How Churches Can Develop the Christian Mind

J.P. Moreland

From: Love Your God with All Your Mind. Copyright 1997. Used by permission of NavPress, All rights reserved.

St Paul tells us that the church – not the university, the media, or the public schools – is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). But you would never know it by actually examining our local church practices week by week or by observing the goals and objectives set by many parachurch ministries. As we near the end of the second millennium in the era of our Lord, we evangelicals need to ask ourselves three very important and painful questions.

First, why is our impact not proportionate to our numbers? If the evangelical community is even one-third the size polls tell us it is, we should be turning this culture upside down. Second, why are ministers no longer viewed as the intellectual and cultural leaders in their communities that they once were? Compared to pastors of the past, contemporary ministers have lost much of their authority among both unbelievers and the members of their own flocks. Third, how is it possible for a person to be an active member of an evangelical church for twenty or thirty years and still know next to nothing about the history and theology of the Christian religion, the methods and tools required for serious Bible study, and the skills and information necessary to preach and defend Christianity in a post-Christian, neopagan culture?

I cannot offer a full response to theses questions here, even if I were Adequate for the task (which I am not). But twenty-six years of ministry have convinced me of this: Among a small handful of factors foundational to such a response is the hostility or indifference to the development of an intellectual life in the way we go about our business in the church. Having planted two churches and four Campus Crusade ministries from scratch, pastored in two other congregations, and spoken in hundreds of churches during the last quarter century, I have become convinced that we evangelicals neither value nor have a strategy for developing every member of our congregations to one degree or another as Christian thinkers. To convince yourself of this you need only look regularly at the types of books that show up on the Christian booksellers’ top-ten list. Since the 1960s, we have experienced an evolution in what we expect a local church pastor to be. Forty years ago he was expected to be a resident authority on theology and biblical teaching. Slowly this gave way to a model of the pastor as the CEO of the church, the administrative and organizational leader. Today the ministers we want are Christianized pop therapists, who are entertaining to listen to.

In the midst of all this, the church has become primarily a hospital to soothe empty selves instead of a war college to mobilize and train an army of men and women to occupy territory and advance the kingdom until the King returns. Of course, the church should actually be both hospital and war college and, in fact, much, much more. But there is no question that we are not succeeding in mobilizing such and army and training them with the intellectual and spiritual skills necessary to enter deeply and profoundly into the spiritual life and to destroy speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God. A church incompetent cannot effectively be a church militant. And make no mistake, like it or not, we are in a war for the hearts, minds, and destinies of men and women all around us.

Because the stakes are so high, we simply cannot afford to tolerate this situation any longer. I am not suggesting that we evangelicals are not making progress or doing well in a number of areas. But neither is my head in the sand. We must recommit ourselves to developing richer, deeper, more powerful churches for Jesus Christ and the good of others and ourselves. And as philosopher Roger Trigg points out, it is a matter of common sense that “Any commitment, it seems, depends on two distinct elements. It presupposes certain beliefs [to be true] and it also involves a personal dedication to the actions implied by them.”[1] This means that we must become convinced that change is needed and we must be willing to pay the price to bring about that change.

Change is not valuable for its own sake, and I have no interest in novelty just to be novel. Many of the things we do in the local church are good and should remain a part of our philosophy or ministry. But no business, movement, or group will survive and flourish if its resistance to relevant and important change is rooted in the idea that we should keep doing something simply because that’s the way we’ve always done it. The purpose of this chapter is to rouse discussion among us and to provide some practical suggestions with which to experiment in our churches. If you don’t agree with the ideas and suggestions to follow, then at least argue about them among your brothers and sisters. Find out where and why you think I am wrong and come up with better suggestions.

I offer on word of caution before we proceed. If what I am about to say is true, then we need to change a number of things we are currently doing in the church. Unfortunately, People can get hurt in the way we bring about change, and it is all too easy to look for people to blame for things that are going wrong. These harmful approaches and attitudes are foreign to the spirit of Christ, so read what follows with a tender spirit as well as with a tough mind.


