Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
On May 24th, 1738, John Wesley had his famous Aldersgate experience. Frustrated with the emotional iciness of the Church of England, Wesley sought refuge at evening worship with some Moravians who were reading Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Describing the night in his journal, Wesley wrote:
About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Wesley probably didn’t realize it, but it was arguably in this moment when he invented modern evangelicalism.
Too often, when we talk about “attracting men” to church, what we mean is tricking men into walking in the door by baptizing whatever infantilized conceptions of masculinity the broader culture has invented.Evangelicalism, after all, is a weird, modern, mutant form of Christianity, much as it might like to pretend to be its definitive form. As Molly Worthen writes in Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in Modern American Evangelicalism, evangelicals “are the children of estranged parents — Pietism and Enlightenment — but behave like orphans.” The tradition is an awkward marriage of experiential knowledge and personal piety, resulting in the sort of emotionalism Wesley advocated, frequently to the denigration of almost everything else. Only in the evangelical sphere do we place such a high premium on things like “letting Jesus into your heart,” “seeking God’s will,” and the like.
I acknowledge this reality, but not to advocate for its destruction; I am not here to tear down evangelicalism. I do, however, want to make the argument that when we look at our contemporary problems we ought to consider the possibility that the seeds were sown at our beginning. Consider, for instance, the much-heralded problem of men leaving the Church.
The dominant narrative at the moment is that, while church attendance is down across the board, men in particular are staying home on Sunday mornings (some stats here). And while there has been much hand-wringing over this reality, there has, to my knowledge, been very little serious introspection over it.
I remember once, during my college years, having a conversation with a fellow parishioner of the Presbyterian Church in America, an evangelical denomination that at the time was my de facto home sect. She lamented how hard it was to get men to come to church or campus events, and I asked her why she thought that was.
“I think because it’s so relational,” she said, matter-of-factly.
I was struck by how casually she had made that declaration, as if it were obvious that the essence of Christianity was the Pietist-style Bible study — a huddle of believers, each clutching their NIVs to their chests and sharing what a particular Psalm “means to me.” The corollary of this attitude, presumably, is that if we want to bring men (or, I suppose, less-people-oriented women) back into the Church, we need to teach them to be more relational. Is it really true that Christ built a Church only capable of appealing to a certain kind of person (mainly women)? That seems unlikely.
It’s possible to acknowledge that there is value in an emotional and relational approach to Christianity without treating it as the be-all and end-all of the faith. In fact, the broad spectrum of the ancient faith has both a strong material component (that is, the sacraments) and a strong intellectual component as well. (My Presbyterian friend in particular should have been aware of the latter at least, being that the Westminster Confession, Presbyterianism’s foundational document, is among Christianity’s most intellectually rigorous theological explications.)
In other words, it’s possible, at least in theory, for Christianity to be appealing to people who like ideas and things as much as people who like people and emotions. So the real question we ought to be asking ourselves is, why is that not the case?
Unfortunately, for most evangelicals, when we talk about attracting people — men or otherwise — to church, we talk more like marketers trying to make Big Macs cool again to the 18-to-34 crowd than people who sincerely believe in the power of the Gospel and want to genuinely disciple others. (Saving a soul, after all, is less akin to making a one-time sale and more like raising a child to adulthood. It’s a lifetime commitment.) Too often, when we talk about “attracting men” to church, what we mean is tricking men to walk in the door by baptizing whatever infantilized conceptions of masculinity the broader culture has invented. At best, we give away free steaks and guns; at worst, we hire pastors who curse and play grab-ass with waitresses. Like a marketing campaign for Big Macs, these tend to grab attention and make “sales” for a few years, at most. Which is fine if you imagine that Jesus is a product to be sold but less okay if you believe that to be in the Church is a deep commitment and a lifelong struggle.
Part of the solution is embodied in the work of Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, who was in the media a few months ago to talk about his experience teaching classical philosophy to professional rugby players. He’s something of a full-time advisor to Saracens, one of the U.K.’s premier rugby clubs, and on PRI’s show To the Best of Our Knowledge he lamented the separation of philosophy and psychology as disciplines.
About a century ago, philosophy, ethics, and psychology were kind of one discipline — and it was kind of a tragedy, in a way, that philosophy and psychology split apart in about 1900 and became separate academic disciplines, jealously guarding their own respective territories.
There’s a huge amount of attention paid to athletes’ bodies, said Evans, but their mental health often goes completely neglected — a big problem for them, since the unforgiving world of professional sports often leaves them unemployed and penniless (as many former NFL players can confirm). Psychotherapy, though, which many of them would benefit from, tends to focus on emotions — leaving it unfortunately stigmatized for men. Evans continues:
Philosophy, I think, sometimes works better for men [than psychology], because men are more comfortable talking about ideas than talking about their feelings. So if you teach them about some ideas which are actually connected to their feelings, that’s a good way to get them talking about their inner life and their experiences.
Women will, I suppose, decide for themselves whether this is an offensive claim to make, but it strikes me as accurate. Most men, in my experience, prefer to access their emotions through ideas, while most women prefer to access their ideas through emotions. This is not a claim that one approach is “superior” to the other — obviously, both feelings and ideas are indispensable to our humanity — but just that they are different, and, for whatever reason, evangelicalism tends to favor the “female” approach.
I wonder, if we are serious about attracting men to church, if the solution is less to infantilize them by waving steaks and guns in front of their noses and more to challenge them by teaching the rich ideas and contentious debates from the Christian tradition. Clearly there’s no shortage of important questions to be debated. Is human nature as corrupt as Calvin claimed? Is the will as free as Wesley taught? Is God as transcendent as Aquinas believed? Are the Law and the Gospel as separate as Luther wanted them to be? Is Christ as fully present in the Eucharist as Iranaeus argued?
It goes without saying that the various evangelical denominations will prefer different answers to these and other questions, but the issue is less one of providing the “right” answers and more of taking the questions themselves seriously. In other words, teach your congregation what you “believe, teach, and confess” (to use the old formulation from the Lutheran confessions), why you believe it, and why the debate exists in the first place. The riches of Church history and Christian theology are almost endless; there is always more catechesis to conduct, even for lifelong believers.
I am not a pastor or teacher myself; I’m only a layman engaging in a bit of speculation. However, many of our contributors here at Christ and Pop Culture are in ministry and education, and many confirmed my theories.
From David Dunham, a Baptist pastor in Detroit:
We launched what we call our “Free Seminary” program last year and of those who participate the majority are men and most of them are men who have not participated in any other thing at church. I was shocked to see some of these guys come out for twelve week intensive studies with homework. It seems to me that there may be some real weight to the idea that men connect to their feelings through ideas.
From Nate Claiborne, who teaches Bible classes in central Florida:
I’ll second that. I’ve consistently been able to get college guys from church who have a full load of classes to carve out time to read something John Frame’s systematic theology and talk about it once a week.
It makes sense that treating people — both men and women — seriously on an intellectual level is a better way to get them to return week after week than to “bribe” them with steaks and guns. What this looks like, of course, will vary from congregation to congregation. For some, it might mean more intellectually rigorous sermons on Sunday morning, while for others, more catechetical instruction during the week. The essence though, is this: meet people’s needs — including their need to be challenged intellectually — instead of merely seeking to fulfill their desires. Take their minds as seriously as you do their souls and their growth as seriously as you do their salvation.
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