Archived Posts February 2011 - Page 3 of 5 | Acton PowerBlog

RealClearReligion has become a starting point for my day, and I’m honored to have this week’s commentary linked in today’s morning edition, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads.”

The link posted just below mine from CNN’s Belief Blog highlights problems facing a local congregation, “Atlanta church faces eviction.” One of the points of dispute facing the congregation is the status of daycare and afterschool programs that use the facility. As John Murgatroyd reports, the pastor Mark Anthony Mitchell “considers the day care to be part of his ministry.”

What this case illustrates is that the true value of churches, so to speak, can be hard to pin down. Should churches simply be measured in economic terms? A study done in Philadelphia, for instance, tried to “to calculate the economic ‘halo effect’ of a dozen religious congregations in Philadelphia – 10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish, and a synagogue.”

One outcome of the study, in part led Ram Cnaan, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, is that “equipped with such measurements a congregation could produce hard numbers to show community organizations, policy makers and potential funders the value of its local presence.”

But as the study notes, this can cut both ways. One of the reasons that local governments have been focusing on church properties is that, as this study found in Philadelphia, churches can sometimes seem to reduce surrounding property values. Thus, “measuring the congregations’ impact on property values backfired for St. Luke’s and the Epiphany Church in Center City, where adjacent real estate values were lower than in nearby neighborhoods. While that could not be pinned on the handsome church’s presence, the category put St. Luke’s halo into negative territory: minus $226,000.”

This brings us back, in some sense, to the issue I ended yesterday’s post with, the question of the right relationship and valuation between material and spiritual realities. While studies such as the one done in Philadelphia are clearly intended to help local churches, they run the risk of subjecting these institutions to rules of competition within which they will never really succeed if compared with local businesses. The true value of churches can’t be measured economically in these ways.

So while social science has important things to teach us about how our spiritual lives impact our lives in the material and social world, these disciplines don’t exhaust what needs to be said. Jonathan Malesic, assistant professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, recently wrote in the Journal of Markets & Morality (PDF) that the danger of “appealing to Christianity’s positive social function is that it substitutes a theological defense of Christianity for a sociological one. It admits that it is right to judge Christianity on its social function and then leaves it up to sociologists to amass empirical evidence for and against Christianity’s positive social effects.”

It’s true as Hunter Baker responds in the context of that controversy that Christianity (and the functions of a church) cannot be reduced to its social effects. And this is precisely the mistake we see at work in an ecclesiology that views that what the church has really “always been about [is] social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (‘Let’s get together for dinner this week!’). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.” What’s missing here is anything beyond the mere sociality of the church.

There’s no sense of the marks of the true church, what you get at church that you can’t get anywhere else: proclamation of the Gospel in the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. These are things, most especially the sacraments, that you just can’t get from Facebook.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”

I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”

A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”

What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”

But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”

Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.

Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:

Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.

Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”

These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.

As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
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Oftentimes the terms liberty and freedom are used interchangeably, the former derived from the Latin root the latter the German.

But John Mark Reynolds of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University uses the terms to distinguish between them and the possible futures for Egypt: “Freedom gives the right to choose, but the liberated choose wisely.”

Normally I would select some choice excerpts, but the entire thing is excellent so be sure to read it at the Scriptorium, “Liberty Not Just Freedom For Egypt.”

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, published a new column today in the Detroit News:

‘Social Justice’ is a complex concept

Rev. Robert Sirico: Faith and Policy

A column by Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, a Catholic writer for the Washington Post, makes the claim that “Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth.” He went on to say that “there can be no disagreement” that unions, the government and private charities should all have a role in fighting a trend that has “concentrated” money into the hands of the few. In this conjecture Stevens-Arroyo confused the ends with potential means.

What Stevens-Arroyo is promoting is an attenuated and truncated vision of “social justice” that has fostered a great deal of injustice throughout the world. This path, he should know, has been decisively repudiated by the Church.

He also betrays a strange split in thinking common to those on the religious left, who are quick to denounce the profit motive and commercialism. Yet, they seem to think that the key to happiness is giving people more stuff — by enlisting the coercive power of government. This perverse way of thinking holds that “social justice” demands that we take money from those who have earned it and give it to those who have less of it. That’s not social justice; that’s materialism.

A friend and colleague, Arthur Brooks, a social researcher who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, has shown that what makes people truly happy is a system that “facilitates earned success among its citizens and does not create disincentives to achieve or squash ambition.” That’s the market economy.

The incredible growth of economies in places like China and India isn’t happening because wealth was being shifted around, but because wealth is being created.

What happens when wealth is “redistributed” is obvious now.

We’re seeing the train wreck of the “social assistance state” in Europe.

In his 1991 social encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” Pope John Paul II warned that a bloated state “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concerns for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” I call that prophetic.

Let’s also be clear that the Church’s teaching condemns the idolatry of money and material goods.

The Church finds another way, neither condemning market activities nor exalting them beyond their rightful place in the grand scheme of things. It asks us to work for the highest good and to contribute as we can our time, talents and wealth that we have earned for the betterment of the world. The Church also demands that we build just systems of trade that enable the poor to be the agents of their own betterment.

So let’s drop these false notions about what constitutes the Church’s understanding of social justice.

A system that pits the haves against the have-nots, with politicians and bureaucrats acting as referees, should be rejected by anyone sincerely interested in building a just social order.

