On the Failure of the Church to Educate
Finally, the 21st century Apologist needs to take Apologetics far more seriously. He needs to incorporate Apologetics into every aspect of his or her ministry: every sermon, every class, every evangelistic activity. We have woefully neglected our responsibility to train our young people in the solid case for Christianity, and then we wonder why they depart from the faith under the influence of secular university instruction. We give our parishioners and our missionaries no foundation in the defence of the faith, and then wonder why our evangelistic efforts show so little fruit in a world where people have long moved beyond accepting something just because someone else believes it.

-- John Warwick Montgomery

Even with the proliferation of Bibles today, Christians are reading their Bibles less and less. I believe the evangelical church has only 50 years of life left...because of marginalization of the Word of God. We need another Reformation! The enemy of the gospel now is not religious hierarchy but moral anarchy, not tradition but entertainment. The enemy of the gospel is Protestantism run amuck; it is an anti-intellectual, anti-knowledge, feel-good faith that has no content and no convictions. Part of the communal repentance that is needed is a repentance about the text. And even more importantly, there must be a repentance with regard to Christ our Lord. Just as the Bible has been marginalized, Jesus Christ has been ‘buddy-ized.’ His transcendence and majesty are only winked at, as we turn him into the genie in the bottle, beseeching God for more conveniences, more luxury, less hassle, and a life without worries or lack of comfort. He no longer wears the face that the apostles recognized. ... The God we worship today no longer resembles the God of the Bible. Unless we return to him through a reading and digesting of the scriptures—through a commitment to the text, the evangelical church will become irrelevant, useless, dead.

-- Dr. Daniel Wallace

This is an article about how the church at large has failed us.

The following is not meant to imply that there are not exceptions to the rules to be discussed, and you may well be part of a local church body without these failings, and if you are, you should be glad of it; however, let's be honest, most churches ARE failing when it comes to these matters we will herein discuss.

The problem that I see reoccurring time and time again is:

  1. Our churches do not educate people in the basics of their faith. We seldom, if ever, hear about things like textual criticism, the authenticity of the Gospels, alleged "copycat" savior gods or even basic doctrine. Churches, instead, have fallen for the postmodernist indulgence of self, concentrating more on entertainment value ministry (i.e.,skateboard demonstrations).

    Such churches would rarely consider inviting a teacher, whether an apologist, Biblical scholar or a seminary professor, for rather unclear reasons. I suspect it is because many pastors feel threatened by having someone around who might "correct" them, but I am sure simple ignorance of what is out there plays a role too.

  2. Because our people are not educated in these matters, they are caught "flat footed" when confronted with them.
  3. Some people are unaffected and simply go on their merry way. Good for them, maybe, though such people also often stand in the way when someone tries to up the intellectual ante a bit, while others start having questions.
  4. Their pastors cannot answer their questions because they too are generally lacking in such knowledge. Their degrees are more geared towards counseling or some form of preaching technique, similar to Sunday School teachers and other figures of authority, who generally have even less relevant education.

    Persons with questions are told such things as questioning is evil or they should have faith, etc. None of which is satisfactory.

  5. The lack of education also extends to the public sector, where people are not taught to think critically, nor to evaluate credibility of sources but rather that everyone's opinion is as good as anyone else's. The church often teaches this as well, explicity or implicitly.
  6. Persons with questions come across skeptical literature in print or online that is mostly written by persons with no better education in the relevant areas. However, because the reader also lacks the necessary education and thinking skills, the base level of what is called "common sense" (as it would often be, if indeed the facts were as the literature says) becomes persuasive precisely because of their lack of knowledge.

    For example, ignorance of the process and science of textual criticism could lead to the erroneous "common sense" conclusion that there is some problem in that we have "only copies of copies of copies" of the New Testament…and, by this time it is often too late to even provide such people with sound material by credible authorities. They are not able to comprehend even the simplest defense at times (and indeed, certain things simply can NOT be simplified so much, for otherwise they lose power and credibility as defenses), because they have not been given the adequate foundation to understand what someone like e.g., a Bruce Metzger says about textual criticism.

