We have entered a cultural moment where the church must recommit to intellectual development. Our society is in need of clear-headed, common sense worldview conversations. And unless the church has something compelling to contribute, we will be left in the rear view… if we haven’t been already.
The Rise of Anti-Intellectualism in the American Church
Starting with the Pilgrims, American Christians prized the intellectual life for its contribution to the Christian journey. The Puritans were highly educated people – founded colleges, taught their children to read and write before age 6, studied art, science, philosophy and other fields as a way of loving God with the mind.
In the middle of the 1800’s things began to change dramatically. With the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings there came an overemphasis on immediate personal conversion to Christ instead of a studied period of reflection and conviction. Many converted to Christianity during these revivals but had no real grasp of Christian teaching.
At the same time, an intellectual assault on Christianity was brewing across the ocean. This offensive against historic Christian belief reached its full force in the late 1800s with the impact of the European Enlightenment. David Hume came to prominence in the field of philosophy, Julius Wellhausen in higher criticism and biblical interpretation, and Charles Darwin in the sciences eventually leading to the theory of macro-Evolution. Instead of responding to these advancements with a rigorous intellectual counterpunch, many believers grew suspicious of intellectual issues altogether.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, Christian fundamentalists withdrew from broader intellectual culture and essentially removed themselves from public discourse. This escapist approach has been embedded in the foundations of the modern American church. We’ve allowed secular narratives to dominate the world of higher education and have conceded ground in the worldview of our nation.
This modern retreat from the cultural conversation is neither biblical nor consistent with the bulk of Church history. JP Mooreland, in his great book Love Your God with All Your Mind, says it this way:
“Instead of standing up and doing the hard work of responding to the critics, Christians opted out and said, It doesn’t matter what the facts say, I feel Jesus in my heart, and that’s all that really matters to me. So, we opted for a subjective pietism instead of hard thinking on the issues, and therefore we lost our place in the public square. The way to deal with vain philosophies, wherever they may be found, is to have good philosophy, not to abandon the art of critical thinking altogether.”
An Important Response
I believe it’s time for the church to respond. To re-engage with the larger conversation. The Christian worldview is the corrective measure our culture needs. But how do we go about it? Many have chosen the way of fighting a culture war. Enter the fray of yelling voices on media outlets and social media platforms and attempt to double down in a full frontal attack.
I propose a different strategy.
I believe we need to train up the existing ranks of church leaders, including staff members, volunteers, small group leaders, youth leaders, and anyone else in the church who is eager to sharpen their understanding of a biblical worldview. We must train people in the basics of theology, of bible study and interpretation, and biblical leadership principles.
It’s why I’m passionate about our mission at the Grace Leadership Institute. We are committed to bringing accessible world-class instruction to our little school of ministry in Erie, PA. Starting right here in our little triangle from Cleveland, to Buffalo, to Pittsburgh, to see everyday church leaders strengthened in their knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith, and how it gets walked out in real life. The church needs it, and our culture needs it. We need to stop the bleeding. We need to stop conceding intellectual ground to the enemy.
This Must be Stronger than That
In his important book Beautiful Resistance, Jon Tyson tells the story of a small seminary Dietrich Bonhoeffer started at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who lived in the early 1900s and was killed at age 39 by the Third Reich as an anti-Nazi dissident.
In 1933, Nazi power was growing in Germany. Hitler didn’t want just political power but the hearts and minds of people. This was a spiritual fight, and the church was being threatened. There was widespread apathy and lack of obedience among Christians. Christians were compromising their faith and were putting all their faith in the state. In 1935 Bonhoeffoer was gifted a historic old manor house on a little piece of land and was asked to start an underground seminary in a town called Finkenwalde. One of Bonhoeffer’s friends Wilhelm Niesel caught wind of this little seminary. Niesel had become concerned that Dietrich was going off the deep end. Bonhoeffer seemed to be getting a little too intense about his faith, so Niesel made a visit to Finkenwalde to try to settle down Bonhoeffer’s Christian zeal. To tell him, “Just take it easy, dial it back, blend in a little. You’re becoming a little extreme in your views.”
When Niesel arrived, Bonhoeffer took him out in a boat on the Oder River, they pulled up on the far shore and walked up a small hill to a clearing from which they could see both the little seminary on one side and in the distance on the other side stood the vast runways and airfields of the growing Nazi regime. They watched planes taking off and landing and young well-trained soldiers moving in purposeful patterns like ants. Bonhoeffer turned to Niesel and said, there is a whole generation “training for a kingdom of hardness and cruelty.” They are being groomed and shaped and formed with ideologies and practices that are meant for great harm. Then Bonhoeffer pointed back to his little seminary across the river and said, “this (pointing at his school) must be stronger than that (pointing at the Nazi training center).”
The training he was doing at Finkenwalde with young church leaders, had to outpace what Hitler was doing with his young troops. The work of the church must be stronger than the work of the world. People, you, me, our churches, and everybody in our country, are being formed and shaped by all kinds of forces and voices. This must be stronger than that. To quote Tyson:
“Discipleship must be stronger than cultural formation. Loyalty must be stronger than compromise. This must be stronger than that. The times called for a beautiful resistance. Bonhoeffer’s little seminary was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937 with only a few dozen graduates. But the image of this little school was a prophetic seed for a faithful church… I believe that what was true in the 1930s is true now. We live in a time when the church is compromising with the culture left, right, and center, and we’re losing our influence. Though there is no specific “Hitler” pressuring us, we face myriad forces seeking to sabotage our faith. Because of the tectonic shift in sexuality, ethics, technology, secular ideologies, religion, and globalization, much of the familiar landscape has been swept away. In many areas, our culture is almost unrecognizable compared with a generation ago. The spiritual devastation from much of this cultural change and the failure of the church to respond well have been almost unthinkable. So, we must call our generation to loyalty to Christ. We must live with devotion and conviction regardless of what they cost us. This must be stronger than that.”
Imagine the church fully trained. Spiritually and intellectually equipped for the challenges of the day. Imagine church leaders, ministry teams, and group leaders confident in their ministry because of the investment of skillful instructors and coaches. Imagine churches coming together across racial lines, denominational lines, and cultural lines to prioritize what’s most important, our ability to stand for Christ and lead well in our generation. This is the dream of the Grace Leadership Institute. Make it so Lord.