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smartening up the gospel – mark keown

When I was domiciled in Cambridge (UK) a number of months ago, I had a look at the Cambridge University Bookshop one day. There were a great range of biblical books full of deep insight, some from Kiwi friends. As I looked, sadly I realised that aside from the odd exception, no-one in my church would ever read them; and if they did, they would have little clue what they are about.

The problem is the massive divide between what can be called “academic Christianity” and “popular level Christianity.” Academic Christianity is that world of scholarship that looks at the biblical world, history, and theological questions through a microscope (I live in it). “Popular level Christianity” seems to be driven by the popular media, Christianity’s traditions (e.g. Pentecostal, Reformed), and simplistic understandings of the faith. It seems that never the twain shall meet. This is sad, because the two worlds need each other big time.

One of the many challenges for a preacher today is to confront the dumbing down of the gospel by smartening it up. This is especially important for those who come to church often. Indeed, a Christian who attends church weekly from age 16 to 80 will listen to some 3330 or so sermons over the time. That’s a heap of sermons. They need to be taken on a journey toward greater depth, or they will shrivel up and die.

The meeting point of academia and popular Christianity has to be the pulpit. The preachers challenge is to be consistently engaging with the academy. Many avoid this, believing that academic Christianity will rob them of their passion and security. Sure, that happens. But, if we come to study with a strong confidence in the Bible, the gospel, and Christ, we find that academic Christian study deepens us greatly. So, every regularly preaching pastor should be faithfully engaged in ongoing study, whether formal or otherwise. This is not listening to the odd you-tube video or sermon – but study.

At the same time, we have to remain immersed in the world around us. We need to be engaged with people, the media (even if it is drivel), with young people, with contemporary culture. We have to make time to engage with people inside and outside the church and know their world. While this gets more challenging the older we get and the more we are Christianized, it is not impossible if we study as one aspect of our busy lives of engagement with people, churched or otherwise.

In the pulpit we bring the worlds together. I see no reason why over a period of sustained quality preaching we cannot raise the level of thinking in our church. Seemingly complicated words and ideas like perichoresis or cruciformity (etc), patiently and repeatedly explained in the vernacular, can become a part of the mind-set of our people. As we feed ourselves on the richest theological stuff out there and distil it for the “common folk” their appetites can be whet and the gospel smartened up. As we speak of great books and writers we can introduce people to the world of theological thinking.

The great preachers to me do this well, joining the two worlds with a freshness of delivery that explains and inspires. They demonstrate the value of deeper learning. They stay connected to today. They excite others with wanting to know more. They turn people from pop-culture bunnies into deep readers and thinkers who remain engaged in today’s world.

My personal heroes in this regard are John Stott and N.T. Wright.

Yet, we can’t leave it to them. It is our task Sunday by Sunday to be such a person to our own people. In that way we can smarten up the church. And wow! Does it need that!


  1. Paul Barker says:

    Good comments. There’s a useful book, Pastor as Scholar and Scholar as Pastor by Carson & Piper. Also the latest edition of Themelios has a stimulating article on academia/pastoral ministry.

    1. Geoff New says:

      Thanks for your comments Paul. Concerning the article in Themelios – is that the November 2014 issue? What’s the name of the article? Many thanks.

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