Why Johnny Can't Believe...

On the Failure of the Church to Educate

James Patrick Holding

(updated 6/29/06)

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

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

It is, of course, by no means meant to imply that there are not exceptions to the rules to be discussed. You may be part of a local church body without these failings, and if you are, you should be glad of it. But let's be honest -- most churches ARE failing when it comes to these matters we will discuss.

Here is the problem that I see re-occurs time and time again:

  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, etc.

  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. 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 preaching technique. Likewise Sunday School teachers and other figures of authority, who generally have even less relevant education. Persons with questions are told that eg, questioning is evil, they should have faith, etc. which is not satisfactory (and it comes often from the "merry way" sorts).

  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 ignorance. 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.

  7. 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 eg, 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).

What can or needs to be done about this?

  • Taking your church through "Purpose Driven Life" won't solve this.

  • Reading "Left Behind" novels won't solve this.

  • More contemporary music programs and "seeker-friendly" techniques won't solve this.

  • Joel Osteen will DEFINITELY not solve this. Pandering to what are perceived as "needs" is part of the problem, not the solution. There is a broad failure to distinguish between "needs" and "wants".

  • Your average Sunday School materials, which strain mightily to make passages like Is. 42 somehow relevant to the average working person, won't solve this.

  • Building a new church gymnasium won't solve this.

  • Youth programs involving gimmicks and games won't solve this.

  • Passing our tracts won't solve this.

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 decontextualizations, and time for more demonstrations on textual criticism, the authenticity of the Gospels, and so on. It's time to make such efforts a priority and not something we take after the damage is done and we need to play "catch up". 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 Wednesday night Bible study. It's also time to make this part of our evangelism, and throw away or at least de-prioritize all the gimmicks like the "Evangecubes" (I can never get a full picture on all six sides anyway) and the poorly drawn Chick tracts.

What's a good way to test this?

  • Did your church do anything about The Da Vinci Code? What, and when (Sunday morning when so many people were there, or on some obscure night when they know only a handful will show up)?

  • How about the Gospel of Judas? Was anything said about it?

  • Is the youth ministry getting the youth ready for when they will go to college and have stuff like The Christ Conspiracy shoved down their throats?

  • Any word on Bart Ehrman's best-selling book Misquoting Jesus?

  • If you try to discuss things like Deuteronomy in terms of an ancient suzerainty treaty (which is very important to understanding its role and application today), or the argument stricture of i Cor. 14 (key to understanding the "women keep silent" passage) is there anyone on church staff you can discuss this intelligently with, or who shows interest, or do their eyes just glaze over?

There are some answers to this that are no good:

  • "This kind of approach will intimidate people." Does it occur to someone who says this that the Gospel was a very intimidating message in its time, one that upended all of the social values of its day? Let's not water down the facts or the message behind them for the sake of making yet more converts without an adequate foundation.

  • "The Holy Spirit will move people." Then you don't need to preach watered-down feelgood sermons either, do you? Obviously no one practices this idea consistently except for the sort of person who a century or so back would not send a missionary to India under the reasoning that the Spirit would do all the work without missionaries. At least they were consistent in their approach.

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 have a good chance here provided by The Da Vinci Code. Ask for a copy of whatever teachings they have on it from the pulpit. If they have none, you have an answer. If they 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 "duh" 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 supremely inane 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, forget it. 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.

    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. If they have been, 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 right now, 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 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 nor 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, eg, 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 "dumber" 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 we go out and find for answers 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.

  4. 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 that 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.

We are very grateful to JP Holding for this article which comes from his excellent Tektonics website.