    Because it violates what they have taken to be a sound, "common sense" approach by a non-authority who is equally in the dark, it is simple for them to simply dismiss answering material as some sort of desperate effort to resolve what is really a very serious problem (though in reality it isn't).

In May 2008, an item at the Reclaiming the Mind blog (link now dead) wrote of the "epidemic" of defections from the church which mirrored these very kinds of thoughts rooted in inadequate education of textual criticism, etc.,:

Over 31 million Americans are saying "check please" to the church and are off to find answers elsewhere. Jeff Schadt, coordinator of Youth Transition Network, says thousands of youth fall away from the church when transitioning from high school to college. He and other youth leaders estimate that 65 to 94 percent of high school students stop attending church after graduating. From my studies and experience I find that leaving church is many times the first visible step in one’s pilgrimage away from Christ.

The question that we must ask ourselves is a very simple one - Why? Why are people leaving the faith and at this epidemic and alarming rate? In my studies, I have found that the two primary reasons people leave the faith are 1) intellectual challenges and 2) bad theology or misplaced beliefs.

First, I want to explain this transition process, focusing on the first: intellectual challenges. You might even find yourself somewhere on this journey.

Step One: Doubt -- Here is where the person begins to examine his or her faith more critically by asking questions, expressing concerns and becoming transparent with their doubt, not a wholesale doubt but one that expresses an inner longing to have questions answered and the intellect satisfied to a greater degree. Very often, such persons will inquire of mentors in the faith, requesting an audience for their doubt.

Step Two: Discouragement -- This is where the person becomes frustrated because they are not finding the answers. They ask questions but the answers (or lack thereof) cause them discouragement. Their church may even tell them that such questions are “unchristian.” Their Sunday school teacher says, "I don’t know. You just have to believe." Others simply say, "That’s a good question, I have never thought of it before," and then go on their way…on their own leap-of-faith journey.

Step Three: Disillusionment -- Now the person begins to become disillusioned with Christianity in general and proceeds to doubt much more deeply. They feel betrayed by those who made them believe about Christ, very often feeling that much of their former faith was naïve, since not even their most trusted mentors could (or would) answer basic questions about the Bible, history, or faith. In their thinking, the intellect has become illegitimized and the church is therefore an illegitimate contender for their mind.

Step Four: Apathy -- At this point in the journey, the disillusioned Christian becomes apathetic to finding the answers, believing that the answers don’t exist. They are firmly on their way to atheism, agnosticism or pure skepticism, but don’t have the courage to admit it to themselves or others. Many times, those in this stage live as closet unbelievers, believing it is not worth it to come clean about their departure from the faith. They want a peaceful existence in their unbelief without creating controversy. Therefore, they are content to remain closet unbelievers.

Step Five: Departure -- At this stage the fact that they have left the faith has become real to them and they are willing to announce it to the world, and because of their sense of betrayal, they feel as if it is their duty to become evangelists for the cause of unbelief. Their goal and mission becomes to unconvert the converted.

What can or needs to be done about this unnecessary dilemma?

Of course, I'm being facetious. The only way to solve this is with a solid educational program, which is exactly what we lack in so many of our churches. It's time for fewer prefab sermons, with their rampant de-contextualizations and time for more demonstrations (teachings) on textual criticism, the authenticity of the Gospels and so on. It's time to make such efforts a priority and not a “catch up” step we take after the damage is already done. It's time to be proactive instead of reactive. It's time to make these things something that is discussed from the pulpit on Sunday morning, not hidden away in Sunday night church training classes or a weeknight Bible study. It's also time to make this part of our evangelism, throwing away or at least de-prioritizing all the gimmicks like the "Evangecubes" and the tracts.

Recently (10/07), a reader pointed me to an article here by Bob Burney, which serves to emphasize the failure of the "here I am, entertain me" seeker-sensitive model most of which is worth using here:

...For most of a generation evangelicals have been romanced by the "seeker sensitive" movement spawned by Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago...

Perhaps inadvertently, with this "new wave" of ministry, came a de-emphasis on taking personal responsibility for Bible study combined with an emphasis on felt-needs based "programs" and slick marketing.

