Robert Ennis defines critical thinking as “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.” What should I think about a certain claim or proposition? What should I do in a particular set of circumstances? Nancey Murphy writes, “If Christianity in the abstract is to be reasonable, then the concrete individuals who embody it must exercise the skills of reasoning in their writing, reading, and speaking.” (Reasoning and Rhetoric in Religion) Harold Netland comments, “Whatever the case in the past, however, there is little question that the traditional links between Christianity and Western culture have been loosened considerably, through both the diminishing cultural significance of Christianity and the growing impact of non-Christian (especially Asian) religious traditions in the West.” (Encountering Religious Pluralism) The historical ties between the American west and Christianity have created an intellectual culture within the Christian community that has grown lazy, stagnant even. The cognitive respect that had previously defined the relationship between American culture and Christianity historically, has rapidly faded into the background. Some Christians are finally beginning to see that America never was a Christian nation as if anything like that could exist in this world. The rapid shift in the environment has left the Christian community with a considerable gap in her intellectual skills. Christians, many of them, most of them, have not had to use their intellects while living out their faith. Jesus loves you was understood by all or most and accepted by most without question. “The Bible is the good book” is a claim that millions received without any hint of push back. But times have changed and they have done so rapidly. The church is playing catch-up, or at least, she should be. What changes have we seen in the Christian churches as culture has shifted? I see few but I also think some pastors are becoming acutely away of the fact that their people are not prepared for the new post-Christian America.
The early Christians were faced with a Christianity that was so infinitesimally small that it wasn’t even large enough to qualify as a minority, so to speak. Luke describes Paul as engaging his culture this way: But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:22) And again: And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” (Acts. 17:2-3) And yet again, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. (Acts 18:28)
Paul commanded his successors and appointed leaders to equip themselves to deal with opponents of the Christian faith in the same way he himself had done. He tells Titus as it relates to an elder: He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:9) In our postmodern, politically correct culture, we do everything we can to promote an undisciplined and unbounded tolerance. As Christians, such behavior is not an option. While we must be respectful, gentle, kind, and patient, we do not have the option of being silent or of tolerating any teaching that contradicts sound doctrine. We are duty-bound to act. That action begins with thinking. Paul here is using a basic law of logic, the law of non-contradiction, to instruct elders how to deal with people who are opposing sound doctrine. Those who oppose sound doctrine are actually speaking against it. You can speak against sound doctrine directly by denying it or you can speak against it by speaking and teaching doctrines that contradict it. Even though the Greek word ἐλέγχω (elegcho) is translated rebuke, we must take care to understand the fuller sense of this word. The word is used 17x in the NT and only 4x is it rendered rebuke. The range of translations are as follows: convict or convince 5x; reprove 4x; 3x; tell 1x.
When we think of rebuke, we are thinking of a scenario that is much more stinging than is the case with this word. The ESV uses the word rebuke 32x in the NT. Only 4x is it translated from this word in Titus. We should note that the Greek word that is typically rendered rebuke is ἐπιτιμάω (epitimao). Of the 32x it appears in the ESV, rebuke is translated from this Greek word 25x. The word means to express a strong disapproval of someone, and even to punish. It is critically important that we see the differences in these Greek words and ensure that our actions toward others in this area are submitting to biblical principles.
The Christian loves the Lord with all his being, which includes his intellect. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:5) God’s people love God with their entire being and they do so with all their energy. The Hebrew word for strength is mĕʾōd. It means very, very much, or greatly, and in some cases utterly or completely. Jesus himself also was clear that this is the greatest commandment of all: And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The Greek word translated strength is ἰσχύς (ischus). It means one’s strength, power, might, the capability of functioning effectively. We are to put every effort into loving the Lord with all our being. This is the greatest commandment of all. Obviously, the intellect, our cognitive functions should be aimed at loving God entirely.
Modern, American pastors have dropped the ball. In their zeal to grow the number of professing Christians, they have created a hollowed-out version of Christianity, a Christianity that is intellectually bankrupt and empty of anything remotely resembling intellectual potency. Men like Andy Stanley have all but surrendered the intellectual high-ground that is Christian belief by employing a strategy that does not defend the faith but one that relinquishes core Christian truth all in the name of wanting to remain intellectually acceptable to unbelievers. If the virgin birth is offensive, we shouldn’t preach it. If the Bible is offensive, we should avoid quoting it. Worse, we can quote it so long as we don’t tell people that the quote is from the Bible. If we attributed the sayings of Jesus or Paul to Gandhi, I doubt people would be offended. The point is this: rather than train Christians to trust God and take him at his word, we are training them on how to compromise. The Church has a serious gap in training and teaching her people. It is a gap that Sunday morning sermons alone cannot close. It is a gap that Sunday school classes and small groups cannot close.
