Shared Church Cultivates Critical Thinking (Part Two)

Lie Detector.jpg

In the previous blog (Part One), I said church meetings should provide a context for developing critical thinking skills in adults and young people. Shared church can help us fine-tune our lie detectors.

In my experience, many Christians have received little if any encouragement or instruction in such thinking. During online classes, I see this in students who have learned largely by rote. When asked to evaluate course material in, say, a journal entry, they can recap and restate what they have heard and read. But they struggle with seeing underlying assumptions and evaluating whether the material is persuasive, complete, applicable, and biblical. Doing so,  of course, requires critical thinking.

Here in Part Two, I’ll follow up with a question that rarely gets asked about church meetings. 

Can Unbelievers Help Us Learn How to Think?

Sometimes, hearing from those who lack a Christian perspective can help to nurture the ability to sift and evaluate. While writing Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I interviewed Trevor Withers, Network Church, St. Albans, UK. In his account, he tells how he invited “Rachel,” an unbeliever, to visit their weekly gathering and state up front her questions about the Christian life. Some of those in the congregation thought Withers had gone too far. Others welcomed the opportunity to hear her.

Rachel had often come for Network’s Sunday lunches but only rarely for their services. Having grown up in a home in which both parents were atheists, she had begun serious questioning when she was in her late teen years. “I am clearly seeking something,” she told the congregation, “but I am not finding it.” Her first thought-provoking question had to do with human sinfulness. Why would an all-powerful, holy God, she wondered, need a relationship with us if we are sinful? The session with Rachel lasted more than half an hour, with helpful dialogue between her and several in the congregation.

Imagine for a moment that you had been a part of that gathering on that day. What kinds of fruitful heart-and-mind work was likely going on among those present?

  • Mature Christians, some of whom in the past had struggled in a similar way, recalling how God had found them and drawn them to follow Jesus.
  • Newcomers, unaccustomed to witnessing such candid sharing in a church gathering, deciding to make Network Church their home—or never to return.
  • Young people hearing something authentic—honest words from a soul describing the ache of a search for truth that had, until then, proved unsuccessful.
  • All present participating in the give-and-take as members of Christ’s body wrestled with questions they normally would not have heard from each other in church.

How Will Young People Learn to Think?

Church meetings can project an aura of unreality. Not because the teaching is untrue, but because it seems so distant from the actual questions that vex people. According to a Barna Group report, 36 percent of the Millennials surveyed said part of their problem with the church is the inability “to ask my most pressing life questions in church.” If not in church gatherings, where are these young people—or their parents—going to learn to think critically about their faith and messages coming at them from their culture?

In her book, Finding Truth, Nancy Pearcey reminds us that, “In today’s pluralistic, multicultural society, teens have to navigate their way through a complex web of competing worldview claims. . . . Yet church youth groups rarely teach apologetics, majoring instead on games and goodies. . . . Parents are rightly concerned about the risk involved in exposing their children to nonbiblical perspectives. But there is also a risk in raising children who think the only way they can test their mettle is by breaking away from their family and church.”

Colossians 2:8 warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” But how many church young people have learned how to avoid being taken in by such deceptions? Suppose a college professor tells them, “God did not reveal what is in the Bible. It is just an obsolete book written by many people over thousands of years.” If not equipped with thinking tools, how will they cope with misleading statements in a university classroom, a workplace, a science textbook, a blog, a movie, or a television commercial?

Shared Church Pools Insights

Shared church means meeting together in a format that includes opportunity for anyone to ask a question, contribute an understanding, challenge an interpretation, or test a teaching. It offers a way to stimulate and mature the ability to think critically about our faith. While each of us individually should heed the following words, Paul originally addressed them to corporate gatherings of believers: 

  • “You are reasonable people. Decide for yourselves if what I am saying is true.” (I Cor. 10:15, NLT).
  •  “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best . . . .” (Phil. 1:9-10).
  • “Don't be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what's good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.” (I Thess. 5:21-22, MSG).

These and other texts leave no doubt that God wants us to be prepared to evaluate false teaching, fake news, and whatever else fails to line up with the truth. In the verses just listed--calling for deciding, discerning, checking things out--Paul wrote in the second-person plural. The closest American English can come to that is “you-all.” And if our meeting formats permit a shared-church experience, those gatherings can provide one of the best opportunities for training ourselves and our young ones in critical thinking.

What do you think? Have you encountered Christians who resist the idea of critical thinking? If so, how  best can you help them understand its importance?

The Faith-Voice Divide

A friend phoned this morning to say that someone close to him, a believer, had died a few days ago. My friend had been called on to offer some words of comfort at the memorial. “Could you,” he asked me, “help me find some Bible verses that would be appropriate for the occasion?”

Of course I was happy to do so and responded with three different passages he might want to consider. When I did so, he made a comment that left me sad and pondering. This man, probably around 60 years old, said, “I’ve attended church all my life, but still can’t find Scriptures when I need them.”

My friend is a Christian, but when a moment of opportunity comes, he is unable to locate or vocalize Scripture. His faith and his voice remain disconnected. This is one of the disabling symptoms of Sunday spectatoritis. In his decades of church attendance, no one has expected him to become an apprentice or student of Jesus and his words—in other words, a disciple.

In his book, Preaching as Dialogue, Jeremy Thomson says, “it is as people have the opportunity to put their own words together that they become conscious of their thoughts and realize new paths of behavior.”

Paul noted that the disciples in the Roman church were “competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). He wrote that the Colossian believers were to “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16). Instructing, teaching, admonishing—those all require a linkage of faith with voice. And if the meeting formats in those churches followed the pattern of the church at Corinth (I Cor. 14:26), everyone had opportunities to develop and practice using that faith-voice connection when they gathered.

 What do you think? How might the meeting format of your church be modified so that Christians like my friend could practice connecting their faith with their voices?