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Reggie Smith on Theology Underlying Sociology

What churches profess and what they do sometimes clash. Sharing stories, sitting with those who suffer, praying, and listening in silence for God can help churches harmonize theology and sociology.

Reginald "Reggie" Smith is the director of race relations and social justice for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. He advises churches and organizations on cross-cultural and urban ministry. In this edited conversation, Smith talks about what happens when real-life suffering rubs up against heady theology.

You often talk about “theology underlying sociology.” What do you mean by that?

Theology and sociology go together. Very often in Reformed circles, we think our theology is literally objective. We get theological systems flowing in our heads, but they don’t match up with our sociology, which is the way we behave. You see this with race and justice issues when we divorce or disconnect our values from our worship. We say one thing but do another thing.

What made you start talking about theology underlying sociology?

I was in Richmond, Virginia, for a conference on race, class, and the kingdom of God. Before the Civil War, Richmond had the nation’s second-largest slave market. Like many cities, Richmond has erased its slave-selling history but still honors slave owners as heroes. We visited Hollywood Cemetery, where U.S. presidents James Monroe and John Tyler are buried. President Monroe described slavery as evil but never freed any of his 250 slaves. Hollywood Cemetery has a separate section for Confederate soldiers, including a ninety-foot tall monument to the Confederate war dead and a statue of Jefferson Davis. One side of his monument lists all his accomplishments for the Union. The other side lists all his accomplishments for the Confederacy.

Can you give a church-related example of theology disconnected from sociology?

I have many examples from Roosevelt Park Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Roosevelt Park was formed by combining two CRCs that were two blocks apart. Grandville Avenue CRC, once the denomination’s largest congregation, gave birth to Bethel CRC. But in the 1980s, Hispanics moved into the neighborhood, both congregations became commuter churches, and attendance dwindled. Both churches began talking about whether to move, stay, or give away their building. They decided to join forces to reach the neighborhood. So, in 1994, I became the African-American pastor of a mostly-white congregation in a Hispanic neighborhood. I inherited 195 years of history—a hundred from Grandville and ninety-five from Bethel.

Before I arrived, two-thirds of Bethel and one-third of Grandville Avenue had already left. One of the first questions they asked after my installation was which men’s softball team I’d join. There were still enough members to field two men’s teams in the local CRC league. But rather than combine members from the old congregations into new teams, they kept their old identities as two teams playing against each other in the same league. So for five years I played one year for one team and the next year for the other.

What was so different about the two former congregations that they didn’t want to form new teams?

Grandville Avenue had always been more known as a more working class and evangelical church for recent Dutch immigrants. Bethel was more affluent and educated. When professors visited from the Free University, founded by Abraham Kuyper in Amsterdam, they wanted to speak at Bethel before they did at Calvin Theological Seminary. Also, neither group wanted to give up its preferred way of observing the Lord’s Supper.

How well did Roosevelt Park members cooperate in reaching the neighborhood?

Let me use the analogy of a third rail, the power source for subway trains that run on two rails. The third rail for any CRC is children’s and youth ministry. Church members went door to door to meet neighbors and discover their needs. Our deacons helped form Roosevelt Park Ministries as a separate nonprofit. We soon had sixty to seventy kids coming to worship services and youth ministry. Then all hell broke loose. Long-term members said they didn’t want their “covenant children” mixing with “community kids.” The elders decided to create one youth ministry for covenant children and another for the community—with separate leaders, budgets, and meeting times. Sharon and I already lived in the neighborhood, and our three daughters went to both youth groups.

What effect did this have on your congregation?

When sociology and theology clash, you get more conflict about race, justice, and worship. For many people, their most powerful social networks revolve around church, home, and school. We as congregations may say that we’re here to be a blessing and reflect the large picture of Revelation 7:9. But we default on our theology rather than let our children be “polluted.” That becomes the dissonance, when we say, “Yes, the gospel is for everybody”—and think we can do that without having to break bread and hang out with “them.”

Throughout CRC history, whether in Grand Rapids, Chicago, New Jersey, or Los Angeles, you see that whenever people who are very different from the congregation move into the neighborhood, then the church community takes its churches, schools, homes, and businesses elsewhere. The story is spelled out clearly in Mark Mulder’s book Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure. It’s a story repeated across cultures and denominations.

Can you pinpoint a theological reason for this common story?

Mark Mulder says, and I agree, that we don’t have a theology of place, the idea that a geographical place is something to care about not just in the present but for the future. So we see no problem in moving everything out of a neighborhood and leaving nothing for the group that comes behind us. After twenty years, we were down to seventy people and our council contemplated closing the church. One elder said, “I love the people and activities in my church, but I couldn’t care less about the neighborhood.” He articulated what everyone else was behaving—but never said.

I’d add that we also don’t have a good theology of suffering, even though the four gospels talk about the suffering of Jesus more than anything else. We are very good at describing propositions about Christ’s death and resurrection but not good about following Christ’s pattern of death and resurrection. When you decide to remain present to people who are suffering, it does something to you. But that’s what Jesus did. He emptied himself, stooped to our level, and died on the cross. Even though we might talk about suffering in worship, we avoid letting it touch our lives. We may read the Ten Commandments in worship each week to remind us that we are broken sinners. Yet outside of church we divide life into “us,” who are basically okay, and “community people,” who are not.

How can suffering and real life be better integrated into worship?

To really understand grace, we need to get in touch with our own brokenness. Preachers need to say, “My life isn’t really all together.” They can make room in sermons for others to share their stories. I did a sermon on Zacchaeus that included an elder who came up to talk about a problem in his life. People remember stories, and they need to hear real voices, not just stories filtered through the preacher.

Also, every Sunday, our service included a time to share joys and concerns. I remember a woman who said, “I’m living with my boyfriend, and I hate it, and I need prayer.” We need to sit with widows, orphans, and foreigners in their suffering—not trying to blame them but listening and hanging out with them long enough to learn what they can teach us. We need to share stories of how we experience grace, even when others label us as dropouts or needy or takers.

Do you have a favorite story about patience and suffering?

I remember Deb, who gave her life to the Lord just before her cancer returned in a more aggressive form. Her husband, Jim, wanted nothing to do with God or church because of the cancer. Deb said in worship, “I need help.” I watched our people take her to chemo, make meals, and sit with her till she died. They didn’t say much, but they showed up, and Deb was able to die well. Jim nearly gave up on life after she died. He could have easily gone back to drinking. Yet, even though our church also died, people stayed connected with him. Now he goes to a new church, along with some of our people.

How else can suffering be included in worship?

We can develop spaces in Sunday worship and weekday gatherings for prayer and silence. We need prayers that fit real life. I heard of a church that asks members to lead prayers while they are going through hard things. This church doesn’t just leave prayer to “the professionals.” The power of silence in the liturgy is that people can sit and be quiet enough to hear what God is saying to them as individuals and as communities. Not enough people do that. You can also post questions on Facebook or ask during pastoral care visits about how people are paying attention to God.


Get ideas on how to connect Sunday worship and Monday work or respond to violence in prayer. Read Reggie Smith’s blog.