Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On Speaking to the "Laity"

I've just returned from lecturing at some churches in Florida. I know it’s a tough job, but someone has got to do it. The purpose of the trip is to introduce the seminary to new people and to touch base with those who have already been a part of our mission here. It’s usually a good excuse to escape winter, but with 75 plus degree temperatures, Ohio was not much cooler than Boca Grande.

During the trip I gave three lectures focusing on the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem. The lectures looked at history, archaeology and scripture as I tried to paint a picture of what happened. It was certainly not your typical Sunday school material.  In fact, it was more of what you expect in a graduate level lecture. It was the kind of material that made people rethink what they had always heard or believed and hopefully left them with a more informed faith.

Over the years I have had numerous opportunities to lecture on a variety of topics to the so-called “laity.” What I have discovered is that more often than not, people are eager to be challenged in their faith. They are not looking for teachers and preachers who simply endorse what they already think or provide ten steps that will lead them to theological bliss. Yes, there are always exceptions to what I just said. But I have also found that people are very appreciative and excited when you engage their minds and ask them to think. But too often, they do not receive this type of teaching in the church. And there at least two reasons, though I am sure we could name more.

The first reason is that some leaders are scared to bring up some topics. Many pastors are in a situation in which their positions are controlled by a board. In these cases the pastor sometimes doesn’t have the freedom to speak out on issues and challenge deep held beliefs. They dare not rock the boat. It would be easy for me to suggest that these leaders step out and challenge the status quo, but I am not in their shoes.

The second reason I have discovered is an inherit lack of respect for the audience. I have met a number of leaders who think that their congregations are either not interested in or unable to interact with material that challenges their faith and cause them to rethink. One example that stands out to me was an experience I had in one of my classes. I was introducing my students to the birth of Jesus in the context of other miraculous births recorded in the Greco-Roman era. The point of the exercise was to understand Jesus in his context and to make sense of how we understand the Bible. But I had one student who said that this material was irrelevant since no one in the church knows about this material or cares. I countered by pointing out that every December there are numerous articles in the magazines and papers on this very topic and that the Discovery and History Channels would run specials on it. I suggested that he did not give enough credit to the people he was shepherding and that his assumption that he knew what they were thinking was really unfortunate.

The fact is, many people in the church are curious about the Bible and they also want to be challenged. And they often have lots of questions. But they are afraid to ask those questions because of the response they might get. Either they will be warned that they are “getting off track” or they will be put off with a simple answer like “well the Bible says” or “we just need to trust God here.” But that kind of head in the sand theology doesn’t cut it in today’s world and it short changes the people who are looking to understand what they believe and why. It suggests that being a thinking Christian is not a “real Christian.” Sadly, the church is not a safe place to ask questions.

If you are a leader I would suggest that you find ways to engage people where they are thinking. And challenge them to move up a level and be stretched. If you are open and honest you will often find so are they and the questions you raise will draw you together rather than drive you apart.

But that also means that you need to challenge yourself. It means that you need to allow yourself to ask the questions that you fear. You need to study the Bible in a way that is stimulating to both your faith and your intellect. And it might mean not being afraid of whom you might offend. In the end, I think you will find that people will be more eager to hear what you have to say and the comments about your preaching and teaching will be more than “well, that was a nice sermon pastor.”


  1. Dr. John,
    another issue is that much of the 'clergy' are, in fact, laity. They cannot address the deeper issues of the text because they don't know them.

  2. Mike,

    Do you think that is because they are not exposed to them? Also, I am not necessarily thinking of some of the higher critical issues. But I am thinking of looking at the Bible with an appreciation for its complexity like the topic of my post yesterday.

    1. I'm sure that many are not exposed to them. Especially, among the more fundamental groups. They may read the text with the idea that 'the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." Such a view generally leads to a fairly superficial reading. The idea being to prove what one already believes to be true.