Trust is a powerful word. From the Merriam Webster dictionary definition:
belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.
a) assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something
b) one in which confidence is placed
(Webster’s Unabridged 1983 to the right, click for a larger image.)
Trust is precious and must be cultured and protected.
The post last week Blood From Stone … But Unfortunately He Got Everything Wrong (link with comments: Blood From Stone) led to some interesting conversation, both in comments and off-line. The problem with pastors getting the science wrong struck something of a nerve for some. Trust can be in the crosshairs. One commenter went so far as to suggest:
Before seminary get a STEM degree with a minor in Greek. Your ability to interpret scientific data will be sharpened and you’ll learn the logic that they often do not teach in seminaries.
Now this may have been tongue in cheek, and I certainly don’t think that it is feasible or necessary for all pastors to have a degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field. It isn’t even desirable. Psychology, Economics, Sociology and English to name only a few … are also valuable degrees. In fact another commenter with expertise in a social science commented that “Fine, but it doesn’t solve the social science problem, which in my view is more serious than ignorance of STEM.” And a post not too long ago argued that we need more English majors in the pulpit to cultivate the art of story telling. I agree story telling is important – and we need a diversity of perspectives.
A third commenter noted – from personal experience as a pastor’s kid.
Sermons are much more about emotional motivation. … Facts are generally just thrown in much the way advocacy groups use stats to raise money – for the emotional response, not for their accuracy.
Having been raised in the church hearing thousands of sermons, a number enhanced by growing up in the era of twice on Sundays, not as a pastor’s kid but with a grandfather, several uncles, and later a brother-in-law and father-in-law who were or are pastors, I can see the commenter’s point. But trust is important and must be cultivated. Careless facts may bring an emotional response. But what happens when someone swayed by the emotional impact discovers that the facts were bad?
This commenter continued:
Pastors use facts in their sermons mostly as part of the “story” often creationist “facts” are thrown in as part of a larger story – the evil of modern society, secular humanism, etc. so while a pastor may even agree afterward that the details were off, it’s the story, the felt need to include those “facts” in the first place that needs to be addressed. In that case, because its often so central to their messaging, yeah – likely needs to be addressed at a later date – and in a non-confrontational context.
Well yes, but perhaps this is story telling taken a step too far. Trust is precious … far too precious to throw away for the momentary gain of emotional impact. Could it be a temporary gain but a long term loss? This does need to be addressed, but better yet avoided altogether.
A fourth commenter reflected on the impact of hearing a pastor who “got everything wrong” on a scientific topic:
I liked the guy very much, but after that I could not take him seriously. It caused me to reconsider everything he taught[.]
Pastors, and for that matter all Christian leaders, need to cultivate, guard, and protect the trust that others place in them. This is true for the sake of believers in the church and for the sake of nonbelievers who may come in, either as guests or on their own (God given) initiative and interest.
Pastors cannot, of course, master every subject. We don’t expect supermen or women in the pulpit (at least I don’t). Cultivating trust really means being careful to do the necessary homework and to consult reliable sources. Christian leaders and teachers need a hypersensitive truth filter to evaluate information from a variety of sources. Rather than training in any specific discipline, they need to cultivate critical thinking skills that can be applied to any discipline.