The current issue of Vanity Fair carries a report by Christopher Hitchens on his book tour to promote his mega-bestseller God Is Not Great. As always, Hitchens has many provocative things to say, and those who are enjoy his sometimes acerbic comments on various religious leaders will not be disappointed. I found it fascinating reading. As a committed atheist, Hitchens intends to provoke the religious crowd, especially conservative Christians, and he does a nice job of it in this piece.
Hitchens makes three points that deserve further comment:
1) Many ostensible believers are quite unsure of what they actually believe.
2) Religious types are unused to debate, and are surprised when people are impatient with them, or even scornful.
3) People go to church for a variety of reasons, and take their beliefs cafeteria style, choosing the bits they like and discarding the rest.
I don’t doubt the validity of any of those points. In fact, they seem consistent with the various George Barna polls that show a “belief gap” between official church pronouncements and what people in the pews actually believe. We shouldn’t be overly surprised by ”Cafeteria Catholics,” “Buffet Baptists,” and “Do-It-Yourself Methodists.” I doubt if there is a single church in the world where everyone believes exactly the same thing to the same degree and in the same way. For one thing, if a church is growing at all, it will regularly add new members who come into the church with varying levels of spiritual understanding. In the case of new converts, they may have only a bare minimum of biblical knowledge. The last phrase of Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) anticipates this when it tells us to “teach them (new disciples) to obey whatever I have commanded you.”
Every church should be a teaching church. Our goal must be to teach the Word of God consistently, repeatedly, and through a variety of means so that our people grow to spiritual maturity. Admittedly, this is a long-range task, and it will never be perfectly completed this side of heaven. But it must be done. I am not surprised that Christopher Hitchens thinks that many believers don’t know what they are supposed to believe. I’m sure he is correct. The only real answer is for pastors and church leaders to commit themselves to a strong teaching ministry.
Most of all, we need pastors who will preach doctrinal sermons from the pulpit. Since the pulpit leads the church, whatever is taught there sets the tone for everything else the church does. May God deliver us from light-hearted, fad-driven, feeling-oriented sermons that inform us about everything in the world except what God has actually said in his Word. I don’t think that preaching alone can change the illiteracy of the American church, but without strong preaching nothing will ever change.
I don’t feel bad that we have so many “cafeteria Christians” in our churches, but it does bother me that we seem content to leave it that way. You can’t blame new believers for not knowing what they don’t know (ignorance for them is a legitimate excuse, at least for a while), nor should we be surprised that not everyone in our churches believes everything we say we believe. That’s a fact of life. If the church is to regain its strength in our culture, we need many things, but perhaps the greatest is a commitment to once again move teaching back to its rightful place in the heart of church life.
Go into all the world and make them feel good? No, a thousand times no.
Go into all the world and teach them. This is the word of the Lord.
Let the pastors preach strong truth, and let the leaders join the pastors in the pursuit of truth, and let every church become a teaching church. This is the only way forward. If that happens, then we will be glad that it took an atheist to point us in the right direction.