How to Encourage Intellectual Christians in the Evangelical Church

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“The church is always more than a school. . . . But the church cannot be less than a school.”

— Jaroslav Pelikan, Yale historical theologian1

Being an idea-oriented, bookish, and cerebral-type of Christian can have its challenges. Often times, intellectually inclined believers find it hard to fit into their local evangelical church.2 This difficulty usually arises because the life of the mind is not often identified as a high church priority. So, unfortunately too many churches within the broad sweep of evangelicalism are, to use Pelikan’s words, “less than a school.”

Parts of the evangelical theological tradition have struggled with the idea that the intense pursuit of the life of the mind is somehow at odds with Christian spirituality.3 Worse still, some congregations even exhibit anti-intellectualism, especially in their understanding of the critical relationship between faith and reason.

Welcoming Intellectuals

Thinkers often feel out of place within the evangelical church. As a result, many educated evangelicals are turning to other sources for support in their pursuit of the life of the mind. Some have embraced Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy because they view these theological traditions as possessing greater depth in terms of history, philosophy, the arts, and science. Some evangelical converts I’ve talked to have said they feel their newfound church tradition welcomes their commitment to the life of the mind, rather than viewing it with suspicion.

Another approach believers take to fulfilling their intellectual needs is joining intellectually oriented parachurch organizations, such as Reasons to Believe (RTB). These Christian groups often work across denominational lines and emphasize evangelism and apologetics. They usually focus on integrating Christian theology with critical academic areas such as science, philosophy, or literature.

My more than 30 years of involvement in apologetics has convinced me that these approaches from intellectuals are not uncommon. Unsurprisingly, this trend is not healthy either for the cerebral Christians or for the future of the evangelical church.

The Church Needs Intellectuals

Churches are required to balance many biblical priorities (preaching, worship, discipleship, fellowship, service, evangelism, etc.), and it is all too easy for pastors, staff, and volunteers to find themselves—and their resources—stretched thin. Still, my intent is not to encourage a habit of faultfinding but rather to emphasize that the evangelical church needs Christian intellectuals just as much as these intellectuals need the church. A number of leading Protestant scholars have expressed concern over evangelicalism’s apparent failure to conjoin intellect with piety.4 For example, theologian Mark Noll has observed:

If what we claim about Jesus Christ is true, then evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and most open-minded advocates of general human learning. Evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general or about pursuing learning wholeheartedly is, in other words, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of evangelical faith.5

If evangelicals are going to spread the gospel, then they need to do their intellectual due diligence. By making academically minded people welcome in the church and, more importantly, encouraging all congregants to value the life of the mind, church leadership can help fortify their people—the youth in particular—against false or misleading teachings.

3 Ways to Encourage Christian Scholarship

How, then, can leaders and congregants help foster an environment of thinking and learning within the church? Here are practical ways to promote intellectual pursuits for God’s glory.

1. Teach Logic and Critical Thinking Skills from the Pulpit

As bearers of God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27), humans have been granted exceptional intellectual qualities that make it possible for humanity to search for truth. Pastors can help their congregants recognize and appreciate this aspect of God’s image by routinely incorporating logic and critical thinking into their sermons. Learning to think carefully and critically will help all believers grow in discernment.

2. Sponsor Scholarly Lectures at the Church

Inviting guest speakers to present lectures on how Christianity relates to and has influenced such fields as science, philosophy, and the arts can be a great way to encourage deep thinking and reflection without overtaxing a church’s pastoral staff. RTB scholars regularly present such sermons at churches around the world.

It is important that such lecturers be well qualified in their academic fields and also that they affirm historic Christianity and a high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Church members can be greatly enriched by discovering Christianity’s profound influence of the world of ideas. These lectures can especially help young Christians see that their faith is reasonable and well supported.

3. Start a Great Books Reading Club

Christians are known as “people of the book.” This title reflects how the reading of biblical texts has been a part of the faith since early Christianity. Moreover, early Christianity was considered a “bookish” religion in its consistent efforts of copying and disseminating ancient texts.6

In light of this scholarly past, why not inaugurate a church reading club where the great books of the Western world are read and discussed? Ideally, the reading selections should reflect the distilled intellectual wisdom of Western civilization, which participants would then be encouraged to compare and contrast with the Bible. While I would encourage believers to not shy away from the challenge of reading classical non-Christian texts, at least some of the authors in a group’s reading list should be Christians, or at least influenced by the Christian worldview. (For example, C. S. Lewis is a perennial favorite that combined colorful prose with deep reflection.) Reading and discussing these texts is the heart of a classical education and can greatly stimulate church members today.

Putting these suggestions into practice will be made easier if church leadership includes some academics. Churches that already have a broadly trained pastor of Christian education on staff will be far ahead of the game.

