Academics: An Obstruction to the Church?

The Forgotten WaysJaclyn and I are currently reading through Alan Hirsch‘s “The Forgotten Ways” together. What I love about this book is that it lays out what many have been saying and feeling for some time now: the church in the West must relate to the culture it finds itself in as cross-cultural ministries; no different than going to Africa or Asia where nobody has heard the Gospel. The basic thesis of the book is that there is a latent, primal force within every believer and church (Hirsch dubs this “Apostolic Genius”) that is ready to burst into missional engagement with the world, provoking a Jesus movement of evangelism and service much like the early church and the contemporary Chinese church.

He makes the point that the churches were forced to get down to the nitty gritty of what they were all about by the external pressure of persecution (but not just persecution). This simple core is then easily reproducible by anyone/any group, so the church thrives and multiplies with great speed and power.

It sounds all well and good, but the implication is this: complex and/or academic thinking has no place in the life of the church. This is not easily reproducible, and is more of a hindrance than a help to the mission of the church in the world. (Although Hirsch doesn’t say this, it surely is the implication.) As one currently engaged in academics towards future service within God’s church, this troubles me. I want to dismiss, but I can’t. It might be right.

I have some thoughts, but I’m going to hold off for a bit in the hopes of generating some discussion first. So, do academics get in the way of the mission of the church?

7 responses to “Academics: An Obstruction to the Church?”

  1. Yes they do!

    For years I have wondered about the way we train our next leaders.

    If a person shows an interest in “ministry” we remove them from their native culture, send them away to Bible school for 4 years, never let them bring their training back to their culture, but when they are done they cast seed across all the geography the feel comfortable serving in. When the get a “call” its most likely to a new cultural area that they must learn and adjust too, after being sucked from one and forced into a false culture to learn what they need to minister. (i think that makes sense)

    Then I read Erwin Mcmanus talk about his school experience and realizing he was talking the same courses from the same proofs using the same books from 20 years before.

    The same happened in my schooling, you could buy the teachers notes (jokes included) in the bookstore that students for 30 years had used before you.

    I think we must move to an aprentice type model.

    But That JMHO

  2. Hey Jerry, thanks for your comment.

    Now, you’re addressing the current academic model here and advocating a move from institution- to apprentice-based learning. I largely agree with you, although I am learning in an institutional setting (albeit very different from the norm).

    However, you haven’t really touched on my question: do academics get in the way of the church’s mission? Even if academic-type learning takes place in the context of the church and mission, do they still have a place or should we do away with them?

  3. I think they CAN get in the way, but they don’t have to.

    The book mentions that the early church and the Chinese church had no organized structure, major leaders, theologians, or academics. And yet they flourished.

    But how much more valuable would it be for missionaries to have had some theological grounding and academic training when suddenly immersed into a challenging environment. I dunno, maybe not, but this sounds logical to me.

    Let’s see, what would be more valuable? To go away for five years to serve in a foreign “mission field” or spend five years studying theology?

    Which would be more formative and educational?
    …maybe this is too much like comparing apples and oranges…

    Does wisdom need to come from book/papers/profs?
    Doesn’t all wisdom come from God anyway?
    Can’t he impart it in any way he chooses?

    Perhaps this is my negative Bible School experience speaking, but do people really care about hermeneutics? Isn’t it just a bunch of bullshit?
    What percent of the population even knows what the hell hermeneutics means?

    And yet…

    Perhaps there is a time for preparation. A time to study and grow intellectually.
    Theology acts like a footing for your foundation you stand on. So you don’t fall apart when its time to rest and re-evaluate. Cause you can’t live on a spiritual high forever, right?
    Seasons will come and go.

    I think Jerry is on to something too.
    It really depends on what type of academic institution you attend, the profs you have, and what you make of it.

    Saint Stephen’s University performs well above average here (IMHO), but that’s like bragging because you’re the smartest retard in the class.
    For $12000 a year, the ever-vocal pragmatist in me wonders if its worth it.

  4. Tough question, and tough because I largely struggle with despising my Christian expression in the days when I had abounding zeal but very little knowledge.

    While the academic institution has in no way equipped me with answers, I can see that there’s profound character sharpening, to use Christian jargon, in the endemic deconstructionalism that pervades our intellectual/academic institution. That is to say, education informs you on how little you knew, how little you presently know, and how small you are in the grand scheme of things. Being one who is “slow to speak, quick to listen” (Ephesians somewhere) then becomes more natural. Jumping to extremist conclusions, labeling and judging others, Christian and non-Christian alike, all therefore cease to be hallmarks of one’s Christian expression. And I’m convinced that, at least in the West, these hallmarks are, unfortunately, the things that come to people’s minds about Christianity. Obviously these are antithetical to the church’s mission.

    The answer’s no; academics are not counterproductive to the church’s mission.

  5. Much good, if disconnected, thoughts there wise and beautiful wife of mine. One of the biggest problems that you are alluding to here is that our methods can be highly problematic.


    I agree that, at best, our educational institutions can serve to develop the kind of epistemic humility that you speak of. But the problem is that this same skepticism often leads us to lose the ability to say anything to the people around us with any kind of conviction about Jesus and life, and it tends to sap the vitality from any kind of missional impulse.

    How do we say yes to the humility of skepticism while maintaining enough conviction to act?

  6. Another good question, one which I, being immersed in academia right now, am incapable of answering right now. I do, however, look forward to what we might be saying about it all 5 years from now.

    Side note: wow, I’ll be 30 then.

    Conviction, eh? Do you really think you lack conviction?

    What kind of conviction should we have? I think that the only way we can say anything worthwhile to the people around us is if we possess some healthy skepticism. Without it, dialogue is useless. It’s “my way or the highway” basically. This “conviction”, I suspect, is still a remnant from our early uber evangelical days, when doubtless, resolute faith was considered the only true Christianity.

    I would agree that academia has tendency to, at least for a season, sap out a missional impulse.

    Side note: I think the word “missional” is well overused and exhausted.

  7. Good thoughts bro

    For me, conviction is that which causes me to act. If I’m so busy second-guessing myself, I don’t act.

    I agree that time will reveal a whole lot of things. Hopefully some solidifying conviction (not “certainty”, but direction, motivation, etc) will emerge.

    As you say, healthy skepticism. Oh, to find that and live in it as opposed to (what I perceive to be) the much more dominant soul-destroying, life-sucking, unhealthy skepticism that pervades our culture, particularly in academia and as pertaining to things of faith.

    And yes, “missional” is overused, but it’s better than “emerging church.”

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