Skip to Navigation | Skip to Content
Nagel Institute Set for May Inauguration
March 23, 2006

For Calvin College provost Joel Carpenter, slated to step away from that post this summer, the next milestone in his academic career is one he never dared dream of.

Carpenter is the first director of the new Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin.

Joel Carpenter"I was educated," says Carpenter, "to be a historian of the U.S. and of religion in North America. But about 20 years ago I began to get interested in this idea of world Christianity. And I was carrying that torch when I came to Calvin to become the provost. I was convinced that Calvin needed, and had the potential, to become a world Christian institution."

About two years ago Carpenter was working on a paper, for a conference at Baylor, about the growth of Christianity outside North America. He wondered what he, and Calvin, could do to get scholars in the north thinking about this subject. On his return from the conference he sat down with Calvin president Gaylen Byker to talk about this growing passion. And Byker's response surprised him.

"Gaylen didn't hesitate," Carpenter recalls. "He said 'We should do that here.' He made my day. He made my decade."

After Byker's initial support for the idea, Calvin's planning and priorities committee commissioned and then reviewed a plan, a faculty team was put together to evaluate the proposal and finally the college's Faculty Senate approved the project.

The result is the new Nagel Institute, established at Calvin for reflection, research and communication regarding Christianity in the global south and east. It takes its name from Doug and Lois Nagel, friends of the college, who gave the money for an endowment to underwrite basic operations for the institute.

The Governing Board of the Seminars in Christian Scholarship has announced the appointment of Joel Carpenter as the next director for the program. He will begin his appointment in June, overlapping with the present director, Jamie Smith, during the summer.

The filling of this position involved a full internal search. The board says it is "thrilled to have a candidate who brings such extensive knowledge of the program, extensive experience in grant writing, and prior participation in the seminar program as both co-director and participant."

The board was unanimous in its recommendation that Dr. Carpenter be appointed to this position.

Smith has chosen to return to the classroom after three years of service as director. Under his leadership the Seminars office has expanded the range of its work, its
scholarly networks, and sources of funding.

The Nagel Institute was launched in January 2006 with Carpenter serving currently both as its director and as the Calvin provost. Despite the dual positions, Carpenter and the Nagel Institute have, Carpenter says, "hit the ground running."

This week the Nagel Institute announced a project it will fund which will examine primal religions as the substructure for Christianity. Carpenter explains.

"The investigators plan to look at primal religions, sometimes called traditional religions," he says, "and look at how those religions interact with the Christian faith. During all periods of Christian history the majority of those peoples who have embraced the Christian faith were previously adherents of religious traditions that are now called primal. We see this in Africa certainly, but also in China, Korea, India, Latin America. So the Nagel Institute will convene scholars from around the world to examine this topic and then convene a seminar on campus next summer."

Carpenter notes that Christianity has experienced a seismic shift in its place among the people and religions of the world. In 1900, even after a century of missionary mobilization and pioneering, Christianity was still overwhelmingly represented among the people of Europe and North America, where 80% of all professing Christians resided.

Today, the situation is vastly different. Only 40% of the world's Christians now live in the North Atlantic quadrant, and the faith is declining numerically in that region. About 60% of the world's Christians reside elsewhere, in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific.

"Christianity continues to be vigorous and growing numerically in the United States," says Carpenter, "but more because of fresh infusions among immigrants than because of sustained vitality among America's longer-term residents."

Carpenter says that these developments, which have been happening beneath the radar for over three decades, have led to a critical moment for institutions such as Calvin College.

"We seem to be at a moment that cries out for a renewal of Christian scholarship," he says. "Christian inquiry is a strategic response to the 'now what?' question for post-Western world Christianity, as churches now face the broader and longer-term issues of cultural discipleship, the teaching of nations."

Carpenter says the Nagel Institute can be a partner in that worldwide Christian inquiry, with an emphasis on the word partner.

"Part of the attraction of the institute model," he says, "is that it is appropriate for developing equitable partnerships with Christian intellectuals elsewhere. I believe that institutes can come alongside without overwhelming, and share in projects without dominating. The danger sometimes is that Northern universities and intellectuals have a tendency to colonize fields of inquiry, mining Third World cultural raw materials to build Northern intellectual empires."

Carpenter says the Nagel Institute will encourage scholars in the north to reorient their scholarly work to the global south and east. And it will truly focus on world Christianity, defined by Yale Divinity School's Lamin Sanneh as "the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that formerly were not Christian," including the role of the diaspora Christian communities: northern diaspora faith communities as African American churches, U.S. Latino evangélicos and Catholic renewal movements, Caribbean congregations in Canada, African Christians in Europe, and Asian American churches.

To achieve these tasks the institute will sponsor research projects (such as the primal religions effort), convene seminars and workshops (including events in the global south and east led by scholars from the south and east), produce books and book series, bring scholars from around the globe to Calvin and much more.

"We'll be busy," Carpenter says with a wry smile.

The first Nagel-sponsored event will be on Tuesday, May 16 at 8 pm at the Prince Conference Center at Calvin, and it will be a dedication ceremony for the new institute.

Yale's Sanneh will speak. Sanneh is a longtime Carpenter colleague (together they edited the 2005 book The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World) and the author of several books and more than a hundred articles on religious and historical subjects.

"I couldn't think of anyone better for our inauguration," says Carpenter. "Lamin has been a colleague and a friend. I am so pleased that he will be here for the official beginning of this new project."