In a culture where more and more “truth” is subjective and we politicize everything, it becomes harder and harder to talk about anything. Take the names of Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, and Nancy Pelosi out of the conversation and simply look at statements and behaviors – rational people should be DEEPLY troubled. This isn’t about politics, this isn’t about a transitional and subjective morality, this isn’t about character assassination – when people in power behave badly, it is a PROBLEM.
Sociopathic behavior is what it is regardless of whom to which it applies. Lying is not a strength. Verbal assault and insult is not characteristic of maturity. Violating human rights (and human decency) through policy and polity is not excusable. And yet. We continue to pretend that we are a democracy when we have become a demoncracy. Our representative government no longer represents anything that resembles a republic. And the church is no better.
How did we come to such a state? Oh, it would be so easy to point fingers and make this about villains and manipulators and sycophants. But that would simply reinforce the argument, because the current situations we experience in church and society can only exist when everyone chooses to look the other way. Let me shift off of politics to religion, moving from one safe topic to another.
I am appalled at the level of pedestrian, uninformed, poorly researched, and abysmally communicated pabulum posing as Biblical teaching. It has long been an irritation of mine how few pastors actually read theology, study with commentaries, and dig deeply into some of the best scholarship available. Many of my colleagues lament that they are simply too busy to read. More and more of my pastoral friends report to me that they teach the most popular and easy resources created by other people. One of my associates proudly confessed to me that he hadn’t “preached an original sermon in over three years,” and only teaches “whatever (Adam) Hamilton puts out.” Now, perhaps these are excellent resources, yet I do not believe that they can in any way be defended as “leadership” on the part of those who use them. When we define “leadership” as “doing what others have already done, usually better and with more effectiveness,” then we are in BIG trouble.’
I have been trying to find a lectionary study group but have hit two roadblocks. First, many of my contemporaries have abandoned the lectionary for sermon series that, by and large, barely rely on scripture at all. Second, the groups I have connected with don’t want to talk about commentaries, Greek or Hebrew translations, historic context, or theological perspective. It is an idea sharing opportunity that draws more from Netflix and the NFL than it does from the Bible. Sigh.
Now, perhaps you are shaking your head at me for my snobbery and narrow-mindedness. That’s fair. I am simply voicing my own opinion that preaching and teaching (and politics and education) should draw from the very best, highest quality, and most rigorously vetted sources, and I am acknowledging that this is a minority opinion. However, I do want to defend that in my current appointment – my first local church appointment in 27 years, following a great three decades in extension ministries — people are SO appreciative of some pretty basic and simple biblical presentation, theological thinking, and historic context. The hunger I am encountering is amazing!
At the same time, I am continuing a lifetime passion for research, talking with many outside the church as well as those within. I hear three things that I take very seriously and think the institutional church must own: 1) many people feel harmed and damaged by the church and have lost any desire to risk further injury, 2) an incredulous skepticism that intelligent people in our modern/postmodern era can hold such simplistic and hateful beliefs, and 3) that pastors and religious leaders are so poorly educated and inarticulate. Our credibility has been shredded, not by atheists and unbelievers, but by church leaders who have abdicated their responsibility to be resident theologians and biblical scholars.
The contradiction I hear from some of my colleagues is people say they want to better understand the Bible (biblical preaching and good teaching) but they reject most scholarship. It is easier to lower the bar to appease the least motivated than to raise the bar to feed the starving, but at what price? A faith designed to keep people comfortable, to reinforce selfish and short-sighted perspectives and to trade truth for popularity is pathetic at every level.
I am so fortunate to be in a place where people want to learn, to be challenged, and not settle for anti-intellectual approaches to life in Christ. But I see the greatest challenge to our church to engage in dynamic and complex conversations about truth, justice, mercy, fairness, and unity. We cannot afford to hold these conversations at the level of our lowest common denominators. The time has come – and is long past – for our brightest and best to lead, and to rely on other shining lights to help us become the church God needs us to be. Mediocrity will kill us.