Refurbishing the Local Church

Philosophy of Ministry

1. No senior pastors: Any local church or any individual believer should have a philosophy of ministry – that is, a view about the purpose, objectives, structures, and methods of ministry that ought to characterize a local church ministry. In my view, any philosophy of local church ministry ought to be clear about three very crucial ideas. First, the local church in the New Testament contained a plurality of elders (see Acts 14:23, 20:28; Philippians 1:1; Hebrews 13:17). The New Testament knows nothing about a senior pastor. In my opinion, the emergence of the senior pastor in the local church is one of the factors that has most significantly undermined the development of healthy churches.

Think about it. More and more people go into the pastorate to get their own significance needs met, and congregations are increasingly filled with empty selves, as we saw in chapter four. Given these facts, the senior pastor model actually produces a codependence that often feeds the egos of senior pastors while allowing parishioners to remain passive. None of this is intentional, but the effects are still real. The senior pastor model tends to create a situation in which we identify the church as “Pastor Smith’s church” and parishioners come to support his ministry. If a visitor asks where the minister is, instead of pointing to the entire congregation (as the New Testament would indicate, since we are all ministers of the new covenant), we actually point to Pastor Smith. On the other hand, poor Pastor Smith increasingly gets isolated from people and peer accountability, and eventually, he dries up spiritually if he is not careful.

The local church should be led and taught b a plurality of voices called elders, and these voices should be equal. If so-called lay elders (I dislike the word lay!) do not have the seminary training possessed by those paid to be in “full-time” local church ministry, then the church needs to develop a long-term plan to give them that training in the church itself or elsewhere. No one person has enough gifts, perspective, and maturity to be given the opportunity disproportionately to shape the personality and texture of a local church. If Christ is actually the head of the church, our church structures ought to reflect that fact, and a group of under-shepherds, not a senior pastor, should collectively seek His guidance in leading the congregation.

2. What the pastoral staff and elders should be doing: Second, Ephesians 4:11-16 may well be the most critical section in the entire New Testament for informing the nature of local church leadership. In that passage, the apostle Paul tells us that God has given the church evangelists and pastors-teachers (among other persons) who have a very specific function in the body. Their job description is to equip others for ministry, not to do the ministry themselves and have others come and passively support them. For example, the test of the gift of evangelism is not how effective you are at winning others to Christ, but rather, your track record at training others to evangelize. The senior pastor model tends to centralize ministry around the church building and the pastor himself. Where he is, is where the action is. We bring people to him to evangelize, to counsel, and so forth. On this view, there is little need actually to equip parishioners to develop their own gifts, talents, and ministries because their job is to support the minister.

But according to Ephesians 4, this tradition has it backwards. New Testament ministry is decentralized and the function of pastors-teachers is to equip others to do the ministry. If we were more serious about this approach, we would do a better job of providing theological, biblical, philosophical, psychological, and other forms of training in our churches because without it, the ministers (that is, the members of the church) would not be adequately equipped to do the ministry.

3. The distinction between forms and functions: Third, we need to make a careful distinction between forms and functions in the church.[2] A New Testament function is an absolute biblical mandate that every church must do — for example, edify believers, worship God, evangelize the lost, and so forth. Functions are unchanging non-negotiables.

By contrast, a form is a culturally relative means of fulfilling biblical functions. Forms are valuable as a means to accomplish those functions and should be constantly evaluated, kept, or replaced n light of their effectiveness. Examples of forms are the existence of youth directors, Sunday school classes, vacation Bible schools, the order used in the worship service along with the kinds of music utilized and so forth. We must keep in mind that we are free — genuinely and honestly free in Christ — to adjust our forms any way we wish, under the constraints of common sense, biblical teaching, and effectiveness. If the way a specific church conducts Sunday school classes is not effective in fulfilling the function of teaching people in the faith, then we should change it.

Serious harm has been done to our churches by confusing forms and functions and by clinging to the former just because we have always done them a certain way. We have no right to adjust our functions, but we have a duty to examine constantly our forms. A church that does not do this will have a lot to answer for at the judgment seat of the Head of the church.

