gospel-presenter tries to show them that they are not good enough --- they fall short of God’s perfect standards --- and therefore they need Jesus to forgive sin and help them do the right thing. This presentation was quite appropriate for almost everyone in my parents’ generation....On the other hand, if you say to those in my kids’ generation, 'You know you have to be good,' they will say, 'Who’s to say what good is?' So what are we to do with these post-everything persons who are increasingly dominating our society? The traditional gospel presentations will not make much sense to many of them."

As an aspiring sociologist, I must admit that I haven't done IRB-approved interviews or fieldwork in order to gauge the degree of postmodern, pluralistic, and relativistic thought in the weltanschauung of today's university students. (In fact, no one has.) What I do have, however, is four years of first-hand, ethnographic, participant observation data with one of the largest secular public universities in the United States. After attending classes, enjoying social events, living on-campus, and engaging with students on a daily basis for four years, I must conclude that postmodern, pluralistic, relativistic thought is pervasive, if not defining, at today's large secular university.

Because of all of this, I have concerns for the effectiveness of the classic formula that Campus Crusade for Christ has been using for decades. In a liberal university setting where all moral statements are culturally relative and socially constructed, I fear that the majority of the student body at the University of Michigan would not respond favorably to calls for repentance from personal sin. Instead, as Keller suggests, it may be necessary at times to appeal to the bondage of idolatry (as Paul did in Athens; Acts 17:18-34). "That puts the emphasis not as much on 'doing bad things' but on 'making good things into ultimate things,'" such as relationships, partying, reputation, achievement, or even academics. As Keller puts it, "I have found that when you describe their lives in terms of idolatry, postmodern people do not give much resistance. Then Christ and his salvation can be presented not (at this point) so much as their only hope for forgiveness, but as their only hope for freedom." With this, the gospel is not expressed in terms of God, sin, Christ, and faith, but in the overarching narrative of the Bible as creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

The trouble comes when either form of the gospel is preached with the avid denial or neglect of the other.




Apparent Contradictions

"If we insist on putting things the Bible says into a grid of our own questions, we will often find apparent contradictions. If I drive all round the perimeter of a big city, I will see several quite different signs to the city centre. They will say different things, because I am in a different place; but they are in fact all pointing to the same reality."

-NT Wright-


Missio Dei & The Church

As you may have heard, I am working as a part-time research assistant this summer for a study currently underway in the Sociology department at the University of Notre Dame. Once or twice a week, I get paid to drive to Flint, Detroit, or Grand Rapids, attend church services, solicit consent, and then take pastors out to lunch to administer surveys and interviews about their church's mission, structure, programs, etc. This may be oversimplifying, but as it was described to me, this study investigates the mission of Protestant churches, and the programs they use to achieve their mission.

To lay a little historical and theological foundation: In 1934, Karl Hartenstein, a German missiologist, coined the phrase "missio Dei" (Latin for "the sending of God") in response to Reformed theologian Karl Barth and his emphasis on actio Dei (Latin for "the action of God"). As Van Sanders (2006; p.24) explains: "When kept in the context of the Scriptures, missio Dei correctly emphasizes that God is the initiator of His mission to redeem through the Church a special people for Himself from all of the peoples of the world. He sent His Son for this purpose and He sends the Church into the world with the message of the gospel for the same purpose."

God is the initiator of His mission, which is to redeem people to Himself through the mediatorship and substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. The local Church plays a pivotal role in this mission, and I would hope that the mission of a church is in alignment with missio Dei. [Understandably, this ultimate mission of reconciliation is often expressed differently as "growing God's Kingdom," "making sacrificial followers of Christ," or other formulations.] Still, we hear of churches whose mission is not missio Dei. We see churches whose mission is ruled by a political agenda, or the desire to grow their own congregation, or even worth-while causes like social justice or community revitalization. We must continually distinguish, however, between good causes and the Ultimate Cause. Missions work and the expressed mission of the Church is ultimately not an activity of the church, but an initiative and attribute of God. As German theologian Jürgen Moltmann (1977; p.64) puts it: "It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church." There is church because there is mission, not vice versa.

This conception leads to my major concern with this current research at Notre Dame. In asking what programs are designed and implemented to achieve the mission of the church, one assumes that the mission of the Church is achieved through programs. Ask any competent and up-to-date missiologist, however, and he will tell you that in recent years the focus of the church has shifted away from programs. The emphasis throughout the 1980's and first half of the nineties was largely placed on being seeker-sensitive, with attractive worship music, hip decor, and relevant how-to sermons. This included the revitalization and reconsideration of church programs that had been utilized throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Methods were largely attractional, aiming to be culturally relevant to the unchurched persons in a local community. Under this model, the church functions as a business in a market economy, marketing a theology, message, or belief system, all while listening closely to demand.

Since the mid-1990's, emerging leaders and young pastors have been asking crucial questions about what it means and looks like for the church to worship, do ministry, and live faithfully in postmodern, post-Christian, pluralistic, experiential, global, relativistic, epistemologically skeptical culture. Throughout the new decade, this conversation has lead to the varying streams of the Emerging Church, responding both methodologically and sometimes theologically (Emergent) to postmodern cultural contexts. This concern initially birthed churches that made surface-level updates to their music, facilities, sermon-style, and services. However, those involved in the conversation have recently broadened the scope of the question---addressing the approach rather than the characteristics of the unreached population. As missiologist Ed Stetzer (2006) explains, "Because we've heard so much about planting postmodern churches, we've come to think that's the goal. It's not. The goal of church planting is to reach people. They may be postmodern in their thinking, or they may be Korean or African American or young families or established professionals or counter-cultural or baby boomers or combinations of the above."

