How does church appear to someone raised in a non-Christian home?

Church sucks, that's why men are bored there

My friend Wes posted an article about how communication is set up in the church, and why it’s not effective at equipping Christians to defend their worldview in hostile environments. The article describes what I encountered in church, after I was raised in a non-Christian home and become a Christian on my own by reading the New Testament. The view presented in the essay is how I viewed the church, and is probably how most outsiders view church. I think it explains why young people leave the church in droves once they move out of their parents’ houses.

The author writes:

On the Internet, one soon discovers that many respected church leaders are quite unable to deal directly with opposing viewpoints. In fact, many of them can’t even manage meaningful engagement with other voices. Their tweets may be entirely one-way conversations. They talk at their audiences. They can talk about other voices, but fail to talk to them, let alone with them. Their representations of opposing viewpoints reveal little direct exposure to the viewpoints in question.

[…]Around this point, it can start to dawn on one that many church leaders have only been trained in forms of discourse such as the sermon and, to a much lesser extent, the essay. Both forms privilege a single voice—their voice—and don’t provide a natural space for response, questioning, and challenge. Their opinions have been assumed to be superior to opposing viewpoints, but have never been demonstrated to be so. While they may have spoken or written about opposing voices, they are quite unaccustomed to speaking or writing to them (not to mention listening to or being cross-examined by them). There are benefits to the fact that the sermon is a form of discourse that doesn’t invite interruption or talking back, but not when this is the only form of discourse its practitioners are adept in.

Many church leaders have been raised and trained in ideologically homogenous cultures or contexts that discouraged oppositional discourse. Many have been protected from hostile perspectives that might unsettle their faith. Throughout, their theological opinions and voices have been given a privileged status, immune from challenge. Nominal challenges could be brushed off by a reassertion of the monologue. They were safe to speak about and habitually misrepresent other voices to their hearers and readers, without needing to worry about those voices ever enjoying the power to answer them back. Many of the more widely read members of their congregations may have had an inkling of the weakness of their positions in the past: the Internet just makes it more apparent.

One of my friends who comments here as “Wintery’s Friend” actually did his M. Div, and I think it was he who told me that his seminary had dropped the lone course in apologetics that had been part of the curriculum. Now seminary grads don’t learn any opposing views. They just pre-suppose that the Bible is true in the same way that Mormons pre-suppose their Bible is true. It’s a Mormon epistemology that’s been adopted by Christian seminarians.

More:

If one’s opinion has never been subjected to and tried by rigorous cross-examination, it probably isn’t worth much. If one lacks the capacity to keep a level head when one’s views are challenged, one’s voice will be of limited use in most real world situations, where dialogue and dispute is the norm and where we have to think in conversation with people who disagree with us.

The teachers of the Church provide the members of the Church with a model for their own thinking. The teacher of the Church does not just teach others what to believe, but also how to believe, and the process by which one arrives at a theological position. This is one reason why it is crucial that teachers ‘show their working’ on a regular basis. When teaching from a biblical text, for instance, the teacher isn’t just teaching the meaning of that particular text, but how Scripture should be approached and interpreted more generally. An essential part of the teaching that the members of any church need is that of dealing with opposing viewpoints. One way or another, every church provides such teaching. However, the lesson conveyed in all too many churches is that opposing voices are to be dismissed, ignored, or ‘answered’ with a reactive reassertion of the dogmatic line, rather than a reasoned response.

You can imagine that the first questions that you’ll be asked by a non-Christian co-worker would be things like “why think God exists?” and “why think the Bible is history rather than legend?”. What I’ve learned from listening to pastors is that very few are equipped to answer those questions. Most just assume that God exists and that the Bible is inerrant. And they don’t show their work, because they haven’t done the work. Moreover, they actively oppose apologetics as “divisive” and “prideful”. And so their flocks can attend church for 20 years and never learn a single useful piece of information that can be used in a real-world discussion. If you’re wondering why kids raised in married Christian homes start getting drunk and shacking up with atheists the minute they hit college, then look at the pastors who mocked their honest questions instead of preparing to answer them with evidence.

More:

I believe that there are various problems in the Church that are exacerbated by this. Where they are led by voices that can’t cope with difference or challenge, churches will tend to become fissiparous echo chambers, where people are discouraged from thinking critically about what leaders are saying and doing. The integrity of the Church’s theological conversation will not be tested through criticism and challenge. Churches that are led by such leaders will habitually develop polarized oppositions with their critics.

