Do Churches Alienate Intellectuals? | Sojourners

Do Churches Alienate Intellectuals?

SNEHIT & hxdbzxy / Shutterstock
Academic on the outside looking in. SNEHIT & hxdbzxy / Shutterstock

In a world where people are craving inspiration, growth, and information, many churches maintain a cyclical pattern based on redundancy, safety, and closed-mindedness. Unfortunately, many pastors and Christian leaders continue to recycle old spiritual clichés — and sermons — communicating scripture as if it were propaganda instead of life-changing news, and driving away a growing segment of people who find churches ignorant, intolerant, absurd, and irrelevant.

As technology continues to make news and data more accessible, pastors are often failing to realize that they're no longer portrayed as the respected platforms of spiritual authority that they once were.

Instead of embracing dialogue and discussion, many Christian leaders react to this power shift by creating defensive and authoritarian pedestals, where they self-rule and inflict punishment on anyone who disagrees, especially intellectuals.

Intellectuals are defined as people who show a high degree of mental capacity. And while we often tend to associate intellectuals as professors clad in bow ties that attend fancy cocktail parties and publish award-winning books, there are no demographic, cultural, professional, racial, or gender restrictions on who can or can’t be an intellectual. There are no rules on who is and isn’t an intellectual — everyone has the capacity to be one!

Recently, it's been said that smarter people prefer not to go to church or believe in God, but maybe part of the problem is that churches won't let them in — or they’ve already kicked them out! There are many reasons why intellectual believers are often rejected by faith communities, but here are few of the main ones:

1)    Churches Prefer Certainty Over Doubt.

By their very nature, intellectuals are curious. They analyze, theorize, and love to ask questions. These attributes are often criticized by church leaders and seen as an attack on traditional and established institutionalized beliefs. Innocent inquires are often met with an “How dare you question what we say?!” type of response, often followed up by cold-hearted exclusion and derision.

Many churches stubbornly hold theological, political, and social positions simply because they've always been that way, and changing them would be admitting defeat. Change itself is viewed as dangerous.

The amazing thing is that Jesus condemned those who were the most certain about their beliefs — the Pharisees. And much of Christ’s ministry revolved around trying to get people to change! Maybe we should start doing the same. 

In many faith communities, certainty is preferred over doubt, answers are preferred over questions, compliance is preferred over objections, contentment is preferred over conflict, and conformity is preferred over disruption. Oftentimes, intellectuals simply give up on the church not because they don't have faith, but simply because they're ostracized by church leaders and excluded from their faith communities. 

2)    Churches Are Anti-Science.

Despite growing change, many churches are still legalistically anti-evolution, anti-global warming, anti-pro-choice, anti-environment, anti-psychology, anti-medicine, and anti-women (to name just a few). Unfortunately, the Christian faith is often defined by who ithates instead of who it loves.

No matter how much evidence, logic, reason, or science is provided, many Christian communities refuse to change their worldview. Doing so would be portrayed by them as weakness, but to intellectuals, it’s seen as growth and maturity — the two contrasting paradigms continually clash, usually with little reconciliation.

In the end, many churches continue to enforce a hard line, further alienating anyone who disagrees with them. Thus, many smart and intelligent people are rejected because their views are seen as incompatible with Christianity — even when they're not.

3)    That's What Seminaries Are For!

For hundreds of years, the best young minds of the Western world would naturally enroll in a prestigious university (often Christian-based) to continue their learning. Eventually, colleges became secularized, but churches and denominations continued to offer parochial schools and Bible Colleges as options to pursue a deeper understanding of theology, the Bible, ministry, and the Christian faith.

Unfortunately, churches now depend on higher education to do most of the in-depth training that was once commonplace among lay parishioners. The average believer seemingly knows less and less of the Bible and the historical context of the Christian faith with each passing year.

Churches (with a few exceptions) no longer offer classes about church history, Greek, Hebrew, proper exegesis, or groundbreaking Bible studies to churchgoers — these are reserved for Bible colleges and the students who attend them.

Pastors follow suit, and their messages are often marketed towards mainstream audiences, "watered down" to be understandable and entertaining to as many people as possible. Few leaders are brave enough to require critical thinking, introduce new ideas, or challenge people to think beyond their comfort zones, and the ones that do are often labeled "heretics."

To compound the problem, the brightest minds of today no longer perceive church ministry as a prestigious occupation. Instead, they’re pursuing educational experiences that will prepare them to succeed in more respected fields of study.

Overall, modern Christianity has modeled a strategy of comfort, where believers are viewed as consumers that need to be pleased and catered to — not challenged or made to feel uncomfortable. 

Intellectuals are not the target demographic within churches, so they rarely garner much attention or care, and it's widely believed that they would be better off in an academic setting rather than a spiritual one. 

In reality, this is exactly where much of Christianity has gone wrong, by compartmentalizing intellectuals and placing them in certain positions — outside of the church — instead of embracing and accepting them within our faith communities. 

It’s interesting that Jesus embraced the label of Teacher, and that He engaged the mind and routinely used stories, ideas, examples, and miracles to get people to think — and change. In the end, the Gospel message is about seeking knowledge, the truth, and the freedom that is found in Jesus. But the truth of Jesus doesn’t mean we squash the doubts, questions, or inquiries of others — can we accept this?  

Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine,, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at the University of Northwestern St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.

Photo:  SNEHIT & hxdbzxy / Shutterstock