Last week two prospective students visited my “Christianity and Culture” class. A few days before, when they asked if they could visit the class, I told them that I would be conducting a review session for the upcoming exam but that they were welcome to join us. The class material is divided into three sections: (1) How did our world become secular or why it’s tempting to live as if God does not exist; (2) Why we should take God seriously anyway (part 1): the human condition; and (3) Why we should take God seriously anyway (part 2): God and the self.
In the review I covered all the material in section 2 in 50 minutes. The premise of this section is that living in our secular culture distracts us from those experiences that raise the question of God. But consciously thinking about those experiences can show that we cannot escape the truth that the questions of our meaning, destiny, and happiness are inextricably linked to the question of God. It is the most urgent of all questions.
After I finished the review, the two guests came up to me to express their appreciation for my allowing them to sit in the class; they also told me how much they enjoyed the material. One of them said, “Why don’t we hear these things in church?” The other expressed agreement with that sentiment. I said, “One of my main goals in life is to do what I can to raise the level of the church’s teaching, especially its teaching of the young.” My writing, teaching, and blogging—everything I do—is aimed at this goal. The question asked by these students (“Why don’t we hear these things in church?”) moves me deeply; it makes me sad and a little bit angry. And here is why.
As far as I can tell, the church is doing a poor job of teaching on all levels but especially in teaching the young. We are not even doing a good job making our people familiar with the storyline of the Bible much less its doctrinal teaching. But even if we were doing those things, it would not be enough. We live in a culture dominated by sophisticated philosophies, moral teachings, social structures, cultural practices and values that contradict subtly or openly the most basic Christian beliefs. Knowing the Christian faith thoroughly is essential to living in this world, but even that is not enough! We need to know how the secular world thinks, what it thinks, and exactly why we believe and practice Christian faith instead of accepting the world’s philosophy. We are failing, failing miserably, to prepare our children for the world they will face. And it makes me sad.
Why are we failing? I don’t claim to know all the reasons why, but I know that we are failing. One thing is certain: many of those who are supposed to be responsible for teaching the church are unaware of what is needed or unprepared to do what is necessary to meet the challenge. Do you elders, preaching ministers, youth ministers, campus ministers, children’s ministers, parents, and Sunday school teachers take your tasks seriously? It seems to me that some church leaders think that providing exciting worship services, preaching light-weight and entertaining sermons, providing family-friendly church spaces and programs, creating a network of friendships, and hiring lots of ministers to keep all these things humming will keep people coming to church services and protect them from the world. Such an approach may give the appearance of working in the short term, but it will fail over the long term. Don’t we see that if the young learn only a superficial version of Christianity in church they will be overwhelmed by the sophisticated criticisms of college professors and subtle allurements of secular culture?
And of course it’s not just the young. The process of “dumbing down” has been going on a long time. There are many young and middle aged adults that don’t know their right hand from their left when it comes to faith. You can be a sophisticated lawyer or doctor or CEO of a huge corporation but completely naïve in Christian knowledge and practice. Everyone, young and old, needs to be immersed in the deepest and most thoughtful form of Christian teaching available. In my view, Christianity is demonstrably and vastly superior intellectually, morally, and spiritually to anything the world has to offer. The church has always been the champion of reason and thoughtfulness and studiousness! But we need teachers who embody this ideal and can demonstrate the coherence and relevance of Christian faith in confrontation to secular alternatives.
Elders, preachers, and all who would teach…are you prepared? Do you know what being prepared means? Are you willing to educate yourself? I’ve been a minister for 43 years and an elder for 25 years. The process began before my time, but even in my lifetime I’ve seen elders reconceive the focus of their work from teaching, protecting, and pastoring to managing. Ministers have also become administrators and entertainers instead of teachers and evangelists. I hope this trend reverses soon. Yes, it takes time to read good books and ponder the Scriptures. But if you are going to put yourself forth as a leader and teacher of the church you have to give time to preparation. Not to do so is spiritual malpractice. It’s ecclesiastical suicide.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, during his frustrating conversation with the children the professor kept muttering to himself, “Logic, logic! What do they teach them in the schools these days?” I share Lewis’s frustration with secular schools. (Don’t get me started!) They don’t teach people how to think clearly or to be thoughtful; and they teach much that is half-baked and down right false! But I am even more frustrated with the church’s education program. And so, I ask the same question as that asked by those two visitors to my class, “why don’t we hear this in church?”
Some observations of mine from over the years and from growing up in the church:
1) The allurements of the secular world need to be explored in detail, not just talked about as something to stay away from. Young folk need to know *why* what the world has to offer has so much draw to so much of the world. The way of the world does meet legitimate needs, but only incompletely or inappropriately. If church kids only know to “stay away from _____,” they will be caught off guard when confronted with the thing itself and realizing that it feels good and the testimony of others tells them it is fulfilling.
2) Young Christians need to be taught the diversity of viewpoints within even the Christian faith. As perhaps a vestige of the denominational wars, churches that have a stronger denominational identity do not want to share doctrines and viewpoints of other denominations out of a territorial need to hold on to the members brought up in that denomination. And the modern non-denominational churches are not much better—in wanting to distance themselves from denominationalism completely, many will not even acknowledge the history and diversity of the Christian faith in an attempt to make Christianity seem non-differentiated and monolithic (at least in the preaching; Sunday school classes may do a bit better). When I began to raise questions of canon formation of the books considered to be part of the Bible in my home church, I was taken aside and reprimanded for it, lest I create a stumbling block for my peers or have my own faith damaged in some way.
