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Challenging Settled Assumptions

Esther Duflo is an award-winning economist at MIT who works in the field of development economics. This is the branch of the dismal science which seeks to lift poor people out of poverty by throwing money at them by one means or another. The extremes of development economics are, perhaps at one end of the spectrum, government aid programs that seek to channel money to the poor through other governments; at the other end are the microfinancers, who make small loans to aspiring capitalists in impoverished neighborhoods.

Esther Duflo is not convinced either of these - or anything in between - is working. She doesn't insist they aren't, she just doesn't know. But she cares about the poor and believes that economic solutions must be found as part of a comprehensive answer to try to help them to a better way of life. So her calling is to study impacts. She spearheads an effort to use random sample testing, in a variety of economic development projects, in order to see which are working and which are not. Ian Parker tells her story in the May 17 issue of The New Yorker.

Dr. Duflo summarizes her calling: "I have on opinion - one should evalutate things." And that's what she does, in test after random test in poor countries around the world, challenging the settled assumptions of development economics and trying to see what actually works. She will not accept merely anecdotal (testimony) feedback; Dr. Duflo wants hard facts, and she and her teams are determined to shake-up the field of development economics, which she sees as going from fad to fad and pointing to the occasional success story as indication of success. Esther Duflo is committed to finding the hard facts, however. Her commitment is "to use evaluation to explore theories."

Now this is a good idea and another indication of the truth of Jesus' statement that the children of this age are wiser than the children of light. Because isn't it about time that we began to examine some the settled assumptions of how we do church in this country? Are "seeker" congregations really winning people to Christ in tranforming ways? Is big and pop really better at making disciples who deny themselves and take up their crosses to follow Jesus?

With all the push and striving to become more contemporary, business-like, and market-led in America's churches, you'd think we might want to know whether such a dramatic shift is really worth it. But where is the evaluation? Where are the hard data to support this radical change in the way we do church? There isn't much, and much of what is is still mainly anecdotal.

Meanwhile, contemporary and "seeker-friendly" or not, the Church continues to drift to the margins of society. Somebody really ought to open up the hood and see if what we're doing is working.

T. M. Moore
T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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