Prophetic Inquiry and the Danforth Study

by Leo Sandon, Jr.

Dr. Sandon is associate professor of religion and director of American studies at Florida State University, Tallahassee.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 7-14, 1979, p.128 Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Ten years after its publication, Underwood’s study still has an essential vision that is painfully appropriate for achieving a holistic concept of ministry in the decade ahead. The only effective witness for the unity and catholicity we seek is that given by a Christian community which itself is overcoming its divisions and parochial mentality.

The Danforth Study of Campus Ministries, published ten years ago under the audaciously inclusive title The Church, the University, and Social Policy, has probably had little measurable impact on any of the three communities addressed -- which focus respectively on goodness, truth and power -- much less on strengthening their linkage with one another. (Indeed, it has had little impact on the priorities of the foundation which sponsored it.) The study nonetheless influenced a number of us who were concerned with campus ministry in the ‘70s and provided much of the conceptual framework for our ministry on the boundary between the church and the academy.

Much as the Study of Theological Education in the United States and Canada, directed by H. Richard Niebuhr in the 1950s, became an influential inquiry into the nature of the church and its ministry, so the Danforth study, ostensibly of campus ministries, became an important resource for exploring the necessary relation of religious faith, social ethics and public-policy formulation. It was true of both studies that what could have been pedestrian projects became extended and provocative explorations. In this tenth year since its publication, it is fitting to review critically the Danforth study and to assess its implications for theological education in the next decade.

The Danforth study, frequently referred to as the Underwood study, was designed and conducted by its director, Kenneth Underwood, who died in November 1968. The five-year project was completed posthumously by the director’s colleagues and published in two volumes: the first, a report written by Underwood; the second, a collection of “working and technical papers. The quarter-million-dollar project was funded principally by the Danforth Foundation, with some support from Cooperating churches and universities. Its essential focus was on mainline Protestant ministries, and it was guided by a commission composed largely of white male university administrators and scholars.

Assumptions and Contributions

The sociological assumption of Underwood and his associates was that the university was among the most influential, if not the most influential, of American institutions. The university was judged to be society’s primary resource for inventorying and evaluating itself; it was concerned with both means and meanings. The theological perspective which informed Underwood’s exploration was H. Richard Niebuhr’s theology of radical monotheism; the key ethical principle in the study was Niebuhr’s “the responsible self engaged in shaping social policy.”

Underwood’s approach to policy research and the method he employed in the Danforth study was one he designated “prophetic inquiry” -- combining genuine ethical commitment and reflection with careful methods of technically competent research. Underwood was concerned on the one hand that the overemphasis on the humanities in much of the church and in the liberal arts colleges be corrected by a stress on technical knowledge in the natural and social sciences. On the other hand, he was concerned that hard research should be subjected to rigorous theological and ethical reflection. Too often the university had operated under the norm of value-free research, while the church’s endeavors in behalf of social and corporate ministry had lacked competency. Only with both of these dimensions -- the ethical and technical combined -- could significant social ministry be accomplished.

Many persons perceived Underwood’s delineation of the four primary modalities of ministry as being the study’s most useful contribution. Drawing on biblical and church tradition, he spoke of the roles of pastor, priest, prophet and king as historically normative for the Christian ministry. The pastoral role is concerned with ministry to individuals; the priestly role has to do with the proclamation of the faith and with leadership in the liturgical life of the church; the prophetic role focuses on judging the level of humaneness in the social order and pointing to the changes required if common justice is to be approximated; the kingly role takes up governance and the expression of neighbor love through responsible corporate action.

These roles are inseparable in the church’s total ministry, and Underwood stressed that all ministers must reunite the four major modes. He believed that all too frequently not enough of the church’s attention had been given to the prophetic and governance roles. Although his understanding was that different individuals would fulfill these roles in varying degrees, the emphasis on the four modalities often became a source of depression for campus ministers who concluded that their own situation did not embody the fullness of the church’s ministry.

