The Dumbing Down of the Church

“I must be frank with you: the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism.”

—Charles Malik, speaking at the Billy Graham Center Dedication Ceremony

Several months ago, I had the rare pleasure of spending an afternoon catching up with a dear friend of mine (who shall remain anonymous). At that time, I was about halfway through my second semester at Biola, and had not yet had the opportunity to tell my friend much about my first year in graduate school. When she asked how it was going, I was beyond eager to gush about the program, to expound upon how wonderful it felt to be learning so much about philosophy, theology, church history, and (of course) apologetics. She nodded and smiled politely as I talked, and when I was finished I expected to hear something along the lines of, “Wow, that’s fantastic, Melissa. I’m happy that you’re finally able to study what you’ve loved for so long and that you’re gaining so much valuable knowledge!”

This is not, however, even remotely close to what she actually said.

“That’s nice…but…um…don’t you think all that stuff just gets in the way of the simplicity of the Gospel?”

My heart sank.

I should not have been surprised to hear this question, but I was pretty dumbfounded to hear it come from the lips of this particular friend. This girl loves Christ with a sincerity and depth that is reflected in her life nearly constantly. She’s in my top five list of prayer warriors. She loves to serve in her home church, and displays a rare brand of generosity with her time and her resources. She has tons of scripture memorized (which is something I personally struggle to improve upon). So, I was not prepared for her words, to say the least.

Quite unfortunately, this apathy towards Christian intellectualism has become commonplace in today’s church. The mentality seems to be: know Jesus and let others see Jesus in you so that they, too, will desire to know Him. The End. How often do you hear serious theology or doctrine discussed in a Sunday School class? At the last retreat or conference you attended, were there challenging ideas of substance being taught and discussed, or was it not much more than a “Yay, God rocks!” rally that would have been foreign and perhaps repellent to a non-believer? As a result of this “dumbing down,” an enormous number of self-described Christians are poorly educated on the facts of their faith, let alone how or why they can have confidence in Christianity above all other belief systems.

Try this little experiment. You can be the test subject, or you can corner a few long-time church members next Sunday and ask them for a quick interview (wow, that would be FUN!). Make sure they don’t have their SmartPhone anywhere close by. Ask them the following questions, which involve basic information about Christian doctrine and heritage. See if you (or your guinea pig friends at church) can answer them accurately (you’re allowed to Google AFTER recording the answers of the participants).

  1. What are the three branches of modern Christendom?
  2. What was the Council of Nicea?
  3. Are you Calvinist, Arminian, or Molinist in your theological viewpoints?
  4. Name one major heresy of Mormonism.
  5. Define “substitutionary atonement.”
  6. Who was Martin Luther?
  7. Who wrote the book of Hebrews?
  8. Give one reason why our canon of scripture is trustworthy.
  9. What is the Apocrypha?
  10. Can you give one OBJECTIVE reason for your faith in the Gospel of Christ without using scripture?

I’d love to see comments posted about how your test subjects performed!

Dr. William Lane Craig laments, “Our culture in general has sunk to the level of biblical and theological illiteracy…But if we do not preserve the truth of our own Christian heritage and doctrine, who will learn it for us?”

In Love Your God With All Your Mind (a book that changed my life), Dr. J.P. Moreland says that when you have “emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of intellectually careful and doctrinally precise sermons” and you emphasize “personal feelings…instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teaching and ideas,” you end up with an “intellectually shallow, theologically illiterate form of Christianity.” And that form of Christianity isn’t going to do much to impact the world for Christ.

What about the command to love God with all our minds (Luke 10:27)? Why aren’t Christians eager to expend some mental sweat in order to achieve a deeply intellectual, well-founded faith?  Why could so many of us name all the characters and recount the plot line of our favorite book or movie but can’t give a general outline of Salvation History and its major players? (Here’s some sad comic relief for you. Dr. Craig says, “A great many, if not most, people cannot even name the four Gospels—in a recent survey one person identified them as Matthew, Mark, and Luther! In another survey, Joan of Arc was identified by some as Noah’s wife!”)

The church is suffering for its lack of well-informed Christians. Evangelism suffers; discipleship suffers; the Kingdom suffers. But, as Moreland says, “When people learn what they believe and why, they become bold in their witness and attractive in the way they engage others in debate or dialogue.”

Let the learning begin (or continue)!

BOOK RECOMMENDATION OF THE DAY:

Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul by J. P. Moreland

Blessings,

Melissa

7 thoughts on “The Dumbing Down of the Church

  1. Good post. I agree with you… in our high school youth group we were encouraged and taught how to read and understand “deeper” Christianity. The only issue I have with that is the threat of intellectual superiority complex! I know some folks who know MUCH more information about Christianity than others, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the way they live their lives. 😦 Why is it so difficult to find the happy middle in which a person knows their faith, AND lives it?

