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. I think that antinomianism is sparked by the influence of our society here in America. The gospel of privilege and prosperity goes hand in hand with a capitalist way of thinking. Many churches become a reflection of that. One way to move away from that thinking is to truly become a missional church. I hear a lot of that language in your blog, “equipped for specific Christian service…”

    Ever since seminary I have wanted to study environmental theology or green theology at the doctoral level. But I mortaged my house to fund the M.Div. I can’t justify the expenditure of a doctorate. My point is- the UM church (and probably most others) is unable to substantially fund the serious education of it’s clergy. But, you can get a Lilly Foundation grant to explore your spiritual and geneaological roots in Ireland and ride a horse on the beach! Is that privilege or prosperity or what?

  2. As a 22 year old graduate from a top-twenty institution who has come to his faith only through intense questioning, reasoning, and skepticism, I find the Methodist church to be the perfect place for my church home. In fact, I am now an “inquiring candidate” for the office of elder.

    To be fair, I also came to Methodism through my intellectual/liberal campus minister and the Methodist church across the street – one whose membership largely drew from professors and alumni. Yet, as a whole, I find the Methodist church to be one which encourages debate and conversation. As a communal practice, we persist in questioning one another’s theology and how we are enacting that theology.

    I think the problem is that this conversation happens primarily at the annual conference/general conference level. When it comes to individual churches, they seem to have a tendency to hone in on a very particular interpretation of the common Methodist tradition. Unfortunately, some of those interpretations may include rules like “don’t think about it – just believe it.”

    I am spending this year serving at 11 churches across the U.S. for a month each, of all different denominations. While in a Presbyterian (USA) community, I was surprised to find that their perception of Methodists was pretty bleary: unquestioning, “say-the-prayer-and-you’re-saved,” simple-minded faith. This shocked me, given my experience at school. Yet, maybe we could learn something from those across the denominational aisle?

  3. I wonder if this is not a cultural issues that varies not only from region to region in the country, but in some places, from local church to local church in the same region. Are rural churches more susceptible to an unquestioning kind of faith, and churches in the city more likely to be open to questions? I am serving in my sixth church, and in all of them I have found individuals who were open to intellectual-faith conversations and those who would rather just accept what they have “always known.” Our clergy are (for the most part) highly educated. I mean… I assume we are. My seminary education at Perkins (graduated in 2007) was intellectually rigorous, and I feel adequately equipped to speak to the issues you mentioned, and have on numerous occasions. I am serving in my third appointment as senior pastor and strive to make every sermon one that asks difficult questions, yet also speaks “plain truth to plain people.” I doubt that I am an anomaly. You have raised a question that I will have to think about for some time, and I am interested to hear what others will say.

  4. I fear the question of an educated clergy, and of clergy and congregations who seek to integrate, in Wesley’s terms, “knowledge and vital piety,” has become increasingly an economic question. Congregations are telling DSs and bishops that they can no longer afford an seminary educated pastor. Of course, seminary doesn’t guarantee the ability to respond to the issues these people identify, but it provides a starting point. Given the UMC’s persistent anxiety about survival, I wonder when it will discover that it cannot afford an uneducated clergy.

  5. “…in all of them I have found individuals who were open to intellectual-faith conversations and those who would rather just accept what they have ‘always known.'” As a lay person who has had several leadership roles in three UMCs, and who has taken ten seminary courses, I have experienced the same situation as Abril.

    A congregation can choose to be open and hospitable to the “evangelical” and the “deist” under one roof. Mystery and reason are not necessarily polar. The people who lean one way or the other have to choose to find a common bond in that church community. If the reason-first folks go to the Borg book discussion, and the faith-first study scripture, both groups are finding comfort in their approaches to their “spiritual” journeys. Perhaps they can come together in outreach and mission, or in choir, etc., if they choose to refrain from judging or being threatened by each other.

    This balance is a choice of the pastor and lay leadership, and it is not an easy one to make and implement.

  6. I am a member of a church that I joined because I found a group of people who DID welcome questions – my first study was “Living the Questions” – so I can see both ends of this commentary. I have 2 children raised in the UM church who are now declared atheists in large part due to the dumbing down you speak of. They are entering adulthood finding the academic and scientific “answers” to questions that they never got to even ask in church.
    10 years ago I went to my pastor asking to start a new discussion format SS class. I was told “you have to be very careful” about getting into anything controversial – I’d like to know what in this life we live today ISN’T controversial to somebody – because the discussion could easily “turn people off”. We started the class anyway and it was successful for a while. But I learned that my pastor’s wisdom – which I so easily judged as narrow-minded – was based in his experience. I have since seen the results of “discussion” without a skilled leader (should I say “moderator”?) leaving hurt feelings, unkind words and sometimes disillusionment leading right out the door. Probably every pastor’s fear.
    And yet… I believe that this is what is missing from many people’s faith walk: a progression (dare I say an evolution?!) of your beliefs based on grappling with the “real” world of science and politics and human struggles. I think there must be a disconnect between the vibrant, academic, and yes scientific, learning experience of Seminary education and the day to day pastoring of a church. I think the UM church has totally missed the boat in trying to get more butts in the pews with the Call to Action. Seems to me that a Call to Action would be more building spiritually mature people than larger sanctuaries.

  7. First, I agree with much of what Dan is saying here. This disconnect is not limited just to churches however. Overall, there is a great deal of animosity towards science in society today and I think we’re just seeing a reflection of that as microcosms in our churches. I will push back some against the science community feeling like they must check their brains at the door. As a group, and I have been one for over 25 years and work with scientists on a daily basis, they are quite simply, arrogant. (For full disclosure I have an M.S. in Ecology and two M.A.’s, one in Sacred Scripture and one in Liturgy.) When I say arrogant, I mean in a manner in which they approach the world – sure of what they know is true to be inerrant. (Sorry to say, but the first example that Dan gives smacks of this kind of hubris.) In the same way fundamentalists approach scripture scientists all too often approach their brand of ‘ology’ as a certainty that cannot be questioned. Yet, read almost any article from a 20 year old genetics journal and I can promise you that many of the ‘truths’ that were claimed in that article are no longer valid. That is something we should be thankful for as well, good science keeps us moving forward and asking deeper and deeper questions. Christianity requires us not to check our brains at the door, but certainly it requires us to leave our egos there. Quite simply, many scientists lack the humility to acknowledge that there indeed things we cannot explain.
    The other push back, comes against the church not reconciling its beliefs with science. I’d like one example of the UMC not reconciling its beliefs with science. Do we teach and preach creationism? No, that is not part of our doctrinal beliefs. Do we teach that evolution is wrong? I do not see that anywhere in the Book of Discipline. In fact the opposite is true, the 2008 General Conference passed three “evolution friendly” resolutions. This is certainly not to say that evolutionary science is widely accepted in the church, it isn’t and that it took until 2008 to reach that conclusion is telling in and of it self. But the church isn’t stuck in the middle ages, as some might believe. (This is not to say that some UM pastors are not preaching creationism and anti-evolution from the pulpit, it happens.) The church, UM and catholic, have certain truths that we must hold on to and it is therefore the church’s responsibility to articulate why that is so to scientists and laity alike. It is also incumbent of the church to have an honest dialogue with scientists on what can and cannot be reconciled.
    My point is, this is a two-way street. Just as we need theologians to take us into a deeper understanding and relationship with God, we need scientists to question how our beliefs fit into the cosmic realm of the known universe. We also need scientists and theologians to help us understand how that might happen and we need that to be done with a sense of Christian love and in a humble manner.

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