The size of the crowd, rather than the depth of the heart, determined success. If the crowd was large, then surely God was blessing the ministry. Churches were built by demographic studies, professional strategists, marketing research, meeting "felt needs" and sermons consistent with these techniques. We were told that preaching was out, relevance was in. Doctrine didn't matter nearly as much as innovation. If it wasn't "cutting edge" and consumer friendly it was doomed. The mention of sin, salvation and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and sensitivity.

Thousands of pastors hung on every word that emanated from the lips of the church growth experts. Satellite seminars were packed with hungry church leaders learning the latest way to "do church." The promise was clear…thousands of people and millions of dollars couldn't be wrong. Forget what people need, give them what they want. How can you argue with the numbers? If you dared to challenge the "experts" you were immediately labeled as a "traditionalist," a throwback to the 50s, a stubborn dinosaur unwilling to change with the times.

All that changed recently.

Willow Creek has released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry. The study's findings are in a new book titled Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels himself called the findings "earth shaking…ground breaking…mind blowing", and no wonder, because it seems that the "experts" were wrong.

The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples. It gets worse. Hybels laments:

"Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn't helping people that much. Other things that we didn't put that much money into and didn't put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for."

If you simply want a crowd, the "seeker sensitive" model produces results. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it's a bust. In a shocking confession, Hybels states:

"We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become 'self feeders.' We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own."

The error of the seeker sensitive movement is monumental in its scope. The foundation of thousands of American churches is now discovered to be mere sand. The one individual who has had perhaps the greatest influence on the American church in our generation has now admitted his philosophy of ministry, in large part, was a "mistake." The extent of this error defies measurement.

What we should find encouraging, at least, in this "confession" coming from the highest ranks of the Willow Creek Association, is that they are coming to realize that their existing "model" does not help people grow into mature followers of Jesus Christ. Given the massive influence this organization has had on the American church today, let us pray that God would be pleased to put structures in place at Willow Creek that foster not mere numeric growth, but growth in grace.

Here's a more personal account that verifies Burney's points. I recently received this testimony from a reader (names have been deleted or altered so as to protect the reader's identity).

You'll recall that I've been in touch with you in the past and even got your site linked on our (name and location of church) high school ministry website some time ago. I'm writing you because of the distress I'm feeling after many weeks and months of observation of changes taking place in our church of approximately #000 members, and conversations with a few fellow believers concerning those changes.

I sat under the teaching of _____ ______ at _______ Church in ______, a member of the (denominational group)...for nearly 20 years. (The pastor) is a graduate of BIOLA and founded in sound doctrine, preaching the need for repentance and forgiveness. Two years ago he accepted a position in _____________ which, of course, necessitated the search for a new head pastor.

That search resulted in the hiring of one ____ __________, a disciple of the "seeker format" promulgated by Rick Warren and used in the mega-church from which he came, Willow Creek in Illinois.

Our services have changed over the last year since he began teaching. There's been a gradual shift in the appearance of the "primary" service held in the sanctuary...including an increased use of media and visual arts to convey messages. I don't object to this in particular...but the saturation, even for one of my preferences, has just about worn out it's novelty and, therefore, impact in conveying the message it's intended to communicate.

The seminal moment of my recognizing a need to begin a process of seeking to address other issues that are reflected in the seeker style of service came today, Resurrection Sunday.

Throughout the entire service this morning, the name of Jesus was lifted up. Praises were sung, the difference between all other religions and Christianity was pointed out (in general). The cross that bridged the gap between man and God was demonstrated in the words spoken and the set that was constructed for the service.

So what was missing?

Not once during the service, either in words sung or spoken, was the single most important reason for Christ's sacrifice spoken of. Sin.

Yes, Jesus' death on the cross was the bridge, but only as a means to a "fuller life", a "life of service", a "life after death", the "life you've always wanted".

As I write this and contemplate the words about to be typed, I've literally begun to cry. Not once was it mentioned that Jesus died on the Cross for my sin. Yes, it was said he died for me, but FOR WHAT??

So I can have a happier life here in this world? Of course that's true! So I can spend eternity with Him and with the Father and the Holy Spirit in His heaven? Yes!! Emphatically! Yes!! That is the end result of his sacrifice.

