Thursday, April 13, 2006

Waste Ye Not

We all seem to love a “good” scandal. Maybe it’s the way a scandal breaks up the monotony of an otherwise ordinary day, or maybe we just like to be “in the know” whenever something controversial comes up. Thus we have seen scandals go from being the subject of the supermarket tabloids, which we try to resist glaring at too obviously, to become the attention-getters for all our news media outlets whether it be the local nightly news, the news network of our political persuasion, or everyone’s favorite on-line source the Drudge Report.
In the early 90’s church historian, Mark Noll, wrote on what he saw as a scandal within the ranks of the church, and not surprisingly (given its title) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind quickly became a highly read book on the face of the Western evangelical landscape. The periodical for evangelical Christians, Christianity Today, named it their “Book of the Year” and after more than a decade the title exists as a slogan of sorts for many in Christian academia. What is the scandal of the evangelical mind? According to Noll, the scandal is that there is no evangelical mind. The ability to “think like a Christian – to think within a specifically Christian framework” (i.) about the world today is rarely and sparsely practiced.
Interestingly, Noll credits, or more appropriately discredits, one of the greatest hallmarks of American evangelicalism as a reason for the scandal of the evangelical mind: the separation of church and state, or the deregulation of religion. As opposed to the Old World where one became a member of the church by virtue of their citizenship, Americans joined churches by being convinced to join one denomination over another. Denominations, as expressed through local churches, competed for church members and converts by way of the revival. Noll writes: “the combination of revivalism and disestablishment meant that pragmatic concerns would prevail over principle. What the churches required were results – new adherents – or they would simply go out of business. Thus, the production of results had to override all other considerations.” (ii.) Noll does not have an ax to grind with the separation of church and state in the way that many politicians and pundits do today, his observation of the downside of this separation comes with recognition of the significant value of the “free church” tradition. (iii.) Concurrently, he recognizes that pragmatism and practicality have become the most important issues in what a church does to try to maintain its attendance. He suggests that as early as the years following the American Revolution, the church began to start asking: “What message would be most effective? What do people most want to hear? What can we say that will both convert the people and draw them to our particular church?” (iv.) Noll then concludes, “the heavy pressure for results meant that very little time or energy was available to think about God and nature, God and society, God and beauty, or God and the shape of the human mind.”(v.)
While big-tent revivals are about as practical and functional today as a derby hat in the second week of May, the church still appears to be largely dedicated to the same rationale. We’ve replaced revival tents with worship facilities known as “experience centers,” (vi.) and most of the time we concentrate on asking ourselves what do people want instead of what do people need to cultivate. If the mind of any man is a terrible thing to waste, then for the Christian there should be an even greater impetus to develop the mind. “As servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (vii.) we should be actively utilizing all that he has given us, and surely that entails cultivating our minds in ways that bring him glory. We have an opportunity to do this through Christian education in the local church; we can strengthen our knowledge of God and the Word he has given us and forge a greater understanding of the world in which we he has placed us during these times with one another. Or we can choose to ignore the scandal by continuing to cater to the same felt needs that American evangelicals have addressed for generations and hope that our numbers increase while our minds remain stagnant. My hope is that our love for the scandalous will provide a catalyst for change.

i. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark A. Noll, 7.
ii. Ibid., 66.
iii. The use of the term “free church” refers to the sense in which the church is not regulated or maintained by any government.
iv. Ibid., 67
v. Ibid.
vii. 1 Corinthians 4:1