Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Church Reimagined

Written by: on April 3, 2019

Save for the author’s ardent commitment to Darwinian evolution, there is much to learn and appreciate from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I also wished he addressed an important corollary of his project, namely, the grounding of morality. But that may be exclusively in the realm of philosophy and theology, which he does cover. However, the subjects he addresses are signifiant, backed by thoughtful research and metaphors, that there is enough to take in and digest. The subtext is indeed provocative, especially in our current politically charged climate in which civility is a foreign concept to many in the modern world. 

Why are good people divided by politics and religion? Why is the common aphorism, “Do not discuss politics and religion in polite company.” true in many cases? Why do we tip-toe around hot topic issues, i.e., abortion, immigrant, welfare, etc.? Haidt makes a compelling case and he starts out by affirming a guiding moral principle: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”1 If nothing else is learned from reading Haidt, this sole principle is sufficient to help explain why so many are frustrated and angry about our incivility toward each other. We try to persuade through the head while forgetting to speak to the heart. 

Still operating under the Enlightenment’s overreach, educational institutions, non-profit organizations  (including the church) and the like remain unconvinced to instruct in ways that give due credit to the arts and other “soft sciences.” Even the perceived differences between the “hard” and “soft” sciences is telling of how much work is needed to bridge the two. The study of chemistry and physics is considered more academically rigorous in our society today than the study of music and Shakespeare for instance. The former provides facts, and the latter supports feelings. Studies show both are necessary to produce whole individuals.

Haidt provides a helpful metaphor to understand the power of emotion. Our minds operate like a rider on an elephant. Emotion’s relationship with cognitive processing was not understood until the 1980s.2 Emotions, as it turns out is not dumb. In fact, according to Haidt, the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. This realization might be unsettling, especially to educators who pass over opportunities to teach and affirm what the heart already knows. Blaise Pascal once said, “The heart has its reasons which reason does not understand.”3 In an age where the primacy of reason was nascent Pascal knew the proper roles reason and emotions each had. 

How is Haidt’s work relevant for Christian leaders today? Are there principles we can adopt to help stem the decline of Christian influence? Too many churches today extol conversionism4 to the exclusion of other sanctifying activities. Reports of the numbers of those praying the sinners prayer, “receiving Christ as personal Lord and Savior” are always at the top of Christian leaders’ agendas, with little care on follow up and discipleship.

I have been wondering lately how church might look like if we entertained the idea of the gospel being more than just the conversion of the soul? Sure, this is the first step in anyone’s journey to salvific faith, but as we are learning, this is just the first among many toward a full life Jesus promised to those who follow and obey him. Could church include more activities that excite and challenge not only the mind, but the heart as well? How do we infuse more art and beauty5 in our congregations to help them see we belong to a rich history that created and celebrated those values?6 For centuries, up until the modern period, Christians have been the purveyors of great art, music and literature. One only has to visit our museums today to appreciate this fact.

Could the church be the space for all this? It could be and so much more. Haidt sees a lot of similarity between what happens in college football games and the weekly gathering of the religious devout, also known as the church. In a game, winning is the objective, but research shows that something else is happening. Haidt identifies this as the “hive switch.”7 Just like bees in a hive, like-minded people choose cooperation, cohesion and helping each reach mutually beneficial goals. This sounds like an ideal church—not a bad observation coming from an atheist. Furthermore, studies have shown that certain activities such as dancing and singing aid in binding groups together.

Haidt may have likened a college football game to church. But I think church is more akin to a rock concert. All the singing, dancing, dress codes, shared interests, etc. are examples of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls “biotechnology” which promotes binding groups together, which apparently was a part of the early church until it was suppressed in the Middle Ages.8 Dancing during Sunday morning services might be too avant-garde for some. But is there anything inherently wrong with it? So why can’t church be more exhilarating like concerts, more exuberant like football games, or a place of discovery like museums; and sometimes silent and solemn like a monastery? Why can’t church be like the pub in the 1980s television sitcom Cheers “where everybody knows your name” or like The Corner Store in San Pedro CA, a small neighborhood variety store that remains open during Thanksgiving and Christmas to provide a place for the local community to, if nothing else, just be together? 

If the gospel is to be lived out and properly understood as good news, Christian leaders must work harder to develop programs that cater not just exclusively to the head, but to the heart as well.

1 J. Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), 55.
2 Ibid., 51.
3 Blaise Pascal and T. S. Eliot, Pascals Pensées (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958), 210.
4 David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 2005), 20.
5 Ross Gregory Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2013), 291.
6 For a good introduction to aesthetics, see Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters, a BBC British documentary released in 2009.
7 Haidt, 258.
8 Ibid., 259.


