The Common Good

Christianity: Has Education Replaced Transformation?

American Christianity is turning into a massive question-and-answer quiz, and I’m probably going to fail. The Bible isn’t a textbook — but people treat it that way, and “Christianity” is becoming a pass-or-fail test.

Right and Wrong image, marekuliasz /Shutterstock.com
Right and Wrong image, marekuliasz /Shutterstock.com

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What denomination are you?

Which church do you go to?

Which service do you attend?

What style of worship do you prefer?

What translation of the Bible do you read?

Do you believe in the inerrancy of Scripture?

Who do you think wrote the book of Hebrews?

Do you believe in Calvinism?

Are you egalitarian or complementarian?

Should women be ordained as ministers?

Is homosexuality a sin?

When were you baptized?

Do you believe in infant baptism?

How do you prefer to take communion?

Do you believe in consubstantiation?

Do you believe in spiritual gifts?

Do you speak in tongues?

Are you a Cessationist?

Do you believe in a literal translation of Revelation?

Are we living in the end times?

Are you premillennial or postmillennial?

Should Christians support a certain political party?

Do you prefer large or small congregation sizes?

Are you liberal or conservative?

Are you progressive or traditional?

Turning our faith into a set of rights and wrongs is partially based upon our own insecurities, but our fears are often warranted by how others respond to us.

“You attend that church?! Oh, that’s your pastor?! You went to that seminary?! You’re reading that book?! You like that theologian?! You belief that?! You like that type of worship?!”

It’s happened to us all at least once — someone labels our faith as wrong.

Question after question, one after another, on a daily — almost hourly — basis. If we aren’t careful, our faith and spirituality can quickly devolve into a set of distinct questions and responses.

In a corporate culture driven by hard data, statistics, evidence, trends, sales, surveys, and measurable information, our beliefs can be treated like a quarterly business summary — dissected, analyzed, and studied.

Our relationship with God turns into a cold and calculated set of methodologies, hypotheses, and professional-driven structures — the intimacy, raw communication, and love slowly disappears.

The mystery of God becomes something meant to be overcome, explained and defeated. And our church institutions become modeled after Fortune 500 companies instead of reflecting the vibrant early church communities of the New Testament.

Thus, when churches are looking to hire a new pastor, they ask potential candidates a litany of theological questions but rarely take the time to deeply evaluate their spiritual relationship with God.

Instead of spending vast amounts of energy praying, fasting, and seeking God’s guidance, church congregations delegate the task to hiring boards, which in turn review numbers, crunch data, review performance records, reflect on their job history, assess educational accomplishments, and make sure that the “most qualified” person gets hired.

Using unscientific and unorthodox spiritual methods — such as corporate prayer and fasting — is simply too unreliable for modern times. It can’t be logically explained. It can’t be easily quantified. Simply put, God is sometimes too crazy to trust.

So we use checklists and questionnaires, surveys and polls, tests and interviews, and you better have the right answers — or else you won’t be getting that ministry job you always wanted. Or you may not attend the Bible college you applied to. Or you might not get accepted into the seminary program you were dreaming of. Why? Because you answered incorrectly.

Haven’t you seen Christianity lately? Its entire goal seems to be educational instead of transformational. It has become a teaching religion.

Seemingly, every new sermon series is based upon a “new” question:

Why does God allow pain and suffering?

Why does evil exist?

Where do we go when we die?

What is the Trinity?

Is the Bible true?

Do miracles still happen?

If the sermon title itself isn’t a question, most preachers speak about something with the goal of answering questions — putting to rest any doubts you may have had about God, because doubt is often seen as the opposite of faith. Christianity often tries to explain everything.

In the process we’re abandoning the mystery of God, losing the art of spirituality, forgetting about the passion of the relationship and trading it in for cheap knowledge.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as truth, and that everything is relative and unknowable. It simply means we need to stop turning our faith into a quest for intellectual confidence — where the lust for knowledge becomes an idol — and make sure our relationship with God is at the center of everything we do.

We’ve become obsessed with knowing. We crave certainty. Desiring answers is OK, but we must be at peace with the fact that we will never know all of the answers, no matter how much we want them — or pray for them.

But that doesn’t mean we stop praying, or cease fasting, or quit crying out to God. The solution doesn’t lie elsewhere: in secular reasoning, mechanisms, or theory. But our desperate hope still rests within God.

This infinite God can rarely be summarized by a quick theological question or answer, and this God cannot be completely understood merely by words, definitions, and data.

So why do we keep trying to restrict God using foolish measurements and gauges, dangerous surveys and questions, and by what we deem are “right” and “wrong” answers? Imagine if God valued us using similar techniques? Thankfully, through God’s unbelievable grace and compassion and mercy and love, God sacrificed God’s self for our sake, no matter how bad our sins. God forgave us. But can we forgive each other, even those who don’t have the “right” answers — or any answers? God help us.

Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.

Image: Right and Wrong image, marekuliasz /Shutterstock.com

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