The Church Has No Effect on Your Life?

By Jeremy Rhodes

A recent poll conducted by the Barna Group reveals that 46% of church-going Americans claim their lives have not changed at all due to their time spent in the pews. This seems like quite a large number. Certainly, one immediate reaction to this news is to think about the church’s effectiveness (or apparent ineffectiveness, in this case) when it comes to its goals of transforming lives through spiritual instruction and opportunities for service. No doubt, much could be written (and has) about the failings of the church as it attempts to be a relevant force in the day-to-day lives of its congregants. I distinctly remember reading a report 10 years ago about an urgent spike in church attendance right after the events of 9/11, which was followed by an almost-immediate return to prior levels. One writer pointed out, “After 9/11, Americans turned to the church in droves, only to be reminded why they weren’t attending in the first place.”

As a sociologist, however, I think the claims by these 46% are pretty dubious. One quintessential claim of sociology is that the socialization we receive is not only powerful and consuming, but is also subtle, often leaving us unaware of the forces that have shaped us. Of course, the fact that these 46% believe their church to have no impact on their lives is certainly an interesting fact, and tells us something important about their relationship with their church (and is likely correlated with their frequency of church attendance). But I would say that it is their belief that is the interesting finding here, not a reality that church actually has no effect on people. Does this reflect a special inability of religious organizations to affect change in the lives of believers, or is it merely another example of the difficulty we have noticing and acknowledging the social forces that shape us?

I see this difficulty every semester in my Introductory Sociology classes. When we begin discussing socialization, [Read more...]

Faith as Small as a Peanut: What One Black Christian Scientist Taught Me About My Work

At the school where I teach and research we just finished our second week of the semester, and this past Monday we (as a nation) remembered Martin Luther King Jr. and the vision that he and the Civil Rights Movement leaders imparted to the rest of the nation. When confronted with great figures whose lives end prematurely, especially at the beginning of a new semester sets my mind to the question of calling: why do we do what we do?

This question is particularly salient as I am teaching a new grad seminar on how to write in the social sciences. As I prepped for the course over the winter break it was clear to me that calling has to be at the root of what we researchers do, and maybe a little bit of madness or possibly ineptitude at most other kinds of work. But really, as I enter into conversations with the new graduate students about why research is so important not only for society but also for their careers, the obstacles to accomplishing good research in the ever-changing rules of higher education seriously lead me to ask reflectively: why would you do this? [Read more...]

A Problem with Today’s Widespread Celebrity Culture

A defining feature of life today is we have a lot of celebrities. We live in a world of information, and much of that information is about specific people. We have celebrities in just about every area of life ranging from broad areas, such as entertainment, sports, and government to more obscure tasks such as noodling catfish (i.e., is catching them by hand) and baking cakes.

Think about it. How many people do you know a lot about via the media even though you’ve never met them? Quite a few, I’d wager. And if you want to learn about someone, it’s usually pretty easy on-line.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but it can cause a problem in how we evaluate our own lives. Celebrities are often known for doing something really well, and we naturally gravitate toward those celebrities who are experts in areas that we’re interested in ourselves. As I blogged about last week, we understand ourselves, in part, through processes of self-comparison.

The problem arises when [Read more...]

Do Sociology and Christianity Mix?

(Part 1 in a series of 4)

By George Yancey

I describe myself as “Just a Christian black sociologist trying to make his way in the world.” Well the black part is pretty clear but one might wonder about the Christian sociologist part. I mean can a person be a sociologist and a Christian at the same time? If not then am I just an walking living contradiction. Is my existence just a joke on rationality? Whoa. That is too heavy. Let me just look at the Christian and sociology mixture.

Now on the surface there does not seem to be a contradiction between a religious belief and an occupation. I mean as a Christian can I not be any occupation I want as long as it is legal? (I did try being a Christian drug dealer once but that just did not work out). Of course I can. So there should not be a contradiction between being a Christian who works and a sociology researcher and teacher.

Furthermore, can not a sociology have any religious belief he wants. There is not a religious test for being a sociologist is there. (Well not an official religious test. Read my book “Compromising Scholarship” for unofficial ways there may be a religious test in academia). So if there is no religious expectations upon being a sociology then where is the contradiction?

The contradiction seems to have developed because [Read more...]

The Black Church in America: Martin Luther King’s Legacy, The Social Gospel and the Prosperity Gospel

A Professor in Princeton University’s Religion department, Eric Gregory, once told me that many students in his Christian Ethics class know that Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader but do not know he was religious leader. Forgetting the religious roots of Reverend Martin Luther King’s legacy represents an at best impoverishment of knowledge, or perhaps as suggested in this article by Justin Dyer and Kevin Stewart on Public Discourse, an attempt to present in exclusively secular terms what Reverend King saw as a theologically and philosophically based argument: that African-Americans deserve full legal and substantive benefits of U.S. citizenship. As I’ve mentioned before on BWG, civil religion is an American tradition with many important legacies in American politics, and Martin Luther King is one example of this civil religion.

Although few of the black and white sociology of religion students I teach in the south do not know that Martin Luther King was a Christian pastor, many are nonetheless more familiar with the messages prosperity gospel preachers than with the social gospel of any kind. Realizing this blind spot made me more passionate to teach my students the historical roots of the political and social engagement of black churches. As early as the 18th century, when African-Americans lacked many other rights, African Americans organized their own churches as early as the 18th century. The religious freedom granted to African-Americans was used for their civic and political empowerment, producing powerful leaders like Martin Luther King.

To explain the close link between the black church and political mobilization, in their classic book, The Black Church in the African-American Experience, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya stated:

“other-worldly religious transcendence can be related dialectically to the motivation, discipline, and courage needed for this-worldly political action.” (Lincoln and Mamiya, Black Church, p. 234)

In other words, the black church’s often passionate Pentecostal tradition, its belief in God’s providence, his love for his people, generate the much needed-virtues of perseverance and courage to go against the tide.

The social gospel, such as promoting civil rights for African-Americans, certainly went against the tide of many [Read more...]


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