Incorporating these three suggestions and many other ideas into the life of the church can meet the needs of intellectual Christians while also greatly helping all believers develop their God-given minds to better love and serve the Lord. Remember that Jesus called his followers to love him with all their faculties—including the mind (Matthew 22:37).

Endnotes

  1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100–600 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 1.
  2. Evangelicalism reflects the broad Protestant theological tradition that has many individual denominations within its ranks and thus evangelical churches can differ significantly in form and practice, including in such areas as the life of the mind and education.
  3. See Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
  4. See Ibid.
  5. Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), x.
  6. See Larry Hurtado, “Early Christianity: A ‘Bookish’ Religion,” Larry Hurtado’s Blog (blog), January 15, 2016, https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/early-christianity-a-bookish-religion/.

  One thought on “How to Encourage Intellectual Christians in the Evangelical Church

  1. testing12345z
    February 16, 2016 at 6:43 am

    Hi! Do you recommend Pelikan’s church history as a good read? I lack understanding in this area, and would like to get up-to-speed with the best material available.

    Thanks! – Mike

    • February 16, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      Hello, Mike. Yes, I recommend Pelikan’s writings on historical theology. However, if you are new to church history I recommend A Concise History of Christian Thought by Tony Lane. Best regards. Ken Samples

  2. February 18, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    This is the major reason I don’t fit in with most churches. I’m a journalist by trade, so when I came to Christ I read everything to understand my faith as deeply as I could do it. I’m still doing it. But most churches I go into the sermons are about as deep as a puddle in the parking lot after a short rainfall. I get bored very easily because 9 times out of 10 I can guess what the pastor’s going to say before he says it.

    And most churches I’ve been in do little to encourage people like me. We’re the ones that get held at arm’s length in Bible studies because we can “dominate the conversation” and “Keep others from participating” when in reality we’re so thirsty for deep, intelligent, miles-deep discussion of the riches of Christ we take anything we can get.

    And, I’ll be honest, there have been times I’ve found I’m studying and reading the Word and digging deeper than the church’s pastor. (Yes, I understand they have obligations on them, but I’m talking having quiet time every day when the pastor says he’s lucky to do it a few days a week.)

    I’ve really given up on the church to be a place where I’ll get fed. I go now to have fellowship with the Saints.

    • February 18, 2016 at 4:33 pm

      Jason:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for your thoughtful and candid remarks. Unfortunately, I know a lot of intellectually-oriented Christians who have had similar experiences with their church.

      I’m hoping and praying that some church leaders will read my article and possibly take up some of my suggestions. Evangelical churches need their cerebral members just as intellectuals need the church in various ways.

      Best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

  3. March 13, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Here is a big problem: Pastors can help their congregants recognize and appreciate this aspect of God’s image by routinely incorporating logic and critical thinking into their sermons. Learning to think carefully and critically will help all believers grow in discernment.” What if the pastor does not have those skills himself? What if his idea of deep thinkers are the guys on Duck Dynasty?

    • March 14, 2016 at 10:42 am

      Thanks for your comments.

      In the best case scenario, if a pastor doesn’t have strong logic skills then in humility he can and should ask others to teach in that area for him. Unfortunately, some times pastors are not keenly aware of the need for critical thinking and the pursuit of the life of the mind. But it may be a good idea to approach the pastor and request more focus on critical thinking.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  4. March 17, 2016 at 5:30 am

    Reblogged this on BELLATOR CHRISTI.

    • March 18, 2016 at 9:56 am

      Thank you for the reblog, Brian.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

      • March 18, 2016 at 12:26 pm

        My pleasure. Thank you for the fantastic work that you do!
        Blessings,
        Brian Chilton

  5. April 4, 2016 at 7:50 am

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    This was a great article from our friend Ken Samples. Ken is a resident philosopher with Reasons To Believe. A ministry founded by Hugh Ross with the aim of connecting to the dots between faith and science. Enjoy this article from Ken about how Churches can ensure their congregants are loving God with all their mind.

    • April 4, 2016 at 9:57 am

      A special thank you to my friends at Southern Evangelical Seminary for reposting my article.

      Warm regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

  6. August 16, 2016 at 7:08 am

    Reblogged this on Smart Christian.net.

    • August 16, 2016 at 10:25 am

      Thank you for the reblog.

      Ken Samples

    • June 3, 2017 at 9:34 pm

      Thanks for linking my article to The Aquila Report.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

    • June 3, 2017 at 9:36 pm

      Thanks for linking my article to the Gospel Centered Family blog.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  7. Truth2Freedom
    June 4, 2017 at 7:32 am

    Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.

    • June 4, 2017 at 8:00 am

      Thanks for the reblog.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

      • Truth2Freedom
        June 4, 2017 at 10:25 am

        You’re welcome! Happy to share it!

    • June 8, 2017 at 8:55 am

      Thanks for the link.

      Ken Samples

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