Four recent conversations point out a serious (and growing) problem in many of our congregations: we don’t know what to do with smart people who ask tough questions.  I have had (intentional) encounters with people in the state of Wisconsin who have visited United Methodist congregations and found them lacking.  In each case, the person I spoke to decided to go to another church or to stop going to church altogether.  They all gave essentially the same reason: they grew disillusioned that no one could or would answer their questions.  The conclusion they all came to is that United Methodists don’t know their faith, don’t engage in open-minded conversation, don’t welcome questions, and teach and preach at a third grade level.  Fair or not, we are losing three whole generations of college/post-college educated men and women who feel that we are dumbing-down our faith — and once we lose these folks we aren’t likely to get them back.

So, what kinds of questions do they want answered?  Here are the four simple scenarios:

  1. a man, having visited eight United Methodist Churches began questioning the fundamental antinomianism he heard taught in each.  He found that none of the laity leaders and only one of the pastors knew what “antinomianism” was, and none could explain why it was foundational to their teaching — in fact, they didn’t realize they were teaching antinomianism.
  2. a woman sought understanding about the trinitarian theology, wanting an explanation as to why our gospels, Pauline teachings, Johannine teachings, and Pastoral epistles do not seem to agree or promote a single, identifiable message of Trinity.  She was told “not to think about it or figure it out — just believe it.”
  3. a couple wanted to understand the worship process of the churches they attended, so they pursued the leaders to describe the ethos of worship and the theology/Christology it was based upon.  They asked why certain components were present (doxology, children’s message, skits, liturgical dance) while others were absent (creeds, confession and pardon, psalter, Lord’s Prayer).  Not one church could explain their theology and practice of worship beyond doing away with things people didn’t like as well.
  4. a young woman grew despondent when she brought scholarly commentaries to Bible study and attempted to raise questions.  In one church she was actually told that “Christians need no books but the Bible,” and that she shouldn’t confuse herself by reading commentaries.  She was told, “the only thing that matters is what YOU think the Bible means.”

I lift these four conversations, not because they comprise the entire complaint I have heard against our church, but because I have had all four in the last two days in three different regions of the state.  This is not a rare exception, but the growing trend.  Well-educated people are seriously questioning the credibility of a church that doesn’t know its own story, that tells what story it does know at a children’s Sunday school level, and seemingly has no interest in learning its own story.  We are on a slippery slope when we start denigrating God-given intelligence and making the integrity of our gospel message insipid.  Defending our dumbing down is not a healthy path into the future.  We need to kick it up a notch and apply the best of our thinking, reasoning, and learning to our faith.

We have already fallen far behind the sciences.  A century-and-a-half ago, clergy were among the most educated in the growing areas of science.  Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was originally talked about and studied far and wide in churches.  As geology, astronomy, and physics revealed new understanding of the universe and the age of creation, Biblical scholars were among the first to teach and share such learning.  Then we realized we couldn’t keep up, and that we were no longer among the brightest and best anymore.  So we circled the wagons.  We grew defensive and abdicated any responsibility for aligning faith with science and learning.  Anything we couldn’t understand or explain became one of God’s “mysteries.”  Faith, always a staunch ally of reason post-enlightenment, became the antithesis.  It became unsafe to ask hard questions.  Intelligence indicated lack of faith.  Faith was about innocence and naiveté.  It has not paid for quite some time to be too smart for our own good.

And now we pay the price.  A gap grows ever wider between thinking and believing.  When I chaired the denomination’s task force on the relationship of science and theology, the two most frequent responses I heard from scientists were: 1) I am not welcome in church unless I check my brain at the door, and 2) I am willing to reconcile my scientific beliefs with my faith, but the church is not willing to reconcile its beliefs with science.

Many biologists and geneticists reported that they eventually left the church because of the psychological pressure they felt.  A young researcher in southern California told me that she starting receiving emails and phone calls threatening that she would burn in hell unless she gave up playing God.  This happened to her in three different United Methodist Churches.

As long as our church fears reason and knowledge, we will exclude a signficant and growing segment of the U.S. population.  When I conducted the Seeker Study for the denomination early last decade, four responses surprised many, though almost no action was taken based on the findings.  Almost two-thirds of the 4,000 people surveyed asked for seminary level classes to be taught in local churches.  Fifty percent said they wanted to go to a church that integrated faith, science, and global justice.  Forty-three percent wanted a church to actually equip them for specific Christian service, with technical skill knowledge.  Thirty-one percent wanted regular “homework” assignments to work on when they weren’t in church — including hands-on life experiences.  In other words, people want faith and life to be tightly aligned and connected, and the majority feel that the institutional church fails to do this.

Agree with this post, disagree with this post, but don’t ignore this post.  We bitch and moan about the future of our church, yet we systematically exclude millions of people at both ends of the educational and economic spectrum.  We don’t want the poor, uneducated and unwashed in our churches, nor do we seem to want those who think too hard or ask hard questions.  We exclude any and all at our own peril.

19 replies

  1. Reminds me of a Christopher Hitchens experience. He was attending the ashram of a celebrated guru and took a rather disconcerted view of the sign hanging above the entrance to the Bhagwans preaching tent. It read “Shoes and Minds must be left at the gate.”

  2. I think fondly of my experience with the Methodist Church, which began as a Methodist “preacher’s kid”, and ended at a very open campus ministry in Colorado. This latter experience got me really thinking about why I believed in God, a process that contributed (among other things) to my deconversion to atheism. However, no matter how open and question-friendly my last church was, the really fundamental questions (such as the existence of God, the problem of evil, etc.) were never really broached. In other words, questioning was fine as long as it kept a comfortable distance from anything that might pose a serious challenge to the faith. I often wonder if my time as a Christian lasted as long as it did out of simple cocooning from the outside world of anti-religious argument, even if such cocooning was not intentional (I doubt if my pastor was even aware of the standard atheistic arguments).

  3. Thanks for this.
    Another problem is that the honest answer to (say) suffering is often, “I don’t know”. Some ministers find it hard to say those words, and some lay people don’t want to hear them. So the latter prefer to congregate around those who dish out pious certitudes that dare not be questioned.
    Some medical doctors face something similar. They might believe that the best thing for a particular patient is fresh fruit and rest, but the patient doesn’t want to hear that; he or she wants a drug that will fix everything, NOW!

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