Speaking To, With, and For the Church: Research that Matters

A few years back as I was finishing my PhD in social work, my grandmother asked why I was “leaving the ministry.” I tried to explain to her that while I was not serving a local church as a settled or called pastor, I was in fact serving the church through my research. It’s a difficult concept to grasp – doing the work of the church as a researcher and university professor. It’s easy to name ministry that happens through the local church because we can see it, we can touch it, we can hear it, we can make it happen through our hands and our feet. It’s easy to name the ministry that happens through the denomination because we read reports from overseas missionaries, see firsthand disaster response, have engaging religious education materials, receive support for pastoral searches, and gain access to healthcare. But for those of us who think and write about the way the church works, the trends that shape its incarnation, and how people experience the church, it is a little more difficult to see the ministry we do.

Last month we all lost a noted and thoughtful scholar – Marcus Borg. Dr. Borg was an amazing theologian, prolific writer, and thought-provoking speaker. As a member of the controversial Jesus Seminar he devoted his life to understanding the historical Jesus so that we all might come to know the living God. He modeled good scholarship that challenged assumptions not for the sake of challenging, but so that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He invited us to be critical of our faith in order to understand better who we are as children of God. And he lived out this ministry as a teacher and a scholar speaking to, with, and for the Church.

Schwabisch HallDr. Borg published one of his most well-known books the same year I entered Eden Theological Seminary (1994). Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time was an eye-opening book for me that gave new meaning to this Jesus of Nazareth through whom people experienced the living God. I think of the thousands of conversations that happened in church basements around the country and perhaps the world because of the words that Dr. Borg penned. His research and writing gave people an opportunity to talk about faith in new and exciting ways. He wanted us to experience God anew – not as a stagnant deity written about on the pages of the Bible, but as the dynamic deity who encounters people, even the bleeding woman and the man with the unclean spirit, in such profound ways that their stories must be told for generations to come.

Those of us who have devoted our lives to religious research do so for many reasons. I dare to say, though, we do this research so that we all might meet Jesus again for the first time. We seek to understand trends in order to strengthen the church’s witness. We examine generational attitudes toward the church as a way to understand changing needs and expectations. We explore leadership to provide the church with quality pastors. We study worship to know better what works and doesn’t work in today’s vernacular. We ask how churches interact with the wider community to evaluate our call to share the gospel to the ends of the earth.

That’s why we scholars do what we do – so that you and I might meet Jesus anew. This is our ministry with and on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ. We publish books and articles, blogs and newsletters to keep us all talking about the exciting ways the church is growing and changing. Our hope is that something we write sparks you to think critically about the practice of ministry and the expression of faith. In concert with Marcus Borg, we invite you to meet Jesus again for the first time.

Photo taken in Schwabisch Hall, Germany. June 2014

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