Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Dumbing of the Church

I wrote a blog recently in which one reader excoriated me for using words like “excoriate.” Noting that my blog is about things theological, he suggested that theology was really quite simple and, therefore, simple words would do just fine when talking about God. He suggested that I lose the polysyllabic morphemes (sorry, I just couldn’t help myself) and replace them with single syllable words on a 5th grade reading level. Of course, some of us read Shakespeare in the 5th grade, so that’s no help.

I’ve been hearing this more and more lately, both from laity and clergy. It seems that even when dealing with a subject as complex as the Divine, the motto is KISS – “keep it simple, stupid.” It is symptomatic, I think, of a more serious contemporary ecclesiastical (there I go again!) trend; namely, the “dumbing of the church.”

Of course, the disposition to “dumb down” is not confined to things theological. Dan Gookin made a fortune with his books “For Dummies.” It feeds both our desire to have a simple solution to complex issues and our latent suspicion that things really aren’t as complex as the so-called “experts” make them out to be. Who was it said, “Every profession is a conspiracy against the layman”?

In the church, the propensity towards the dumbing down of theology has been encouraged, I think, by three concurrent phenomena. The first is the consumer church movement (sometimes called “seeker sensitive church”) that insists on packaging the Gospel so as to market it as widely as possible. Under the guise of “getting people saved,” a wedge is driven between evangelism and discipleship with the result that most seeker-sensitive churches tend to focus on the former to the exclusion of the latter.

An even more troubling trend is the abdication by clergy of their role as the church’s chief teacher (see my blog The Demise of the Didaskalos). The average pastor today hasn’t the time, energy, expertise, or inclination to take their role as the church’s teacher seriously. Time spent in study is now deemed “wasted time.”

The third is a larger movement in our culture towards what I have called “intellectual and ideological egalitarianism” (last one; I promise!). All ideas are equally valid, and no one is allowed to know more than anyone else about anything. This may be an unintended consequence of the Internet: information (whether valid or not) is always just a few short clicks away. Or it may be a consequence of postmodern relativism (okay, I lied) and the concomitant distrust of meritocracy and authority: There is no such thing as “facts” anymore; there are only opinions, and all opinions are equally valid. Of course, that’s nonsense. Take it out of religion and put it in medicine and see how silly it is. Who would go to a physician who didn’t know more about medicine than they did? Yet, no one wants a minister who knows more about religion or Scripture or theology or the church than they do. Clergy have a responsibility and a calling to be experts in the study of the Scripture and to teach their congregations what they (the congregants) do not know. Laity, in turn, have a responsibility to learn, to study, to grow, and to mature as disciples of Jesus Christ. Both, of late, have been irresponsible, and it’s starting to show up in the churches.

Now that I’m “retired” from full-time ministry, my wife and I have been looking for a place to worship on Sundays when I’m not in the pulpit preaching somewhere. We’ve visited a lot of churches. Most take great pride in their programs and “opportunities” for all ages; they trumpet their “fellowship” and “community;” they say things like: “We’re all just family here;” they call their pastor by his first name and treat him like “one of guys;” they seem to take great pride in the fact that he doesn’t know anymore about what they’re doing than they do. Me? I’m looking for a church where the pastor knows what “excoriate” means.

1 comment:

John King said...

Yes, I think we are to love God will all that makes us human, including the mind. I think part of the problem is the lack of respect for education in the USA, and the "dumbing down" of much of the education some of us received.