The best sermon series I ever heard that took an evidential approach was by Andy Stanley. In the series, it was apparent that he had read a lot of non-Christians, and that he had thought about how to present Christianity with evidence to non-Christian seekers.

Unfortunately, he was attacked by anti-intellectual fideists, including John Piper, Denny Burk, Russell Moore and Al Mohler. These pious pastors oppose the use of evidence in apologetics, especially scientific and historical evidence. Their approach to Christian teaching is to parrot Bible verses and hope that it has a magical effect of compelling faith in unbelievers. I call this the magic-words view of the Bible. For example, these pastors would not use peer-reviewed evidence from the social sciences when discussing moral issues like premarital sex, they would just cite the Bible’s teaching on it – to non-Christians!

I don’t know about you, but I think that a peer-reviewed paper on the dangers of premarital promiscuity has far more weight than something like this from Denny Burk:

If the Bible is the word of God, then it merely needs to be proclaimed. It has intrinsic power that cannot be nullified by the most hardened of skeptics. For that reason, we can have confidence in proclaiming it to anyone. And we can say “the Bible tells me so” without blushing.

If you had to pick a single passage that explained the decline of Bible-based Christianity in America, you couldn’t find a better passage. What’s most surprising is that this fideistic view of Christianity is not even Biblical. The Biblical view of faith is that faith is trust in God, based on evidence. This is why Jesus offered his own resurrection as evidence to a generation of unbelievers. His miracles were also evidence offered to unbelievers. And the Old Testament is filled with examples of people like Isaiah presenting evidence to unbelievers. The fideist view sounds more like the Mormon “burning of the bosom” view.

I think the Mormon / fideist camp is just imposing their own man-made views onto the text in order to get out of the hard work of having to actually study and prepare to have debates with non-Christians. The motivation is laziness, and piety is just how they dress up their laziness to make it seem positive. Unfortunately, the product of this pious laziness is ignorance, and ignorance costs young people their faith. It doesn’t seem to bother these pastors at all that they can’t have meaningful engagements with non-Christians, or that they don’t equip young Christians to defend themselves. They’re oblivious to the world outside of the church doors.

In conclusion, we really need to stop giving respect to fideist pastors, if we expect to train up a generation of young Christians who are able to retain their faith and have an influence. We would never accept Mormon fideism as a sign of competence in any other real-world area of our lives, e.g. – auto repair, software engineering, surgery or tax law. We shouldn’t accept Mormon fideism as a sign of competence in teaching the Bible, either.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

8 thoughts on “How does church appear to someone raised in a non-Christian home?”

  1. 1. I often get the feeling when I’m listening to sermons of the paradigm of “Christ over culture” (i.e., Christianity has nothing to do with how one lives, how to deal with culture, etc.) — rather than “Christ against culture” (when culture goes against the teachings of Christ) or “Christ transforming culture”.

    2. The late Haddon Robinson, who passed away earlier this year — used to say that you can only do three things with a point: you can explain it (or expound upon it), you can prove it or you can apply it. Many churches/churchgoers want practicality, to the point of pragmatism, and if you spend too much time on application without starting with theology or if you ignore how to deal with non-believers, the sermon becomes like therapeutic deism or spiritual self-help or moral motivational talks (or worse, I’ve also heard like “Christian Late Night Show”, i.e., should just be there for entertainment and humor).

    3. Third, many pastors were part of the Christian sub-culture / hermetic bubble. When I was at seminary, I got to know various people and there were a substantial amount of people who were Pastor’s Kids (PKs) and Missionary Kids (MKs). These people may not be challenged to unbelief.

    4. One now-retired senior pastor that I know — his dad was a notable surgeon — and he did not grow up in a Christian home. He converted in his late teens at a Salvation Army Summer camp (he was supposed to be the teen assistant to teach science at this camp), was a Physics/Applied Engineering undergrad. Many of his challenges were from his parents and family — and he had an excellent apologetics sermon series (that he didn’t entitle “apologetics”).

