Monday, November 10, 2014

The Danger of Seminary, Ethics Class & Church

When you say you know something, what do you really mean?
When you say you believe something, what do you really mean?

Educational institutions are dangerous places.

And I don't make that statement assuming the same fears of my fundamentalist religious tradition's suspicion of higher education.

My warning about educational institutions has to do with my experience of accumulating knowledge.

I learned a lot during my years at Abilene Christian University. I'm proud of the two degrees I earned from such a wonderful institution. I would encourage others to consider attending ACU if given the opportunity.

But attending seminary isn't without its spiritual dangers.

Here's the danger...

I left seminary with head knowledge that far outweighed my spiritual maturity.

Because it's one thing to know about God and it's another thing to know God.
It's possible to ace tests on Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology without looking more like Jesus.

I spent 6 years studying brilliant ideas dreamed up by brilliant people.

And here's the danger...

It took N. T. Wright decades to perfect his brilliant ideas for publication. But a college freshman can read his work and naively assume that memorizing one of Wright's quotes is the equivalent of spending decades doing the hard work that produces the quote to begin with.

Just because I read Mere Christianity doesn't mean I'm as discipled as C. S. Lewis.

There's a difference between knowledge and wisdom. But try telling a seminary student that.

I left seminary ready to take on the world. At the age of 24-year old, I became the Preaching Minister called to share God's Word with a group of 700 believers, many of whom looked more like Jesus than I ever will.

No one could have convinced me at the time, but I didn't have enough lived experience to be wise. I hadn't suffered enough to be wise. My skin wasn't tough enough to take criticism.

I had two degrees, but I had no idea my third degree would be hard-earned through my first six years of ministry in the trenches.

It's dangerous to think you think something.

Which is a natural transition to the topic of the danger of Ethics classes.

One of my mentors, Randy Harris, is a professor in Abilene Christian University's Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry. But he also teaches an Ethics class at the university.

According to Randy, there is a growing amount of evidence that shows Ethics classes have very little impact on a student's ethical behavior. Which should be a bit disconcerting to Ethics professors.

Ethics classes don't form a person's beliefs from the ground up.
Instead, ethics classes help people argue their original positions better.

In other words, students enter an Ethics class with a point-of-view that they're not sure how to defend. And after an Ethics class, most don't change their point-of-view. The most common outcome is that students are now armed with arguments to defend the positions they already held.

And if we're not careful, our churches can easily become the equivalent of an Ethics class.

I'm in my 7th year of full-time preaching in a local church. I'm not a veteran, but this isn't my first rodeo.

And I believe the Holy Spirit can change hearts in the context of a sermon. I've seen it happen. I am not a doomsday prophet pronouncing the death of the sermon. Something happens when the Word of God is preached in a way that connects with people's lives in real ways.

But I have overcome one radically naive belief of many young preachers. My scorecard for preaching used to be solely based on the feedback I received from people after the sermon. If I heard great feedback, it must have been a good sermon. If I heard bad feedback, I assumed it was a bad sermon.


What I'm beginning to realize is that sermon feedback often tells me more about the listener than me, as the preacher.

What do I mean?

On the one hand, when people like my sermons, it is often because I've said something that struck a chord with a belief the listener already has. In some way, I have confirmed their existing beliefs. And sometimes, they already have in mind how they can take something I said out of context to win an argument that had nothing to do with my point in the sermon.

In other words, good preachers are like good Ethics professors. We are at our "best" when we confirm and support the preexisting biases of our listeners.

On the other hand, when people hate my preaching, it is often because I've said something that challenges or contradicts a cherished belief that a listener already has. Sermon criticism often arises when you challenge the existing worldview of the congregation.

A word to preachers: Don't take too much credit for good or bad sermons that you preach. Often, you are a giant projection screen that people project their "junk" onto. 

And if we're not careful, preachers can become addicted to the positive feedback and massage their messages to defend the status quo.

The danger is when a church decides to build an echo chamber and rally the base much like the strategy of cable news networks on either end of the ideological spectrum.

And the danger is all around.

But there are moments when young preachers acknowledge their lack of depth.
There are moments when people truly change.
There are moments when churches choose to seek truth over the party line.

And in those moments, the kingdom breaks through.
Those are moments where true wisdom wins.
Those are moments the danger is overcome.

And those moments are all worth it.


Larry Wishard said...

I a preacher is not in trouble he's probably note doing his job. Quote from a tv show tonight. Good article. Thanks.

Mark Maxey said...

Does knowledge become wisdom when tested by life? Does pain exist so we can be wise instead of just smart? What can Christians do to propagate wisdom instead of knowledge? Are western Christians losing ground because we know too much to make disciples?