Underwood was lucid in specifying what he meant by social policy, a term which he deliberately chose over such others as “servant role,” “mission,” “Kingdom of God,” and “earthly city.” Social policy implied a sustained commitment of the self to “the ordering and reordering of resources and personnel of whole institutions, organizations, and movements in the context of the needs of nations, peoples, and societies.”

Ecumenical strategies were proposed by Underwood, for whom the effective marshaling of resources involved the organizing of campus ministry teams at each institution or even for entire metropolitan areas. He assumed that mainline churches were turning away from denominationalism ‘to ecumenicity, “from piecemeal ministry to a restoration of the meaning” of the historic modes of ministry for contemporary urban society.

Observations from the ‘70s

At the time of its publication the Danforth study was perceived as somewhat dated. I remember that on the very weekend in May 1970 when I was to lead a conference of campus ministers in a consideration of the study, the Kent State tragedy had just occurred and campus unrest was so general that it seemed unrealistic, if not irresponsible, to leave one’s troubled campus to attend a study group.

In the early 1970s many campus ministers believed that the Danforth study reflected too much romance concerning large-scale technocratic organizations. Some suspected that the institutes for policy study which Underwood envisioned were to be located in the Middletowns and New Havens where a screened elite could shape social policy. The critique of the youthful counterculture permeated social consciousness; there was a radical questioning of the foundations of our bureaucratic technocracy and a resistance to what was perceived as Underwood’s emphasis on quantitative/verifiable methods. Perhaps the most important reality about the decade of the ‘60s, during which Underwood did his writing, was the organic populism of “the movement.” In 1970 the prevailing rhetoric was radical, while the study came across as establishment reformism.

The Underwoodian program has not fared well in the ‘70s. This has not been a decade in which the churches have given prophetic and governance modes of ministry a high priority. Those of us who have been involved in designing and promoting various models for the process of sustained prophetic inquiry can testify to the general lack of interest of ecclesial bodies in such ministry: “social action” is by and large out, and, where it is a priority among church leaders, most of its practitioners are concerned with direct action, not action research.

The study’s presumption of the continued momentum of the ecumenical movement was not borne out in the 1970s. Faith in ecumenical structures of ministry has been waning. The spirit of the times has emphasized pride in ethnic differences and in the value of the particularities of each religious tradition. As the initiative of the unity movement has shifted from centralized international and national bureaucracies to grass-roots localism, so there has emerged as well a new enthusiasm for the local approach in and to postsecondary education.

Underwood’s focus on prophetic inquiry as opposed to more catechetical modes of learning has not taken hold in these years when the conservative churches have been growing, in part because they proclaim an unequivocal, no-nonsense gospel. Underwood’s recommendation that churches and private foundations should increase their funding of campus ministries was not well received in a decade in which general financial retrenchment by judicatories has led to a truncating of all special ministries.

Agenda for the ‘80s

Even in light of all the observations above, and although we need to acknowledge its limitations, much of the study still sets our agenda for the 1980s: the need to integrate the four modalities of ministry; the need to broaden and deepen public debate on urgent policy questions -- that is, to engage in prophetic inquiry; the need for a more effective linkage among the church, the university and governmental institutions; the need for a genuinely ecumenical mode of social ministry.

Those responsible for theological education are in a position to focus on integrating the four historic modes of ministry into a holistic concept of the church’s mission. Underwood was prescient in the understanding that the church’s often ineffective witness was due in part to the separation between the pastoral and priestly roles and the prophetic and governance ones. The latter have been generally neglected in the professional education of ministers. During the ‘70s many of the more romantic, existentialist/individualistic, and anti-institutional emphases in ministry have run their course. Since the Danforth report was published, many natural and social scientists have become convinced that we have entered the age of “less.” In consequence, the next decade will enable the churches to bring together that which, at their best, they tend to do well (providing persons with a faith perspective from which to cope with the enduring problems of life) and that which they do less effectively (corporate and social ministry). Leadership in this age depends on education in all four modes -- pastoral, liturgical, prophetic and governance -- and in their integration, which is the necessary prerequisite for meaningful mission in the ‘80s.

