After 33 years as an Associate Pastor at one church, I found myself unemployed. So, I went to see what was out there. I toured different churches of many brands and styles.
I visited one church where a Pastor directed the staff to take a picture ten minutes into each of the four Weekend services. On Mondays, a staff member would count the weekend attendees. Their reason was “theologically based” in Acts 2:41, “…and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
Counting is clearly pragmatic, but numbers alone seemed like thin ice to stand on theologically.
At another Church, I encountered a woman grieving the tragic death of her son. One person said to her, “Aren’t you glad you have your other children?”
What was this person thinking? As followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we respond to grief with thoughtful responses—not unthinking, empty words?
The “thinking” I saw during my tour of churches left me discouraged. There were a lot of good things going on in the churches I visited, but where was the “transformation of the mind?”
Transformation of the Mind
What does it mean to know God and grow in our discipleship? For Paul, “transformation of the mind” was key.
“Have the same way of thinking as Jesus the King had.” (Philippians 2:5)
Later in the letter, Paul describes what a person with such thinking would focus on:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
The life of the follower of Jesus is perhaps most clearly summarized in Paul’s words in Romans 12:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
So, why are Churches struggling to renew minds? And what can we do about it?
6 Reasons Why Churches Aren’t Transforming Minds
1. We confuse being accessible with being simplistic.
Congregations have a range of educational backgrounds. Speaking to everyone is tough. Of course, no one wants to hear a teacher or preacher intentionally use words that are totally out of reach of a congregation. Moreover, it’s true that what people seem to want are “simple thoughts” and “simple truths. The problem is that life is not simple; it is complex.
Rather than “dumbing it down” to cater to a desire for a simplicity that can never lead to mature faith, every church leader, teacher, or preacher must be willing to do the hard work of making the complex accessible. Renewal of the mind comes when we urge thoughtful discussion, even in the midst of complexities. Renewal of the mind comes when we urge thoughtful discussion in the midst of complexities. Click To Tweet
2. We create a false dichotomy between experience and intellect.
Brain imaging science has shown us how important experience is. Right brain activity, usually associated with experience and emotion, is not separate from the intellect—it is a part of thinking! Sadly churches often pit intellect and emotion against each other;
Consider the example of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is first experienced: we taste, smell, and share the meal. The Eucharist is not primarily explainable, though theologians have certainly tried to do that. That experience, among so many experiences in worship, is part of the renewal of the mind.
The renewal of the mind occurs through both experience and intellect. Churches need to facilitate experiences of the Holy Spirit and then be ready to help people process the thoughts.
3. We get stuck in the how rather than the why of being the church.
Being practical is important. We must get things done. But, let’s get the right things done. As followers of Jesus (and not business people), our being practical needs must be rooted in theological reflection and conversation over what we do and how we do it.
For instance, each interaction between members of the church, whether in weekend services or occasional greetings, have the potential for bringing renewal by the Spirit. This is what Paul is aiming for when he gives instructions for worship gatherings in 1 Corinthians 14. Interactions should bring “encouragement, comfort, and edification” (1 Corinthians 14:3). The end result is that the Corinthians would “stop thinking like children,” a true renewal of the mind! (1 Corinthians 14:20).
We create opportunities for the renewal of the mind when we stop focusing on the “how” of ministry and reflect on why. We create opportunities for the renewal of the mind when we shift from how ?'s to why ?'s Click To Tweet
4. We settle for fill in the blank study over theological understanding.
We have a plethora of study guides that rely on “fill-in-the-blank” answers. The assumption is that this method is enough to help people move from filling in the answer to understanding the thought behind the question and the answer.
Now, I’m guilty of this. I have written and published several fill-in-the-blank study guides. However, as I’ve trained leaders, I found a hunger for rich discussion about the theology behind the questions and answers. We need to help people move from “fill-in-the-blank” to “explain-the-thought.”
Renewal of the mind will come as we teach for understanding, not just correct answers. Renewal of the mind will come as we teach for understanding, not just correct answers. Click To Tweet
5. We strive for efficiency in leadership training rather than proficiency.
We all know leaders are busy. They want wise, effective use of their time. Thus, they want meetings to be on point and on time.
When you give those same leaders the opportunity to go deeper on a subject, they can get excited, and don’t care as much about the time. We shouldn’t assume leaders are too busy for learning. For 30 years as a pastor and professor I saw ministry leaders spend as much as 45 hours a week for a semester of theological training. They would even pay for it, and even if they weren’t going to receive college credit! Many said they simply wanted to be more prepared for ministry.
Renewal of the mind means training leaders until they are proficient, not limiting them to training that is time efficient.
6. We assume limited understanding rather than boundless resources.
According to the New Yorker magazine, on May 31, 2016, Stephen Hawking, world-renowned physicist, spoke to a television interviewer in London and called presidential nominee Donald Trump “a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.” Moments later, Google reported a sharp increase in searches for the terms “demagogue,” “denominator,” and “Stephen Hawking.”
Regardless of your political affiliations, this demonstrates the ubiquity of resources at our fingertips. We needn’t dumb down language or assume limited understanding. We can push congregations to explore ideas through the vast resources at their fingertips.
To renew minds, we encourage the women and men of our churches to take advantage of their resources and learn on their own. To renew minds, we must not dumb down language or assume limited understanding! Click To Tweet
Start Renewing Minds Here
While searching about what might be next for me, I sought sage advice. People urged me to consider offering rigorous theological training for the local churches that would encourage clergy and laity alike to think deeply.
While much of my search had been discouraging, there were some things I found encouraging. For instance, the work of Bishop and Professor N.T. Wright.
Professor N.T. (Tom) Wright had connected with a broad range of church leaders and parishioners because of his scholarship, ability to communicate, and gracious demeanor. Tom Wright and I talked about the possibility creating new training resources.
Thus, N.T. Wright Online was born. After four years of dreaming and two years of hard work, we now offer six online courses, with more in the works. This rigorous theological enrichment is now available around the world to anyone with Internet access. The goal is transformation by the renewal of the mind by the Holy Spirit.
These courses were designed to enrich the people of God and to help the seeker answer questions. Some courses work through entire books of the New Testament, while others explore the some of Wright’s most important books.
Enroll in a course today and you’ll receive lifetime access to the material and the course is taken at your own pace in your own place. Check out ntwrightonline.org for the list of courses and for special coupons that are available for reduced tuition.
Even better, join us for our 3rd NA gathering and get N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus course for free!