Education, Discipleship, and the Future 1

University 2_dsScot has been presenting a series of related posts pondering the future of evangelicalism and the importance of youth ministry – something that may cover anyone from 12 to 30 or so these days.  There are many aspects to this problem – and different folks will have different issues and priorities – but I would like us to discuss one issue that I find particularly troubling:  the anti-intellectualism, or almost worse, pseudo-intellectualism that plagues much of our church, particularly with respect to ministry among College and University students and young professionals (20-30 year-olds).

Consider this point 5 in the post from Internet Monk (actually his guest):

5. Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism.

One statistic that really jumped out at me when going through the ARIS data was the statistics on Education. In the general population, 27% of those of the age twenty-five and older were college graduates. In Baptist churches the figure was 16%, and in Pentecostal churches the figure was 13%. I am seeing more and more of the Western world viewing Evangelicals as ignorant and uneducated and not worthy or participating fully in the public square. Unfortunately the education numbers seem to support their thesis. Are there Evangelicals who are going to rise to this challenge?

The statistics on education are thought-provoking.  But even more troubling is the original observation.  Evangelical Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism. This is an astounding indictment – and one, quite frankly, I find to be far too true. In too many cases evangelical Christian scholars at evangelical institutions do not engage the wider intellectual climate. They provide inbred wishy-washy pseudo-thinking and pass it off as “rigorous” – because the inbred circle agrees. And rigorous evangelical scholars at secular institutions are often regarded with disdain and distrust – from all sides. We have been warned about this by Mark Noll and David Wells.

But one surprising place where we see the impact of this anti-intellectualism or pseudo-intellectualism most profoundly is in University Ministries … and I mean all of them, within my experience without exception.

As many who read regularly know, I am a scientist and a professor and have been involved in the secular academy for some 28 years as a graduate student, postdoctoral scholar, and professor. This is an area where I have a great deal of experience and an increasing passion.

University 3_dsIt is my experience that churches and even parachurch ministries do a relatively poor job of engaging the University because they are staffed by people who are not really equipped to deal with the very real intellectual challenges that confront many students and scholars. At the undergraduate level the interaction and fellowship is good, but the intellectual level ranges from poor to adequate. We need better than this.  At the graduate level – again fellowship is often good, but intellectual stimulation? Forget it. And this of course plays into the piece from Internet Monk – if we don’t engage, disciple, and cultivate educated Christians we have a serious and growing problem.  Don’t get me wrong, I know many people who are involved in college ministry and these are good dedicated Christian people. There are even very good grad/professional student programs in places. But we still have a serious problem.

John Stackhouse has commented on this anti-intellectualism in several posts over the years on his blog. He has an excellent post from last July that may help to focus our discussion: Engaging the University: The Vocation of Campus Ministry.  This post is a lightly edited version of a paper he delivered to a conference on University Christian Ministry in Toronto in 2007. Wow… great stuff.

Lets consider a few excerpts:

The intellect, however, has not been valued always and in every respect in campus missions.

Many activities provide but elementary instruction in Christian discipleship: the “quiet time”; the so-called “inductive Bible study” …

Many campus staff–and leaders on up the hierarchy of campus organizations–have only an undergraduate degree, and often in a field that prepares them badly for ideological contest and Christian disciple-making (e.g., engineering, natural sciences, commerce, medicine). More recently, more have a master’s degree or better in a relevant field. But one wonders why such qualifications are not simply required, the way denominations and congregations require at least one theological degree to do the job? What is this job that requires so little theological training, so little philosophical awareness?

Similarly, one wants to ask why in Canada and in the United States, and likely elsewhere also, there has been so little premium placed upon having genuine intellectual experts as speakers? Why so few professors, and particularly professors in the university, rather than popular writers, “pop pastors,” members of that student ministry’s own staff–few of whom have academic qualifications that would qualify them even for assistant professor status?

What one sees too much of in campus ministry instead is an arrogant amateurism. We’ll do it ourselves. … We staff don’t need advanced training in theology or Christian discipleship; furthermore, we’ll set up our own study centres and do the teaching ourselves rather than work with schools that already exist who have much better-trained faculty. The history of these movements shows that some staff will even innovate theologically and teach ideas that they enjoy thinking are “cutting-edge,” while what they breathlessly announce as “fresh” is simply the latest version of an old heresy that any genuine theological expert could spot at 100 metres. The intellect needs valuing better than this.

Similarly, one finds precious little involvement of the people who know the university best: not students, not alumni, not staffers of Christian groups, but professors and administrators, who inhabit and who shape the university far more than any other participants in it. To ignore them so consistently, which most student missions do at every level, is to try to work at a hospital without consulting physicians or nurses or administrators, or to work in a law courts building without consulting judges, lawyers, or police officers

In particular, one finds precious little involvement of those professors who inhabit ideological “hot zones”: religious studies, philosophy, psychology and other social sciences, native/women’s/black studies, and the like. All too often, instead, professors–when they show up at all–come from geography, engineering, medicine, and the like where there are, to be sure, some sites of moral and intellectual controversy from time to time, but not nearly as centrally and as daily as in the disciplines I have listed. Why are these resources, then, so rarely tapped, let alone thoroughly involved–as speakers, advisors, and board members?

One reason that University Ministries don’t tap the pool of professors is, of course, because there are relatively few Christian professors at many Universities, especially elite Universities.  But this is not the whole picture, in general those Christian professors who are in the University are not considered a relevant resource. After all, isn’t “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” all we really need to know for a quality ministry?  No – resoundingly not.

University 1 dsIn the future we need a product that can rise to the challenge and withstand the rising tide of secularism – or new age mysticism.

We need University Ministries that can train and engage students, scholars, and yes, professors, in an intellectually stimulating, rigorous, defensible faith.

We need to encourage Christian thinking and scholarship and we need rigorous grappling with the issues; with ideas defended before the larger intellectual community  – our cultural ἀγοράν (agora).

This latter is a real problem. Much of what passes for scholarship used in University Ministries simply won’t stand the test. To quote Kent Sparks: if the academy must criticize our scholarship, let it be because it rejects our Lord, not because our historical and exegetical judgments are poor or even silly.  As a biblical scholar he is commenting on his field in particular, but this can extend to fields of science and social science, humanities and beyond. And sometimes “silly” is too kind a word for the reality of what we put forward as evangelical scholarship. Many University ministries take this scholarship and embrace it uncritically. And then we wonder why our message is not taken seriously in the greater University culture.

Stackhouse has positive recommendations in his post – and I have some of my own to add to it.  But first I am interested in hearing from you.

Am I unfair or inaccurate in my assessment? Do you think that anti-intellectualism or pseudo-intellectualism is a problem in our church (evangelical or otherwise)? If so what do you think can or should be done about it?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you wish to comment please see Jesus Creed.

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