Prophetic inquiry is as necessary an enterprise today as it was in 1969. Underwood pointed out that, in the modern world, to claim to be a believer who loves God and neighbor, and yet not to attempt to be an effective person in the formation of just social policies, is to talk nonsense. A faithful witness to neighbor love will include a concern for the corporate decisions which shape our lives. There is a need now more than ever to develop a means for doing religious social ethics which emphasizes the goal-orientation aspect of politics as a corrective to stress on the coercive-power factor in determining social policy. The Conviction that questions of power are closely related to questions of value necessarily leads to the conviction that politics involves the fulfillment of community purposes as well as competition among various self-interest groups.

These convictions posit the necessity -- before a church lobby can exist, before the mobilization of opinion behind specific policies can be achieved -- to create a process for broadening and deepening public debate on urgent questions. Rather than narrowing the focus of inquiry and polarizing discussion, a more appropriate and helpful function would be bringing to bear on a situation the sum total of perspectives, disciplines and facilities in order to form an adequate understanding of the options which can lead to solutions. In a word, the first need is not for prophetic pronouncement but rather for prophetic inquiry.

Linkages and Unity

The need to link church, university and government -- to unite ethics, knowledge and politics -- remains crucially important. The process of informed and critical ethical reflection must be joined to the process of political action. Scientists seldom have their data, gleaned from empirical research, evaluated from the standpoint of ethical and humanistic criteria and then included in discussions of public policy formulation. On the other hand, the concern among religious organizations for a responsible society often is articulated ineffectively owing to limited resources and to the diffuse results of piecemeal efforts at “social-action” projects. Politicians frequently are unimpressed with the proficiency level of ecclesial pronouncements on social issues.

Underwood’s emphasis on ecumenical ministries is as relevant in this decade, even with the waning of ecumenical euphoria, as it was in 1969 precisely because the church’s witness for common justice cannot be done effectively on a denominational basis. William A. Simpson has said it well: “Denominational apparatus exists for the sake of legitimate, particularistic religious differentiation; social ministry aims at common justice. Those are conflicting principles, or beginning points; they are difficult to reconcile in practice and, I argue, the attempt to reconcile them should be abandoned.” The church can have no continuing effective social ministry within the public arena which is not more than a denominational ministry.

Beyond this pragmatic and Realpolitik argument in behalf of ecumenical structures is the argument from the standpoint of the urgent need for a global vision of human community. One of the most important events of 1968 was the flight of Apollo 8, which occurred one month after Kenneth Underwood’s death. On December 23, using a high-resolution lens, the three astronauts showed television viewers how the earth looks at a distance of 212,173 miles. The picture has become a contemporary ikon, one which images a new vision of human reality -- that of a finite planet where life ultimately is life together on a fragile and beautiful Spaceship Earth.

As an international community of memory and hope, the church has the perspective and the spiritual resources to contribute to meaning and a sense of fraternity, which are the great needs of our time. In the local congregation persons can experience supportive, nurturing community and know that the local group is the microcosm of the catholic macrocosm.

Understanding the necessarily ecumenical character of the church’s witness is crucial in the years ahead. The only effective witness for the unity and catholicity we seek is that given by a Christian community which itself is overcoming its divisions and parochial mentality. Our concern is ecumenical; i.e., it has to do with the whole inhabited earth and it is best expressed by ecumenical instrumentalities.

From the perspective of a decade after its publication, the Danforth study needs to be revised and updated, but the essential vision is painfully appropriate to the decade ahead, and to theological education for those years. Our need is for a Kenneth Underwood redivivus who will articulate once again a paradigm for the linkage of goodness, truth and power in a global community.