But the question stands? Why did He NEED to die for me? And that single thought, the basis of salvation, the reason He suffered on the cross on my behalf, was never mentioned. Not once.

I grew up in the United Methodist Church. I heard the same message there for the first 17 years of my life. "Jesus loves you and died for you." But no one ever confronted me with my personal responsibility in that death and the cause of it. I remember distinctly that my salvation experience was the result of being convinced of my need for the Savior because I was a sinner.

Not because I would spend eternity in darkness separated from the Creator. Not because I needed more "things". Not because my life was a horrible experience. Heck, I was making decent money, enjoying the company of numerous women, and getting high on a daily basis, so in my limited view of a __ year old white male I was doing great!

Again it was that the word was preached. I heard that I was a sinner (and why what I was doing was a sin), I heard that Christ loved me and died for me, and that the solution to the terrible conviction I was under was a relationship with Him.

Today, of all days, I expected to be able to go to the church I've attended for __ years and hear the glorious message of Christ's salvation preached. I was immensely disappointed, as you can tell.

Michael Patton at Reclaiming the Mind concurs:

Everyone will go through the doubt phase. Everyone should ask questions about the faith. If you have not asked the "How do you know . . ." questions about the message of the Gospel, this is not a good thing. We should be challenged to think through these questions early in the faith. The Church needs to rethink its education program. Expositional preaching, while important, is not enough. Did you hear that? Expositional preaching is not enough. It does not provide the discipleship venue that is vital for us to prevent and overcome this epidemic. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that it does.

The church has been on an intellectual diet for the last century and we are suffering from theological atrophy. What else do you expect when we have replaced theological discipleship with a gluttonous promotion of entertainment, numbers, and fast-food Christianity that can produce nothing more than a veneer of faith seasoned for departure?

The solution: to reform our educational program in the church. To lay theological foundations through critical thinking. To understand that the great commission is to make disciples, not simply converts. And most importantly, we must pray that God will grant a revival of the mind knowing that without the power of the Holy Spirit, no amount of intellectual persuasion can change an antagonistic heart.

Right now there is little or nothing being done to stop our churches turning down the wrong path as the one above did. That needs to be stopped. Evangelical atheism (embodied by the likes of Harris, Dawkins and Dennett) is an intellectual wasteland, but we can't expect people to know this. Your church needs to be ready for challenges, and we need to test our churches to see how ready they are, and be willing to either reform one that isn't ready, or leave one that refuses to reform, and do what we can to encourage others not to attend.

What's a good way to test your church?

There are some answers to this that are no good:

And, here are some good questions from a reader with similar concerns:

  1. How can I find a church in my area that stays abreast of "hot topics" that attempt to falsify the Christian faith? What other questions can I ask my current church that would help me to get a sense of their direction?

    I'm putting these two questions together because the answers to both of them are much the same.

    We had a good chance here provided by The Da Vinci Code. Ask for a copy of whatever teachings they had on it from the pulpit. If they had none, you have an answer. If they did have some, listen to it and see how they deal with it -- with facts? With appeal to "just believe"? Also, simply ask about some of the hot topics and how those have been handled. Someone who answers your question about the Gospel of Judas with a "huh?" is not doing a good job.

    Another thing I like to do is ask a pastor who their favorite Biblical scholar is. I did this once and got the answer, "Warren Wiersbe" -- who is a pastor, not a scholar. See if they know of certain people like Wright or Witherington. If their knowledge of apologetics is limited to a copy of ETDAV, that is a bad sign. And, see if they have a staff position for education pastor (if it is a large enough church).

    As bad as it is, you might just be able to ask if they know what "apologetics" is and get an answer that tells you all you need to know.

  2. If my church doesn't see the need for stronger apologetics how can I convince them otherwise?

    One of the most powerful things you can do is show them the results of the neglect. I have gathered a small notebook of powerful "anti-testimonies" from people like Dan Barker; if you want a copy, ask me and I'll send it. These anti-testimonies show that there is a strong desire to "anti-evangelize".