Before I offer several suggestions for refurbishing the local church that, in one way or another, express these three core components of philosophy of ministry, I want to summarize more precisely what I am claiming. The local church ought to be led by a plurality of elders whose main job is to develop the ministries of others. They are to see to it that embers of the body discover their spiritual gifts and natural talent and receive the training and equipping necessary to be good at their ministries individually and corporately. The elders are free to do whatever is necessary to the forms in the church in order to succeed in equipping the saints to accomplish biblical functions for the church. If this is correct, then the church must see herself as an educational institution, and the development of the Christian mind will be at the forefront of the church’s ministry strategy of equipping the saints.


Practical Suggestions

Here are a number of practical suggestions for making this philosophy of ministry a reality in the local church. I have actually done most of these in my own ministry and have witnessed their effectiveness firsthand.

1. Sermons: We must overhaul our understanding of the sermon along with our evaluation of what counts as a good one. The filling station approach (people come each week to get filled up until next week) is itself running out of gas. Yet we persist in viewing the sermon as a popular message that ought to be grasped easily by all who attend and evaluated solely on the basis of its pleasurableness, entertainment value, and practical orientation. Unfortunately, twenty years of exposure to these types of messages result in a congregation filled with people who have learned very little about their religion and who are inappropriately dependent upon someone else to tell them what to believe each week.

I do not dispute that sermons should be interesting and of practical value. But when most people say they want a sermon to be practical, I don’t think they really mean how-to’s and religious formulas as opposed to reasoned sermons that argue a case and actually cause people to learn something new. After all, most practicing Christians sense deep in their hearts that they know far too little about their faith and are embarrassed about it. They want to be stretched to learn something regularly and cumulatively over the years by the sermons they hear. What people really want when they say they desire practical sermons is this: They want passion and deep commitment to come through the message instead of a talk that sounds like it was hurriedly put together the day before.

How can we improve the quality of the sermons in our churches? I have three suggestions. First, we need to be more thoughtful and serious about supplementary material for the sermon. A small bulletin insert with three points is inadequate if, in fact, the sermon is a teaching vehicle. Instead, a detailed handout of two or three pages on regular-sized paper ought to be given to people. It should include detailed, structured notes following the sermon structure; a set of study exercises on the last page; recommendations for further reflection that week; and a bibliography. After a series is completed, these could be put together (with sermon tapes) to form a nice mini-course on the series topic for later study or distribution to those not attending the church.

Further, before a series begins, a book or commentary should be selected, order forms assed out, and copies sold the week before the series begins. Reading assignments could be given each week during the series. I once preached a series on 1 Peter, and seventy-five copies of a good commentary on the book were purchased by the congregation. I listed each week’s text along with the relevant page numbers in the commentary on a sheet of paper the first week of the series. A number of people came to the sermon prepared to think about what I was teaching since they had read the commentary on the text prior to the message. Among other things, this forced me to work harder on my messages because people were not taking my word for it about the meaning of a passage! Can you imagine! They had their own ideas about the text! Anything we can do with supplementary materials to get people reading and thinking about a series topic will enhance learning and growth.

Second, from time to time a minister should intentionally pitch a message to the upper one-third of the congregation, intellectually speaking. This may leave some people feeling a bit left out and confused during the sermon, which is unfortunate, but the alternative (which we follow almost all of the time) is to dumb down our sermons so often that the upper one-third get bored and have to look elsewhere for spiritual and intellectual food. The intellectual level of our messages ought to be varied to provide more of a balance for all of the congregation. Furthermore, such and approach may motivate those in the lower two-thirds to work to catch up!

Finally, for two reasons I do not think a single individual ought to preach more than half (twenty six) the Sundays during the year. First, no one person ought to have a disproportionate influence through the pulpit because, inevitably, the church will take on that person’s strengths, weaknesses, and emphases. Now, who among us is adequate for this? No one. By rotating speakers, the body gets exposure to God’s truth being poured through a number of different personalities, and that is more healthy. If one person is a better speaker than the others, he should train (equip) the rest over the years to be more adequate. As a result, the local church will have a growing number of competent leaders able to preach and consequently not be so dependent on one person.

