Science in Christian Perspective


Reflections on Sociology and Evangelism
Wheaton College,
Wheaton, Illinois.

From: JASA 7 (March 1955): 9-10.

There are some concerns of sociology which evangelicals may well consider. It is also true, no doubt, that sociologists might well consider certain concerns of evangelicals. However, since we evangelicals should be concerned first with the beam in our own eye let us see what we can learn before we begin to teach.

The first thing which comes to my mind is that the very object of the study of sociology-society-is in disrepute with many evangelicals. Attitudes of in difference, apathy, and hospitality are not un ' common. Certain beliefs about the world, about separation, about Christ's second coming, and about how to be spiritual cause many to dissociate themselves as much as possible from their community-to say nothing of state, national, and international affairs. PTA,
Kiwanis, Community Chest, Family Service Association, Gray Ladies, Red Cross, Hospital Auxiliaries, and other organizations interested in mercy, justice, kindness, order, and friendship here and now are regarded by many Christians as unworthy objects of attention when compared with the Messianic king dom then and there. Or, many of God's children sacrifice the opportunity of legitimate service in the community to their desire to keep themselves pure and undefiled in this present world. "After all," protest one of these Christians, "Don't these organiz ations have card parties?" Naturally then, if one sug gests the study of justice and mercy at the interna tional level he is greeted somewhat contemptuously with the question, "Surely you don't mean the United Nations ?"

Whatever the merits of the arguments it is my observation that, as yet, a positive social action program is not the social strategy of modern evangelicalism. And, what is more significant, non-evangelicals seem to be doing most of the thinking, writing, and acting on the issue of the Christian in society. Also it should be noted that evangelicals are not writing as much as non-evangelicals on the allied themes of nature of the world and the nature of human nature. Perhaps when evangelicals know society as well as they know the Bible and theology some leadership in the field of ideas as well as action may be expected.

This discussion of the Christian's relationship to society provides a sort of background for a second area of concerns in social science which is of interest to Christians. It is the area of social problems. I did not begin this paper with social problems because society is not mainly "disorganization." Emphasis rightly belongs on the normal processes of order which characterizes our everyday relations in the home, in school, in the shop, in the of f ice, in the church, and over the back fence. If we were more concerned with community organization we would have less to face in community disorganization. Nevertheless, we must face the immediate undesirable situations so as to rectify the intolerable, and also plan for the future to prevent the intolerable. Parenthetically, some evangelicals will help in dealing with the results of social problems-for example, treatment of delinquentsbut their interest wanes in the long term preventive approach.

The social problem areas where much is being done by sociology, and which could be noted by evangelicals, is in racial discrimination, delinquency, and marital discord.

Considerable effort is being expended by all the social sciences in race relations. Paradoxically, few people would admit to being prejudiced. It's in the specific situations such as allowing Negroes membership in your church, welcoming them as neighbors, having one as a college roommate, and integrating them into public schools where prejudice can be seen. We must learn as Christians to love in the specific rather than the abstract. And, we must learn further that there is not love without justice. Considerable help in race relations can be found in anthropology, sociology, and psychiatry. For example, the belief in natural Negro inferiority, was blasted by anthropology some years ago; the belief that prejudice is caused by ignorance is corrected by sociology-sociologists are relating group antagonisms to such non-rational factors as the quest for status and power; and the belief that the violent hater is a sick man is being confirmed by psychiatrists as they see many race bigots severely disturbed emotionally. Good reports are coming from some areas of racial invasion where poor community morale, poor physical appearance of housing, rising delinquency rates, and excessive mobility were corrected by careful, extensive social organization of the community involved. Block by block organization plus adequate communication and information really helps.

Turning to the problem of delinquency, social research indicates thus far that the cause is far from simple. It should be noted immediately that there are different types of delinquency which call for different casual explanations. In some types of, delinquency the home is of crucial consideration. In other types the home situation must be viewed against the background of a disorganized community. Again, the beliefs or values of a culture may be decisive in shaping behavior in a delinquent direction. In his book, The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman points up in fascinat ing fashion the movement through the years from inner directed character structure in America to other oriented character structure, so that today there is a strong note of "groupism"-the sort of thing which psychiatrist Lindner in recent TIME magazine article uses to explain the mad dog packs of adolescent criminals. The autonomy of the person is submerged in the inordinate quest to "belong at any cost." By the way, Riesman's recent book, Individualism Reconsidered, expands the theme of autonomy in such a way as to have relevance for Christians concerned about "self-denial". In fact, Riesman's work has relevance for many facets of our American culture-from football to free enterprise.

The third social problem I should like to mention is marital relations. The home is, of course, a prominent topic for evangelicals. Sermons are numerous on "The Christian Home"-what it is and what it does. My complaint in this area is not so much about what is preached, but what is not preached. The place to begin, of course, is in courtship. To hear some fundamentalists this is simply a matter of falling in love. Students of the family are quite opposed to the idea that "romance" is the basis for marriage. Several key factors in good marital adjustment are religion, socialeconomic background, education, life aims, personality characteristics, and beliefs about such matters as birth control and insurance. Studies verify that careful preparation for marriage which avoids various types of "unequal yokes" is more and more necessary in our society.

Marriage requires something other than passivity. The number of Christian marriages which have drifted into unhappiness, separation, and even divorce is unknown. But, I suspect it's higher than we'd like. Matters like budgeting, sexual adjustment, disciplining the children, and recreational activtiies don't come naturally. Of course, they don't pose insuperable problems, either. What is often needed is wise and competent counseling both before and during the marriage. Marriage counseling is a wonderful field for the Christian. It's a pity there are so few in it.

Moving away from social problems to two final concerns of social science with some relevance for evangelicals, the first is the work being done in the area called group dynamics. The findings here are valuable in every area of human relations. The type of things I have in mind is the buzz session, the circle seating, the discussion group, the socio-drama, and so on to facilitate both learning and problem solving. These are seen in use in the classroom-why not in the church? A recent issue of Theology Today has an article by Wedel which discusses this matter. One example of application would be Sunday school teaching and learning which could be improved by changing the structure of the group from lecture-listener to leader-participant. Every teacher and preacher knows that a portion of his most brilliant discourses goes by unapprehended or misapprehended by his audience. Learning involves active participation of the student in the learning process. Not many students will do this unaided.

The last concern of social science-and indeed of all branches of learning-which I should like to mention is the subject of controversy. I'm not sure that social science can tell us much here. It may, along with all of education reduce ignorance which causes so much disagreement. It may even tell how to approach controversial issues with a minimum of heat and a maximum of light. But, I have a conviction that with all this help final truth on many matters is still in the future. In fact, the varying and opposing views often illustrate how truth does not reside in one person or school alone. It may be right at this point to welcome controversy as a mechanism for eliciting various sides to a question. I do not mean the ego assaulting viciousness to which dialectics may degenerate. Nor do I mean developing controversy simply as an end in itself. We have far too many mavericks who take an opposite view simply to be different. As I see it, disputation is only to arrive at truth.

We would all benefit by a cogent ethics of controversy. Social scientists, society, and evangelicals alike are in strong need of a Christian ethic of love and humility along with forthrightness. This is especially true in a time when the free citizens of America are beginning to hear and heed demands for regimentation of what they can read or believe. The danger to democracy-including freedom of religion is obvious. What also needs to be stressed is that evangelical Protestantism's vitality is in danger if either disagreement or love is abandoned.