Information is nice, and empirical research has its place, but research should not replace common sense and Biblically-inspired wisdom.
I often wonder at the millions of government dollars wasted on nonsensical research such as, “Does watching violence influence the behavior and emotional well being of children?” We are brainwashed to think that unless a study is done that we can’t know the answer to a question that begs a common-sense answer. We take for granted that the word “science” in social science is really science and we are so reliant on technology and science that we don’t trust any answer that isn’t supported by a study.
The church world is no different; there are studies about churches that use this model and that model and another model; with many churches taking their direction not from a well thought out theology of ministry based on the Bible but rather from research – better to have research validate our decisions than the Scriptures.
I had a conversation with a pastor friend in which we pondered congregational issues; at the conclusion of the discussion he asked me if I’d read a particular book and I answered no, I had heard about the book but not read it. He then shared that he thought that maybe I’d read the book because of my comments on the congregational issues we were exploring – the book contained research that validated my thinking. The thing is that the possible congregational directions we were talking about were really baseline directions supported by Biblical teaching and sound theology. I didn’t share anything new, anything that our fathers in the faith hadn’t been thinking about for two millennia, anything that would surprise Augustine, or Chrysostom, or Paul, or Wesley.
Again, I’m not saying that research doesn’t have its place, but it isn’t the place that many of us have assigned it – its place is not to be the throne or the foundation or the North Star. If we won’t do the hard work of developing a theology of the church and of Christian ministry, if we won’t refine and critique that work, if we won’t sweat at practicing that theology – then we won’t have the spiritual and moral muscle to grow as leaders and as a people; to borrow from the writer of Hebrews, our senses will not have been exercised to distinguish between good and evil.
It’s one thing to purchase a physical house to live in that someone else has built; but no one should live in a theological house that he (or she) has not poured years of sweat into. Yes, others can help us build the house just as plumbers and electricians can help us build a physical house, and no sound theological house should be novel and not be beholden to the contributions of others – but we have to do the actual work; we may work alongside Luther and Calvin and Augustine and others, but we’ve got to take ownership of the house. We need to be able to say, “I remember putting that wall in. I recall when I rearranged the dimensions of that room. Oh, I had to do a complete renovation of that wing – I realized I built it off the foundation.”
Research and social science are no substitute for common sense and Biblical wisdom; nor are they substitutes for theological sweat.