3) Children raised in a Christian environment need to have an understanding of issues surrounding the atheist-theist debate in at least the popular and online spheres. The biggest danger to the retention of my faith when I was young was stumbling upon atheists of the “new atheist” vein when on a gaming forum, of all things. In the digital/internet age, the new atheism has thrived, and kids will be running into these view points at astonishing earlier ages (around 10 or even earlier, perhaps). Only equipping young Christians will the skills they need to dialogue with other viewpoints will do the job—it is not even possible to keep such viewpoints out of young Christians’ horizons for very long, so an avoidance strategy simply will not cut it.
Insightful! If there are those who wish to keep heretical and atheistic ideas a secret, they are most self-deceived. Everyone is exposed to everything at an early age. We must confront the world as it is and explain and defend our faith to those outside and inside. Thanks!
When I first started going to church as a sophomore in high school, I attended what I later found out to be a “new-believer friendly” church. While that was fine for the first couple years of my faith journey (and I thankfully had a youth pastor who challenged us to think and constantly dive deeper), I became frustrated with the superficiality rather quickly, and I was grateful to move on to college.
My experience makes me wonder what our churches are losing as they attempt to be accessible to new believers. In reality, the new believers seem walk in and see that the church isn’t really that different from the rest of society, so they leave. More seasoned Christians end up hearing the same tired, shallow observations over and over and either come to think that they’ve figured God out, or — like you said — succumb to atheist/secular arguments.
I don’t have the answers either, but I would like to be a part of the change and contribute to the re-intellectualization of our faith in our churches.
And I want to do what I can to help you and others to do just that! I think we are off to a good start!
I have taught history of religion survey classes as an adjunct faculty member of a local college for many years. Several years ago I taught a college level Old Testament Survey class for anyone who would like to come from our congregation. It was a separate activity from our normal Sunday School program – as I recall we met on Tuesday evenings for a semester. I required the purchase of books, reading, attendance and participation, and tests and papers, just like a college class. I had about 8-10 ‘students’ from our small congregation of about 100. Those who participated said they learned more in that survey class than they had in years of Sunday School. It was a class that was talked about for years, and is even fondly remembered today. I have since moved, but am convinced that we need to do much more serious study within our congregations – especially to provide the overarching big picture that so profoundly affects one’s worldview.
Agreed. We seem to have developed a culture of low expectations. I find that there are many individuals that really appreciate stimulation to think about their faith at a deeper level. Thanks for your comment, and keep up the good work!
“Don’t we see that if the young learn only a superficial version of Christianity in church they will be overwhelmed by the sophisticated criticisms of college professors and subtle allurements of secular culture?” ~Dr. Ron Highfield
I agree wholeheartedly that this problem is particularly grave among the Christian youth, but would also lift up as subscribing to superficial Christianity the overwhelming majority of those who claim Christ in the United States, and the overwhelming majority of supposed leaders in the church. Supposed leaders being those with titles and paychecks, who are unwilling or unable to follow after Christ in any way that may make them sacrifice some measure of being loved by the world. (John 15:18-25)
I believe that the superficial version of Christianity that is subscribed to by the majority of those who claim Christianity in our society is in fact not Christianity at all. It is rather a lesser set of vague, deistic, beliefs with a flavoring of Christianity. These beliefs are void of true sacrificial conviction, void of meaningful Christian doctrine, and require that the glory of the individual is continually affirmed. The worth of the word of God can then be affirmed, if it conflicts neither with the sensibilities of the individual, nor with any political correctness wind that happens to be blowing.
This superficial Christianity affirms the value of subjective truth from adherent to adherent, and is unwilling to boldly affirm the deep truths of Christian orthodoxy in the face of persecution. It is unwilling to boldly affirm biblical love of God, neighbor, and teaching of the good news in the real environment of a world that might hate that message. It’s reluctance is born of a lack of understanding of authority, and born of fear not of God, but rather that someone, somewhere, might have reason to claim offense.
I appreciate Dr. Highfield’s words in this article greatly and resonate with what I understand to be a call to taking the work of Christianity seriously.
With being involved with church leadership administratively myself for several years, I certainly share your frustration. Many churches sacrifice in the areas of word, worship, and fellowship, to create a very programmatic service. I can only see this as a result of man’s growing selfishness and pride and the desire for a church service to be all about your self. Look at many of the mega-churches. Their presentation of a watered down version of the gospel makes you feel good about yourself no matter where you’re at, and sometimes seems to discount the sin in your life. The worship becomes more like a concert than anything, and you leave because you’ve gotten your money’s worth for the show. In essence, church has become vastly consumeristic. We don’t hear the hard word spoken because leadership knows it won’t bring more people in. But when it’s about numbers and not about the soul, people are going to walk away missing the most important truths. They’ll have a partial gospel, but more often than not, they will be far from knowing the Christ they say they follow. But is it really their fault? Even if they could be doing more to seek Christ on their own, I think Scripture places the responsibility elsewhere. It falls upon the ministers to shepherd their congregation well and instruct them in the way they should go, and they had better expect to be held accountable for the message they’ve proclaimed to their church.
I agree. The leaders bear the responsibility. They are supposed to help the church attain a vision of the greatness of the kingdom.