Blog author: rnothstine
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
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Reagan at Danilov Monastery

I point you to Paul Kengor’s insightful 2008 piece on Ronald Reagan’s 1988 summit to Moscow in Christianity Today because it is directly related to this Thursday’s Acton on Tap. I will spend some time discussing the Moscow Summit and Reagan’s revolutionary comments at Spaso House, Danilov Monastery, and Moscow State University. Kengor notes:

Ronald Reagan clearly had a personal religious motivation at the summit, which he pursued on his own volition, certainly not at the urging of advisers.

For Thursday, I also plan to focus heavily on Reagan’s lifelong battle against communism and the 1981 assassination attempt on the president and how they shaped his faith life. Other topics that will be addressed is Reagan’s 1994 letter to the American people announcing his Alzheimer’s affliction and a brief discussion of President Barack Obama and all the news reports comparing him to Reagan.

Most of all, we want to hear your voice. If you are in the Grand Rapids area please make plans to join us and participate. Find the Facebook page here.

Then come back March 2 for another Acton on Tap hosted by Dr. Carl Trueman.

If you weren’t able to join us in person for the inaugural lecture of the 2011 Acton Lecture Series, fear not: today, we’re pleased to present Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity” for our loyal PowerBlog readers.  The lecture was delivered on February 3rd at the Waters Building here in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The next lecture in the 2011 Acton Lecture Series takes place on March 16 and features Peter Greer, President of HOPE International.  If you’re interested in attending, click here to register.

I’m pleased to report that Hunter Baker is the recipient of the 2011 Novak Award from the Acton Institute. Hunter is associate dean of arts and sciences and associate professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and author of The End of Secularism (Crossway Academic, 2009).

From the release:

With his writing and speaking in a variety of popular and academic contexts, Dr. Hunter Baker has made a compelling and comprehensive case for the integration of the Christian faith into all areas of life, including economics and business.

Baker said the award was made all the more meaningful to him in light of the “power and diligence” that Michael Novak has shown over a long career. “Novak’s work helps readers understand the importance of the Christian faith as both a supernatural relationship with God that stirs the soul and as a powerful impetus for and sustainer of liberty, compassion, creativity, and excellence in the broader culture,” he said.

About the award: “Named after distinguished American theologian and social philosopher Michael Novak, the Novak Award rewards new outstanding research by scholars early in their academic careers who demonstrate outstanding intellectual merit in advancing the understanding of theology’s connection to human dignity, the importance of limited government, religious liberty, and economic freedom.”

Hunter has been a good friend to the Acton Institute, and as the award recognizes, holds forth a promising future for a career (building off of his already significant achievements) articulating the foundations of a free and virtuous society.

He’s a contributor to the PowerBlog, and here’s a sampling of his work elsewhere:

Jordan Ballor already highlighted Rob Moll’s piece in today’s Wall Street Journal in his earlier post on business and Christian ministry. The piece quotes David W. Miller who was interviewed in the Winter 2008 issue of Religion & Liberty on the topic of theology at work. Earlier on the PowerBlog, I also posted a related PBS interview with Miller on corporate morality.

Another great resource from the Religion & Liberty archives on theology and work is an interview with Laura L. Nash.

In a recent Acton Commentary, Stephen Grabill and Brett Elder reflect on the tension that often exists between conceptions of ministry in the church and in the world. They point especially to the Cape Town Commitment, which on the one hand identifies a “secular-sacred divide as a major obstacle to the mobilization of all God’s people in the mission of God.”

But on the other hand, write Grabill and Elder, “The gulf between economics and theology in evangelical social engagement and missionally informed action is a momentous barrier that must still be overcome before we can truly embrace all legitimate vocations as sacred and worthy callings.”

There are some positive signs on this front, however, and the workplace section of the Cape Town Commitment is one of them. A piece by Rob Moll in today’s Wall Street Journal highlights this hopeful trend, as he writes, “Not only does the church tend to privilege church and missionary service over business, but it often condemns business practices and implies the guilt of any participants. Yet there are signs that this dynamic is changing—not least because churches rely on the donations of business professionals.”

After hearing about an established Christian publisher recently launching an official blog for their products, I did some thinking about the relationship between the traditional publication outlets and social media.

I’m sure that traditional publishers have a relatively large budget for print advertising, but it seems that they are very slow to hire professionals to do serious social media work, blogging, and online advertising. This seems true at least in the academic markets and relative to their print marketing outreach. And the blogs that publishers do have are usually not very good, although there are exceptions.

All this is true even though there are a number of reasons why digital advertising is better than traditional print. With digital advertising and outreach you can get real numbers in terms of reactions in real-time, seeing almost immediately what is effective and what isn’t. But you are also engaging people in a place where they are much more likely to buy and doing so is far easier.

If someone sees an ad in a magazine, they have to either stop what they are doing and go to a computer or pick up the phone, or remember to do so later after they’re done reading the magazine. When you reach someone on a website, Twitter feed, or a blog, they already poised to buy in that they are always one click away from Amazon, where they already have an account set up, and so on.

And despite many of the rumors of the death of blogging, I liken the relationship of blogging to social media to the relationship of journalism to blogging. Without blogs and the kinds of content generated on blogs, there’s far less to drive social media, just as without journalistic content there’s far less to drive blogging. So I don’t see blogging going away any time soon, but the turnover rate of blogs will continue to be high because of the variety of competitive voices and sources for news, commentary, and promotion. The kinds of transition over at First Things in recent years, which has really become a full-service complement to the print publication, seems to me to be a good model for established publications looking to broaden their digital footprint.

So even though it may seem odd that an established publisher is just now forming an institutional blog, there are some good reasons why starting a blog now is a good idea.

To keep abreast of some of the things going on with Christians and new media, keep an eye on the Christian Web Conference.