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

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

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.