Beginning in September 2016, I have the opportunity to begin part-time doctoral research into the identity and function of congregations as “bodies” of Christ. Below is a brief sketch of the direction I hope to take this research along with details on the realities of the program and suggestions for lending support.
- The Scoop
- What's the big deal?
- Congregational Mapping
- Questions & Answers
- How long and how much?
That probably sounds a bit strange unless you know that the Apostle Paul frequently uses the term ‘body of Christ’ as a descriptor for the church. But if you don’t know that and it does sound strange to you, you might actually be better off than someone who does know. Paul likely intended to cause a bit of a gasp by identifying our all too human congregations with Christ’s resurrected body.
But for as long as I can remember, this astonishing identification (most explicitly stated for the Corinthian congregation in the phrase “you are the body of Christ” 1Cor 12:27) has been explained away as a simple organizational metaphor: the church is to function like a body. All that remains from Paul’s original statement is the word “body” denuded of all of its rich theological context. Completely missing from the phrase is any deep engagement with its built-in tensions:
|English||You [all]||are||the body of Christ|
|Greek||umeis||de este||soma Kristou|
|Meaning||a known group of people||identification NOT metaphor||Christ's own body|
What if this really is as astonishing as it seems when we hear it for the first time? What would this mean for congregational life beyond Sunday morning worship, ministry programs and small groups? What impact might this have on a church’s sense of missionary calling? And how might it influence the way we think about church structures, functions and leadership?
There’s more to this than wrestling with theological questions. A body is visible and observable. So it ought to be possible not only to develop a language for talking about the church as Body but also a way of helping congregations to grow, adapt and impact their environment as bodies. This should be true not only for large churches with their organizational assets but also for small churches struggling to effectively live out the Gospel in challenging environments.
What if these relational patterns were to form our starting point for understanding the effectiveness of a local congregation?
This is where I start to get excited. You see, I grew up in the 80s in a mainline denominational church. When I was a kid, our church seemed to me to be a pretty movin’ place. We weren’t as hip as Calvary Chapel or as big as our city’s various “First” churches, but we had a core group of faithful believers committed to God, to one another and to living out the gospel in our city-center neighborhood. As time went on though, things got tough. What used to be the city-center in the 50s became inner-city in the 90s and many of our core members were driving 30 minutes into town to attend services or events. On a macro level, the wider culture had long since shifted away from a trusting relationship with religion and those that continued to attend church started were increasingly shopping for churches the way they chose their favorite TV shows. About the same time, new forms of church started to emerge that were specifically adapted to these emerging cultural patterns: cell churches, mega-churches, organic house churches. In this newly competitive environment it became harder and harder for this formerly effective community church to translate its communal realities into ‘industry standard’ organizational success. And yet somehow, they have pulled it off.
What internal realities allow some churches to adapt when their environment shifts while others fall apart?
My sense of calling in the church has been to find ways to help congregations adapt to the challenges they face without compromising their soul. This has largely meant focussing my attention on small and rural churches from mainline denominations who sincerely want to be missional, but don’t have the wherewithal to follow the modern consumerist church growth dogmas.
But as I’ve worked with these churches and their partners, I’ve discovered that this isn’t just a challenge for the small or the rural. Churches who are motivated to re-orient themselves toward an embodied, missional expression of the gospel are facing an identity crisis. Thankfully, there is a new wave of attention being turned toward the identity and function of the local church and this is where I want to locate my study of the Body.
“Congregational Mapping” is a way of looking at the congregation as a living, growing, functioning (or disfunctioning!) network of relationships. Using a short questionnaire, I can develop a map of a congregation’s relationships like a CAT-scan for communities. Based on this snapshot, I can examine a congregation’s relational patterns and gain insight on the way that the Body is positioned for health, ministry and adaptation. Because every congregation is different, these patterns might take a different shape in each setting. But the patterns themselves are grounded in biblical principles and are recognizable in common network structures.
To my knowledge, this approach (called Social Network Analysis) has not yet been applied to congregations in a systematic way. But I believe it shows great promise for helping us to think differently about what a congregation is and how it is meant to function. SNA is increasingly producing unique insights in fields in which complex relationships between independent players have a significant bearing on the overall system’s function. Examples include organizational analysis, sociology and anthropology, epidemiology, anti-terrorism … the list goes on and on.
For the purposes of my study, I will be focusing on congregations in the the Estonian Union of Evangelical and Baptist Churches. But before I put my methods to use in this study, I want to hone my skills with any church interested in participating. For this purpose, I have created a survey process I am calling the “Soma Congregation Builder”. I hope that one eventual outcome of my research will be an online tool built on the SOMA system that churches can use to collect responses from their congregation, produce a congregational map, and work through a series of exercises to build congregational “body image”.
You can take a closer look at the SOMA system here: (available soon!)
Let me know if your church would like to participate in the early rounds of this study.
I have no intention of leaving my congregation in Rapla. On the contrary, I am committed to continuing on here as pastor at least for another term (Lord willing) and hope to continue making pastoral contributions in the area afterward. My conviction is that theological study needs to be intimately tied to congregational realities so that both can feed and be fed. My mission in Rapla is far from complete and my hope is that my part-time studies and investigations into the relational constitution function of the Body will help me to more effectively equip the Rapla church for a sustainably effective future.
Why a European PhD?
The simplest answer is pragmatic: a European PhD is close to home and astonishingly affordable. Without these realities, advanced study wouldn’t even be on the map for me (you can see a breakdown of the costs involved on the last tab of this page). But another very important reason is that European PhDs are oriented toward independent research (as opposed to an emphasis on coursework). Both result in PhD qualification but the European approach allows me to focus in on my research goals. And why a PhD? I want the research I am doing to meet the highest academic standards and I want to develop research skills that will help me to continue making contributions at that same level, while keeping my feet firmly planted in congregational realities.
What is the IBTS Centre?
“The International Baptist Theological Study Centre (IBTSC) Amsterdam [owned by members of the European Baptist Federation] … aspires to stand in the tradition of its predecessors and to deliver high quality theological education and research from a baptistic perspective in an international context. In this way it aims to provide research, researchers, educators, and leaders who can serve the mission and ministry of churches in Europe, the Middle East and beyond.”
Though I am ordained a presbyterian minister, my service in Estonia has been with churches belonging to the Estonian Evangelical and Baptist Church Union. Their association with the EBF and IBTSC puts Amsterdam VU (founded by Abraham Kuyper) on the map for me. The IBTSC focuses particular on missiology and practical theology so my interests and my study population line up naturally.
Why Amsterdam Vrij University?
Amsterdam Vrij University has a terrific theology faculty which has a particular emphasis on the practical theology and mission of the local church. The university also has an active emphasis in the sociology department on social network analysis. This is just the unique combination I’m looking to develop.
|2016||Acceptance to Research Masters||IBTS|
|Intensive Research M.A. Courses||IBTS|
|2017||Proposal submission||Amsterdam VU|
|2018||Study, research, writing||Estonia|
|2022||Final writing, defense||Amsterdam VU|
|Tuition Installment #2||10.2017||1500 EUR||1800 USD|
|Tuition Installment #3||12.2017||1000 EUR||1200 USD|
|PhD Annual Tuition||2018 >||1000 EUR||1200 USD|
|Roundtrip travel to AMS||300 EUR||320 USD|
|Room and board (2 weeks)||350 EUR||370 USD|
|Ground transportation||170 EUR||200 USD|