A Link to World Christianity
Director discusses hopes for Nagel Institute
By Phil de Haan '84

In his remarks at the dedication of the new Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin, Director Joel Carpenter was clear about the importance of better understanding Christianity outside the context of North America, and how Calvin is well-situated to be a center for such understanding.

Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute

“Why do this out of Calvin College?” he asked rhetorically. “First, we can be forthright about Christian purposes here, with no apologies. Second, there is tremendous interest in this line of work at Calvin. Out of our faculty of 300, I make a quick count of at least 75 who are teaching and doing research germane to this field, leading our students out overseas to study. And our students are eager to get going for God’s purposes in the wide world as well. So we have a critical mass of interested participants right here on our own campus.”

Carpenter said there will be three main purposes for the Nagel Institute: to promote a deeper understanding of Christian movements from the global south and east; to collaborate with Christian scholars and support Christian thought and cultural engagement in the global south and east; and to provoke a reorientation of Christian thought and cultural expression in the global north toward the concerns of world Christianity.

He added that the institute’s main activities will be topical research projects and faculty development projects, such as conferences and summer seminars. “We hope also,” he said, “to sponsor good books and journal articles to communicate the insights gained from these studies, and to have a very strong and busy Web site that will connect scholars to learning resources and to each other.”

Nagel Institute logoCarpenter said that a short motto of what the Nagel Institute will be doing is “linking scholars worldwide.”

In addition to readily partnering with other Calvin institutes, Carpenter also plans to develop a strong and mutually supportive network of faculty fellows at Calvin.

“It’s important to encourage each other in orienting our scholarship towards the concerns of our Christian brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world,” he said. “We also hope to encourage and support students eager to gain a more world Christian outlook, whether it is helping with future student conferences or in sponsoring a special course or two each year.”

Carpenter noted 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 percent of all professing Christians resided.

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Today, the situation is vastly different. Only 40 percent of the world’s Christians now live in the North Atlantic quadrant, and the faith is declining numerically in that region. About 60 percent 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,” Carpenter said, “but more because of fresh infusions among immigrants than because of sustained vitality among America’s longer-term residents.”

Carpenter said that these developments, which have been happening beneath the radar for more than 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 said. “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.”

Studying the Bible
About 60 percent of the world’s Christians reside in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific.

Carpenter said 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 is that it is appropriate for developing equitable partnerships with Christian intellectuals elsewhere,” he said. “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.”

The funds for the establishment of the Nagel Institute were provided by Doug and Lois Nagel, who, Carpenter said, “have joined this project with great enthusiasm,” adding, “Doug and Lois have been supporters of frontline Christian missions for many years, and they understand the strategic needs of rising Christian movements in the global south and east.”

Carpenter became the first director of the Nagel Institute in January 2006, while finishing a 10-year tenure as Calvin’s provost. This summer he also took over duties as the director of the Seminars in Christian Scholarship at Calvin. In that role, he succeeds James K.A. Smith, who has chosen to return to the classroom after three years of service as director.

Nagel gift funds institute

Doug and Lois Nagel’s gift to Calvin that allowed the college to create the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity was a significant change of pace for the Grand Rapids, Mich., couple.

Prior to that donation, the Nagels’ connections to Calvin had almost all been centered on disability, a cause near and dear to both Doug and Lois. In fact, the Nagels have made numerous gifts to Calvin over the years to support students with disabilities and even donated a van—dubbed the Knight Rider—to the college a few years back to help students who use wheelchairs to be able to go on field trips and other events that rely on transportation to get off campus.

Gaylen Byker, Doug and Lois Nagel, Joel Carpenter
Gaylen Byker, Doug and Lois Nagel, Joel Carpenter
So why endow an institute at Calvin centered on the spread of Christianity outside North America?

Doug explained: “Over the last five to six years we’ve really gotten involved in the international scene, supporting missionaries, Bible translations and distribution, that sort of thing. So when [Calvin President] Gaylen [Byker] came to us with this idea for an institute at Calvin that would center on the growth of Christianity internationally, he had us. What could we say except ‘yes’?”

And what the new institute will add to the worldwide study of Christianity is something Doug and Lois find very exciting.

“The church has baptized millions at the river,” Doug said, “but now what? If Calvin is willing to put its arms around this thing, to be involved in such an important part of the great commission in today’s world, what a tremendous response that is.”

Both Doug and Lois say, too, that for them, giving is not an optional response to God’s goodness.

Doug Nagel ’54 was an economics and political science major at Calvin as part of the pre-law program. But after graduation he got a job digging ditches, and he said he was hooked.

“I loved the out of doors, and I loved the equipment, the people,” he said. “I knew I had found my calling.”

The self-described entrepreneur soon parlayed that first job into his own successful construction business, and over time he created several other businesses, all of which were successful.

But to the Nagels that success meant a responsibility to use their resources wisely.

Indeed the couple once sat down for an interview with the Barnabas Foundation, and they were clear about their personal approach to financial stewardship.

“We believe, as stewards, that our goods are on loan from our Father,” Doug said. “It makes good sense to work as hard at distributing our assets as we did accumulating them.”

They believe there is nothing heroic about this philosophy.

“Just tell everyone that they can’t take it with them,” Doug said, “so they might as well begin thinking about how they’re going to distribute their worldly accumulation. He who gives while he lives knows where it goes.”