Here is an important question: Would it inordinately impact your church’s attendance and effectiveness if the main preacher went to another church? If the answer is yes, your church is going about its business in the wrong way. Leaders are not being developed in the body, and the pulpit is not being adequately shared.

Second, no one who preaches week after week can do adequate study for a message or deeply process and internalize the sermon topic spiritually. What inevitably happens is that a pastor will rely on his speaking ability and skills at putting together a message. Unfortunately, I have been in this situation myself, and my messages started sounding hollow and packaged. After several weeks of preaching, I started giving talks instead of preaching my passions and feeding others the fruit of my own deep study. In one church where I was a pastor-teacher, we rotated preaching among four people and each of us knew that he would have a four-to eight-week series coming up in, say, three months. That gave us the chance to work on a subject for a long time. By the time our turn on the calendar arrived, we were well prepared intellectually and spiritually.

2. The church library: Those in charge of the church library should see their job to be one of enlisting a growing number of church members into an army of readers and learners who, over the years, are becoming spiritually mature, clearly thinking believers who know what and why they believe. The church library ought to be large, and it should contain intellectual resources and not just self-help books. I recognize that building the church library costs money, but our investment of funds should reflect our values and we should value intellectual resources enough to pay for them.

In one church where I was a pastor-teacher, we had a library of twelve thousand volumes. As with most church libraries, its location was off the beaten path. So every single Sunday different volunteers on a rotating basis set up tables in the foyer, placed five hundred books on those tables, and actually greeted people at the door and invited them to check out a book or purchase a mini-course from previous sermon series. Hundreds of books were regularly checked out and read that would have stayed on the shelf if we had simply left them in the out-of -sight-out-of-mind church library.

Church librarians should see to it that book reviews are regularly inserted into the bulletin and that each month several copies of a featured book are secured on consignment and sold in the lobby. For several years, the railroad industry all but died in this country because it wrongly defined its purpose. Railroad employees should have seen themselves in the transportation industry, not the railroad industry per se. Likewise, those who work in the church library must ask themselves what they are about. They do not serve to process books and keep the library open. They serve to enhance the development of a thinking, reading, literate congregation.

3. Sunday school and study centers: For many churches, the main purpose for a Sunday school class is to enfold, not to educate. A Sunday school class provides a place of contact with a mid-sized group numbering somewhere between the large congregational meeting and the small group. So understood, Sunday school classes require no preparation and little commitment to study on the part of the participants, and, if judged by their effects over several years, they accomplish little by way of actual education. Now it may surprise you to know that I do not think that this situation is bad in and of itself. More specifically, I think some vehicle for enfolding people and building group cohesion at a mid-sized-level church is appropriate, and Sunday school may well be that vehicle.

What we need, however, is to develop alternative, parallel classes that have a distinctively educational focus, so people can choose one or the other or alternate between the two. My friend Walt Russell and I co-labored at Grace Fellowship Church in Baltimore for three years in what we called the Grace Discovery Center. We developed a set of course offerings that changed each quarter of the year. A few weeks prior to a change in church quarter, we passed out a list of course offerings and signed people up for the study center classes.

Courses cost from $25 to $75 depending on the number of hours of classroom instruction required. We varied the times of meetings. Some Discovery Center classes met on Wednesday nights from 7:00 to 9:00 P.M., some met for three hours on four consecutive Saturday mornings, some lasted from 7:00 to 9:30 Friday evening and from 9:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. the following day with a lunch break, others ran parallel to the Sunday school hour. Each course had a syllabus, required texts, and assignments (papers, letters to the editor, etc.), and grades were given out. We had classes in Greek, counseling, systematic theology, church history, apologetics, the history of philosophy, various vocations (medical ethics, Christianity and science, education and childhood development), and other areas. We used books written by unbelievers as well as believers and published by companies ranging from Oxford University Press to standard evangelical houses. If your church doesn’t have the teaching resources for such a study center, you should band together with two or three other churches and form a jointly sponsored study center.

