Several weeks ago I started on a quest with Tina Hamel, our Kids Church Coordinator to find out how we could provide the best possible faith building experience for the young people in Kids Church and equip parents to be informers of the faith in the home. I have become convinced that the intellectual and spiritual diet of the average Christian is incapable of creating a robust confidence in the important doctrines of scripture, such as: creation, the one true God, the role of Israel in our faith story, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming Kingdom of God.
So I started thinking about who are the most popular communicators listened to by contemporary Christians and it hit me, they are all good preachers and most of them lift up Jesus, but they are not theologians. Even the incredibly inspirational Max Lucado has a degree in communication and is listed in cyber world as a “motivational speaker.” Bishop T. D. Jakes is in my mind the single greatest pure preacher I have ever heard but, no offense, he’s not a theologian. Most of what we are listening to is heavy on inspiration and application but weak on information and foundational knowledge. Don’t misunderstand me; we desperately need preaching that tells us how to live and relate to others, I’m just saying it doesn’t provide a foundation for what we say we believe.
As many of you know, I have been undergoing treatment for a biologic recurrence of prostate cancer after having a prostatectomy two years ago. When I met with my oncologist back in the fall, he recommended I take vitamin D because the therapy he was putting me on could slightly deteriorate my bones and cause them to ache. Well, what most people don’t realize right now is that the current culture is attacking our belief system in a way that is deteriorating the bones of the Christian belief system. I may be wrong but I think most of us are preoccupied with searching for sermons that help us with our depression, our happiness, our confidence, our relationships, and our desire to be successful, with little thought to “how do I even know the Christian worldview is true?”
Most of what I hear from the most prominent Christian communicators is helpful for my life but a theologian is preoccupied with the study of God and the great doctrines that validate the scripture. A theologian will provide for you the material necessary to fulfill the mandate of 1 Peter 3:15 which says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Mostly, what the preachers who command the biggest audiences give us is therapy not theology. Just go look at their sermon titles, they often begin with the words, “how to …” Most famously, Joel Osteen’s best seller was titled, “How to have your best life now.” That is just therapy, it won’t equip you “to give an answer to every man who ask you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” And the “answer for the reason for the hope,” can’t just be “Jesus!” Intelligent seekers are going to ask, “why Jesus?” What sets Jesus apart from all others? Only a theologian, or at least a disciplined student of scripture is going to teach you a proper defense of faith in Jesus.
I know what I am saying is hard and your flesh wants to whine, “I don’t have time,” “this is too difficult,” “I don’t understand those bigger words.” Well the humanistic, atheistic University professors who are training the teachers who are teaching your children, the politicians who are making policy, the business leaders who are marketing to our youth, and the judges that are ruling our land are using big words and big concepts to lead us into confusion. We are not going to build a powerful counter culture for the people we love on predigested intellectual baby food. Os Guinness’ convicting book title kind of sums it up, “Fit Bodies, Fat Minds; Why Evangelicals don’t want to think.” Ouch!
Truth is at stake right now. The salvation of our children is at stake. Our children are not going to have a faith that will survive the culture if we parents don’t become skilled defenders of the faith. Did you hear what Oprah Winfrey said at the Golden Globe Awards the other night? “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we have.” Oprah seems like a nice caring person but I feel like screaming, “no, no, no! There’s no such thing as ‘your truth!’ There is just truth; everything else is a lie!” This is why we need theologians. Theologians are the scientists of truth, especially truth that is grounded in the amazing Holy Bible. A high school principal stood before an assembly of parents recently and said, “Here we tell our students there is no such thing as a bad idea.” Wait a minute, there are actually some very bad ideas. I say we need theologians to help us identify bad ideas and help us fall in love with good ones. Scripture says, “if the blind lead the blind, we will all fall in the ditch.”
The great thinkers aren’t as visible as the great encouragers but they are out there and they will sharpen the sword of the spirit, (which is the word of God) in your grasp. Tim Keller, the founder of redeemer church in NYC is one of the great defenders of the faith. I don’t totally agree with John Piper’s Calvinism or his view of women in ministry but he still makes me think and bow before an awesome God. C. S. Lewis is “everyman’s theologian” and will leave you with a deep knowing that behind the noise is an eternal God whose plan is coming together perfectly. You shouldn’t be allowed to go outside until you have read “Mere Christianity.” Os Guinness has a brain the size of a house and he will help you contrast the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of man. Os lived through the persecution of Mao Tse Tung’s cultural revolution, so he’s not just an academic. Josh McDowell of “Evidence that Demands a Verdict,” is way too important to ignore. Scott McKnights recent book, “The Gospel of the King,” is helping me understand how limited our understanding of the term “Gospel” has been. I consider Alistair Begg’s a theologian as well. When you are hungry for something more than another motivational talk, check Alistair’s sermons out.
I’ll admit I haven’t dealt deeply intoAquinas, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, but the list I just gave you is weighty enough to get me out of Evangelical Christian therapy and into actually wrestling with the questions that are guiding cultural debates. I personally think it’s unfortunate that society has forced public school teachers into the role of being spiritual leaders and moral teachers, when that is the primary job of the home and the Church. When we don’t want that job, what are they to do?
Now, keep listening to those wonderful communicators who bring you comfort to get through the hard places but add the great theologians to your library. Theologians have been trained in a deep history of thought about the nature of our life with and without God. It is possible to disagree with their perspectives on our society, and they certainly disagree with each other, but we dismiss them to our peril.
M Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary said, “those who massacre people in clubs and hotels are religiously motivated. So are many of those who devote their lives to caring for the poor. … Religion is a major player in our actions, for better and worse, and it makes no sense to sideline the best theological thinkers. We desperately need their help if we are to untangle some of the complex problems before us, including those caused by religion itself. … T. S. Eliot claimed that contemporary characters in literature no longer have great ideas that either inspire or conflict them. Instead they have nervous reactions. Without the input of great theological ideas, we are destined to bounce nervously back and forth between political correctness and seething reactions.”
Now, if you read this far you are probably a reader but if you are one who just knows you’ll never read or listen to any of the great Christian thinkers, ok, but at least promise me that you will start engaging in deeper more complex conversations with yourself and the people at your church. Go ahead and keep taking in wonderful life application and felt need preaching, but someway somehow add to your spiritual diet some material that will show you why we believe there is a real God and a risen Christ available, to give you your, “Best Life Now.”