The nature of being a goldfish is that you can swim round and round thinking you’re making progress when actually you’re in a very contained environment that you can’t spot. My concern is that you see parts of the UK church, including those who have previously been great pioneers, increasingly falling into goldfish bowl traps-one that, although they think they are still pioneering, I suggest are ones they will ultimately result in them being inward looking and declining whilst they go round in ever less productive circles.
I started yesterday with discussing Trap 1-the misuse of the very biblical concept of the church being a community together. Now I want to move onto the second trap.
Trap 2: Intellectualism
Let me be honest. I’d like to think I’m not stupid. For what it’s worth, I’ve got a Master’s degree. Yet I see in some churches an increasingly intellectualised approach to the faith that is of concern-and in some cases in churches who previously had a very different approach to what they did.
Again, it’s important not to hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying every aspect of becoming mature in the faith involves a simplistic approach to theology or life. Books like the letter to the Romans contain some complex arguments that take thought and time to understand, together with the need for great teaching to help people understand and apply it. Yet ultimately most of Paul’s letters were intended to be read out in churches, to be understood and applied by all those in the church. They were not intended as a bonus for only the clever people to understand, nor were they an evangelistic tool to attract the ‘clever’ people and give the church some intellectual credibility with them.
It is important that Christians engage intelligently with their faith and be prepared to seek to answer the genuine questions that people have. However, there is a big difference between an intelligent approach and an intellectual approach. Great intelligent teaching can help people understand complex concepts from the use of just a few sentences. Equipping the saints to walk way from a meeting understanding something crucial but complex from just a few minutes teaching involves really gifted, intelligent approaches. However, intellectual approaches instead delight in stirring up complexity for its own sake and see a virtue in leaving people bamboozled.
What we see in some churches is an approach to teaching that, rather than being aimed at equipping a wide cross-section of believers, instead doesn’t regard teaching as being credible unless it has explored a wide range of philosophical, sociological and theological concepts, expressed these in complex ways, and preferably concludes with a good deal of ambiguity, so the hearer is left ‘with ‘x’ says this, ‘y’ says that, you figure it out’-a key problem being that the concepts haven’t been explained in a way that the majority of people can understand in the first place. (I could also add that this approach also often lets the preacher off the hook of doing the work of having to think and come to a conclusion themselves.)
In some churches, this intellectualised approach is seen as an evangelistic tool in arguing that it helps them attract students. This view has several problems with it including:
a) It involves a rather curious, intellectualised, arts-centred approach to who students are. When you see other issues that are on students’ hearts, be it the environment or Corbyn’s Labour Party, it isn’t intellectualised speeches or writings that have generally produced this. Instead it’s big concepts and passions that have spoken to their heart. Moreover, particularly since the large expansion of higher education in recent years, a number of students are not from strong academic backgrounds. The idea that an intellectualised approach is needed to reach students owes more to a middle-class, Oxbridge view of the world than it does to the reality of student life today. The arts domination in this approach is also noticeable. The approach often involves seeking to apply philosophical and sociological concepts. It rarely involves deep consideration of scientific concepts.
b) The assumption that students are the key group to reach evangelistically is theologically questionable. It’s often said that the focus on students is because they are of an age that is most receptive to new ideas. If we really believe that salvation comes from the choice and initiative of God, and that therefore in the bible we see people from a wide range of ages from young to old coming to know Him, why the focus on students? Moreover, if you want to focus on young people, what about the non-academic young people who go straight into employment or other routes? Statistics show that 32% of young people attend university. That means 68%-2 out of every 3 young people don’t go to university. Yet you see few churches focussing on that other 68%. Can I suggest that the reason some churches focus on students is that they haven’t got much of a clue how to focus and reach any other group?
Let’s be intelligent in our faith, but use that in a way that expands people’s understanding and ability to follow Christ faithfully, not to delight in spreading uncertainty and confusion, and definitely let’s not leave people thinking you need a Master’s degree to understand the teaching