    You might also be able to raise awareness by bringing copies of material like Losing Faith in Faith and asking staff how they'd deal with someone who got hold of it and started thinking it was valid. This may be like hitting an anthill with a firehose, but if that's what it takes, so be it. Things are in such a state now that it is time to leave those who will not grow, behind. It's to the point where such churches and leaders are a cancer to the Body of Christ, and that means its time for some spiritual chemotherapy.

    Another thing you might be able to do is talk to some members about these issues and see if they have been looking for answers. As noted, I have found that yes, people DO want answers; and many will say that they have had questions all their life. If they have been looking for answers, provide some and use that as a point in favor of change: The need obviously exists.

    But if this doesn't wake them up, be warned: It will just make them hide deeper in their shell. But that's a good thing, because again, as serious as the problem is, the method is like the bumper sticker that says, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." The ones who hide in their shell or who continue to neglect the problem can and need to get out of the way.

  3. What do you see as the role or duty of the average churchgoer in this regard?

    This is an excellent question that came from a reader who is rather sympathetic to what I have expressed above. In essence, what do I think the "ideal" Joe in the pew should know (or not know)? How about deacons, pastors, leaders?

    There's no "pat" answer on this, given the complexity of lives and needs out there, but let me set out some general guidelines in terms of how I'd answer this.

    • The Mandatory Foundation:

      The only things I place in this category -- which is what I think every Christian should know, even if they just serve soup at the homeless kitchen -- are core doctrines of Christianity and how they work and are defended. What's in here? Definitely the atonement, salvation, the Trinity, the nature of God in general. I'd also put a basic defense of the resurrection (without which, our faith is in vain!) in this category.

      Not stuff like copycat saviors myths, Calvin vs. Arminius, Greco-Roman rhetoric or Gnostic cults. Everyone should also be aware of at least where to look for or find answers on things like copycat savior gods and the Christ myth, even if they don't want to master any of these subjects.

      I don't think this is at all unreasonable, given that it would place us on a level, in the first century, with people like Peter and John. What must be remembered is that for Peter and John, things like client-patron relationships (as it would relate, e.g., to salvation) and hypostatic Wisdom (as it would relate to the Trinity) were already part of their mental furniture, so to speak, and we've got a deficiency because we lost it -- dare I say, we're actually, as a whole, less informed than Peter and John when it comes to certain things that were part of their world.

      The fact is that there is no excuse for Christians not to be able to articulate what they believe, and why, and that means being informed where the foundation is concerned.

    • The Middle Level:

      If you're a teacher, or a deacon, then I'd like to see a higher level of awareness. I referred above to knowing where to find answers, if you're Joe Pew. If you're Joe Deacon or Joe Sunday School Teacher, then I think you need to be one of the people that goes out to find answers for ones self and others on things like copycat saviors gods and the Christ myth. Not master all of it, but at least be articulate and master a couple of areas so that you can be competent to informally judge matters in other subjects on the basis of experience. People at this level also ought to "network" so that each CAN be free to specialize in some areas and leave the rest to others to whom they can refer.

    • The Upper Crust:

      Things get a little dicey here, as they relate to church offices today, which of course do not mirror that well the original model of the first century based on the synagogue. Ideally, a church should have a person competent in the very difficult topics like Calvin vs. Arminius; or if a church is too small or financially strapped, they can co-op with other churches so that such an expert is available to them. Perhaps a local seminary professor could be tapped as a consultant in this regard (and in line with the above, be allowed to do things like preach and teach) so that a pastor can attend to more personal needs of the flock (if they don't want to be the "go to" person themselves).

      In this regard, I'd parallel it in the early church to where certain key leaders like Matthew, Paul and Luke were among the most educated in their time. 1 of 12 apostles makes for between 5 and 10 percent, and it'd be nice if we had even that many prepared for the toughest questions, but even that we don't reach now.

Consider this a call to action.