  2. Melissa,

    Your friend is the modern recipient of the price we pay for separation of church and state. Note: I am not against separation of church and state.

    During the colonial period and just up to the great awakening, church attendance in America was very low. But speakers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were so dynamic and impressive, crowds started to pack in to hear them. Church attendance grew dramatically, and as it did, funding for those churches grew as well with tithes and offerings. Crowds were drawn to superb preaching, fire & brimestone, and the challenge for personal piety. But, if the preacher spoke about topics that were too heady or academic the crowds would go somewhere else. This resulted in a narrowing of topics to the gospel message and living a Christ centered life. As a result, systematic theology was relegated to some super brainy Sunday school class, or just never mentioned much. In church, there was no systematic integration of Christianity into medicine, law, science, and other disciplines. As a result, Christianity lost its place in these areas.

    In Europe it was a bit different. A preacher or priest could speak about boring or academic topics, lose attendance, and not feel the financial hit as much. They were state funded. This state funding and central control came with its own set of problems, but that is not the topic here.

    Sources: George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism ( Eerdmans,1991). Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994)

  3. Mel,

    You write like a seasoned vet already. Very accessible, neat and engaging prose.

    Where I’m from, I may as well be speaking Latin when I try to rouse the so-called Christian mind out of a general state of apathy. Spiritualism is big here, as is the pursuit of financial wealth and the cult of the Body Beautiful…

  4. I definitely agree with Malik’s assertion that anti-intellectualism is definitely a huge threat to evangelicalism in the West. However, I would suggest that many of the central tenets of evangelicalism are themselves at least partly responsible for this.

    The biggest road toward anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism, IMO, is the “default” view which holds to the “inerrancy” and “infallibility” of the Scriptures. These artificial categories have created an unnatural rift between the life of the individual (mind, experience, etc.) and the “teaching” of Scripture. In an attempt to establish the veracity of these categories, untold numbers of teachers have errantly led people to believe that they must take either what the “Scriptures say” (read “what the teachers say it says…”) or what they experience in life in the universe. Unnaturally forced to choose between the life of the mind and the eternal salvation of their souls, millions of evangelicals have swallowed the medicine, turned off their brains, and entrusted themselves to their savior/teachers.

    And one can hardly blame them. For with these artificial categories of inerrancy and infallibility, we also find a standards-lowering democratization of interpretation. As the Scriptures are assumed within this movement to be objectively “truth” in and of themselves (simply waiting with absolute truths to be picked from the surface like ripened strawberries), evangelicalism has a glut of ideologies, interpretations, perspectives and doctrines all jockeying for the popular vote. All are experts, everyone has a profound insight, and the truth has been commoditized in the package of the whitest smile, the catchiest tune, and the loudest, most soothing voices.

    If evangelicalism wishes to survive the anti-intellectual annihilation towards which it is hurtling rapidly, it must first of all come to grips with a view of Scripture that is both historically sound and intellectually relevant. In this effort, it must begin to elevate theological depth, philosophical acuity, and religio-historical awareness as pillars within its epistemological infrastructure. This will come at a cost, of course, and many of evangelicalism’s “pet” mores will have to be jettisoned…

    • @existdissolve:
      Thank you for visiting my blog and contributing to the discussion. I have to say that I strongly disagree with the idea that the doctrine of inerrancy has “created an unnatural rift between the life of the individual (mind, experience, etc.) and the “teaching” of Scripture.” I submit, however, that having a MISTAKEN CONCEPT of that doctrine combined with no understanding of the relationship between the Two Books of God’s Revelation (His natural revelation through the observable universe being 100% compatible with His special revelation in the inspired Word when that Word is correctly interpreted in its appropriate context) is a huge problem. This is one of the grave footholds of anti-intellectualism: Christians who experience an artificial conflict and fail to pursue the matter and see it properly resolved. Concerning the doctrine as it is defined by the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, there is nothing about it that isn’t “historically sound and intellectually relevant.”

      Thanks again for stopping by. I appreciate the discussion points.

  5. Hi Melissa,
    I agree with you and believe that believers should most definitely be well equipped in this area. I don’t know you’re friend or how the exact conversation went but perhaps she was referring to the philosophy side of things being a hindrance?
    I am just speaking from experience in regard to this but, in the past, friends of mine who are believers who have taken up a philosophy course have almost been indoctrinated to think with, what I see as, the worldview of man and not a biblical world view. These friends of mine now seem to be adhering to worldly interpretations of scripture rather than Spirit guided. I think it’s dangerous to take up philosophy as a means to understand the world, especially when it comes to God etc. in a search for enlightenment and truth. Perhaps this is what you’re friend was meaning?
    Blessings

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