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Making Evangelical Churches More Inviting to Christian Intellectuals

By Kenneth R. Samples - June 20, 2017
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There is a growing crisis in evangelical churches today. However, most evangelicals are unaware of the nature of the emergency or of its looming repercussions. The problem is that many intellectually oriented Christian adults increasingly feel out of place in evangelical churches. They often say that as intellectuals, the typical evangelical church has little to offer them in terms of the life of the mind. Some even feel that their insatiable hunger for thinking and learning has caused them to be viewed as unwelcome within their local church congregations.

I know this “mind/faith” or “intellect/church” tension exists based on concerns expressed by leading evangelical scholars over the last forty years about the problem of anti-intellectualism in the church.1 But I also know of the growing problem from my own interaction with many Christian intellectuals through my years of college teaching and working in the field of apologetics. Cerebrally oriented believers often say to me that they feel frustrated with the lack of intellectual rigor that is reflected in their churches. This problem is also evidenced by the fact that my two previous articles on this topic have received more attention on social media than any other topic I have ever addressed.

One of the major consequences of this crisis is that these Christian intellectuals are desperately needed by their churches to help convince Christian young people that Christianity is indeed a rationally based faith system and one worth sticking with. Studies indicate that college-age evangelicals are leaving the church and the faith at an unprecedented rate.2 Unfortunately, the discomfort of the intellectually inclined adults and the exodus on the part of the college-aged students is largely one and the same. That is, the form of Christianity expressed by many evangelical churches seems to have little place for the life of the mind.

So exactly what is it about mind-faith issues that makes intellectually oriented Christian adults feel so out of place in evangelical churches? I addressed that question in the second article in this series. But two common church-related factors create the problem.

First, the importance of the life of the mind often receives little attention in many evangelical churches. The church often serves as a place of fellowship (often entertainment-oriented), or a counseling center, or a concert hall—all good and valuable things, of course—but the church much less often functions as a school. As such, it is not often a place of learning and development of the life of the mind.

Second, some within the evangelical theological tradition have struggled with the idea that an intense pursuit of the life of the mind is somehow at odds with Christian spirituality. The unfortunate belief that dies hard in some sections of evangelicalism is that faith and reason or spirituality and the intellect are incompatible forces. Some Christians even think that reason and education tend to undermine faith. Church history has shown this to be largely false: often the great minds in Western civilization have also been people of a vibrant Christian faith.3

3 Specific Ways to Make the Church More Inviting to Intellectuals

In part one of this series I offered three ways church leaders and specifically pastors could help intellectuals in their congregations to feel more at home. Here are three more encouraging things that pastors and church leaders can do to make their churches more inviting to Christian intellectuals.

  1. Explain That God Calls His People to Love Him with Their Minds

The attempt to love God with all of our being (Luke 10:27) includes loving him with our mind. The life of the mind is not about smugness and pride, but about the pursuit of intellectual virtues to the glory of God. The intellectual capacities that make the life of the mind possible are, after all, a gift from God; therefore humility is mandatory. A believer can be a careful thinker and also grow in other important areas involved in Christian devotion such as compassion and spiritual sensitivity. We should reject the false dichotomy that a person must either be a thinker or a feeler. In his public ministry, Jesus Christ exhibited signs of being a first-rate thinker and debater yet he was also keenly compassionate to the genuine needs of humanity.

2. Emphasize That the Bible Mandates Intellectual Virtues

Both the Old and New Testaments implore believers to attain knowledge, wisdom, and understanding (Job 28:28Proverbs 1:7) and to value and practice such critical thinking principles as discernment, reflection, testing, analysis, discipline, and intellectual renewal (Psalm 111:10; Acts 17:11; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 14:9; Colossians 2:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:21).

3. Make It Clear That Thinking and Reasoning Is the Good Gift of God

Christians believe that human beings are capable of such cognitive practices as logic and critical thinking because their cognitive faculties and sensory organs were created (via the imago Dei: in God’s image, Genesis 1:26–27) by a perfectly rational God. In other words, a perfectly rational mind stands behind and grounds human cognitive functions. In a finite way, the human mind resembles God’s infinite mind.

Today’s pastors and church leaders can do a lot to alleviate this longstanding problem of intellectual Christians feeling out of place in the evangelical church. And by doing so they stand to benefit from all the talents that these gifted thinkers bring to the church.

So, pastors and elders, reach out to these cerebrally oriented folk in the church. You’ll be glad you did.

Endnotes
  1. See Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) and Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).
  2. For a discussion of people who left their religious faith in adulthood, see Mike Lipka, “Why America’s ‘Nones’ Left Religion Behind,” Pew Research Center, August 24, 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/.
  3. In terms of Christians and their influence upon reason, see Kenneth R. Samples, “Think Again: Christianity’s Relationship to Reason,” Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, August 24, 2015, https://www.reasons.org/blogs/reflections/think-again-christianity’s-relationship-to-reason.

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