Despite the common stereotype, intellectual questions are not always merely a smokescreen for spiritual or moral problems. To be effective in equipping young people and professionals to face the challenges of a highly educated secular society, the church needs to redefine the mission of pastors and youth leaders to include training in apologetics and worldview. We must refuse to dismiss objections to the faith as mere spiritual subterfuge and instead prepare ourselves to give what Schaeffer called "honest answers to honest questions." When America was a young nation, the clergy were often the most highly educated members of the community. The congregation looked up to them and respected their intellectual expertise. Today, those sitting in the pews are often as highly educated as the pastor, and among the general population the clergy may even be looked down upon as narrowly trained functionaries. In this climate, it is imperative for seminaries to broaden the education of pastors to include courses on intellectual history, training future pastors to critique the dominant ideologies of our day. Pastors must once again provide intellectual leadership for their congregations, teaching apologetics from the pulpit. Every time a minister introduces a biblical teaching, he should also instruct the congregation in ways to defend it against the major objections they are likely to encounter. A religion that avoids the intellectual task and retreats to the therapeutic realm of personal relationships and feelings will not survive in today's spiritual battlefield.

-- Nancy Pearcy, Total Truth, 127


Reader adds this commentary:

With reference to the above, I think the problem in most churches, especially among the youth is more disturbing than we might think.

Since I first began teaching apologetics on Saturday nights at my home, a lot of young people have admitted to me that before they were presented with the evidence, they did not actually believe the Bible, even after attending church, confessing their sins, being baptized, etc.

We have many thousands/millions of people locked into a "seeking" phase, hoping that God exists and that the Bible is true, without ever reaching the "found" stage. They can agree with the moral framework of christianity, enjoy the warmth of fellowship, appreciate the relief of getting off drugs and drink, and being free from immorality, etc., yet still not actually KNOW that God exists and that the Gospel is true. It’s almost like a hippy/new age movement, with the Bible as the mythological Aesops Fable-like framework that "works" on a certain psychological plane.

Anyway, got to get my iPod loaded with some Hillsong tunes and get radical on my Quad - that'll win over some youths.


September 2008 -- a reader sent me this account of an experience that I think helps illustrate our problem today:

I'm currently going to a Christian university majoring in Biblical Text (of course having to do with exegeting and understanding the Bible). As a freshman, I must take a Life and Teachings of Jesus course (it's a required course for everyone). It's supposed to be more specialized as it is full of Bible majors (in other words, people wanting to go into Ministry, Youth and Family Ministry, Missions, and the few like me who have the Biblical Text major). Anyway, on our first day, the professor asked a few trivia questions and then proceeded to do a survey of the class. The options given were roughly like the following:

A. I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus because I see God in my life today.

B. I see God in my life today because I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus.

Roughly 30-35% of the class picked A, while roughly 65-70% of the class picked B (which is the one I picked). The professor then asked an open question of why we picked what we did. One of those who picked A made an argument that sounded very much like an atheist one. He acted like it was a problem that the documents we have that attest to the Resurrection are very old and that we weren't there to see it. For some reason, he favors current "seeing God in his life" as a better testament to the Resurrection than those who actually saw the risen Jesus. How sad it is that the evidence which is more ancient and greater in quantity and quality is dismissed in favor of subjective experiences that might be interpreted as "not God" in emotional lows. I wonder if similarly he would reject all of ancient history since the documents are very old and we weren't there to see what the historians are reporting. On a good note, someone else noted in response that if there was no Resurrection (and good evidence for it), there would be no Christianity today and that it would have died out long ago as a small cult of Jesus' early disciples if that (sound familiar?). Someone responded to this with a rather vague statement that believing in the Resurrection because of the Bible rather than because of present experiences is like reading a novel and thinking that it's true. The professor stopped the discussion after that, but needless to say, I was appalled that a Christian aspiring to be a minister, missionary, or perhaps even a professor would say that. I was also troubled by what the professor told us later. He said that other times he had done the survey, the opposite result occurred. He said that probably at least 70-75% of the students picked A.

As JP has been saying for years, we need more education in the Church. Anyone who disagrees for whatever reason, take a look at the fruit it is bearing amongst those who are attending the universities (especially amongst those who desire to be ministers, missionaries, or maybe professors).

With ministers coming out of seminary thinking this way, is it any wonder we lack education in our churches and that apostasy and indifference are rampant?

-JPH