I was recently watching Austin Powers agin. One scene stuck out to me this go around. Austin and Vanessa were sitting atop a double decker bus having a nice meal with live music. Austin famously announced, “Burt Bacharach, everyone!” To which Mr. Bacharach started singing his 1960’s hit, “What the world needs now, is love sweet love.” Reflecting on that lyric raised the question, “what does the church need now?”
I keep coming back to this answer– “Credibility, sweet credibility”. I don’t mean credibility in the sense that we compromise our beliefs and set cultural winds up as norms for our theologies. Rather, I mean ‘credibility’ in the sense that non-Christians get the impression that we know what we’re talking about when we speak of our convictions. You see, many non-Christians are under the impression, and rightly so in many cases, that they know our faith better than we do. If this is indeed the case, the church’s credibility is damaged. In fact, I think I think it is the case, unfortunately. If I’ve learned one thing from teaching theology to undergrads, it’s that too many have not been adequately trained by their parents and churches in the basics terms and concepts of the faith.
A couple years ago a senior at the institution at which I teach was completing his senior project. He conducted a survey of the Intro to Theology classes as well as the student body, in general, to see what students thought were the defining tenets of our faith. His findings were disturbing, to say the least. The number one answer was not, the Trinity, nor the deity and humanity of Christ, nor was it salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The students responded that the number one tenet of Christianity is…community? Yes, that’s right folks. ‘Community’ is apparently that doctrine on which the church stands or falls. In the conversations I’ve had with non-Christians, never once were any of them under the impression that “community” is one of the major tenets of our faith.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Maybe, the sample was skewed and students were unfairly led in the questioning. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case in this situation. One of the Psychology professors was serving as the student’s advisor and was double checking each part of the project prior to the student’s follow-through. Further, this student’s findings seem to be supported by the recent Ligonier Ministries survey.
The Ligonier Survey was conducted by Lifeway Research and questioned 3000 Americans about their current theological beliefs and then further divided the sample into demographics including Evangelicals. The survey found that respondents with evangelical beliefs in many cases held heretical beliefs. 71% of Evangelicals agreed with the statement, “Jesus was the first and greatest creature created by God.” That’s Arianism, a heresy condemned by the first ecumenical council of Nicea in AD 325! Arius couldn’t have said it any better himself. 82% of Evangelicals hold to a Pelagian view of salvation and human nature. Consistent with that, 86% of Evangelicals believe salvation is initiated by humans and God merely responds with grace.
The findings further show that Evangelicals are much more comfortable answering confidently and consistent with historic orthodoxy with regards to our doctrine of Scripture than we are about our God. It’s just a shame that we aren’t saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in the Bible alone, for the glory of the Bible alone. Evangelicals need to give our doctrine of Scripture a rest for a bit because the rest of our faith is suffering. We can’t see the forest for the trees. We’re content to have an orthodox doctrine of Scripture, all the while we blissfully ignore what it is that the Scriptures are concerned to set forth–Christ! Many Christians approach their faith like Cousin Eddie in the movie Vegas Vacation did with the $1.49 buffet– so many conflicting flavors of mashed and creamed food. When it comes to our doctrine of Scripture, we repeat after Eddie, “go ahead and give me a bit of the ‘yella’; and don’t get cheap on me,” while simultaneously sneezing on the broccoli and carrots of our doctrines of God and Christ. This hurts our credibility immensely.
I think there are at least two problems the church faces with regard to her credibility:
It is a problem that we cannot recognize one of the oldest heresies in our own confessions. I think this is rooted in the fact that many Christians have bought into the lie of Modernity that faith and knowledge exist in an antithetical relationship. If Christianity is a faith, and it clearly is based on its own vigorous use of the world throughout the past two millennia, then it needs to be approached in a manner different than ‘knowledge’. Therefore we end up approaching medicine, law, various business endeavors with great levels of care and precision, indeed, critical thought, but those qualities are unbecoming of faith, it is assumed.
- Visible disunity
Those outside of the church can see the thousands of Baptist churches that exist in our cities. They see just as many Presbyterian and Methodist and Lutheran churches. In short, they see the reality of our different traditions. This may disturb them, or confuse them. But this denominationalism isn’t the real problem, it is the fact that within our denominations/traditions we are unacquainted with each other. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” We have to admit that it is very difficult to have love for people we don’t even know exist. How many times in this last year has your church partnered with another church of your same denomination, or even in your area, to serve your community together? How many times in the last year have you gathered with other churches in your denomination to worship together? It is difficult to present a united Christian front to the world if we can’t even reasonably say that we have a united Presbyterian front, or even more specifically, a united PCA or EPC, etc. front.
What is the antidote to these two problems?
- Theological Instruction-
The first thing the church needs to help its credibility is an informed laity. There is no reason in this day an age for lay Christians not to have an undergraduate level knowledge of their own theology. Lack of interest does not excuse us from the responsibility to avoid false statements and false beliefs about God. How many of us would stand by everything we’ve ever thought, or ever said about God? None, probably. Theological instruction is how we go about learning to take care in our thoughts and words about God. In other words, Theology is nothing more than an attempt to obey the 3rd commandment and not take God’s name in vain.
- Ecumenical endeavors-
The second thing that will aid our credibility, concerted efforts to branch out beyond our church’s walls to engage with other Christians in worship and service. A few years ago, my church’s youth group did something amazing. On a normal Wednesday night, we met at another church and listened to another youth pastor teach, and sang with another worship band, and played games with kids we didn’t know. This past September, our church partnered with two other area churches to have a worship service in the park as part of our community’s annual fall festival. A number of years ago many churches in our community banded together and canceled the worship service on a Sunday and together did service projects throughout the city. These are all examples of simple things that if done regularly and publically, reinforce the Church’s credibility. The problem is that they certainly are not regular occurrences.
 Lifeway Research, State of American Theology Study, 2016. https://thestateoftheology.com/assets/downloads/2016-state-of-america-white-paper.pdf
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 15. (Emphasis mine)
 95% of Evangelicals agree that the Bible alone is the written Word of God. 95% agree that the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches. Etc., Ibid.
 John 13:35, NRSV.