“The church is anti-intellectual.” If you’re a church leader—and especially if you’re an evangelical—you’ve probably heard that claim a thousand times before. (Heck, we’ve even made it.) But while the prophetic shadow of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind may still loom large over the landscape of American Christianity, a growing number of bright lights are giving an increasingly thoughtful church reason to hope. One of those lights is Matthew Lee Anderson.
You probably know Anderson as the founder and erstwhile regular contributor to the blog Mere Orthodoxy, where he’s written lengthy essays on everything from Trump’s implications for evangelicals to sexual ethics to why “deep reading” is vital for a robust faith. His most recent book, The End of Our Exploring (Moody, 2013), argues for the importance of question-asking to the Christian faith, urging a dogged pursuit of intellectual integrity that, as he says in this week’s episode of The Calling, has implications for local church ministry:
The way to reach the broadest swath of people is not by setting the intellectual bar low, but by setting it high and by persuading everyone that they can rise to it—not by being an intellectualist, but by presenting your sermons in a way that is challenging for everyone in the room, and maybe particularly challenging for the most intellectually inclined people in the room, but still aesthetically compelling enough that those who are not ordered that way or don’t dispose themselves that way will still be interested in what you’re saying. I think that’s the hardest challenge that pastors have.
One of the main frustrations that I’ve had about working in the local church over the years is getting pegged as a “smart guy.” It’s just the worst. Like, “Oh, that’s Matt. You know—he needs to sort of go off to seminary or grad school and do his thing, but that’s not what ordinary people think.” And I think, “No, that’s actually backwards.” When people are persuaded that the truth is worth pursuing, they’ll go after it; they’ll work hard to get there.
When I taught high school, I resonated deeply with my students: I had great relationships with my students in part because I didn’t set the bar low for them. I talked to them as though they were adults, and advanced adults, and they felt like I had something that was worth giving to them, [and] that caused them to work hard, to want to work hard to give it.
And so I think church communities that try to win people by setting things on the lowest shelf actually get it backwards. They will win more people by presenting goods that are inaccessible in their presentation, but beautiful and compelling, that make people want to pursue them.
So what does that kind of top-shelf ministry actually look like? Find out by joining CT managing editor Richard Clark as he chats with Anderson about teaching Sunday school, evangelicalism’s bad rap, and why we reason about what we love.
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The Calling is produced by Richard Clark and Cray Allred.
Theme music by Lee Rosevere, used under Creative Commons 4.0.