    Examples:
    “Isn’t One Religion as Good as Another?”
    “Didn’t the Early Church Turn Jesus into God?”
    “Who Cares What You Believe as Long as You Live a Good Life”
    “How Can a Loving God Send Anyone to Hell”
    “How Can Heaven be Heaven if Hell is Next Door”
    “How Can You Believe in The Resurrection?”
    “Isn’t Christianity Just a Psychological Crutch?” (answering Freud)
    “Aren’t Christians Just Brainwashed into Believing?”
    “Why Do Christians Need Church?”
    “Doesn’t Religion Just Cause Hatred and Violence?”
    “How Can You Believe in God?”
    “Does Christian Faith Do Any Earthly Good?” (2 parts)
    “What is an Evangelical?”
    “The Church We Want To Be”
    “Won’t Christianity Spoil Your Fun?”
    “Isn’t the Bible Full of Errors?”
    “Dramatic Archaeological Confirmations of the Bible: Evidence for the Trustworthiness of Scripture” (3 parts) [he was a member of the Biblical Archaeology Society]
    “Immanuel: God with Us”

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  2. Please don’t blame Mormonism for fideism. That idea has a history that goes back to the early Church Fathers. Though I believe Tertullian’s views are misunderstood, his comments, nevertheless, do not encourage a robust and rational Christian apologetics. His notion of the primacy of revelation over other types of proof is intellectually troubling. Though he does not deserve the title of an “irrationlist” theologian, he does separate faith and reason in a way that leads to intellectual mischief. Long before Joseph Smith was born, consequently, the idea that conflict attends faith and the rational appraisal of evidence is documented in intellectual history.

    Moreover, the very concept of fideism is complicated philosophically. It means more than simply believing without evidence–or in spite of evidence. Some may hold such views, affirming the belief that revelation stands above the empirical. But there are other sources for the fideist view. In more modern times, it comes from epistemological skepticism about humankind’s ability to have real knowledge of the external world. This dates from David Hume’s critique of empirical knowledge, which is also prior to Smith. Some have accused “presuppositional apologetics” as being fideist, but that is also an oversimplification. Today, there is a modern evangelical movement advancing the notion of a “rational” or “responsible” fideism (Cf, C. Stephen Evans). Curious.

    In other words, the Wintery Knight’s account here oversimplifies the philosophical sources of fideism in the Christian church. From neo-Platonic mysticism to Paschal’s wager to James’ “Will to Believe” to neo-orthodoxy, the philosophical threads creating the fideist fabric are knit together from various sources, with Christian theologians doing the knitting without Joseph Smith’s help. If anything, Mormon fideism derives from Christian sources, not the other way around. So proclaiming a “Mormon epistemology” will not untangle the historical threads. It simply offers a convenient target to blame and conceals a complicated intellectual history.

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    1. Tjats all true, but like I said I think the Bible is pretty clear that the Christianity and Judaism that preceded it are evidence-based faiths. In short I think that whole strand of fideism up to and including people like Kierkegaard and Kant is wrong. I’m just a software engineer who was raised in a non-Christian home, and I call it as I see it. I’m telling you right now that I am working with people raised Christian who dumped Christianity because of this fideist / pietistic strain. I say we cut it off and disown it.

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  3. Reblogged this on Apologetics4all and commented:
    A tough read for some Pastors, I’m sure. This is shared in love and with a plea to take it to heart for the most important generation (the NEXT generation).
    Students (and faculty and everyone else) need reasons. We need much more “Paul in Athens” in our churches. But notice, Paul was familiar with the Greek poets in addition to the Scripture. He was widely read and he interacted with the world in addition to the Synagogue. -DW

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even Paul’s approach in 1Corinthians (interacting with their letter, evidenced by 1Cor. 7:1 “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…”) or Romans where seems to be interacting with an interlocutor.

      I think I read about the late John R. W. Stott that he had a practice throughout his lengthy ministry of delivering his sermon “draft” to a smaller audience to elicit questions and feedback (earlier in the week before Sunday) and then worked a lot of these questions and concerns into his sermon proper.

      When I started preaching, there was nothing better than working through the sermon with [Christian] friends — it was like getting instantaneous feedback as well as some practice delivering the sermon.

      I know many used to accuse a certain now retired senior pastor of being “too academic,” but he was very good about thinking about difficulties raised by the biblical text. (I usually say that “his worst sermons resemble truly excellent exegesis papers” — and of course, in good exegesis papers, you have to deal with textual variants and difficulties, interpretational differences and difficulties, etc.)

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