The Discovery Center also sponsored very focused weekend retreats not of interest to everyone. For example, a group of around forty adults in the church had a special interest in Christianity and politics. So the Discovery Center responded to the need to equip these saints by hosting a weekend conference on the topic and flying in a Christian scholar who could address it competently, and we required that all attenders purchase and read a specific book on the topic (and state on a three-by-five-inch card that they had done so) before they could attend.

The simple fact is that Sunday school as it’s currently practiced is not doing the job of developing the Christian mind, and there may be more pressing legitimate objectives (enfolding) for such classes. If this is so, we need to develop other ways of seeing to it that the local church develops Christian thinkers equipped to do the work of ministry. At the church in Baltimore, one group of twenty people studied psychology and pastoral counseling for a whole year under a local Christian psychologist. One Sunday morning, we called them all up to the front of the church and passed out a list of their names and phone numbers to the congregation, and the elders laid hands on them to dedicate this group to the body as those responsible for the counseling ministry in the church. None of us who were elders or paid staff members were especially gifted in this area, but we saw our biblical mandate to be that of ensuring the job was done by equipping others. Among other things, this freed us up to do more work in leadership development in the church while those with the training and desire to counsel fulfilled that role in the body.

Eighteen engineers and scientists in the body went through and eighteen-month study of science and Christianity. One Sunday morning we dedicated this group in front of the church just as we had the counseling group. These scientists and engineers were looked to by the body as people who could help families if issues in creation and evolution arose. For the first time in their lives, what these men and women had studied in college and chosen as a vocation became relevant to their discipleship unto Jesus and their ministry in the body! We need to offer more courses in church partitioned along vocational lines to tap into natural motivation, opportunity, and talent.

4. Deepening the value of the intellectual life and raising the visibility of Christian intellectuals and intellectual work: A group’s values will largely determine the corporate and individual behavior of the group. And a group must find ways to foster, sustain, and propagate its values among its members. If the local church is to overcome its anti-intellectualism, it must find ways to raise conscious awareness of the value of the intellectual life among its members. Most believers know the names of leading Christian speakers and radio personalities. But how many of us know our Christian intellectuals, celebrate their accomplishments on our behalf, pray regularly for the intellectual war they wage, and hold them forth as heroes and vocational role models among our teenagers? If we do this for missionaries, why don’t we do it for Christian intellectuals? We should, because we are in a struggle about ideas and need to raise up a new generation of Christian scholars. In our master of arts program in philosophy and ethics at Talbot School of Theology, one of our goals is to help raise up one hundred men and women in the next twenty-five years who will study under us, go on for their PH.D., and become evangelical university professors at schools all across the country. The local church needs to be more intentional about fostering the intellectual life and mobilizing a new generation of Christian intellectuals. Here are some suggestions for doing this.

First, we should regularly incorporate vocational or apologetical testimonies and book reports on timely topics into our services. Selected worshipers should be given five minutes to share how they are growing to think more christianly as a businessperson, a teacher, or whatever. They should share what they are reading, the issues with which they are grappling, and the progress they are making. People should share occasions where apologetics has aided their own ministry of evangelism and discipleship. Once a month we ought to entertain a brief book review of a key new book, some of which should be written by influential unbelievers. We can do a better job of encouraging a life of reading, apologetical argumentation, and vocational integration during our services.

Second, we ought to identify intellectual leaders who are associated with the evangelical community or historic Christianity more broadly conceived and find ways to hold forth their lifework as possible vocations for our young people. Further, Christian intellectuals, especially university professors, sometimes feel a bit estranged from the sociological ambience of their local churches and from the anti-Christian ideas of their colleagues. We need to do a better job of recognizing, celebrating, enfolding, and aiding these intellectuals in their work. An occasional bulletin announcement to pray for professor so-and-so who labors for Christ at a local college would be a wonderful thing. We get upset because we are underrepresented in the university. But how many churches have taken specific steps to encourage the university professors (and graduate students soon to be university professor) among their membership to be faithful to orthodoxy and to be bold in their vocation?

