OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

Theology and the Sunday congregation

Hilary made this brief comment on my post about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Since it raises an important question that is only tangential to the original post, I’ve relocated it in the hope that it will spark some discussion about the place of (critical?) theology in ordinary church life.

But I probably gave myself too much freedom to explore some of the literary questions that it raises.

I’d like to pick up on this comment – what assumptions do we make about the average sunday congregation? Have they all read Hitchens et al, and are concerned about the authenticity of passages of Scripture? Or is discussing issues such as this in this context introducing doubts where there were none? Maybe it’s right anyway to make people aware of recent biblical scholarship?

My hunch is that the only people interested in such literary questions are theologians…

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Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

Thank you for raising the question, Hilary. Here are my immediate thoughts.

1. Is Crossroads the Hague an ‘average Sunday congregation’?

2. I think it is the purpose of preaching to strengthen faith not to promote doubt. But isn’t it important to show in principle that we don’t have to panic when half-baked arguments about the unreliability of scripture are presented to us? I’m a little sceptical about the intellectual health of a church that needs to be protected from the current, highly fashionable neo-atheist movement.

3. I think preaching should take account as much of the people who are not there as of those who are. I don’t think we help ourselves missionally if all we do is reinforce a self-sufficient, isolationist mindset. It is important, on the one hand, that church people take out with them into the world an understanding of how normal people think, and on the other, that unchurched people who do come to church get the impression that their way of thinking and questioning is taken seriously.

4. I have argued in the discussion about the Alpha course that in the long run we should be looking for a convergence of theology and congregational thought rather than a separation of the one from the other. Of course, this imposes as much of a responsibility on theologians as it does on congregations and pastors, but I think we should be encouraging a certain intellectual boldness in believing communities.

5. I guess if people simply switch off, all the high minded arguments become rather irrelevant. Oh well…

Re: Why did Jesus write on the ground?

I like your point about ‘encouraging a certain intellectual boldness in believing communities’ Andrew, and hope that there is a way to achieve the convergence of theology and congregational thought…. I find the temptation as a preacher is to ‘dumb down’, to talk the language of popular culture in order to assure listeners of my relevance, rather than offer them the chance to engage intellectually. I’ve never thought of the Sunday sermon as the place to do this, maybe because of an assumption that this is a generation which finds sound bites and multi media easier to access than sustained argument.

Re: Theology and the Sunday congregation

In my neck of the woods, a part of the woods largely populated by conservative evangelicals of the Southern Baptist stripe, I think your hunch is spot on. Nobody in the Sunday schools that I am aware is much interested in discussing theological issues and most everyone is against raising doubts or questions about doctrine or literary concerns.

Re: Theology and the Sunday congregation

Church congregations are a very good place for budding theologians to discover whether they are barking up the wrong tree, or, well, just plain barking.

So of the content referred to, if I were translating it into a format useful for a church congregation (an exercise I am frequently having to undertake), I would prune everything except (i) the reference to Christopher Hitchens and (ii) the definitive solution to Jesus writing in the dust. The one, because it raises the (very minor) issue of the ‘authenticity’ of the text, and flags up the contemporary neo-atheist phenomenon, which most people need to be prepared for outside the church. The other because Andrew has pointed us to the definitive solution, even if it wasn’t entirely his own.

Talking of which, my final response to Andrew on the ‘righteousness and the nations’ thread took me ages to produce, and was subject to many further corrections after it was posted. It’s now in perfect final form, but is languishing in sad isolation and neglect. Doesn’t it deserve a further comment?

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