Best Practices for Peace: Rev. Dr. David Daniels researches social ministries

Turn on the local news, open the morning paper, check your twitter feed in the morning, and chances are that there will be a story on gun violence. Mass shootings, domestic disputes, vigilantes, police officers, and tragic accidents have contributed to more than 2,000 shootings in Chicago to date, 55 over Labor Day weekend alone. We see these statistics and wring our hands, “What are we going to do about the violence in this city?” It’s a question that is on the minds and hearts of seminarians, pastors, and other faith leaders as they lead their congregations to answer the Christian call to be peacemakers.

There is good news, a lot of Churches are responding to violence their communities and making a positive impact. Rev. Dr. David Daniels III (McCormick professor of World Christianity and Church History) recently finished a 2-year research project on social ministry of Chicago area Black churches and will soon publish a report identifying the best practices of these ministries. These best-practices are effective and practical, which makes them easily replicable and scalable. Dr. Daniels’ report will be published and promoted as part of McCormick Theological Seminary’s annual theme: “Peacebuilding in the City: Equipping Transformational Leaders.”

Dr. Daniels has long been interested in the social activism and ministry of the Black Church. especially in how they continue that legacy today. “There is a lot of academic literature that describes the 21st Century Church as withdrawn from social issues, and much more focused on self-advancement, that they are more focused on helping individuals than engaging in community issues.” Dr. Daniels hypothesized that this was a misconception, and set out to prove it with a grant-funded survey of Black congregations in the Chicago metro area. In the summer of 2013, The McCormick Project on the Black Church and Urban Issues was launched.

The project surveyed 39 Black congregations in the Chicago metro area, and sought to discover what trends and characteristics (if any) predicted or correlated with social ministry and activism. “One of the questions we were particularly interested in was whether or not seminary education made a difference in the church’s involvement with social issues,” said Dr. Daniels. The churches were also asked to identify the socio-economic makeup of their congregation and neighborhood, the congregation’s size, longevity, and budgets. This was to ascertain how financial resources correlated to social ministries. “We asked the congregations to list the programs that they offered and then coded the data into social ministry categories based on their focus.” A team composed of Dr. Daniels, Elfriede Wedam (sociologist at Loyola University), Dr. Eddie Kornegay Jr. (M.Div ’01), Shalonda Dexter (PhD), and Alan Conley (M.Div ’15) then analyzed the data to identify significant trends and variables.

In 2011, churches across the city participated in Urban Dolorosa, a series of vigils to protest gun violence

The findings were encouraging and inspiring. First, the project supported Dr. Daniels’ hypothesis that the Black Church was still engaged in social ministries. Of the churches surveyed, only one did not sponsor a social ministry, the rest supported between 1 and 14. The most popular focus of these ministries was children and youth, public health/social services, economic and political empowerment, and anti-violence/restorative justice. Larger budgets were positively correlated with number of social ministries, but even churches with budgets of less than $100,000 sponsored an average of 4 social ministries. Suburban churches were just as engaged with social ministries as urban churches, and there were no significant differences between denominations. All of this suggests that churches of all sizes, traditions, and resources are heeding God’s call to be peacemakers in the world.

The project also found more evidence that Ministry Still Matters: “We found that there was a significant correlation between the number of social ministries a church sponsored and whether or not the pastor was a seminary graduate,” Dr. Daniels said. “It could be that a seminary-trained pastor inspires their congregation to develop ministries, or that social-ministry-minded congregations tend to call seminary-trained pastors, or perhaps a mixture of both. Seminary is still important.”   Dr. Daniels, and McCormick Theological Seminary, are exploring how to use this new insight to equip our community to be transformational leaders and to increase the Church’s impact as a force for peace and justice in Chicago and the wider world. “If seminary education is making a difference, then we need to know how we can best help students understand the ways their congregations can become agents of change in their communities.”

Out of this project, Dr. Daniels has found some interesting data on how churches are responding to gun violence specifically, data which he hopes will inspire faith leaders and congregations to form their own violence-prevention ministries. Dr. Daniels’ research dismantles the myth that a church has to have large-scale financial resources, or build large-scale programs to have a positive impact. By understanding the characteristics of effective ministries (the best practices), churches and congregations can discern how they can best bring their gifts to meet their communities’ needs. “I’m interested in those practices that demand only time and energy and very little money,” says Dr. Daniels. He described youth-focused violence prevention as an example of how even small programs create significant change. “One of the most important vulnerabilities youth experience is social isolation—they simply don’t have the experience or frame of reference to imagine something different than their day-to-day reality. Something as simple as a field trip downtown, or to the beach, where they aren’t surrounded by gunshots and police surveillance has a major effect on youth well-being.” Dr. Daniels will present these specific findings on Sept. 17, at the kickoff event for McCormick’s annual theme: “The Ways Churches address Gun Violence: Searching for Best Practices.”

Dr. Daniels hopes to continue this research and keep creating capacity-building programs for church leadership in the Chicago area. The next step he sees is to incorporate other congregational communities into the conversation, especially facilitating dialogue between African American and Latin@ congregations. “We have a lot to learn from each other. Congregations of all races and ethnicities, partnering together, can increase our collective capacity and impact.” That dialogue will start at McCormick, with the Center for African American Ministries and Black Church Studies and the Center for Latin@ Theology and Ministry. Both organizations are housed at McCormick, have strong relationships with Chicago-area faith leaders, and will collaborate this year in programming around McCormick’s annual theme. Dr. Daniels research has been the launching pad for creative conversations, innovative ministry ideas, and new collaborations all to be better peacemakers in our city.

David DanielsRev. Dr. David Daniels III is the Henry Winters Luce Professor of World Christianity at McCormick Theological Seminary, and an ordained bishop in the Church of God in Christ. Dr. Daniels has served on several religious projects on Church engagement and ministry, and is a leading voice in the academy on Evangelical theology and Black church history.