This broadening missiological understanding in recent years has lead to a new answer (and a new buzzword) to the question of how to achieve this mission of the Church. The answer is almost humorously simple: be missional. This is not a program. It is a mindset, a lifestyle, a posture toward a local culture. It is taking the approach of a missionary not only in foreign and underdeveloped nations, but also to one's own local culture. It is being indigenous to the culture, seeking to understand the culture, and adapting methods to the mission field while holding steadfastly to eternal Biblical truths. It is based foremost on theological conviction translated effectively to a culture, not church growth pragmatism. It is being incarnational, living faithfully among the non-Christians around us [John 17:18], just as God entered into human history in the man of Jesus Christ to save the lost, reconciling them unto Himself.

Finally, it is not enough to merely be a missional church and live a missional life in one's own culture. We must also speak a missional message. Nobody will understand the Gospel because you were their friend and showed them hospitality. The shift from attractional ministry alone to attractive missional church shifts the mindset from "come and see" to "go and tell." And it does not work without the "tell." While reworked and innovative church programs (like RiverBrew) may provide tangible answers to Notre Dame's research question, I fear that this misses the significant yet subtly shifting mindset of many larger Protestant churches today. Many Protestant churches' mission is met through missional thinking, living, and speaking, not the reworking of church programs. Over the last two years of engaging with current sociological research on religious life in the United States, I have continually noticed one overarching problem: Secular scholars are consistently five to ten years behind what is actually going on. Or they're at least off topic.

PS. Via Dan (one of the pastors at Riverview Church), here is a list of all of the ministries, programs, and activities that Riverview has going on. According to Dan, at least half of the ministries are new within the past four years. So which is it? Acknowledging that it is a balance: How do large Protestant churches strike a balance between new church programs and missional living? Is missional church only a theory masking the practice?


Time Magazine's List Of 299 Million Least Influential Americans


The Gospel ≠ Western Culture

"'Christendom,' that realm or time when Christianity was the assumed religion of the West, has come to an end. No longer is Christianity the 'chaplain' to the broader culture. Until the last several years in the history of the United States, Christianity was thought to be the "American religion" even though it was not embraced by everyone or practiced with the devotion that committed Christians would like. It once was perceived as part of America's national ethos. No longer can that claim be made....But here's an advantage: The end of Christendom allows the church to recognize that the gospel is distinct from Western culture."

-Ed Stetzer-


Decline of the Church: A Brief Literature Review

Institutionalized expressions of Christianity—--the established Church—--have seen a sharp decline in participation and influence in recent decades throughout the Western world. Many researchers predict that this cultural shift is indicative of an even stronger trend, possibly leading to the complete erasure of organized Christianity during the first half of the 21st century. Even some Christian researchers have suggested that institutionalized structures of Christianity will have all but disappeared in Britain before 2040, with a similar trend likely to follow suit within the United States (Brierley 2005).

From 1991 to 2004, the number of unchurched adults in the United States has nearly doubled, from 39 million to 75 million (Barna 2004). Eighty to 85 percent of churches in the United States are plateaued and declining in membership and attendance (Malphurs 1992; Driscoll 2007). Win Arn (1988) reports between 3500 and 4000 churches close in the United States each year. Throughout the 20th century, the church-to-population ratio has been steadily declining. One hundred years ago, there were 28 churches for every 10,000 Americans. In 1950, there were 17 churches. And today, the ratio has dropped to less than 11 churches per 10,000 Americans (Clegg & Bird 2001). Over the last century, the number of churches has increased just over 50%, while the national population has almost quadrupled (Stetzer 2006).

On an individual level, the percentage of adults in the United States identifying as Christian dropped 9 percent from 1990 to 2001 (Herlinger 2002). However, such predictions are not intended to imply that Christian spirituality itself is likely to see its demise any time soon. For instance, the increasing popularity of Protestant house-church and cyber-church in the past two decades justifies many researchers' predictions that active and devout Protestant Christians will soon be pursuing spiritual growth and direction outside of any formal or institutionalized congregation (Drane 2006; Barna 2005). In the year 2000, 30% of Christians in the United States who were actively pursuing spiritual growth did not consider a local church to be their primary context of spiritual experience, and some scholars predict that this figure will increase to near 70% by the year 2025 (Barna 2005). Alan Jamieson (2006) notes that the outlook for institutionalized expressions of Christianity may be even worse in Europe, Australasia, and the United Kingdom, where the Christian church has not been as stable or culturally accepted as in the United States.

Furthermore, recent research has established that spiritual experiences are not only for those with an explicit commitment to a particular faith. Rather, many people in today’s Western culture adhere to a sense of individualized or ambiguous spirituality within the secular sphere of everyday life (Hay & Hunt 2000). In a 2002 Gallup Poll, one in three U.S. respondents said that they are "spiritual but not religious," while 11% identified as neither spiritual nor religious.

In the midst of such cultural shifts regarding spirituality and organized religion over the past quarter-century, contemporary and emerging Christian leaders are facing the harsh reality that the majority of Western culture finds, or is beginning to find, little value in historically established forms of the institutionalized Christian church (Drane 2006). Missiologist Ed Stetzer states: "Our churches are dying, and our culture is changing. We know new churches can make a difference. Church planting is not easy, but without it the church will continue to decline in North America." (Stetzer 2006:14).


A Letter of Recommendation from Jesus.

Maybe I would have gotten into Berkeley if I had just sent them this:

[2 Corinthians 3:1-3]

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.


The Aroma of Christ

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?

[2 Corinthians 2:14-16]


©2009 [theou poiema] | by TNB