Third, we need to prepare teenagers for the intellectual world they will face in college. The summer after high school graduation, it would be a good idea to hold a summer institute in apologetics to try to offer some worldview instruction to prepare our young brothers and sisters to think more carefully about what they will study at the university. Such and institute could also be used to challenge teens with the ideal of vocation as the point of college in the first place. Having worked with college students for twenty-six years, I can testify that our churches are not preparing young people for what they will face intellectually in their college years, and we simply must be more intentional about this.

Fourth, we should be more proactive in supporting and enfolding members of the body who go to graduate school. Many churches have a number of people each year who engage in graduate studies. Often, these people begin to identify with their department of study in such a way that they are sociologized out of a vibrant evangelical commitment. Why should we abandon these students in this way? Graduate students do not simply need the same sort of fellowship as everyone else in the church. They need intellectual support as well. I think each August we should print a list of students heading off for graduate school that includes their names, universities, addresses, and majors. These students should be brought before the congregation, admonished to develop Christian minds in their graduate work, and dedicated to the Lord by the laying on of hands by the elders. If possible, they should be paired up with someone in the church who is engaged in the same vocation, and this person could be available for support through letters, phone conversations about issues in the discipline, and so forth. Can you imagine the extent to which the Christian mind would emerge in this culture if thousands of churches began to practice this?

Finally, we need to increase our individual and congregational giving to support Christian scholarship. When I speak in a church, I sometimes challenge people to ask themselves just how much of their individual giving or church budget goes to support the development of Christian scholarship? Most people have never even thought of such an idea. Evangelical colleges and seminaries are grossly under-funded. As a result, many such schools are tuition driven and their faculties are underpaid, strapped with inordinate teaching loads, and left with inadequate library resources and funds for professional conferences compare to their secular counterparts. And we expect those schools and their faculties to compete in the war of ideas!

Moreover, there is less scholarship money available to students who attend evangelical colleges and seminaries compared to those who attend secular institutions. When I did my doctorate at USC, I received $10,000 a year for three years. The university knew that if I (and other graduate students) had time to spend in the library and on academic work, this would increase my chances of getting a teaching job and making a contribution in the academic world, and eventually, would bode well for USC. Unfortunately, students at evangelical seminaries face high tuitions and, therefore, must work at part-time jobs when they could be in the library improving their educational experience and ministerial training. If we evangelicals are tired of being underrepresented in the media, the university, and the government, then we need to support evangelical scholarship, especially solid evangelical colleges and seminaries, because such institutions nurture the intellectual leaders of the future.



The morning I began to write this chapter, I picked up a newspaper and read the editorial page. One of the featured editorials was defense of Promise Keepers against feminist and liberal critiques of that movement.[3] The article was articulate, carefully written, overtly evangelical, and powerfully presented. And it was read by millions of people. What really stirred my heart, however, was not just the substance of the article but who wrote it: Brad Stetson. This may not mean much to you, but it was symbolic to me. I have met Dr. Stetson. He is a young, dedicated evangelical who did his Ph.D. in social ethics concurrently with two of my faculty colleagues and is symbolic of a new and, hopefully, growing breed of younger evangelical intellectuals. I was encouraged to see a faithful, well-trained evangelical scholar impact the public marketplace of ideas that is available to laypeople in the community.

What I am saying in this chapter is that we need one hundred thousand Brad Stetsons to write editorials, penetrate secular universities, write books, speak on talk shows, and much, much more. The local church needs to be more intentional in finding and developing the young Brad Stetsons now in her ranks. May almighty God help us to do just that.



[1] Roger Trigg, Reason and Commitment (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 44.

[2] I am indebted to my friend and colleague Walt Russell (professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology) for introducing me to this distinction. In this and many other ways, Dr. Russell has influenced my own understanding of new covenant ministry.

[3] Brad Stetson, “The Promise of a Mature Masculinity,” Orange County Register, July 3, 1996, Metro section, p. 8.

Excerpted from Love Your God with All Your Mind by J.P. Moreland, copyright 1997. Used by permission of NavPress, All rights reserved.

J.P. Moreland is professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in LaMiranda, California. He is the author of numerous books, including Scaling the Secular City and Does God Exist?