Shared Church Cultivates Critical Thinking (Part One)

Fake News in the News

As 2016 ends, fake news is making real news. The Bible calls the vendors of bogus reports false teachers or false prophets. Can practicing shared church help equip us to follow Jesus in a world full of phony reports and spiritual viruses?

From Genesis to Revelation Scripture warns us about the dangers of being deceived. Today all of us—including our young people—swim in a torrent of information, some true, some misleading, some both. It surges in endlessly through our cell phones, the Internet, tweets, television, magazines, books, classrooms, and so on. 

Even something we hear in a church meeting may not pass the truth test. Peter warned his Christian readers, “there will be false teachers among you” (II Pet. 2:1). And Paul cautioned the Ephesian elders, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth” (Acts 20:30). From our enemy’s point of view, insiders make ideal carriers of fake news.

Is Critical Thinking Biblical?

Clearly, we need to be on our guard. Yet today some conservative believers warn against critical thinking, often associating it with those who attack the authority of Scripture. While being interviewed on a radio program, Nancy Pearcey called for Christians to practice critical thinking. The liberal program host exclaimed, “Critical thinking? Most people on the conservative Christian Right would say that’s one of the biggest dangers we have—this 'nonsensical' idea of critical thinking.”

In a review of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Robert Knetsch wrote: “I have been frustrated by the lack of deep thinking within Christian circles and often I find myself branded as a cynic for asking too many questions.”

But in I Corinthians 14, Paul actually instructs us to do critical thinking when we gather with other Christians. The context includes a call to practice shared church: “everyone” can say something to benefit others (v. 26). How should they hone their truth-detector skills during church meetings? By practicing Paul’s how-to-meet instructions: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (I Cor. 14:29).

“Weigh carefully” (NIV) comes from the Greek diakrino. Other Bible versions translate it as “evaluate,” “pass judgment,” or “discern.” God’s Word Translation says, “Everyone else should decide whether what each person said is right or wrong.” And the New International Reader’s Version puts it this way: “Others should decide if what is being said is true.” So in Paul’s thinking, shared church was the natural setting in which to cultivate critical thinking.

Can Church Meetings Still Train Us in Critical Thinking?

Is it possible to develop critical thinking skills in contemporary church meetings? In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include an interview with Lowell Bakke who recalled what he had done while pastoring Bethany Baptist Church in Puyallup, WA. In his words:

“For three summers while serving as pastor in in this church, I used a five-question strategy. Maybe the best part of the whole process was that it put everyone on an equal footing—young believers, mature believers, and not-yet-believers. I chose a Bible book and divided it into sections. Each section became my text for that week, and everyone was notified in advance of the Scripture passage to be read.”

After teaching from the text, he asked questions that helped the congregation form some critical-thinking skills:

1.      What did you like about this text?

2.      What did you not like about the text?

3.      What did you not understand about the text?

4.      What did you learn about God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit?

5.      What are you going to do now that you’ve read the text?      

He then invited the congregation to interact, using the same five questions. Roving microphones made it possible for everyone to hear clearly. Bakke says, “I was amazed at some of the insights. It made me realize that even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, my mind as a pastor is so finite that I don’t understand many things about the Bible that the congregation was able to bring to the table each Sunday.”

His statement leaves no doubt that Bakke did not see himself as having the last word. In The Incendiary Fellowship, Elton Trueblood, 20th-century author and theologian, wrote: “There is little chance of renewal if all that we have is the arrangement by which one speaks and the others listen. One trouble with this . . . is that the speaker never knows what the unanswered questions are, or what reservations remain in the [listener’s] mentality. Somehow or other we must arrange opportunities for Christian dialogue, since the old idea of the preacher standing ten feet above contradiction simply will not do.”

Paul praised the church in Berea for sifting and evaluating what he taught: “The people there were more open-minded than the people in Thessalonica. They listened to the message with great eagerness, and every day they studied the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was really true” (Acts 17:11, TEV). Yes Paul was handpicked by Jesus to serve as an apostle. But that did not exempt him or what he said from careful scrutiny.

What do you think? I invite you to engage in some critical thinking and to post your thoughts as a comment below.