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Making Sense of Church

During the heat of the 2008 United States presidential election, journalist Bill Bishop offered a tome that helped explain why the lines of demarcation between Barack Obama supporters and those of John McCain seemed so extreme: The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Therein, Bishop (with statistical support from sociologist Robert Cushing) describes the differences between blue and red states and how these distinctions are becoming more and more entrenched as folks in the U.S. continue to find comfort among folks who look like they do, think like they do, believe like they do, recreate like they do, and make money like they do.

Perhaps most disconcerting, Bishop details how the Big Sort has become a dominant trend even within churches in the U.S.–to the point that congregations are more segregated culturally and politically than neighborhoods (159). Whereas congregations had once been built around geography, increasingly in the U.S. they have been “constructed around similar lifestyles” (173). And just as geography has declined in significance, so has denominational loyalty. In its stead, the “local micro brand” of church has risen. Within these micro-brand, echo-chamber congregations all discussion takes place among like minded people and has a proclivity to simply buttress previously held ideas. The end result is more polarized and extreme like-minded congregations.

Here we have an example of on-the-ground congregational realities that seem to be in tension with the professions of the Christian faith community–we’re not exactly walking the talk. How should we grapple with these sorts of phenomena, these shifts in Christian practice? What would be required to understand such trends? And how might we equip students to emerge as prophetic witnesses and congregational leaders in such a cultural milieu?

Granted, it might seem obvious that this Big Sort of congregations is problematic, on a number of levels. But how could we articulate that? Historically, scholars would attempt to examine this social trend among congregations either sociologically or theologically. But these two different approaches tend to function as explanatory silos. So “sociologically speaking,” we might explain that clustering of like-minded folks in such congregations is the straightforward result of a number of social movements within the past half century. The most obvious impetus has been the homogeneous unit principle of church growth. That is, congregational leaders began to realize that people prefer to worship with those who are just like them–there is a comfort in conformity and concurrence. This realization has been the foundation of both megachurches and miniscule church plants in the U.S. Church planters conducted market research, noted the style choices of potential attenders, designed churches with specific demographic types in mind. All of this is (relatively) “explainable” with the tools of organizational theory and social dynamics. Indeed, churches of the Big Sort seem more interested in social scientific explanations than theological directives.

Theologians, however, would worry that something significant is being missed when the Big Sort of the church is viewed only through such a sociological lens, worried that such explanatory paradigms might lack a certain nuance, a certain theological attunement. More specifically, the explanatory tools of the social sciences, the theologian would argue, lack an ecclesiology. An ecclesiology, we might say, is the church’s historical organizational theory, drawn from its own wells. Ecclesiology is the articulation of how and why the church is an organization unlike any other–and thus irreducible to the dynamics of organizational theory. Thus making sense of the church’s Big Sort requires the “thick” (and critical) tools of ecclesiology.

The sociologist might be rightly nonplussed, just a tad suspicious of theological attempts to insulate the church from human social dynamics. And while the sociologist might be intrigued to know how ecclesiology might “nuance” her study of congregations, she might also worry that “ecclesiology” could be the cover for a sort of organizational Gnosticism about the church.

But what if we could demolish these silos? What if we could grapple with the church in a way that refused to shuttle back and forth between sociology and theology? Could we imagine a sociologically-disciplined theology and a theologically-informed sociology? How might we cultivate what Christian Scharen, of Luther Seminary, has called for: “ecclesiology as ethnography”? And might we also develop its correlate: a theologically-attuned ethnography?

What we’ll need is almost something like a new hybrid discipline, or at least new spaces for interdisciplinary conversation and analysis. This strange new animal might be what our colleague John Witvliet has described as “liberal arts ecclesiology”–oriented by the conviction that the multiple disciplines of the liberal arts and sciences all provide resources to help us make sense of the church and its practices; and conversely, that a thicker ecclesiology has something to contribute to how we envision human flourishing across the disciplines. Reimagining liberal arts education with this ecclesial accent will help us to equip those who will become lay leaders in all sorts of congregations precisely by helping them make sense of the church and its vocation, and hence their own.

Mark Mulder is associate professor of sociology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Jamie Smith is associate professor of philosophy. This spring they are co-teaching a course on “Church and Society” in the new Department of Congregational and Ministry Studies.