Do you have to be stupid to be a Christian? I sometimes wrestle with this very question. It’s reminiscent of the joke poster — “You don’t have to be crazy to work here… but it helps.” One of the most common reasons Christian spiritual seekers outside the church give for not finding a home with us is that they are not intellectually challenged. Unreasonable, irrational, and simplistic assertions are deeply troubling and off-putting to a growing segment of spiritual seekers in the United States. A huge number of Christians — both inside and outside the institutional church — are irritated by the resistance they encounter when they ask questions about cherished notions and beliefs. People inside our churches confess to feeling threatened by more educated people who they feel question — and sometimes disrespect — their faith, while those outside the church feel unwelcome when they ask what they feel are legitimate questions.
There is an intellectual divide, but it is not simply between “insiders” and “outsiders.” I consistently deal with denominational and conference leaders who caution against expecting too much from church people. Some of my editors talk about “dumbing down” some of the books and articles I write, making sure nothing is above a 3rd grade reading level. One editor’s note I saved reminded me, “Don’t use ‘epistle,’ use ‘letter;’ don’t use ‘theology,’ use ‘ways we think about God;’ and use ‘books of the Bible,’ not ‘canon’ — or no one will know what you mean.” These things might sound patronizing and ridiculous, but in every case, these comments come from people who are concerned about making our faith accessible to the widest possible audience. The conventional wisdom says, err to the side of simplicity.
But this favors one element over another, and is based upon an old assumption that bears testing. A decade ago, when I was developing the FaithQuest Bible Study, I asked a dozen Christian educators to work with me and provide feedback on the resource. I was dismayed and disillusioned by what I heard.
- “This is too demanding for church people. You can’t expect people to read seven pages a week — it’s too much.”
- “There are too many new ideas.”
- “This is too hard. People won’t want to do this.”
- “You need to make the language simpler. This is way over the head of most church readers.”
- “Don’t expect people to read the Bible and John Wesley — they won’t understand it. You need to interpret it for them.”
- “You suppose that people know and understand the Bible. This isn’t for beginners. I think you are giving people a lot more credit than they deserve for what they know.”
Now, these comments might have merit for introductory resources targeting brand new Christians, but FaithQuest was designed for the core leadership of a congregation — hopefully among the brightest and best our congregations have to offer. One of the most gratifying aspects of my ministry has been the overall response to FaithQuest from our church’s leaders, both clergy and laity. I have dozens of letters, emails, and even more comments from personal encounters, thanking me for not “talking down” to my audience. With the exception of one bishop — who told me FaithQuest expected too much — the universal appeal of FaithQuest is that it expects the best from people, not the worst.
An interesting fact emerged from the research I did for the book, Vital Signs. The very healthiest churches did not take an ‘either/or, dumb/smart’ approach to adult learning and intellectual investigation. Instead, Vital churches have graduated, developmental educational structures in place. They acknowledge the need for simple basics presented in simple, easy to understand ways. They also recognize that the basics are not for everyone. Just as public education offers primary, secondary, and graduate levels of learning, these congregations offer introductory, intermediary, advanced, and mastery levels of Christian education. At the mastery level, churches offer seminary/post graduate-level learning opportunities, complete with assigned reading, exams, and papers.
While the relationship between the rise of higher education and the decline of the mainline church in America may not have a causal link, it is worth noting the correlation — as more and more Americans gain college, graduate, and post-graduate levels of education more and more of these people leave the institutional church (and they are very honest and straightforward as to ‘why’). If we are truly as committed to reaching new people and offering Christ in meaningful ways, we need to acknowledge that one of our greatest potential mission frontiers is among the most highly educated.
Insulating ourselves against hard questions, scientific discoveries, critical thinking, and expressions of serious doubt isn’t grounded in faith, but in fear. Our minds are gifts from God, and we don’t honor God by refusing to use the gift. Our congregations need to become safe sanctuaries for people at all levels of faith and intellectual development. We can ill afford to drive intelligent people away simply because we fear they might tred upon our sacred cows. If God is God, no amount of questioning, doubt, or scrutiny can change it. Recent (and not so recent) surveys indicate that “the church” has a credibility problem in the United States. It is roundly criticized for being anti-intellectual, anti-science, non-rational, irrational, out-of-touch, and — ultimately — irrelevant. Much of this we have brought on ourselves, but the time is ripe to show, once and for all, that Christianity really isn’t for dummies.