About the Author

Harry Edwards

Harry is married to Minerva and has the privilege of raising two young men. He is the founder and director of Apologetics.com, Inc., an organization dedicated to defending the truth claims of Christianity on the internet, radio and other related activities. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Education and a Masters of Arts degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University where he currently works full time as the Associate Director of the graduate programs in Christian Apologetics and Science & Religion. Harry is currently pursuing a DMin (Leadership & Global Perspectives) from George Fox University. He is an active member at Ocean View Baptist Church where he leads an adult Bible study and plays the drums for the praise and worship band. In his spare time, Harry enjoys doing things with his family, i.e., tennis, camping/backpacking, flying RC planes and mentoring others to realize their full potential in the service of our Lord.

8 responses to “Church Reimagined”

  1. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Great post and great thoughts. College football games, rock concerts and pubs – why not think about how to speak to both the head and the heart. I remember my first pastorate in a rural community where Bingo halls were huge – because that is where many found community, engagement, and even entertainment. I was too young and inexperienced then, but now I understand much more. Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

    • Thanks for the kind words Harry. I’m all for making the church a place where everyone can belong before they believe. There are however activities that wouldn’t make sense for non-believers to participate in, i.e., Lord’s Supper, baptism, etc. But that’s easily addressed. I’ve heard pastors say, right before communion, for non-believers to abstain from participating in it for the simple fact that one has to know Him first before one can remember him.

      Even this routine, repeated often enough, could inculcate a certain disposition that will enable belief. And this can only happen if the outsider is invited in.

  2. Jenn Burnett says:

    Harry I love that you are advocating for a resurgence in the arts in relation to church! I’m always a bit dismayed at how marketing posters and videos have replaced so much of what once would have been works of art. One of my favourite worship experiences has been when an artist paints through the service and then shares his or her work at the end—as if they were a voice for the gathered together. Similarly, I was once at a service where everyone got a canvas to paint as part of the worship. (I may have borrowed that one and reproduced it.) My question then is how we decide what art gets a place in a worship space? Some of the more deep an thoughtful pieces I’ve seen are also the most controversial. And Christian kitch is not controversial, but also not good art. Given the subjective nature of art, what criteria or process would you use to decide?

    • Jenn, love the question. It’s true much of art these days are gaudy, tasteless and vulgar. But that’s true of Christian and non-Christian, in my humble opinion.

      It’s also obvious that the church has retreated from art and anyone participating in it is viewed with suspicion. To turn things around, we need art education in churches. First. from the pulpit, pastors ought to encourage those who are inspired by the teachings for Jesus to express themselves artistically. Second, our church leaders need to help identify and encourage those who have the talents and gifts to find outlets of expression, i.e., displaying their art at church or supporting their education, etc. Thirdly, adopt programs to provide opportunities to learn and master their craft.

      These are just some rough, off the cuff ideas. Bottom line, it’s got to be preached from the pulpit, provide programs and leaders ought to encourage this.

      Here’s a caveat: Church leaders should be courageous enough to politely admonish those who have no talent, gift or predisposition to art; but that all are welcome to start somewhere and learn. 🙂

  3. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Thank you for this, Harry. I appreciate your perspective on this text and your vision for what the Church could be at the end.
    My last role on staff at our church was looking after adult discipleship programs and care. Although no one really asked me to, I knew I had to repeatedly make a convincing case for why we should emphasize these areas. This is challenging when conversionism and bottom lines seem most important. But we are going after the whole person and research keeps showing how belonging is fundamental to healthy living. Yes, make a decision for Christ. Yes, join us on mission and serve. But also, make space to have spiritual friends and to be cared for. We are humans, after all, with emotions and minds.
    Appreciate you!

    • Andrea, thanks for this. We need more leaders like you who see beauty as an attractive and important part of Christianity. I believe (as Douthat does) it is the best way to communicate the gospel and persuade others to be disciples of Jesus.

      Keep up the great work and keep on keeping on.

  4. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Good write-up Harry, you always pick a great angle to review from. In a similar way I found myself asking where Haidt was viewing religion from? Like most observers and commentators it is from the outside. However, the ‘hive’ understanding is a very limited view. Haidt’s book returned me to my research on James Flowers faith stages a few years back. I was looking at how Faith Staged Development could be used in isolating the roots of dangerous religious extremism among young people in NZ. Fowler’s point is that the Herd mentality is little more than adolescent faith and too many people get stuck there. What should be happening is individuation from the institution and then a later return to community as sovereign individuals in Christ. While an institutional community may provide safety and offer a wider and more powerful voice in the world, it is often an unreflective voice – and I wonder if Haidt was describing a problem rather than prescribing how things should be.

    • Thanks for this Digby. Looking forward to learning more about Flower’s ideas about faith stages when we meet again in the UK. What you shared about his findings resonate with me. I feel like in my own faith journey, I had to own it after it had been handed down to me from my mom, who received it from her mom.

      The whole community feel for me didn’t really take place until I had matured further along. You’re right, many Christians remain in the hive thinking that’s what saves them. It’s what, per Haidt, binds and blinds. I’d say we keep the bind and lose the blind.

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