The church, the Western church in particular, must wake up from her slumber. Pastors have to recognize that times have changed and are changing rapidly. There has to be an emphasis on training, not just checking the box. The training has to increase, not only in its frequency, but in the kind of training that is made available. The staff has to make training a priority. There has to be a conscious effort to recognize the seriousness of the problem and then do something about it.
Training the church should begin with a plan. First, structure your staff, paid and voluntary around the goal of training. Place leaders in charge of training, not in title only, but in execution. Expect things to change. Talk about it, all the time. Second, create an annual learning plan along with the budget and other ministries. This is more than just purchasing a Sunday school curriculum. Most SS curricula are part of the problem, not the solution. They are shallow, misguided, and contribute to bad habits to include poor Bible study methods as well as poor thinking. If need be, build your own. But that is not enough. Look at your congregation and create a learning plan. Perhaps a high-level learning plan that extends 2-3 to even 5 years. Then narrow the focus to next year and be very deliberate in what you want to teach your people for the coming year.
Next, turn your attention to the Sunday school and small group leaders and teachers. Place a leader (elder or pastor) over your Sunday school program. If you don’t have the staff, place a qualified non-staff person in charge. Structure the teachers in a way that they realize that being a teacher under your leadership is a serious matter. They should feel the weight of that responsibility. The teachers should have someone they report to and they should meet on a regular basis. Teachers should be teamed up with each other as accountability partners. The group should be close. Relationships among the teaching team should be tight. There should be on-going training for teachers. They should be receiving instruction from their pastor and providing information to the pastor and leadership regarding the members in their class. Teachers should be expected to build relationships with their class members, calling them, meeting with them, getting to know them. They should have a hand in their discipleship.
What I am suggesting is that the current model in our churches in the west does not support the sort of equipping Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians and elsewhere in the NT. The environment of the NT churches was remarkably different from the last 400 years of Christianity in Western culture, especially the Americas. Because of the cognitive respect extended to Christian principles and values for so many years, the church slipped into a pitiable state. Our training became sloppy, lazy, shallow, taking far too much for granted. We stopped asking questions and diligently searching the text for answers. Secondly, the philosophies of the enlightenment started to take root and the 3% grade has turned rapidly, becoming a 10-20-30% grade. The point is that Christians in Western culture are encountering views, beliefs, and opinions that contradict Christian belief at a rate much higher than ever before. Moreover, not only are those views contrary to Christian belief, they are more than a little hostile to it. I cannot count the number of times that pastors have expressed concern that I ventured too far into a particular subject. My response is usually something like this: I have doctors, accountants, and lawyers in the audience. If they can do their job, they can spend some time and energy learning about the One Person who is supposed the most important Person in their lives: Jesus Christ.
Here is the picture. Christians should be the best thinkers in their culture. They should be the best thinkers because they are the only thinkers who actually possess true knowledge about reality.
- Every church should have a 2-3-5-year high-level learning plan.
- Every church should have a focused learning plan in place for the coming year.
- Every church should structure their staff in such a way to support a learning structure.
- Sunday school teachers should report to a leader be it a staff member or a qualified volunteered leader.
- Sunday school teachers should be required to complete an initial training program as well as on-going training.
- Sunday school teachers should report to a leader responsible for providing oversight to the Sunday school program.
- It wouldn’t hurt to reconsider changing the name from Sunday school to something else.
- Every church should create a Sunday school teacher community.
- The Sunday school teachers should be paired together with an accountability partner.
- The Sunday school teacher should organize small groups within his Sunday school and appoint group leaders.
- Sunday school teachers should be responsible for training small group leaders.
- Sunday school teachers should also be expected to be in regular contact with their class members.
- Sunday school class sizes must be capped in order to ensure they are manageable.
This list is not intended to be exhaustive or even prescriptive. It is intended to serve as a straw man so that others may review it, see where I am going with it, and then take it and bend it to fit their unique situation. The point is that we must turn up the intensity of our training in our churches. The truth is that it should have never been turned down!