Bethel University Missional Ministries Instructor Erik Leafblad researches non-religious persons and how God may be working outside of the church.
By: Mathias Durie and Carlo Holmberg
As a kid, Erik Leafblad would lay awake late into the night thinking about questions such as “why am I here?” and “where is God in the world?” Now, as a third-year missional ministries instructor at Bethel University, Leafblad is still pondering those same questions. One question in particular has peaked his interest: How do we think about God and His work outside of the context of the institutional church? This is the question he has chosen to research and eventually answer through his dissertation paper for his PHD from Luther Seminary.
Leafblad’s interest in this question stems from many personal experiences, one being a story his friends from high school told him. These friends told Leafblad about a time when they were at a bar and began having a theological discussion with the bartender, bouncing ideas and questions off each other about God, the world and everything in between. Leafblad would argue that this is a form of ministry or God’s action in the world. The key thing about this experience is that these friends of his do not attend church. They fall into the religious category of “none’s”.
A none is anyone who when asked what religion they consider themselves to be a part of, would check the box marked “none of the above”. Additionally, nones are the fastest growing religious group in North America. According to Pew Research, in 2012, 20% of people checked the box marked ‘no religion’. In 2015 that number jumped to 25%. Leafblad points to Peter Berger’s Secularization Theory to describe this rise in none’s. The theory generally states that there will be a movement away from religion and towards secularization due to the increase in areas of life that God is no longer necessary. Some areas where this has been seen to happen are medicine, technology and business. Leafblad also believes some churches today could function and continue their religious practices even if God wasn’t present which could be a factor in the rise of the none’s.
“Leafblad’s work attempts to place the emphasis in ministry more squarely on divine agency, rather than human practice.” — Christian Collins Winn, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Bethel University
None’s do not attend church, however there is a small group of none’s who would consider themselves Christians. They claim that they know and follow Jesus Christ but are not a part of the church. Leafblad’s research is using this group of non-religious people to entertain the question of ‘How is God showing up outside of the church?’.
“I am not against the church,” Leafblad said. “I think the church can learn a lot from engagement with these people [None’s]”.
To conduct his research, Leafblad relies on studies and pieces published by historians, professors, pastors and other experts on the “none” phenomenon. Through his research, Leafblad has gained increased interest in the late German Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote on Christianity’s role in the secular world. Leafblad’s friend, colleague and fellow Bethel professor Christian Collins Winn has a shared fascination with Bonhoeffer and gives an outside perspective on his research.
“Leafblad’s work attempts to place the emphasis in ministry more squarely on divine agency, rather than human practice,” Winn said.
Leafblad defines ministry as God showing up in the world. Additionally, he argues that it is the job of Christians to take it a step further by somehow responding to that call or sign God has showed us. Ministry happens differently for every person and in every situation.
In the summer of 2015, before he was got hired at Bethel, Leafblad was working as a chaplain at the Fairview Southdale oncology unit in Edina. As he went into a hospital room to visit a patient who was on her deathbed, Leafblad was asked “Is the resurrection actually real?”. After he thought about how to answer this seemingly straightforward question, he said to her “of course it is, and Jesus will be there to meet you after you pass”.
After an easter service in 2016, Leafblad’s seven-year-old daughter Svea said to him “Dad this whole resurrection thing is ridiculous”. Although this was nearly the same comment he heard less than a year earlier, Leafblad responded very differently by engaging with his daughter and asking questions that helped her process the meaningfulness and authenticity of the resurrection for herself.
Leafblad understood that God’s ministry had a different goal in each of these circumstances. If he wouldn’t have given the woman on her deathbed a straight answer, she may have died questioning her spiritual beliefs. However, if he would have given Svea the same answer, she would have missed out on an opportunity to have a critical conversation about God with her father in which both of them were impacted. Winn shares this idea of the meaning of ministry.
“Mission is not about making someone else like me,” Winn said. “it’s about both the missionary and the missionized being disrupted to become something radically new together.”
Leafblad’s research grew in relevance in the fall of 2016. In a study of 957 American people, 14 percent of them who had been involved with a church in September of 2016 left that church by mid november of the same year. What big event during this time could have caused this many people to become none’s? The Presidential election. This study makes it clear that political events have a strong correlation to religious engagement and Leafblad believes they could be one of reasons the percentage of none’s is growing at such a high rate.
If there is one thing that Leafblad has learned thus far in his research process it’s to have a genuine curiosity in the action of God. He believes this is something important for every Christian to develop but you could also say the reason Leafblad has such a deep interest in none’s is because of his genuine curiosity with humans in general. He encourages everyone to develop the desire to know their neighbor and Bethel junior Tiana deForest, one of Leafblad’s students has seen this evident in his character.
“Leafblad is extremely intelligent and truly values other people’s beliefs,” deForest said.
Leafblad has a strong passion for practical theology and his family. He begins each class period with a story about his kids. His Senior Research Seminar class is formatted the same way his research project is: He allows students to pick a theological topic they are passionate about and to run with it. Leafblad’s TA, Michaela Silvis has seen these two passions on display first hand.
“Professor Leafblad has a great work ethic,” Silvis said. “But he also won’t let his professional life keep him from being a good father.”
Leafblad believes there are things the Bethel community can learn from his research including having an increased interest in God’s action, neighbor’s lives, and not to let doubt destroy you. He has experienced and continues to experience doubt in every area of life including his faith and has learned not to let it destroy him but to just know that doubt makes him human. Leafblad also wants the Christian community to think about the church differently as a result of his research.
“I think of the church less as a set of social practices, and more as an event or occurrence of God’s spirit,” Leafblad said
In 2013 in the midst of his research, Leafblad went through something known as the Dark Night of the Soul which is a feeling of absence from God that, for Leafblad, lasted two years. Leafblad can’t point to anything specific that put him into this place and feels that it was out of his control. He didn’t change any of his spiritual practices and feels his life stayed pretty much the same throughout, apart from the overwhelming sense that God was absent from his life.
“In spaces where death or the brokenness of life is really present, there’s little six-year-old girls who will take your hand and somehow that carries a more meaningful sense of reality.” — Erik Leafblad
In June of 2015, Leafblad’s final living grandparent passed away. He was very shaken and upset by this since it meant that an entire generation that meant a lot to him was gone. Leafblad described his grandmother as a person who gave him a sense of belonging, warmth and home. At the funeral, Leafblad found himself standing over his grandmother’s casket sobbing with no presence of God there to comfort him. That is until his then six-year-old daughter came up to him and without saying a word grabbed his hand while he continued to mourn.
Leafblad initially couldn’t point to a specific event that pulled him out of the Dark Night of the Soul, but after telling this story about his daughter, he said that maybe it was events like this that brought the light of God back into his life.
“In spaces where death or the brokenness of life is really present,” Leafblad said. “There’s little six-year-old girls who will take your hand and somehow that carries a more meaningful sense of reality.”